Skip to main content

Free up space in your home and your life

Tips to live clutter-free

In December 2017, Bruce Thies floated a question to his mother, Connie Surls, 78. The house next door to his was for sale. It was only a few blocks away from Surls' current home in Iowa Falls, Iowa. It was smaller than her current home, with fewer stairs to climb, and it was completely renovated. Would she want to live next door to her family?

“I gave him a flat NO,” said Surls. “Moving was out of the question. Also, I wasn’t so sure it was a good idea for him to live next door to his mother,” she laughs.

Knowing how stubborn his mother could be, Bruce didn’t bring up the subject again.

The question did get Surls thinking, though. She began taking a hard look at her home. It wasn’t like she was going to be featured on a reality TV show, but it was looking cluttered. The two-car garage was now a one-car garage. All of her “when I get to it” projects were stored there. The basement was also full of potential projects.

“What in the world am I going to do with all this stuff?” wondered Surls, an industrious, creative woman who loves going to home auctions, restoring old furniture, sewing and crafts of all kinds. Having retired from the corporate world several years earlier, Surls had recently owned her own business, making decorative throw pillows she sold at department stores and craft shows.

“I had been spending so much time and effort creating things, going to craft shows, and transporting, carrying and staging all these items,” says Surls. “But when I slowed down and began taking a look around, it was a bit overwhelming. I didn’t know I had accumulated so much in the process.”

What’s more, within a few months, Surls fell down the steep basement steps twice. Both times, the basket of laundry she carried in her arms somehow cushioned her fall. Knowing how lucky she was not to be hurt, the idea of moving began to sound more appealing.

“I began to think about what Bruce said. At times, I would totally talk myself out of it. Next thing I knew, I was going for it. The new house would be so much more convenient for me,” she decided. “And while I enjoy my freedom and independence, the idea of having my son next door provided me with extra security.”

In early 2018, Surls started the process of decluttering and downsizing.

“I guess I came to the conclusion that my kids didn't want or need this stuff. Why was I saving it for them? And if I didn’t declutter, they’d have to deal with it someday. That’s not exactly the memory I wanted to leave them with. Finally, I really didn’t want to drag all the stuff to my new home. I had to get rid of it. That was motivating.”

Decluttering has a whole host of benefits

Surls decluttered for the same reasons many people take on the task. But she didn’t realize the process would free her in more ways than one.

Decluttering is not a new concept, but its health benefits have become increasingly recognized. That’s because clutter tends to lead to anxiety and stress. Cluttered spaces are chaotic, for the mind and the body, and can make you feel overwhelmed. Even worse, clutter can make you feel ashamed or embarrassed about your home, which invites even more stress.

According to research, a clutter-free home can help you:

  • Move safely through your home, particularly if you use a cane or other mobility device
  • Free up space in your life for happiness, creativity and productivity
  • Eliminate bad feelings about unused stuff or unfinished projects
  • Leave you more energized by the items that you do keep
  • Decrease stress and anxiety
  • Improve health habits, like better sleep
  • Improve allergy symptoms and overall wellness by removing dust particles from the air
  • Feel a sense of accomplishment as you enjoy your new surroundings

What’s more, a clutter-free home can help you perform daily tasks more efficiently because everything you need is readily available and within reach.

Decluttering frees up more than physical space

Once Surls got into downsizing mode, it was full speed ahead. While some people start with an item, such as clothing, kitchen items or piles of paper, Surls took a different approach.

“I went room by room, item by item, giving everything a moment of attention. I figured this stuff didn’t accumulate in a day, it would take a while to clear it out. I did not hurry. Every day, I would do a part of a room. I made three piles: keep, throw, and thrift shop. I closed my eyes and let things go.”

Even with her “keep” pile, Surls would say to herself, “Would the kids really want this someday?” Again, she’d close her eyes and let it go. She downsized three closets full of clothes into one closet.

It was more difficult than she expected, deciding what to do with it all. “Honestly, it made me sad,” says Surls. “It was emotionally draining. I cried a lot of tears. There were just a lot of memories to go through.”

There were days when Surls was consumed by memories. As a mother of five grown children, 19 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren, it was inevitable. She’d run across artwork they’d made in school, or programs from concerts, plays, confirmation or graduation. “Old pictures, my goodness I have a lot of them,” she adds. “I put the most precious things in a special trunk which was going with me no matter what. I’d imagine my family, someday, going through the memories, just as I did.”

As she disposed of some of these items, Surls reminded herself it was far more important to invest time in her family — to be a presence in their life. “Whatever activities they are in, I want to be there,” she says, “I want to enjoy each and every moment.”

Five months later, she was done and ready to move. Her advice? “Don’t have a maybe pile,” says Surls. “Just close your eyes and let it go.”

Surls can’t say she misses anything she parted with during the decluttering process. However, a few months after her move, she decided to make some pies, but couldn’t find a single pie tin. She ended up at the thrift shop where she donated her wares and bought them back. “They didn’t cost much,” she laughs.

How does she like life in her new home? “I feel content,” she says. “There is a sense of relief. Here, everything has a place. It’s a good feeling.”

Aside from that, she has fewer responsibilities. No more guilt about projects she “should” be working on. The snow is shoveled. The grass is mowed. “My son is taking care of maintenance, and he has two boys that help,” says Surls. “So my life is freed up to do other things I enjoy.”

Aside from spending time with her family, she enjoys going on bus tours, having coffee with friends, talking politics, and volunteering at the voting booth. “I stay busy. I am out and about, when it's possible. That’s me. I just can’t sit down and let the cobwebs start to form.”

In case you wondered, Surls still enjoys going to home auctions. “Now, I know what you’re thinking,” she laughs. “But I don’t buy anything anymore. I just enjoy looking. You’ll never take the auction away from me.”

Three steps to clear the clutter for good

Clear clutter in your home

According to Gretchen Rubin, the author of Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness External Site, "A crowded closet may seem like a trivial issue, yet most people find that when they clear clutter, they feel happier, more energetic, and more creative. For most people — and certainly for me — outer order contributes to inner calm.”

To get on the right track, start small, decluttering in manageable, daily steps. As you consider what to get rid of and what to keep, make sure you're not hanging onto something simply because you think you might use it “someday.” Rubin shares three tips to help clear the clutter for good:

  1. Don’t get ‘organized.’ This might sound counterintuitive, says Rubin. She explains, “Often when people want to get ‘organized,’ they run out to the store and they buy filing cabinets and hangers and binders. A lot of times they're just buying stuff to jam more clutter into place.”
    Instead of trying to organize your belongings, Rubin recommends asking yourself: Do I even really want this?
  2. It doesn’t have to happen all at once. “Decluttering doesn’t have to be finished in a day or even a weekend,” says Rubin. “Setting aside thirty minutes a day to work on clearing your space can make a huge difference in the long run. If you just start and keep up, you will be surprised how much progress you can make in a fairly limited amount of time.”
  3. Ask yourself three questions. When you're trying to figure out what to keep and what to get rid of, Rubin says to ask yourself these questions: Do I need it? Do I love it? Do I use it? If you don't need it, use it or love it, get rid of it.

Share your advice about decluttering or downsizing!

Most of us have had to declutter or downsize at least once during our lifetime. Do you have any tricks or advice to share with other readers? Send them to us at Send Email. We may feature your advice in a future Blue story.