Tips from experts on how to make your home a sanctuary

Home is supposed to be a sanctuary, a place to relax in ease and comfort. But for many of us, that sense of calm is disrupted by an all-too-common culprit: clutter.

Clutter can become particularly beastly in our later years, as we find ourselves surrounded by a lifetime’s worth of accumulated stuff that we — or those we love — will eventually have to tackle. And in the short term, the constant battle with everyday clutter can chip away at our quality of life — and cause us to waste a lot of time searching for misplaced items.

Jes Marcy’s company Clutter Boss has offered no-nonsense decluttering guidance since 2019. Being prone to clutter — or to the extreme form known as hoarding — is a “poorly understood, little-researched” phenomenon, she says. “Hoarding disorder used to be a sub-diagnosis under obsessive-compulsive disorder,” she explains, but a few years ago it became a separate diagnosis. Whereas hoarding has long been viewed through the lens of OCD, Marcy says, “most people we work with have shopping addiction.” Ultimately, she notes, “hoarding and excessive clutter are more about depression and anxiety than about OCD. It’s more like a feeling of ‘overwhelm’ that makes us feel frozen in place. 

“In our business, we don’t use the word ‘hoarder,’ because when people hear that word they shut down,” Marcy notes. “But hoarding has had an evolutionary advantage for humans. When I think about clutter, I think resources. It’s literally built into our DNA to collect and save as much as we can.”

What’s changed, Marcy says, is the world around us. So, “We have to unlearn everything we learned as children and rewire our DNA.”

Given that understanding, just how can we overcome our innate need to surround ourselves with stuff?

Marcy offers a seemingly simple, two-part approach: Stop the flow of stuff in, and speed the flow of stuff out.

Through her online decluttering “bootcamps” and popular Facebook groups, Marcy coaches clients as they take a break — “not forever” — from buying things. At the same time, folks are encouraged to begin “getting things out of the house on a regular, consistent basis.” 

“Every day, fill one box and get rid of it,” she suggests. “Work on one specific 15-minute project, like a junk drawer” for starters. “It’s anti-Marie Kondo, but instead of finding things you’re not emotionally attached to, find the things that are easiest to decide about and remove them. You need to create a space you can breathe in.”

The process can be “physically and mentally laborious” and can take anywhere from six to 18 months or more, Marcy explains. “It’s like weight loss. You spent decades accumulating clutter, so you can’t expect to declutter overnight.”

Joy Rafferty has been helping people conquer clutter through her Latham-based California Closets franchise for more than 20 years. Her full-service business designs, manufactures and installs storage solutions — not just closets! — for every room in the house.

“During the past few years, people have been looking differently at their homes, wanting them to be a sanctuary,” says Rafferty. “At the same time, many people, particularly older, more mature clients, find themselves dealing with a lot of things they’ve collected over the years and that they love.”

Holding onto those treasured items becomes especially problematic when people downsize to a smaller home. “They’re really worried that their stuff’s not going to fit,” she says — a concern they might not have had when they lived in their larger home. “Through our consultations and custom design and manufacture of storage systems, we help them make the most of every inch of the space they have.”

Taking a hard look at optimizing the use of your available space may require you to adjust your thinking, Rafferty suggests. But once you experience the sensation of order, she says, it gets easier to stay organized. “If there’s a space for everything, it’s easier to put things where they belong.”

Tips from Joy Rafferty:

  • When clearing a closet or drawer, take EVERYTHING out, and only put back what’s important to you.
  • Feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start? Tackle even a tiny section of the closet, or a single drawer.
  • Build on your sense of accomplishment (“I just dealt with those drawers!”). Take what seems like an insurmountable task and break it into manageable pieces.

Tips from Jes Marcy:

  • Take before and after photos to document your decluttering successes.
  • Join an online decluttering community and find a (nonjudgmental) “clutter buddy” to inspire you and hold you accountable.
  • When evaluating a belonging, ask whether it falls into the C.U.T.E. category: Can’t Use This Ever.
  • Remember the adage “Don’t let a drop zone become a stay zone.”

Photos at top: Flying boxes: Irina Gutyryak; surprised woman: Inside Creative House. Illustration by Tony Pallone.

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