Clearing out unnecessary items from our living spaces can be intimidating, but the sense of satisfaction that comes with it is immeasurable.
A recent Guardian story highlights how ridiculous our need to hold on to material things is and said, “in 2022, UK households and businesses piled enough additional items into storage units to occupy more than 2m sq ft (185,000 sq metres), driving up revenues among operators – including Big Yellow and Safestore – by 6.5% to £990m.”
I only became aware of how much stuff I had in my home when I had to move to a smaller space recently. I was about to move into a two-bed flat but had accumulated enough to fill a sizeable three-bed house.
In the 25 years since I returned to England with just two suitcases, I have moved several times and, without realising it, bought or rented homes not for me and my family but to hold my belongings.
In all this time, I never relinquished any of my accumulated possessions because no one ever said I had to. So I filled my home with things that didn’t serve my daily needs.
Things I tucked away for a rainy day, held on to for memories, or saved for my daughter. I put them out of sight – in my loft, shed, cupboards, bookcases, and drawers. Wherever it was possible to hide it, I found it. As a result, my houses didn’t look cluttered on the surface, but lurking beneath were layers and layers of jetsam and flotsam.
A home not for me but for my things
In hindsight, I lived in homes larger than needed, which I dutifully filled with things. I would pack all my belongings when it was time to move, reflexively emptying drawers into boxes and crates, never really sorting or, heaven forbid, throwing anything away. Instead, I transported everything to my next home.
However, things came to a head when I had to downsize to a smaller space for the first time, which proved far more traumatic than expected. First, it didn’t occur to me to get rid of things. Instead, I fell into my old pattern and began carefully packing up my boxes, each lovingly labelled.
As the clock counted towards moving day, the truth dawned – I had vastly more stuff than I would have room to put in. Not least, an attic space crammed with boxes of clothes that had sat unappreciated and forgotten for my seven years in residence.
At last, I accepted some things had to go; unfortunately, I did not reckon with the lengthy agonising that would be devoted to every item as I weighed its practical and sentimental value against future space saved.
The wrench of throwing things out
With two days to go and a house still alarmingly full, panic set in. I phoned a friend, explained my dilemma, and she came over and began the brutal but necessary job of tossing out my precious possessions.
I vacated the house in the nick of time, and several bin bags found their way to charity shops and recycling centres. But after moving furniture and the essentials of daily living into my new place, I still had two barns and a large cellar (courtesy of an understanding landlord) filled with boxes and the problem of what to do with their contents.
It was like experiencing the trauma all over again when it came to unpacking them. I sold clothing for a song, sent much to charity and gave away many things.
Yet, there was still a mountain of stuff for me to make decisions about whether to keep, donate or recycle. Frankly, I was tired of the process. No wonder I never did it before.
Time for decluttering expertise
Time for some outside help – enter Shropshire-based decluttering guru Tracey Baylis, who has built a business rescuing people like me. Tracey was to prove a steady and reassuring presence. The cellar and barns were like a yoke on my back, and I felt an immediate deep sense of relief after speaking to Tracey, and she agreed to discuss my needs. It was the first step to transforming my circumstances.
Tracey had shared tips on decluttering with LGL readers, but I never thought I would need her services. In just two three-hour sessions, she helped me see that my possessions were not the treasures I had imagined but just things. She asked me to describe how I acquired them all, and, for the first time, I linked my bargain-hunting mentality to the value I placed on them. And, like a miserly king, I secreted them in vaults.
Our first session began with an easy conversation; Tracey asked me about my life goals and how I wanted to see my living space. I cherish learning and doing and expect to continue that in the future. My daughter was heading off to Uni soon, so I would be free to travel more. There was gentle questioning from Tracey. Would the contents of those unemptied boxes help me achieve my goals? The answer, unreservedly, was no.
I appreciated the direction and focus that Tracey brought to the proceedings. We tackled clothing first, sorting into three piles –” keep”, “discard”, and “undecided”. There was no judgment about anything I kept. But if I came unstuck on an item, there was more of that gentle probing about whether I needed it.
Or, in the case of gifts, which I kept for sentimental reasons, reminding me that the giver gave it with love and would not want me to keep something that held me back.
The relief of letting things go
After that first day, not only did Tracey have me rethinking my lifestyle choices around the less is more mantra, but I also filled her Land Rover with bags of discarded items.
This was one of my favourite things about Tracey’s service. She took anything you wanted to discard to the recycling centre, thus removing any temptation to rifle through it. Importantly, I could see their created space once those items were gone.
As for the stuff I did keep, it was a much-reduced pile which I counted as a great success. Tracey reminded me of my life goals and that I needed to cull further and keep only a few items in my wardrobe.
Tracey was confident that once I started this process, I would feel lighter, and it would become easier and easier to declutter on my own. She was right – by the end of the next session with Tracey, there was more room in my landlord’s cellar, my home was more organised, and I felt significantly more serene. Decluttering was indeed a tonic for my soul.
Five tips to help you decide whether you need an expert
1. You feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to start. Perhaps you feel ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help. There is no need to worry. A good organiser has no agenda or judgment, and will almost certainly have seen more cluttered homes than yours.
2. Every time you start trying to declutter, you get distracted and sidetracked, inevitably giving up before too long. Having someone to help you keep focused enables you to make more decisions more easily.
3. You are moving to a new living space, this could be bigger or smaller, and you would like a fresh way or living. A good organiser will help you work out how your new space can best work for you, and which possessions will support you on the journey.
4. You are feeling stuck and need newness in your life. Letting go of physical clutter allows more clarity for for new opportunities to come into your life.
5. If you are honest with yourself, you have been moving stuff from one place to another without letting go of very much at all. An organiser can help you go from procrastination and resistance to considered decisions and action.
Tracey Baylis is a consultant with Cultivating Space who helps downsize, organise, and do home clearings. You can also find her on Facebook.
APDO is the organisation for professional organisers and has a great map search to find one in your area.
This story was updated on 17 May 2023 to add the Guardian quote.