08 Aug 2012

Clutter and Hoarding Basics

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People with clutter often call themselves hoarders even though they aren’t. Less than 1% of people are hoarders – about 3 million nationwide. Possibly another 30% of people are clutterers – approximately 102.8 million nationwide.

Clutter and hoarding can be “situational” or “chronic”. Situational means that circumstances control the situation, while chronic means that it is a more permanent condition. There are strong genetic and environmental components to both clutter and hoarding.

A clutterer is someone who lets things pile up. Things seem to flow into their lives and multiply in the night. You leave one mug on the counter overnight and there are 3 there in the morning. Clutterers are embarrassed by their clutter and realize that clutter has affected their relationships. They may need professional help in the form of an organizer or coach or they may be able to change on their own.

A hoarder actively seeks out items to collect. They don’t see a problem and don’t understand why others are always giving them grief. They collect anything – it doesn’t matter if it’s garbage, unsanitary or even dangerous. This person has an unreasonable attachment to everything they collect. If they are to change and control these impulses they need to be under the care of a mental health professional that specializes in these types of problems.

Both groups call themselves collectors, but it’s important to note that hoarding is different from collecting.

  • Collectors deliberately search out specific items for their collections, such as certain stamps or model cards.
  • Collectors often categorize their items and carefully display them.
  • Hoarders, on the other hand, will save random items they encounter in their daily life and store them haphazardly in their homes or surrounding areas. They are compelled to collect anything and everything

Clutter affects every part of your life. It can have a physical effect by raising your blood pressure and anxiety levels. It can cause you to loose sleep, gain wait, increases disease from pests, dust and animal dander and injuries from trips and falls and clutter falling on you. Some people have died by having their clutter fall and trap them. Enough clutter can even cause structural damage to your home.

It can also have a psychological effect too. Emotionally it can worsen anxiety disorders, OCD, depression, ADHD, alcoholism (over half of hoarders are alcoholics) and drug abuse. It can create a downward spiral of emotion – clutter to depression to exhaustion to not putting away stuff to more clutter to more depression, etc. It is also socially isolating. You don’t want to have people over if you know your house is out of control. You also don’t want to incur social debt by never having people over so you may limit even going out to other people’s houses.

As far as your family is concerned, Tension in the family creates a lot of other issues like arguments, verbal and sometimes physical abuse. 80% of hoarders and clutterers are the children of hoarders and clutterers. This becomes their “normal” and they will continue it into their own lives and homes. They are also socially isolated and can sometimes find themselves with social anxieties and fears.

Money is also impacted by clutter. Not only do you spend your hard-earned money to purchase the clutter, but people often find themselves paying for storage areas to house their stuff and that can cost hundreds of dollars each month. You may find you are incurring late fees because you couldn’t find the bills, have utilities turned off, and even face eviction or foreclosure due to non-payment.

So, where do you start to fix the problem?

First – remember that it didn’t accumulate in a day and it will take time to clear it up. Don’t beat yourself up if it takes longer than you expected, just keep making progress.

Second – set up a “somewhere else” box. Anything that does not belong in the room you are working in goes in the box. This will keep you from wandering from room to room and being distracted by other tasks along the way. At the end of the day put the things in the box in the correct place. If you have not done that room yet, don’t worry about the exact spot – at least now it’s in the right room ready for you when you start work in there.

One way to make sure you are making progress is to make yourself a promise. You promise to follow the 15 minute rule. This means that you will spend 15 minutes each day working to improve your situation. Your usual home tasks like laundry and dishes don’t count towards this time. If you can’t find 15 minutes all at once, do a few minutes in the morning when you get up, a few more when you get home, and finish later in the evening. Doing a little every day will help you to develop a habit of improvement. Just set your kitchen timer and when it goes off you are done for the day, guilt free. If you finish your 15 minutes and still have time and motivation you can keep going as long as you want, but you still owe yourself 15 minutes tomorrow. My clients often don’t want to do any work but once they start their 15 minutes they get energized and will keep at it a lot longer. Just seeing progress can improve your mood and make you more willing to do more tomorrow.

If you don’t like the timed idea, you can set a volume goal, like collecting 1 bag per day. The bag would be filled with only one category of stuff, such as garbage, donation items, items that need to be repaired, things that are in the wrong room, etc. The problem with this is that some things like paperwork can take a long time to fill a bag, while a bulky sweater might fill a bag all on its own. Any improvement, however, should be celebrated. You will also have to schedule some time to actually sort and place the stuff that is in the right room but in the wrong place. If you are working with an organizer for that part the rest can be done when you’re working alone.

There is also the 15 item rule. This means that every day you will put away, bag for donation, or throw away 15 items. This method works most effectively when your level of clutter is basically under control and only needs upkeep. If you are facing a really bad clutter problem this method may take too long to feel that there has been improvement. However, it is far better than doing nothing.

Start in your bedroom, unless you are facing a financial crisis – like the bank is talking foreclosure or your water is going to be shut off if you don’t find and pay that lost bill. Create a sanctuary that is picked up, clean and restful. You will sleep better, feel more relaxed, have more energy, and be in a better mood to face the rest of the clutter. Every day you will feel more motivated to improve when you open your eyes in a clear, restful space. The clutter in the rest of the house will start to bother you more and motivate you to take care of it.

How do you know when you need to call in a pro?

  1. If you don’t know where to start and are feeling overwhelmed.
  2. When the methods you have tried before haven’t worked and you need new solutions. For example, there are over 40 ways to store shoes, so you can imagine that almost anything can be stored in multiple ways. The trick is to find the way that works for you.
  3. If you tend to procrastinate and you know you won’t do the work without someone standing there to motivate you. Sometimes knowing that you are paying someone to help will make you more willing to wade into the work and get it done.
  4. If working with your family does not work for you. Sometimes it’s a lot easier to declutter and make decisions if family members are not putting themselves into the middle of the job. An impartial person who is not emotionally involved in the decision making process can help bring clarity to the situation.
  5. If you don’t know how to choose what to keep, what to let go, and what to do with the stuff you are ready to let go. A professional organizer can give you alternatives and guidance in the decision making process.

So, what do you get from clearing up? What is the payoff, the real gain in your life? You will reverse the downward spiral and make it go upward, toward the life you want to live. You will sleep better, improve your overall health, have better relationships at home and at work, save money by not incurring late fees or paying for a storage area, and even make money by selling unneeded and unwanted items.

This is just the beginning and we wish you well on the journey.

© 2012 – Maria Spetalnik

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About the Author


works mostly behind the scenes at Conquer the Clutter, supporting Maria’s efforts to make the world a neater place to live.

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