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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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67 thoughts on How to Cure PackRat-itis

  1. Hi Tina,

    I guess I have the same problem.

    I like to collect stuffs too such as plastic bags, recycle papers … etc with the thought that I may need them someday. So, I never throw them.

    When I have new furniture, it seems clean and clear at first, but weeks later, I can begin to see pile of books, mails, stationery, container … etc.

    I do clean those clutters up once a while. I put them all in a box but, you know …. it grows back weeks later with new stuffs.

    The same goes for my closet. I pack up all the clothes that I rarely wear from time to time but new clothes (free stuffs) keep coming in.

    It’s like a never ending nightmare. :-)

  2. I was born with “the need for clean” in my genes, so I’ve never been considered a pack-rat. However, despite the lack of clutter in my life, I still practice detachment & donation. You pointed out some great reasons, Tina, why you may be a pack-rat (long-held beliefs that shape your actions). I think a lot of people have various (similar) reasons for thinking they can’t or don’t want to let go of something:
    – memories
    – “I may need this some day”
    – family heirlooms
    – special meaning associated with something (gift given by someone special)
    – it represents affluence or achievement, which they may never have had before
    – etc.

    I know you’re a big fan of “The Secret” and something that stood out for me in an Oprah interview I watched with the cast last year was: when you cling too tightly to that which you have, you prevent new (possibly better) things from showing up. Like a fist that’s clenched tightly, it can’t hold anything new.

    For me, when I’m able to give away my stuff – especially the things I don’t use and am holding on to “just in case” – I feel free, trusting, and in harmony with the natural rhythms of the Universe.

    Good luck as you declutter!

  3. Attachment is the beginning to all clutter and yes, I’m guilty. I’ve never had a problem with being neat. I’m to analytical to be messy, but I can keep things longer than what I should.

    Magazines, articles, notes, and books begin to pile up in neat little piles around my desk and bookshelves until I begin to let things go. That’s when “purge” becomes my action of choice.

    At first it was extremely difficult because I felt like I would miss it. Guess what? I never knew it was gone. Now I have time where I separate things in to two piles… keep and purge. The cool thing is that “purge” doesn’t always mean throw it away. Many times I give things away to individuals that I know would benefit from it.

    Word of the day… purge! It’s easier than you think!

  4. I too am guilty of keeping too much stuff. I tell myself that I may want it someday, and I put it someplace obvious so it will be properly organized/filed/stored, and slowly it becomes random detritus. Moments before I am buried alive I purge it all out. I am slowly learning to calculate the odds of me wanting it, and I’m feeling much better now. Really. Honest.

  5. m.c.cookie

    Thanks for the solid article. 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.

  6. The tips are fine but the problem with articles like this is that it just gives superficial tips on how to keep organized. People who are truly clutter bugs, don’t need tips like “assign everything a home” they need mental help on why they feel the need to keep a hold of everything that comes into their lives. You can assign your 400 tshirts a home in the closet but it doesn’t get at the WHY do you feel the need to keep 400 tshirts in the first place.

    I’m not a clutterbug but my husband is. I can’t get him to understand that it’s mental. He just thinks if he reads enough articles or books on organization “how to” he’ll finally be able to do it. It’s a bigger issue than “tips”. That’s the first thing clutter bugs need to accept before they can overcome it.

  7. AlwaystheOcean

    This is something I struggle with as well.

    I found the book Scaling Down : Living Large in a Smaller Space by Judi Culbertson, Marj Decker, and George Booth had a lot of useful things to say about all the different reasons why people feel the need to keep things which they don’t use often (or at all), as well as useful strategies for decluttering
    (including the best new homes for your old stuff, whether you’re selling it or giving it to charity).

  8. Ahmed

    This is probably one of my biggest problems. I can never throw anything out! I develop an emotional attachment to everything and anything i own, always justifying it by telling myself i might need it later even though i never do. I have done that my entire life, as a child, and to my mother’s horror,i would come home with my pockets stuffed with candy wrappings because i couldn’t throw them out! The odd thing is everyone in my family is the opposite, they are all aggressive purgers! so I don’t quite understand the roots of my packratitis. I honestly believe that some of us are just wired that way and the best we can do is develop techniques to counter it. Nothing i have tried so far has worked prefectly, but atleast from time to time I manage to get rid of some stuff which ends being very satisfying and relieving.

  9. pedro

    I’m a recovering packrat, and I have some advice about how to start down the road to getting more organized.
    1: to get a friend to help you begin, particularly one who is relatively well organized.
    2: start in one place. Be it one bookcase, one room, one closet. Just start somewhere.
    3: realize that this is going to be hard. You are going to look at a half-broken screw, or a broken pen that just barely works that you got from a fantastic hotel, and you are going to be thinking “how could I get rid of this? I loved that hotel!”
    That is where your friend comes in. “How can you keep a half broken pen when you’ve got a zillion that work!” It’s just a pen! You have plenty of pictures and memories of the trip without keeping the pen!” It’s that perspective that your clutter buddy will give you.

    Starting to rid you life of clutter is something that once you do, is a phenomenal feeling. The epiphany that I had when I realized that if I just kept everything in a “home” (and while people had told me this, I had to experience it on my own to fully comprehend it) was unbelievably liberating!

    I have to repeat, it’s NOT easy to start. And it takes some work to keep up, but being able to walk into a room without piles of stuff everywhere is a great feeling. Knowing as you fall alseep that your house is in order helps you sleep that much better.
    It’s hard, you’ll need help, but it’s worth it.

  10. great post tina. i’ve been meaning to clean up my stack of important documents for ages. to the container store!

  11. Andrea

    Great ideas! I am so bad I have a book called “Decluttering for Creative People” cluttering up my bookshelf!

    I do go through organized periods in my life. I find that having a place for things helps as does getting into a routine and making things a habit. For example, I used to look for my keys like it was my part-time job. Now, I have a handy key hook next to my door, so I unconsciously put my keys there.

    Another tip for those of you who don’t want to spend the $$$ on the drawer organizers is to use cardboard boxes cut off or shoe boxes. If you have a selection of sizes, you can find a good configuration that works for those socks and undies that roam around a big drawer.

    One more tip that I found somewhere is that you can put stuff in a sort of purgatory for a few months before you purge it forever. If you haven’t found yourself wanting the item after three months, donate/trash it. This helps me avoid that huge “well, I might need it” pile.

  12. Catdetect0r

    A really effective way to prevent packratitis is to move house at least once a year.

  13. Amanda

    I grew up with a bunch of pathological packrats, so my first day of college I swore to myself that from henceforth I was going to be orderly. And over a decade later, I’m still going strong! So if you are really serious about changing your life, I guess the best advice I can give you is to move. Or if you are lucky enough to be moving anyway, this is the time to start over completely, only take with you the things you need, don’t buy anything new (unless it’s from the Container Store), and keep everything in its new place no matter what. I’m guessing for people I know who are packrats, the hardest thing for them is getting everything straightened up. I watch my friends live in squalor until they finally build up the strength to clean everything, and maybe on account of this they only associate cleaning with the huge task that they make for themselves over the course of years. But it’s really important for people to realize that, once you make orderliness a habit, it’s really very easy, and actually kind of relaxing and fun. I essentially put everything away the second I’m done using it, so my nightly routine involves some nice rituals like folding up my clothes and wiping down the sink, which are hardly any work, but feel very satisfying since I wake up the next morning with everything in place. So my advice would be to get everything completely clean, no matter how long this takes you, and then try to not make any huge cleaning tasks for yourself again by finding ways to clean a little as you go. Put away the flour while your waiting for the food to cook. Sort through the mail and throw away the junkmail as you’re walking to your home. Clean out the drain when you finish your shower. Try to instill all these little habits in your daily life that will keep you from ever having such a big task ever again.

  14. I read a tip once about the “keep it in case it comes in handy some day” problem … the advice was “If you can buy/get/borrow it when you need it, let it go.” The woman who wrote this said that we’re crippled in part by a kind of warped sense of thrift (it seems wasteful to throw out a “perfectly good xxxx”). But unless it really would be a hardship to get one again, it should go.

    I try to remind myself of this every time I go at it again. :-)

  15. I totally needed this since I’m a total packrat!
    I would like someone to come over and throw all my unnecessary crap away!

  16. http://www.flylady.net is THE best place to learn how to deal with clutter. She teaches gentle behavior modification, how to set and maintain routines, without beating yourself up over it. And it’s all FREE. She is also not “born organized” and she teaches the way she learned how to overcome her clutter. My house isn’t perfect, but I’m making progress and it’s a LOT better (and getting better all the time) than it ever was.

  17. I recently renovated the environment in my bedroom and I am sleeping like a baby. Good post!

  18. Tina this is a great post and you’ve inspired me to get organized!

  19. miran

    A sure fire way to keep from buying shoes, ladies. You must donate 2 pair for every new pair you buy. Replacing a worn out pair is excluded. I’ve bought no shoes in two years. I’m about to have to replace my Birkenstock Loafers, but the footbed is still good. Just worn out the soles.

  20. I just have to say that this site is AMAZING (yes, with a capital everything). I love all of your practical life insights.

    With regards to un-pack-ratting, I’m ruthless about throwing out/giving away anything I don’t think I’ll use in a year. I’m currently trying to convince my book-loving husband to get rid of some of the books that haven’t been touched in ages.

  21. I just want to say; thanks for this inspiring post! Good value to digg it and come back soon again ;)

  22. This article has some great ideas. I especially appreciate the tip: Downsize your stuff. I’ve been giving things away like crazy lately, realizing that I can live with much less than I have. My favorite way to give things away is through my local Freecycle group. It’s a great way to match people with the things you have, rather than taking them to a thrift store where you don’t know if they’ll be purchased by someone or end up landfilled.

    In conjunction with giving things away, we also need to refrain from buying new things. It would be great if we could all pause to think before we obsessively purchase. I totally agree with Mike’s comment: “If you can buy/get/borrow it when you need it, let it go.” Also, if you can borrow it, you don’t need to buy it.

    I actually wrote a post on my blog recently about sharing and borrowing rather than owning things. It’s at http://www.fakeplasticfish.com/2007/10/learning-to-share-and-borrow.html. I blog about plastic and ways that we can reduce our plastic consumption and plastic waste. Since I’ve been ridding my home of unnecessary plastic, it’s become much less cluttered!

  23. Love this…it could help us all!

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