The boxes of new toys vying for space. The mail piled up by the door. And the holiday decorations that have cross-pollinated with your belongings. It's no wonder decluttering is now a top New Year's resolution, right up there with dieting and exercising.
"People are looking around and seeing that their whole house needs a diet," says Jacki Brown, the president of the Professional Organizers in Canada.
While most of us won't cross over into dangerous hoarder territory, hoarding expert Randy Frost says even for well-functioning people, a jam-packed basement and attic could be a harbinger of things to come. "As people get older, these problems tend to get worse."
And the foibles that led people to accumulate clutter in the first place can trip them up when they try to tackle the mess.
"When people begin to attack the pile, they pick up something, they get so into that thing that they forget what they're doing," says Prof. Frost, who teaches psychology at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., and co-wrote Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things. "It's a bit of an attention-deficit problem."
Prof. Frost, who conducts group decluttering sessions for serious hoarders, says there are a number of good tips out there that can work, "if people actually do them."
HOLIDAY MOP UP
Resist the urge to chuck all those holiday decorations, menorahs, Christmas lights back into boxes. "If you have decorations you didn't put out this year, ask yourself why," says Ms. Brown. "If something's broken, don't just put it away thinking you'll fix it next year." And if your labelled holiday bins are now the best-organized items in your basement, give them pride of place, says Ms. Brown. "Push everything over and start your tidy, organized corner. That will be your inspiration."
WHILE YOU'RE IN THE BASEMENT, KEEP GOING
Items gathering dust in your basement or attic are often things that are easiest to part with – and can free up space for storing stuff you're about to liberate from other rooms. Susan Borax of Vancouver's Good Riddance says the major culprits she and her business partner, Heather Knittel, encounter include mindlessly acquired collections of cookie tins, for instance, and boxes of miscellaneous "shrapnel." "We separate the crud, the completely ridiculous, useless debris, from things that are still useful and loved," she says.
Experts say another way to get moving is to pick one drawer, one closet or the catch-all room. "Just start," says Ms. Brown, who runs an organizing business in Trenton, Ont. With each item, ask yourself: "Do you love it? Do you use it? Is this the best place for it?" If the whole place is a mess, some pros suggest cleaning out your bedroom to create a sanctuary that energizes you. "But we ask clients to finish and not zigzag from room to room," says Ms. Borax. "The decluttering process is very disruptive. Minimize the chaos."
START AT RANDOM
Other professional organizers know that you're a little distracted, otherwise you wouldn't be in this mess. So they propose a commando approach to get moving – or to supplement your other efforts. Oprah-endorsed organizing expert Peter Walsh suggests trying something called the "Trash Bag Tango": For 10 minutes a day, everyone in the family grabs two bags – one for trash and one for donations – and fills them.
OR, START WITH SYSTEMS
A different tack is to think about which routines (or lack thereof) are giving you grief, says Ms. Brown. Maybe you stumble on laundry, with clean clothes never quite making it back into drawers. For many of us it's our bill-paying non-system. The answer may be (finally) crossing over into online-only bills and setting up a proper filing system, for one. And instead of worrying about your messy closets, think about streamlining your morning dressing routine to reduce the stress. Ms. Brown says it can be better to visualize your life working better rather than setting a vague "be-more-organized" New Year's resolution.
CREATE HOUSE RULES
There's the one-in, one-out rule, whereby you pledge to toss an item of clothing or a toy every time a new one crosses your threshold. But Ms. Brown says she prefers telling clients that two items should leave before one comes back in. Especially with cellphones and other small electronics that seem to pile up. Others suggest never leaving the house without something to get rid of. And reconsider those thrifting and scrapbooking habits. As Ms. Knittel puts it, "We've worked with crafters who have unfinished projects that would take 100 years."
CONSIDER THE CONSTANT CULL
Stash a box in your laundry room or your closet to toss clothes that don't fit or you're not wearing. Prof. Frost adds that since the top two items found in hoarders' homes are papers and clothes (the third is organizing bins!), declutterers can maintain their order by clearing up those items daily. "Set aside a certain amount of time each day to go through a prescribed set of things to organize – that's probably the most effective thing people can do."
START KIDS YOUNG
Post-Christmas can be the perfect time to edit your kids' bulging toy collections. Preschoolers may not notice a few AWOL toys. Some parents ease their Grinch guilt by sneaking toys into a closet, then giving them away if there are no protests. Ms. Brown says she recommends taking a picture of your kids' toy shelves, then take another a few weeks later. If a toy hasn't been moved, it should go. Use your discretion when it comes to older kids; involve them in the process and share those new house rules, says Ms. Brown.
DON'T STEAMROLL YOUR SPOUSE
Professional organizers say people often call them without their spouse being in on it. "It's absolutely verboten to declutter another person without their permission," says Ms. Knittel. Instead, lead by example and only ask them to clean up what's truly getting in your way. And be aware that some people need more storage than others. In Ms. Brown's house, her husband has a bigger closet than she does, for instance.
HIRE A PROFESSIONAL
If all of this leaves you more, not less, stressed, consider calling a professional organizer. They can help you prioritize. Ms. Brown says her groups' members can either draw up a plan for you to tackle or dig in with you and force you to justify your Vegas ashtray collection. Not in the budget? Check out sites like Peter Walsh's at peterwalshdesign.com for a link to tips and checklists.