The bitter winds of January blow in, bringing guilt over seasonal excesses and resolve to show greater restraint. It’s an apt time to consider the advice of a self-described “personal trainer for your stuff,” professional organizer Dawna Hall, with whom I recently spoke. Organizing is a relatively small part of her work with clients, Hall acknowledges; the bulk of each job is to “sort and purge.”

Extraneous household stuff accumulates in such small increments that it can go unnoticed for a time. Hall, who founded Organize ME! in Portland a decade ago, likens clutter creep to weight gain; “one pound a year does not seem like a lot in the short term.” But 20 pounds becomes a more daunting prospect to shed.

Just as individuals cope with weight gain by increasing their clothing size, they complain to Hall – regardless of actual home size – that they “need a bigger house.”

That path is rarely feasible so they resign themselves to tackling the clutter that crowds their space. Most of Hall’s clients are driven not by the allure of zen-like simplicity or the planetary benefits of a less acquisitive lifestyle but by practical concerns like tripping hazards and storage fees. (While runaway clutter is a commonplace challenge, a small percentage of people suffer from more serious conditions, like compulsive hoarding or chronic disorganization, that require additional support.)

Helping people sort through stuff they’ve held onto, Hall often hears these rationales:

I spent a lot of money on this: Resale may help recoup some of those expenditures.

I found this on sale!: For clients prone to bargain-shopping, Hall may print out a small label for their credit cards that reads, “If the best thing about the item you’re considering is the price, don’t buy it!”

 This was given to me: She suggests honoring the intent behind the gift while realizing that it can be donated to someone who will appreciate it more.

 I might use it someday: Hall advises clients to relinquish anything they can replace for under $20 within a 20-mile radius.

 This was handed down to me: Heirlooms often hold only the value that owners have assigned them, she notes. “WE give power to stuff.”

Hall reminds clients that “for everything you own, it owns a piece of you.” You have to spend time, energy and potentially money on cleaning and maintenance.

And your “lifetime of clutter” risks burdening relatives when you go, Margareta Magnusson notes in her new book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning.” A pragmatic grandmother, Magnusson counsels everyone to start parting with obvious excess as early as possible.

That’s easier said than done, obviously, or Hall (and dozens of others professional organizers in Maine) would not have such steady business. Self-motivated individuals can undertake the process alone, guided by books and videos on decluttering. But others find themselves, Hall says, “walking in circles” and can benefit from the direction and moral support of an outside organizer or even a willing friend or relative.

As with weight, it’s typical to want a quick fix to a problem long in the making. Hall tells clients that it may take a while to get back to what she half-jestingly calls a “maintenance level.”

She recommends starting the sort-and-purge process in a highly focused area. To prevent clients from distracting themselves, she may even toss sheets over adjoining clutter. Items go directly into bins (destined for reuse, recycling, trash or other household locations) – with no relocating items lest clients get sidetracked.

Even for the motivated, sorting is best done in small increments. Piles of accumulated clutter represent “postponed decisions,” Hall says. She caps sessions at about two hours, having learned that clients (and even organizers!) can face decision fatigue.

The payback for persistence is high. Emptying the surplus from a single closet or room, Hall finds, prompts people to “feel lighter and look happier.” Those tangible rewards motivate them to tackle additional spaces.

Maintaining the new order requires adopting new habits – like the “one in, one out” rule – getting rid of a similar item for each new article acquired. Hall helps clients identify their weaknesses so they can minimize future temptations. Just as a dieter “can’t keep bags of chips and cookies around the house,” Hall says, some people may need to indulge in magazines and newspapers outside the home or pass by yard sales. Preventing clutter, they come to realize, is far more efficient and economical than periodically purging it.

Slowing the influx of stuff also benefits the environment. In helping clients offload accumulated belongings, Hall is committed to fostering responsible reuse and recycling. She participates in the Environmentally Conscious Organizers group (through the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals) and works to minimize materials entering the waste stream. Her website’s resource page lists where to donate different categories of goods.

To encourage more people to offload their excess belongings, Hall is organizing a Clear Your Clutter Day this May – with charities on hand to collect everything from used electronics and leftover medications to building supplies.

So this winter, consider harnessing your new year’s resolve to embark on an extended sort and purge of household belongings. When spring arrives, donate your excess at the one-stop dropoff event and head into summer lighter and happier.

MARINA SCHAUFFLER provides research, writing and editing services to nonprofit and social enterprise organizations through Natural Choices.

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