Decluttering Anxiety

Cindy’s Weekly Wisdom

Perhaps if you’re like my mother – always organized, always together, the focused Energizer Bunny – you won’t understand this post, this post about why my house fell into complete disarray and stayed there for about 8 years. Well, perhaps not why it fell into disarray, but why it stayed that way, year after hateful year.

Our house was almost literally always under construction, with my husband and I as the main worker bees. I had two young children. I find housework boring. All those reasons are true. But plenty of people offered to dig me out of my hole, and I had a housekeeper every other week for several years. It would take me hours to “clean” before Ellie came to clean – mostly I was stacking things and tucking them away before her arrival so she could find the floor and the counters.

My reason, in part, why nothing stayed clean was anxiety, unease, discomfort. When I cleaned, I knew without a doubt, that the mess would come right back, right away. I felt uncomfortable and almost unhappy when the house surfaces were clean and the junk was piled up tidily. It was like I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I knew, as sure as I know that water rolls downhill, that all that stuff was going to re-emerge, and sooner rather than later. It felt useless and hopeless to bother to tidy up – so why bother at all? I wasn’t working then, and once both of the kids were in school, I carried a secret fear that my husband might “fire” me as a homemaker and send me back to work because I was doing such a lousy job. Truth be told, I would have fired myself!

Besides my defeatist attitude, another thing that kept the house from being clean and staying clean was that I never organized or decluttered all the way. I would load the dishwasher but not wipe the counter. I would pay the bills but leave the stamps and envelopes out. We joked that no one in our house understood the word “away” as in “I’ll put that away.” 90% of the job done was 100% good enough for me. Why did I only go part of the way – laziness, habit, the feeling of wasted time I got from completing the job?

How did I overcome my cleaning anxiety? The kids getting older and the remodelling finally being finished both helped, that’s for sure. I became determined to know where everything was supposed to go. I decided that I wanted to be extremely familiar with the word “away.” And if I didn’t know where something’s “away” was, I would figure it out.

Although I was already on my way toward cleanliness and organization, I really started my decluttering on June 1, which is when I found 365lessthings. Since then, I have decluttered over 1,600 things. I could really see a difference after a couple of months, and so could the rest of the family. My husband, who had been secretly and not-so-secretly longing for a lovely home was praising. When one child’s room would look great, the other girl would ask for help with her room too. The ease of decluttering – and the reward – became exponential. Now when I look at the island (my black hole) and think, “That looks awful,” I know that it will take me 10 minutes to completely tidy it, and I remember that every surface in the house, plus half the furniture, used to look that way.

So remember there is hope for all of us no matter how deep in the quagmire of clutter we have sunk. You can claw your way out one item at a time, one day at a time one area at a time no matter how you got there. If I can do it so can you, you just have to get started. Good luck and happy decluttering.

Today’s Declutter Item

If I remember correctly this was a stocking filler one Christmas. Just the words stocking filler suggests that it is stuff you don’t need.

Frame 16FEB2011

I am grateful from anything that brings me joy. Below are five things that gave me joy today.

  • I love it when a sentence comes together – Often when I write my posts I am a little too rushed to edit them to my satisfaction or the best of my ability. Not good enough I know. So I do love it when a sentence just comes together and sounds good from the first draft
  • The string of cooler days and rain we are having. It is so nice to keep the covers on at night and today I even put my dressing gown on when I got up.
  • Knowing I have an entire day at home today – I have quite a few tasks and some unfinished business I need to take care of around here.
  • Birthdays that keep repeating themselves – Several of my family got my birthday card out too late to arrive on time while other cards arrived early. The result is that my birthday is lasting for a whole week. I love it!
  • Being there for one of my friends when she needed a sanity break.

It matters not how fast I go, I hurry faster when I’m slow.

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  1. Might you be referring to those last few sentences you wrote for this post? Nice addition and nicely worded. It did end a bit abruptly before.

    I too have the day alone at home, and I have definitely got some decluttering to do. We don’t have recycling at our office, and we seen to get a box every day. I’ve got a little pile of them that need to be broken down, and this IS the day that I am going to take my decluttered home improvement items over to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and since I’ll be on the other side of town, I’ll stop by the recycling center where I can drop some of the things that I can’t put in my curbside pick up. Ah, that sounds satisfying.

    • Hi Cindy,
      actually it was. I hope you didn’t mind . I loved the post but I just felt that it needed a conclusion/summary. Our readers are really feeling your posts they are heartfelt and coming from a place of experience. People like to think that someone understands how they are feeling and that there is hope. You give them all of that and I am so glad you are writing for me. Thanks as always for all your help.

      • I thought the post was fine. Ended to the point. Minimalist, even 😉
        I FEEL exactly as you described: anxiety and even sadness when things are “clean” because I know that by the end of the day it’ll be a right mess again, with me to clean up after everyone else. Only I won’t. I realize we have to much crap, not the best storage or places to put things truly “away”.
        My solution is to get rid of things but I’m experiencing resistance from my kids (toys), and my husband has SO MUCH tech stuff of bits and bobs and cords and unused gadgets… I’ve even given up folding and putting his clothes away because he’s just as bad as the kids. lol. Actually I laugh (lol) but in all seriousness I feel like my life is being shortened because of all my house related anxiety.
        Going to go through every post on this website…

        • Hi Emm, I am sorry that you are feeling this way you are. I think the first thing you should do is make your husband aware of how defeated and let down you feel. Often partners are completely oblivious to these concerns especially when the situation is working nicely in their favour. I know that my husband is only too willing to change his behaviour when he realises that I am upset about it. If you keep cleaning up after everyone they will continue to enjoy the privilege.

          The clutter situation gradually got to this point and naturally will take some time to turn around. Begin by working on your own clutter issues. At least you have some control there. Set some rules for your children regarding their responsibility for their toys. Depending on their age you might insist that when you say they need to clean up then they must do it now. The consequences should be that you pack away what is left out and these items will not be returned until you see improvement in their cooperation. Once they begin improving you can then focus on them taking care of other areas of their lives. Putting clothes away, leaving the bathroom tidy…

          I am not going to suggest that this will be easy because having to be tough is never easy. After all if you are good at being tough this situation would never have arisen. I found the older my kids got the messier they got ~ one more so than the other ~ but there was always a limit. I always insisted that the living areas of the home were not their spaces to make a mess of. When they were little it was always OK for them to play with their toys in the living spaces but they were stored in their bedrooms and that is where I insisted they be returned to when no longer being played with or at the end of the day. Dirty clothes were to go in the dirty clothes basket or they didn’t get washed. If the kids are old enough it can’t hurt to let them know that their laziness is affecting your quality of life. This doesn’t always make a difference but one thing is for sure that if they don’t know they won’t do anything about it.

          Just remember, small incremental changes will make a big difference in the long run. Good luck and happy decluttering.

  2. Thanks Cindy, there is not a clear surface in my apartment, but there is hope.

  3. Cindy, you could be writing about my house except minus the construction, but adding in closing a business, a child and a parent with chronic debilitating conditions, plus two different cats with poor health that we nursed along for as long as possible. I can relate to your mess and I know you can relate to mine. Thanks for the encouragement. Some days it’s definitely easier to read about decluttering than do what’s needed, but a post like this helps me realize it’s not going to get done sitting at the computer, even if that’s all I feel like doing after a full day 🙂

    • That’s true. I have had my share of hospitals too and because of that, I never decluttered. Because of that, I felt worse, and worse, and worse… I have now time enough (I think) so I can finally work on it.

      I already finished two project though: my holidayalbum of Tuscany 2008 and my stationary items are decluttered and organized. Now the rest of my desk… lol.

      • Jo, That does sound overwhelming, and it easy for things to out of place little by little until it’s a real mess. I think Nurchamiel is right, though, the more choatic things are around us, the worse we feel, and the harder it is to take proper care of ourselves and others. Isn’t it ironic that when overwhelmed, we don’t have time to declutter, yet somehow we still manage to clutter? The beauty of a thing a day is that, while it can go slowly, it still goes.

        Good job getting two projects done Nurchamiel. Albums are a trouble area that I haven’t jumped into yet. Like a lot of different kinds of clutter, once your children are born, there are suddenly way more photos, and it’s easy to get buried under a mound of them.

        Good luck ladies. Keep at it!

  4. Sometimes you just have to be ready to do the hard work. It was your time, Cindy. Sending you a virtual high five!

  5. You have me pegged. I wonder when my husband will “fire” me as a homemaker too (except that he really likes my cooking and loves that I’m home for the kids). My home is never “done”. Things don’t go all the way away, and it feels like one step forward and 2 steps back when it comes to cleaning (2 rowdy boys and an indoor/outdoor dog). I am a work at home mom and I hide behind my computer many hours of the day just so I don’t have to face the never-ending chores. Laundry never ends, cooking never stops, cleaning never stays clean and the clutter always seems to accumulate…. so I hide in my work.

    • I’ve certainly felt that way about housework and cooking, too, and it’s true – it does never end. But once you get on top of it rather than it getting on top of you, it is much more manageable.

      I do one load of laundry, probably five times a week, and make sure it goes through to completion. My laundry tip is to start the laundry as early in the day as possible, to give yourself maximum time to get it finished before day’s end. I couldn’t believe how much less onerous it was when there wasn’t a big heap of it in the basket waiting to be folded.

      That’s just one example, but I can assure you, everything is easier to manage when it’s 1) when there’s less and 2) when it has a home.

      I find that the computer is a big time sucker (I think everyone finds this), and a lot of the time spent on it is not that rewarding. Since this is a weak area for you, try doing your chores for an hour prior to turning it one for the first time. Try this for a week and see if it doesn’t help you to make some inroads into your clutter.

      Good luck.

  6. I used to be like that too. Trouble finishing the task and putting away stuff.
    And I hated cleaning because I knew it would never be good enough -too much stuff. Now I can clean and be happy about it! My eyes and soul get to rest and I feel calm and accomplishment.

    • hi Cat’s Meow,
      I am so glad you have found a balance and are enjoying the calm of a decluttered tidy environment. Can you pin point your turning point and what was the catalyst for change? I would really love to know what caused the turn around from the defeatist attitude you obviously once had. Was it a change in relationship, good advice, the straw that broke the camels back…

  7. “Besides my defeatist attitude, another thing that kept the house from being clean and staying clean was that I never organized or decluttered all the way. I would load the dishwasher but not wipe the counter. I would pay the bills but leave the stamps and envelopes out. We joked that no one in our house understood the word “away” as in “I’ll put that away.” 90% of the job done was 100% good enough for me. Why did I only go part of the way – laziness, habit, the feeling of wasted time I got from completing the job?”

    so true! it changes so much, if you get the job done completely. Since I declutter daily, I also do those little things fully. one item needs new batteries? earlier I would have put the item away, put it on my mental to do list and leave it not working for weeks. Now as soon as this happens: I go to the drawer, get the new ones, put them in, old ones go into the recycling box, throw away the paper and go back to the task you were doing before. or old pencils that needs to be sharpened. since my sharpener has a home, I do that as soon as a pencils needs it, and not once a year when there is NO pencil in the house working anymore.

    • I sounds to me like it probably was laziness, no offence intended. When we lived in America my children would use the toilet roll off the floor rather than put it on the holder because they were too lazy to put it on the holder. Never mind the fact that it was probably more bother to use it off the floor. My son eats in his room a lot and then brings his dirty dishes out and put them on the bench above the dishwasher rather than in it. I often clean the dinner pans at breakfast time the next day. All these acts are just because we are too lazy to do it immediately or in the kids case ~ if left they knew that I would eventually do it for them.

  8. Part of the reason we don’t do the final 10% is because there is so much stuff we don’t have a place to put the item away. My motto for 2012 is “Just do it” and I like the idea of putting the batteries in or putting the paper in the recycle bin but I am so easily distracted that I often get sidetracked on the way to do something only to remember the original thing later. My daughter says just do one thing at a time and that is what I am trying to do. That’s why 365 less is working for me. One thing at a time. I like the idea of doing a load of laundry start to finish before starting the next load. I have been doing that for a while and even if I cannot get to the next load right away, something is done and in the drawers.

  9. I just ran to the computer to seek solace from anxiety about tackling a box of mixed papers, the important mixed with the useless, and found this. It’s funny, I know ALL the hints [ most of us have a close relationship with decluttering advice] but sometimes, it is so hard to sit still and focus on one thing at a time – I want to run away (that’s the “away” I know about). A definite part of my problem, too, is no defined places for necessary or valued items – and too much other stuff ( especially clothing). And I even see myself struggling NOT to save “usable” plastic containers that go in the recycling. Perhaps I’ll take a look at 365 Less… by the by – I am retired – no kids around – and my house is worse now! As if some part of my brain decided that nothing has to be done right NOW… until it looks as it I have 3 years of putting away to do. well, at least I still have a sense of humor — and now have to close this because I can let the internet suck up time like a vacuum gone sorcerer’s apprentice …

    • I was going to give you some worldly advice about those papers Cheryl but them I thought about the photos that I keep avoiding. It isn’t a problem because I am still decluttering other stuff. I know they are there though and I can’t avoid them forever. I think, like you papers, photos take up little space but are so numerous that is takes quite a while to declutter not so much. I also intend to identify the people in the photos by writing the names on the back witch will even further complicate the task. But your comment had me pulling out an album last night and ruthlessly decluttering it. I will do this on a regular basis now between my other decluttering so that it eventually gets done without being so much of a chore. I will no doubt get more and more ruthless as time goes on and declutter even more of the photos. I will use my space goal as a guide to how much needs to be decluttered and keep working towards that goal slowly but surely.

  10. My grands are coming this weekend and my husband and I have been so very busy cleaning out the rooms (inside me – outside him) and getting the lawn nice for them but am also decluttering for me. I moved a lot of things into another room (all sewing things) and that room still looks messy. Hard to believe I threw away bags of paper and yet, there is still more to cull. But last night, when I was so tired I could hardly move, having been to the grocery on the way home from work, I went to bed early (for me) at 1:30 a.m. As I lay there, I thought – not about what I hadn’t done – but about all the things I have gotten done. My daughter is such a minimalist and always wants to reorganize me when she visits so I wanted to have things just so for her. Well, anyway, the point is that since I have been reading your blog and seeing the struggles lots of us are going through, I am making progress. I really need to be thankful for the energy I have found to do the things I have and that one a day WILL GET ME THERE!. I think as women, we tend to focus on the negatives not the positives and I am determined to remind myself of the good things I have done. (As an aside – when a boss gives you a performance appraisal, often he/she only tells you how you can improve, not how well you have done. This is wrong. Some criticism is okay, but praise goes a long way in making someone feel good and accomplish even more). That’s what I want to do for myself. Even this morning, I tossed 3 empty makeup boxes from my drawer. I was saving them so I would know which product to purchase the next time. It’s been several years since I used this brand so obviously it was not that important. Out they went. This is my new life. Not being used. Give it away or toss it. Thanks Colleen and Cindy. You are good inspiration.