The Big De-clutter: Tips From a Professional Organizer

By Julie Morgenstern

Editor's Note: Julie Morgenstern is a New York Times best-selling author and professional organizer. Her fifth book, When Organizing Isn't Enough: SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life arrived in bookstores in June.

Most people define clutter as just junk. Sounds simple enough - just toss it, we are told, just let the junk go. But, for some reason, that's not so easy.

Have you ever heard this parable? A wanderer on a lonely road comes upon a torrential stream that washed out the only bridge for miles. The wanderer couldn't swim and was afraid to wade across, so he spent several days toiling in the woods to build a small raft. The structure he built was solid and it carried him across the raging water safe and sound. Once on the other side, he thought, "This is a good raft. If there's another stream ahead, I can use it again." And so he carried that raft for the rest of his life.

As an organizing professional, one of my jobs is to help people identify their rafts. Instead of thinking of these rafts as "junk," I encourage my clients to consider them as a point of entry. These "points of entry" act as levers, opening up room for thought and energy, and allow you to confront an old belief system or fortify your identity.

A point of entry might be an old filing system, the entire left side of your garage, a bad habit (like procrastination) or a professional commitment you (secretly) wish would vanish from your schedule.

What are the "rafts" in your life - the suspiciously stagnant areas in your home, office or schedule? What memories, old attachments or old belief systems has digging through your clutter brought up? Here are 12 typical ones:

* Rarely worn clothing
* Excessive memorabilia
* Overstuffed closets
* Unloved furniture and decorations
* Unread magazines, newspapers, books
* Stagnant piles of paper
* Defunct filing system
* Incomplete projects and to-dos
* Unfulfilled promises
* Burdensome commitments
* Cumbersome roles
* Time-wasting habits

The process of throwing things out forces you to recognize what your attachment is. When I became an empty nester four years ago, after much angst-filled deliberation, I decided to move from the Brooklyn apartment in which I'd raised Jessi to Manhattan. Dismantling our wonderful home was emotional and difficult, but ultimately sweet and celebratory. I was able to select the greatest treasures from that chapter of my life and to create a new home that reflects the next chapter - single, social, active, with a significantly expanded business.

During the big de-clutter, I was surprised to discover myself clutching to two dozen cookbooks I owned - despite the fact that I never used any of them! As a single mom and entrepreneur, I raised my daughter on takeout, homemade pancakes once per year on her birthday and maybe one holiday dinner. Yet I'd always aspired to be the kind of mom who whipped up wonderful meals every night, meals that my daughter would look forward to and feel loved by. As I sat there frozen on my kitchen floor, I realized that it wasn't the recipes I was attached to - those cookbooks represented the good mom I hoped to be. Letting those cookbooks go meant recognizing that I never became Donna Reed or Martha Stewart, which forced the next question: What kind of good mom had I been? And I could answer that: I created a warm inviting home and spent tons of one-on-one time with Jessi talking, reading, learning and goofing around. She's a healthy, grounded, self-confident kid who feels very loved, and I achieved that in ways other than home-cooked meals. So, with that insight, I was able to embrace my identity from within and jettison the cookbooks.

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