You know that moment when your home is freshly de-cluttered and you think, “Wow! This place is gorgeous! From now on I’ll keep it just like this, I swear”? And how about the moment, a week later, when you look at your laundry-adorned, junk-mail-accented, stray-coffee-mug-decorated home and think, “Dang, I did it again”?
If this sounds foreign—if you’re Martha Stewart’s soul mate and Mary Poppins was your grandmother—feel free to gloat. If not, you’re like me and most of America.
The problem is that ridding your home of clutter is painful but easy: Put away stuff; throw away stuff. The hard part is keeping neat afterward. It’s like staying skinny after you drop 20 pounds. How are you supposed to resist Bacon Ranch Pringles for the rest of your life? Most neatniks don’t say how to keep household flab from creeping back. But here’s hope: Eager for my house to quit yo-yoing from pristine to pigsty, I recently called Sue Rasmussen. She’s a suburban Minneapolis life coach with more than 5,000 clients under her belt, a terrific website about de-cluttering, and—more impressive yet—zero items stuck to the front of her fridge. With her help, I’ve put together a few key tips. Think of them as Weight Watchers for your home:
1. Get real. Just as a not-totally-flat belly is fine (never mind what magazine covers say), a slightly paunchy house won’t kill you. If you don’t want to become a screaming, Joan Crawford-style clean freak, and especially if you have kids, you’d better live with some un-svelte closets and corners. The key is to not let clutter get so bad that it trips you up, literally or figuratively. Experts say clutter saps our energy, productivity and ambition; research suggests it even kicks our stress hormones into overdrive. So with that in mind…
2. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” Like a diet guru who tells you to consider why you’re about to eat that 87th Cheez-It (Boredom? Anxiety?), Rasmussen says to take stock before you add those school fliers to the heap on your kitchen table. If your reason for leaving them there is, “I’m too busy to put them away,” decide whether that’s really true. “Even a few heartbeats of thought can be enough to disrupt the cluttering,” she says. If your reason is, “I don’t know what else to do with them,” you may need to reorganize a bit. Rasmussen is a big fan of keeping anti-clutter tools as handy as possible. So you might, for instance, have a recycling bin right where you sort through your kids’ backpacks. For fliers you want to revisit, place a folder within easy reach. Or better yet, type info you need from them into your cellphone calendar (“April 18: Buy rubber chicken for Crazy Hair Day”) and chuck the paper version.
3. Don’t keep it if you don’t love it. When you let your home slowly fill with objects you dislike, it’s the clutter equivalent of snacking on stale Goldfish. So if you’re lukewarm about a holiday gift, no matter how well-intended, donate it immediately (if discreetly). Rasmussen suggests letting your “body compass” be your guide: Does the thought of reading that book from your cousin make you smile? Add it to your shelf. Does it make you shudder or tense up? Stuff it in the give-away bag for Goodwill. (She recommends this body-compass test for intangible clutter, too. Do you want to join that preschool graduation committee? Do you feel like taking extreme-duct-tape classes on Saturdays? Ask your body. “Anything that makes you tight and yucky, that’s clutter,” Rasmussen says. “You can safely let it go.”)
4. Set limits. A hot-fudge sundae on your birthday may be fine; a daily one, tragically not. Likewise, your home can hold just so much before it gets porky again. So set limits—keeping unread magazines for no more than two months before you dump them, say.
5. Finish what you start. Rasmussen’s favorite trick for keeping off clutter pounds is to do “complete work.” After you make a sandwich, put your plate and knife in the dishwasher. After you make a mess in your home office, replace the files in their cabinet as soon as you can. That way, she says, you won’t do tomorrow’s jobs on top of today’s clutter. Another tip: Tidy for five or 10 extra minutes before bedtime, picking up things that escaped your efforts at complete work. Together, Rasmussen promises, these two habits make a “very, very big difference.”
So far, I’m sold. I’ve been following her lead for a week now, ever since my husband and I did a monster cleanup—and the place is definitely spiffier than it usually is after seven days with two kids, two chaotic cats and our own clutter-prone selves. Will it last? I sure hope so. If not, I may try what a friend of mine swears is the best clutter suppressant of all: watching Hoarders