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How to Cure PackRat-itis

Photo: Comprex from contemporist

How do you feel when sitting at home? Calm and peaceful, nestled in your neatly kept place? Or could your space use some love, organization and cleaning? If you fall into the former category, that’s awesome, skip the article and please share tips on how you keep such a tidy place in the comments. If you can barely type over the pile of stuff on your desk, then hopefully you’ll find inspiration in the words below.

I used to be quite a pack rat. I seldom threw anything away. I loved to take home everything I could get for free, such as promotional items from work, or odds-and-ends donated from friends. At one point, I discover that I had stuffed more than 20 techie t-shirts from various University recruiting events at the back of my closet. Yikes!

Perhaps I formed this habit during my poor, uncared-for university days. Maybe I was influenced having grown up in a communist country, where everything was limited and nothing was thrown away. Basically, I had accumulated A TON of stuff from years past.

Not only was it difficult to find things, but my mind was constantly filled with thoughts about what to do with all my stuff. Each time a closet was opened, I was reminded of the stuff I had, and the endless organizing I still needed to do (maybe I need a hoarding treatment). Even if we claim that our messy environment doesn’t bother us, each piece of clutter still takes up mental energy in our minds.

I believe that we are a product of our environment. The physical environment in which we spend most of our time affects how we think and feel. I know the environments in which I feel especially creative and relaxed. Some spaces give me the sense of nervousness, anxiousness and tightness.

I find that I prefer living places with lots of lighting, wood floors, open space and high ceilings. Personally, this gives me the most effective amount of creative energy boost.

In addition to the physical surroundings that make me feel best, I’ve also found that the clutter in my environment negatively affect my performance. When I am surrounded by mess and disorganization, I feel more mentally cluttered, less decisive, slightly anxious and more easily annoyed. I’ve learned that in order to be at my best, I needed my physical surrounding to be clean, organized and clutter free.

Please note that I am not a clean freak. Far from it, but I am working very hard every day to ‘protect’ my space from clutter. It’s something I have to work at and be conscious of. The following are tips and tools I’ve used in my journey towards a clutter free home. The mental clarity and personal satisfaction is worth the effort of cleaning. I promise!

Pack Rat Decluttering Tips

  • Give each item a home – If you don’t know where something belongs, it can easily become part of the clutter in your house. You have to think about where to put it, and it will always conveniently find its way to the top of the nearest surface or the first drawer in sight. You know what I mean? Each time you see an item out of place, you are reminded once again that you still need to find it a home. Over time, putting things on random surfaces or drawers makes it difficult to find things when you need them.Assign each item a home. Not only does this create a place where it belongs, but it also saves mental processing when you need to put stuff away instantly, or locate them later.
  • Keep the flat surfaces empty – The flat surfaces in your home are likely to be the easiest targets for clutter. Clearing off a surface (tables, counter tops) are also the easiest way to create an environment that appears clean and organized. Sometimes, I get so tired of looking at a particularly messy surface, that I would throw everything on the surface into a box or bag. I then find homes for each item in the bag. Clearing off surfaces seems to have an instant calming effect on me.
    • Whenever you need to choose, always choose to put things out of sight.
    • Make it a point not to place mail on an open surface when you come home. Keep your mail in a box, or in a cupboard.
    • Make it part of your daily ritual to remove items from flat surfaces. Put them in places where the eye cannot see, like a drawer. Make quick sweeps whenever possible.
  • Clean as you go – One major tip for keeping your home free of clutter is simple – when you’re done with something, put it away immediately. When you finish a project, put everything away. When you take off clothes, do not drop it on the floor, toss it in the laundry basket or a closet instantly. This habit gives two things. First, you won’t have to clean up after a pile accumulates. Second, a clean home discourages others from leaving their clutter around (proactive de-cluttering).
  • Downsize your stuff – This can be a challenging, but relieving experience for people. Ridding ourselves of unused stuff removes the clutter and is mentally liberating. Make it a project to get rid of clothing you haven’t wore in more than 2 years, DVDs you’ll never watch again, books you’ll never read again, kitchen stuff you haven’t used in over a year. Give it away. The less you have, the less clutter and the less you’ll have to clean.
  • Set a timer – It’s been said many times before, but setting a timer and cleaning like crazy for 15 minutes really does work. One or two 15-minute sessions can make a huge difference in keeping your house clean in the long run.”Start doing the thing to have energy to do the thing” – Bob ProctorOnce you’ve started moving, you will gain the momentum to keep going and clean up other areas of your home. I personally use a physical timer for this purpose: ‘a cute little red number bought online for $14′.
  • Multiple projects – The thought of cleaning your entire living space can seem daunting and time consuming. I always tell myself that ‘I have no time‘, as an excuse to delay tidying my apartment. I’ve found it helpful to write out on paper, all the sections of my home that need organizational love. For example, I would put down:
    • my desk
    • cupboard surface by the front door
    • area behind my desk
    • area behind dining table
    • surface above the credenza
    • etc.

    Then I make each one a mini-project, where I’d tackle one every week. Make sure that each mini-project has a measurable goal, where it is achievable within an hour. If an area requires many hours, then break it up into several mini-projects. This way, the cleaning tasks seem manageable and will not take all day. Completing each mini-project also gives me small wins along the way, creating momentum to tackle the next mini-project.

Pack Rat Organization Tools

  • Labels - This might sound extreme, but when I last cleaned out my dressers and closets (after 3 years of resisting to change), I gave each type of clothing a home, and I labeled the locations within dressers to reminder myself. For example, I divided each dresser drawer into three compartments, I have 4 such drawers. I’d then gave each compartment names like:
    • white tank tops
    • black tank tops
    • workout/house pants
    • dark knit tops
    • white knit tops
    • house t-shirts
    • swimwear
    • etc.

    I’ve found the labels to act like little tidy traffic signs directing where to steer my clothes after the laundry cycle.

  • Boxes - It’s the loose stuff that can get tricky. I have the habit of leaving loose things on the table and other surfaces, because it’s easy. :) This of course, isn’t sustainable. I live in an open loft, where there isn’t much closet space, so everything is exposed. I’ve found that attractive boxes serve as great storage for loose items. They look modern enough to blend-in with the furniture and they are very reasonable priced. I get black ones and red ones from IKEA (various sizes) for about $5 each. The idea is to group like items together into boxes, so that they will be easy to find when needed, but hidden from the surface when they aren’t. Some examples of boxed collections are: receipts, incoming mail, paid bill stubs, research papers for stocks I track, office supplies, pictures, wires, blank CDs, loose magazine cut outs, pens. I even have a box labeled ‘Personal Development’, where I keep blank cue cards, quotes, journal, notes from seminars/reading/home-courses (pretty geek, I know.).
  • Drawer Dividers – These are awesome, if you keep your underwear/socks/t-shirts in one drawer, a divider will keep them separate. The divider may seem a bit expensive, but trust me, it is well worth the price. It’ll give you a piece of mind in the long run. I got mine from IKEA for around $8. [1] [2]
  • Utility Drawer Containers – Find small boxes (I use soap boxes, small Glad tupperware and store bought utility drawer containers) for your utility drawer. Get a box for every small item that you toss in that drawer. Example: batteries, stamps, elastic bands, random pens, scissors, notepads, etc. Give each small item a home. Since I started doing this, my utility drawer is no longer a mesh of random items, and I can finally find stuff when I need it (most of the time).

A clean home will add peace and harmony to your life. I hope that you find some of these tips to be useful and try for yourself.

Do you have any tips for cleaning and tidying? Share your thoughts with us in the comment area. See you there!

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About the author

Tina Su is a mom, a wife, a lover of Apple products and a CHO (Chief Happiness Officer) for our motivational community: Think Simple Now. She is obsessed with encouraging and empowering people to lead conscious and happy lives. Subscribe to new inspiring stories each week. You can also subscribe to Tina on Facebook.

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66 thoughts on How to Cure PackRat-itis

  1. My “secret” is that laundry is a necessary evil, but I *hate* doing it. Once I do do it, it’s fine, it’s easy, and I find myself folding every last article. But I just can’t get myself to do it until I have to (getting a jump on weekend laundry by doing it on Thursday, for instance).

    What do I do instead? Everything else. I clean my entire apartment top to bottom to avoid doing laundry.

    … I’m weird, aren’t I.

  2. Call me crazy but… I throw almost everything out. I am the opposite. My mother is always yelling at me because of it. She is a bit of a clutter bug, so you know it drives her up a wall lol :) . . .

    Nice post! Have a great weekend!

  3. I keep everything too and refuse to throw stuff away such as the notes from my university etc. even though I don’t think I will ever refer to them again. It’s just comforting to know they are there in case I need them. =P

  4. Me too. I still have my exercise books when I was 10 and of course my university notes too.

    I just want them to be there. :)

  5. Ashley

    I find that when I clean…I get distracted easily. So a trick I try to stick to is to start in one corner of the room and work my way in some sort of order until that area is finished, I can’t move on to the next area.

    Sometimes I would have the problem of placing something in a spot, then in the new spot I would find something else attractive to start working on and leave the previous cleaning area waiting to be finished.

  6. jaes

    We finally found a surefire way to quit collecting….

    We moved our family of 5 into an 884 sq. ft. home!

    We also stacked recycling bins in the kitchen, right by the trash can. Sometimes when I don’t want to “pitch” I can talk myself into, “recycle.” We use a vegetable bin by the front door to hold shoes, and on top is a box for keys and mail. The kids only have 3 drawers and 10 hangers each. It keeps from accumulating too many articles of clothing. They have one tub each for out of season. I make a trip a month to donate clothes outgrown or toys that have not been touched for awhile. (Usually if I haven’t seen it played with for 2 months, it’s gone.) We have bookshelves that face the books outward for the kids hanging on the walls so they are more used, don’t pile up, and easy to find. We never buy books, cds or dvds anymore, everything is rented from the library. I keep a shredder out so I shred junk mail asap and it doesn’t pile up. I donated boxes of all the “extra” blankets to a homeless shelter. (Who needs THAT many extra blankets?!) Take the doors off your kitchen cabinets. When you have to look at it constantly, you are less likely to keep cramming more and more into them.

    Simplicity is amazing. The better I get at it, the calmer and happier I am!

  7. the girls in my family are TOTAL packrats…they shall find this link helpful. great + practical post tina

  8. Just throw old junk away when you don’t need it anymore. My grandma keeps old newspapers in an old dryer, we’re talking years and years old. What is the sense in that?

  9. Regarding one of your tips, downsizing your stuff, I find it not an easy thing to do, as I’m naturally a keeper. I always think that all the stuff I have will be useful someday, where I’m going to need it again. Hence, throwing things are hurtful to me.

    The mindset that I find we necessary to have is the abundance attitude, confidence that we are not going to need those stuffs and we are able to find it from other sources.

    I find it especially useful when I’m throwing all my magazines, notes, and informational stuffs. Beforehand I think of keeping them as I may need them, but reading your articles, I’m inspired to downsize my stuffs, especially with the belief that I won’t need it, as the information is abundant, much available on the net.

    Similarly, to be generous to others, believing that the resource we have is not scarce, we are willing to give out.

    That’s all from me, thanks for the inspiration.
    Robert

  10. Your whole article starts with a bogus assumption: “How do you feel when sitting at home? Calm and peaceful, nestled in your neatly kept place?”

    Bah, and double bah! A neatly kept place makes me feel as if I’m nestled in a straight-jacket. Stifled. bored. trapped, lifeless. Worse than dead, because I remember the vividness of chaos.

    And you want to give hints on how to be creative?

    Sorry, your cup of tea is cold and weak. Give me a rich life: full of chaos. Chaos worth adapting and commanding. Full of me and the detritus of activity.

  11. Heard an excellent tip yesterday from a friend on cleaning your closets. The friend, who is recently married, tried to get his new wife to clean out her closet. When he’d ask “when was the last time you wore this?” the answer would be “2 years ago” but she couldn’t throw anything out because everything had some sort of sentimental value to her.

    The compromise: 1 sentimental box per person. Every item that falls under “sentimental” has to fit in the 1 box. So if you’re really attached to some huge ass trench coat, then you better make room for it in the sentimental box. It’s a simple limiting factor.

  12. Gerald Hand

    Jim- It may not be your cup of tea, but MOST people I know prefer to live in some sort of order. Mind you, I am not friendly with college students (they are half my age), but to say that is a bogus assumption is off base. It is simply not applicable to you and your ilk, not that there is anything wrong with that. I am a bit messy, but my wife is fastidious to a fault. Without her, I would be a typical male slob. For me, I will try to embrace this article and some of the suggestions as I am a HUGE pack rat when it comes to articles and reference material.

  13. I agree that each of us is the product of our environment. We model our mentors and role models consciously and unconsciously. It is part of our growing process to raise awareness about what we outgrow and no longer need. Moving house is a great impetus to cull!!!

  14. jd

    Tina – I VERY much like flat surfaces empty. It feels good.

    On the idea of pack-ratting, I like how one of my friend’s put it to me … they said they think in terms of the trade-off … at some point, keeping stuff is more work than letting it go.

    For me, I’m getting rid of as much as I can. I’m pretty simple. I only really need people and experiences. Things can come and go.

  15. Great article, Tina! – Good luck with the adventure of your mini-retirement as well!!

    I think a lot of this may have trickled down from our grandparents and their reactions to living through the depression. I am not yet ready to throw everything we learned from them away.

    Then there are the lessons we get from our ancestors, and today we can see this repeated in our friends who came to this country recently and came with almost nothing but a suitcase. Not all of the memories and the things that we all cherish. If I started over (moving is a great lightening – you shake your head at paying to move the crap you’ve been keeping), what would I want in my new space?

    I have things my grandmother left me and I do not need – silver for instance. I know she was thrifty for a long time before she had that, and how much having a dining room meant to her. My grandparents paid cash for their houses! I marvel at that. They didn’t put money in the bank until some time in the 70s I think, then gave my cousin and I each a full set of china that was a gift from the bank – plain white with a silver or gold band, but still china.

    I do not need her silver. I have my own. I could use the money for it. I have other mementos of my grandparents. I have sons, not daughters. But the silver gift causes me a lot of guilt. So, I guess it will be one area I will have to walk around, and use the tips for the kitchen (thanks, Chef), the closet (many of you!) and papers.

    I disagree with one thing about “out of sight” because for me, if it is out of sight, it is truly out of mind. But a home for everything is very important. I also found a bowl/tray that is very attractive and which I keep by the entry (from garage now) for those things I bring in and out – like keys, sunglasses, things to take with me next time I leave. When I was in an apartment, I put my cell phone there so i could hear it ring everywhere. Now in a 2-story house, that would not work well.

    Labels are also good and part of the “leaning” principles as well – a place for everything. If you go into a well-organized garage/shop, you will find sometimes outlines of the tools on the pegboard itself so one can visually see which tool is missing. I am not sure how to put labels on my good wood dresser – perhaps inside on the lining paper? Truth be told, tho, the cheap dresser my parents bought me when I was 10 – with big deep drawers – are better at holding my clothes than the shallow ones that came from Lexington furnitures gorgeous dresser. And where to put sweaters? I have them now on the top shelf in the closet, with sweat shirts – things too bulky to put anywhere else.

    And the way the economy is going, I am not sure I can replace everything, but I do like two ideas very much – purging, but also putting it into a “temporary” purge container. This could be adapted on a quarterly basis even (every equinox, same as needed for Jet Dry and replacing mascara) so that if it’s still in the box in 3 months, off it goes and the box is emptied and another purge is started.

    Thanks for all the great ideas! Keep providing them – you who have already figured out a way to do this! I found weeding done best the same way – a walk-around the garden daily to admire what was blooming and just pulling the few weeds that managed to catch my attention.

    Also the 15-minute timer is a flylady.net idea and she is great with ideas for those who can keep up with her. I will use the mini-projects idea of Tina’s myself, and the 15 minutes (tho just what I can do within that time, not “scrambling like mad”) just to get myself moving. If I want to quit afterwards, then fine. But I made progress.

    Diane

    I

  16. Betty Million

    Read your article with interest, especially after scrolling thru 15 pgs of sites with “giving things away” as the keywords. Yes, you are on Page 15. I’m trying to get rid of clutter, but how in the hell can I when the only place I can find is Freecycle, which requires your life history in order to register? I refuse to pitch this stuff — will only get rid of it if I can give it away. Is everyone so affluent these days, that no one is interested enough to sign onto a website with an anonymous donor? I can’t even get ahold of our local homeless shelter. They have better things to do. Thanks for letting me let off steam, but the clutter still abounds.

  17. Betty Million – I’m not sure where you are that you can’t find a place to take your stuff, but here are some other suggestions.

    Battered Women’s – Domestic Violence, etc. Each community seems to have a place for these women and their families and usually they are starting over.

    Vietnam Vets of America or AmVets – these guys will pick up (unlike the one above)

    Food pantries – nearly every county has one. You can call a local prominent (you saw it, so that qualifies usually) church and ask the folks there where food pantries.

    Local churches, synagogues, mosques, etc., are all good sources of people who can help you donate your items locally. If you can’t drive and can’t deliver, they can help you with that as well. These folks can be found online and called or even emailed at times.

    Don’t give up – give away.

    Good luck!

  18. Margarita

    Stuff is a never ending battle. But, the universe does NOT provide, and the “clenched fist” analogy is a bunch of crap.

    C’mon people! Think!

    I will always regret getting rid of my Grandpa’s giant magnifiers that he used on projects. Now my Dad is almost blind, and we can’t afford to buy one.
    I got rid of our large computer monitors because they were out of date. My Dad would be able to go on the computer if he still had them.
    I kick myself every day for not predicting blindness in the future when I got rid of things.
    Repeat after me: The universe does not provide.
    Think carefully about what you get rid of, especially if you are low income.

  19. Rebecca

    What about living with someone that is a pack rat? This woman collects empty yogurt cups and microwave food bowl that are only meant to be used once. Even the containers that meat comes in. She doesn’t do anything with them just collects. You can’t even see the floor in her room and it’s coming out in the hallway as well. I even have a bag full of leaves sitting on my freezer because she liked the way they look and she bleaches them. I want to pull my hair out. I realize she is old and that’s how she was raised but give me a break. I have managed to keep some of it out of her reach by cutting it up but it just makes her mad and she tries even harder. I just don’t know what to do anymore. Anyway, thanks for letting me rant.

  20. Mirandairanda

    packrat-itis means inflation of the pack rat. itis means inflation of. smart.

  21. Thanks for sharing. The only thing I would add is a preference to The Container Store for supplies as they are typically long lasting and the company has a rep for being good to it’s peeps.

  22. “Anything you cannot relinquish when it has outlived its usefulness possesses you, and in this materialistic age a great many of us are possessed by our possessions.” -Peace Pilgrim

    Hey Tina,

    Effectively cure PackRat-itis by maximizing functionality of each item you own while reducing the number of them.

    Have clothes that are multi-functional or high-performance, not just for looks. Moisture-wicking shirts that don’t stink and dry quickly, so you need less of them. Breathable microfleece long-sleeves to provide warmth without sweating indoors.

    Rather than 3 gadgets, have 1 that does all 3 functions. Instead of an external keyboard and mouse, own a laptop with an excellent keyboard and trackpad.

    Can you use one item for multiple functionalities? And is the performance of the item itself awesome enough to where you don’t need multiple items?

    Nice list, these tips will really help people who want to minimize their possessions but don’t know where to begin reducing,
    Oleg

  23. I like how one of my friend’s put it to me … they said they think in terms of the trade-off … at some point, keeping stuff is more work than letting it go.

  24. I admit it! I’m sentimental. Especially as a single mom with only one child. As I’ve gone through my storage unit which I spent $125 per month on since 2000, it seems as though I’ve kept every drawing and project of hers. I also kept my expensive wedding dress for my daughter, things from my parents and family members who have now passed away – now holding treasured memories, and beloved books that I will never read again and of course, a collection of Disney VHS tapes.

    I am in the process of de-cluttering and it is very challeging.

    What I can tell you, now that my child is a young woman of 21, is: She doesn’t want her old drawings or projects (except maybe 2) and she definitely does not want my wedding dress. She has her own style and wants her own dress… when the time comes.

    I have trouble getting rid of things because since the recession, with money being “tight” is how to turn what I have into money. The problem is that can become a full time job.

    My tip for all those with sentimental cluttering issues is: “Take a picute of it, print it out, and put it in a scrapbook!

  25. Nice posting anda very helpfully , i will try to practice it thank you

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