Spring cleaning: How to free yourself from the clutter

A professional organizer’s view on the COVID-19 pandemic’s ripple effect on our homes and how we can move forward toward renewal.

 The writer at work (photo credit: MIRIAM GOLD)
The writer at work
(photo credit: MIRIAM GOLD)

When the COVID-19 crisis started, none of us had an inkling what was to come. Soon enough, millions of us were in our homes full time and we began looking for coping methods.

We binged on Netflix, ordered tons from Amazon Prime, planted gardens, painted by numbers, bought air fryers, created home gyms and Zoomed family holidays. Many even used those first few months at home to get rid of outdated clothing and tackle never-ending piles of paperwork. Regardless of exactly how it affected us, those of us who weren’t confronted with the disease itself were almost forced to slow down, take a step back from our busy lives and take stock of our priorities.

But eventually, many people who were enjoying the novelty of baking sourdough bread started to find their new way of life difficult to navigate. Once we got past the initial fun of cooking, we saw a decrease in healthy food intake and an increase in junk food intake for the whole family. Homes became more and more cluttered, as they simultaneously had to function as offices, schools, gyms, entertainment centers, art studios and restaurants. Oh yeah – and homes!

Today, we can certainly still see the lasting effects of the past two years, both positive and negative. Many of my clients report that they are still working to achieve a solid work-life balance. 

But with remote work schedules sometimes making it feel like we are working 24/7, school schedules still being somewhat erratic and the cold winter weather that kept us indoors far too long, balance has proven to be a challenge. For some, there has been a decrease in physical and mental health, thanks to a lack of exercise, poor diet, less socialization, children in bidud or family members testing positive.

 Working from home (credit: Thought Catalog/Unsplash) Working from home (credit: Thought Catalog/Unsplash)

And it’s not just those more obvious factors that have affected us. Who knew clutter, lighting, temperature, background noise and ergonomics were so important for one’s physical and mental health? In traditional offices, work areas are arranged thoughtfully by employers to create productive work environments. 

When people started working from home, they were tasked with setting up their own work areas. For most regular folk, creating a functional office space while also maintaining a calm living environment has proven to be quite the challenge. Subpar home-office setups have left many of us feeling unproductive at best, unwell at worst. In addition, increased screen time for both adults and children has led to exhaustion, headaches, and more solitary and sedentary behaviors.

So where are we now?

For individuals with families, home offices were often in small apartments without much space or privacy, which created a convoluted work environment with many distractions. For those who live alone, working from home without face-to-face interaction and socialization may have increased feelings of depression and social isolation. Many people found themselves working erratically or late into the evening, when it was quiet, so they could concentrate – thus sacrificing sleep, physical activity and healthy eating.

And then there is the clutter factor. Many people became increasingly frustrated with all the “stuff,” as they were now surrounded by it 24 hours a day. So what did we do? We watched various Netflix shows about organizing. Some people took the Marie Kondo approach, and if it didn’t “spark joy,” they discarded it. Others organized like the The Home Edit and created rainbow-coordinated bookshelves and beautiful food pantries. Yet others sunk deeper into their mess, feeling stressed, inadequate and overwhelmed.

Homes should provided them with a feeling of calmness and zen when returning home from chaotic days. Suddenly, the home feels more chaotic, with a cluttered home contributing to a cluttered mind.

Time to reclaim our space and minds

As a professional organizer, I receive calls almost daily from people who feel they are drowning in their possessions and have reached a breaking point. I have seen an increase in the demand for decluttering/downsizing or the need to rearrange spaces, in an effort to create separate activity areas. People want their homes to once again be a safe haven. They want to reclaim their space.

But how? That’s the question I often get from clients within about 15 minutes of meeting them. To quote a few: “I don’t know where to begin organizing this mess,” “I’m a smart person, why can’t I do this” and “I used to be on top of things before corona. But now I can’t imagine ever feeling organized again.” Often, these are said with a mixture of sadness, frustration and shock.

If you are feeling similarly and thinking those same thoughts, all is not lost. There are two types of people to consider, when talking about next steps:

The first type are those who are “situationally disorganized.” You managed to keep your life somewhat together when it was more routine and you weren’t dealing with the unexpected every day. But toss in a global pandemic and all bets were off! Your situation has changed and that’s why you’re disorganized. Over the past two years many individuals suffered loss of a loved one, moved, married or divorced, lost or changed jobs, and may now be primary caretakers for loved ones. They are so overwhelmed that it’s harder to make decisions and move forward.

The second type are the “chronically disorganized.” You might have ADHD, be perfectionists, procrastinators, indecisive, overwhelmed, have issues understanding space management or difficulty letting go of things. The pandemic left many of you in this category feeling completely hopeless.

Regardless of where you fit in, how can we start to feel better about our messes and ourselves? My answer is that age-old adage: Take it one tiny baby step at a time. Come up with a plan that breaks up your big goals into little steps and you can get to where you want to be.

People often ask me if my apartment is perfectly organized. I say, “It’s not perfect but I’m a minimalist with clear organizing systems that I continue to maintain on a regular basis.” Personally, I feel calmer and more in control having a peaceful, orderly, home environment. My workday may be intense but I know when I get home I’ll feel relaxed just walking through the door.

In the TV shows I mentioned previously, ominous organizing tasks are quickly completed and tied up in a pretty bow in the span of an episode. In real life, tasks take longer to achieve. Getting organized requires decision-making and prioritizing. It’s essential to remind yourself that not everything is important and it’s impossible to accomplish it all in one day. If you allot 10-15 minutes a day to organize, choose a small area and get going.

Make quick decisions to weed out items you no longer need or use. Believe me, this small declutter will create additional space in your home and allow you to feel lighter. Remember, your home and life are constantly evolving: things come in and things need to go out. Don’t worry if you don’t have the perfect storage items, do the best you can and keep moving forward. Something done imperfectly is better than nothing done at all.

AS WE celebrate Passover, we can all learn a lesson from this story. Every year the holiday almost forces us to spring clean, take stock of our possessions and give ourselves a fresh start. We meticulously clean our homes down to that last errant Cheerio.

When we finally sit down at the Seder and read about the exodus from Egypt, we are reminded of our ancestors’ struggle to be freed from slavery. We recall them leaving behind their homes and belongings to gain freedom from their oppressors.

Today, many of us are slaves to our possessions and cluttered homes. We feel tied down and oppressed by our stuff. But freedom is a choice. If we want to free ourselves from a cluttered life, we must choose to take action and improve our daily habits.

Life is short and, as we have seen, anything can throw a wrench in our plans. It’s more crucial than ever to live our best life; one that is as streamlined and stress-free as possible. Your home should be the place where you feel liberated from the pressures of the outside world.

When we keep only those things that we need or spark joy, we free ourselves from our personal chaos and choose to live a simpler life, joining our ancestors on the road to renewal. ■

The writer is the founder of Gold Standard Organizing. [email protected], www.goldstandardorganizing.com