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How the pros banish clutter

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(RealSimple.comexternal link) -- Clutter is that stuff you don't notice, use, or care about until it's time to get rid of it. Yet at that precise moment, although you know better, letting go of your Riverdance instructional video or those 25 blank notepads feels like smothering a piece of your soul. You are plagued with concerns: What if you need it someday? Why did you buy it? What would Antiques Roadshow say?

Enough is enough. Clutter clouds your mind, trips you up, slows you down, and devours the stuff surrounding it. Carting the junk away is the easy part. Overcoming the mental block is what's hard. Here, professional organizers share four strategies to get you going. Choose the one that appeals to you most -- and send those Riverdancers high-stepping out the door.

1. Act like you're moving

Say you had to uproot and relocate. What would you take with you? You don't actually have to pack anything up -- just set aside the few things that you love and use and see what's left over. "Chances are, you use only 20 percent of your stuff regularly," says Sally Allen, owner of A Place for Everything, an organizing service in Golden, Colorado. Try this with your cookbooks: Pull out the ones that are tenderly tattered due to years of use, then look at the ones still on the shelf. Ask yourself if you would pay someone to haul away those you've been keeping because they were gifts or because you felt ambitious when you bought them (From now on, Thai food every Tuesday night!). If not, sell them to a used-book store or donate them.

Toss-it tips
• Envision your home as a prospective buyer might: Uncluttered spaces make the best first impression. They're also a lot easier to keep clean and dust-free.
• Imagine the potential buyer (or worse, a relative) going through your closets or drawers. What would you not want him or her to see?
• Buy containers and baskets only after you've decided what to keep. This way you'll have a much better sense of the kind of storage you need.

Why it works
You don't have to get rid of things you love or need -- you just have to determine what those things are.
• If you've ever packed and paid for a move, the motivation for paring down your possessions will be all too clear.

2. Assess your rooms

Walk through your house with a pen and a notebook, writing down the activities that take place in each room and the items associated with those activities. "Then 'purpose' your space," says Vicki Norris, president of Restoring Order, an organizing company in Portland, Oregon. "Note your desired use for each room, even if you are not using it that way currently." Remove anything that doesn't relate to your proposed activity for that space. If you want to use your bedroom only for sleeping and getting dressed, relocate anything that doesn't relate to that: documents stored in the closet, a trade journal you've been meaning to read, sewing supplies, or anything else that distracts you from the main purpose of the room.

Toss-it tips
Start with one room, but keep the whole house in mind.
• Think of rooms that have multiple purposes as several smaller areas, so it's clear where items should be returned if they stray. If gift-wrapping is the designated activity for a certain part of the study and you find a spool of ribbon in the kitchen, you'll know exactly where it belongs, and so will other family members.

Why it works
This strategy lays the foundation for long-term change. "By taking an `aerial view' of your entire home, you'll see how certain activities and their supplies are strewn throughout the home -- like paperwork, memorabilia, or toys," Norris explains.
• Tackling clutter without knowing your priorities can be counterproductive. "People who take a 'tidy up' approach are actually rearranging rather than organizing," Norris says. "Sooner or later, the space relapses to its original condition."

3. Clean out for a worthy cause

Getting rid of things will be easier if you can picture someone else benefiting from them (instead of how they just signify wasted money for you). Pick an organization to donate to, and learn as much as you can about it. Read the literature, check out the website, and visit the facility, if possible.

Toss-it tips
Don't just leave your stuff outside the charity's storefront or in a donation bin, to be ruined by the elements. Deliver it in person, or find out if the organization will arrange a pickup from your home.
• See if there are specific items the charity needs; this will make those things easier to give up. If it doesn't accept certain items -- such as that combination NordicTrack/clothes hanger -- ask if it knows of a group that does.
• If an item is truly worthless or beyond repair, don't make the organization deal with it. Find out the proper way to junk it instead.
• Get your kids involved, too, so they can see what it's like to give.

Why it works
Discarded items will most likely be used, worn, or appreciated a lot sooner in someone else's hands than they would in yours.
• You can earn a tax deduction for donated goods. But you are responsible for keeping track of donations, determining their worth, and itemizing them on your tax return.

4. 'Edit' your rooms

Start in the upper left-hand corner of one wall and start "reading" from left to right and from top to bottom. "The room is a book, a dresser is a chapter, each drawer is a paragraph, the boxes or trays or Ziploc bags in the drawers are the sentences, and the things in the containers are the words," says Alice Winner, an organizing consultant in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. "Get rid of the extra words -- things -- that are making your life more complicated and unmanageable."

Toss-it tips
Any time you feel your attention straying to another part of the room or house, take a break or simply repeat, "Left to right, left to right."
• Resist the urge to skip "chapters." If you jump around the room, dealing with a pile here and a pile there, the room might still look cluttered after a three-hour session.
• Find a motivator for your work. Tack up an image from a magazine or book of a room you'd like to emulate.

Why it works
It's difficult to determine the best place to plunge into an organizing project. This eliminates that problem: Just go straight to the upper left-hand corner of one wall. It also curtails aimlessness, because you always know what to tackle next.
• You provide yourself with a prototype as you go. Say you're editing your filing cabinets, and you feel your focus flagging as you encounter another overstuffed folder labeled "Miscellaneous." Look at the drawer you've just completed for a visual reminder of what all the drawers will look like when you're done.

Get three more clutter-busting secrets of the pros on RealSimple.comexternal link

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