Clear Clutter One Day at a Time
The tiger masks, one a fierce, ceramic face and one carved of wood, have hung above my desk for several years. They carry memories of an elegant Siberian tiger I met in 1987 on the outskirts of Eugene.
Legal issues concerning wild animals kept as pets had spurred an assignment that sent me out that year as a Register-Guard feature writer to interview local wild-animal owners. Standing few feet back from a large, chain-link cage, I watched in uneasy awe as a magnificent, 225-pound feline paced restlessly back and forth across the concrete floor of her enclosure.
“Don’t be nervous,” her owner reassured me. “She paces all the time. She paces so much she has sores on her feet and she still won’t stop.”
I watched the cat from a respectful distance, mesmerized by the strength and determination in her stride. The image haunted me. A beast of power and beauty, so driven to move that she endured the pain of blistered feet. At some level, this tiger’s restless energy seemed to connect with something restrained inside me—something fierce, determined, graceful. I was just then beginning to explore my own physical stride and strength as a competitive racewalker.
When I encountered a ceramic mask at the Paper Traders gift shop then in downtown Eugene, I
bought it and hung it above my computer at home. In the years that followed, I added a carved wooden tiger mask from Guatemala. The masks accompanied me as I retired from newspaper writing to explore new challenges in the paper jungle of book publishing. They encouraged me to free my energy, to be bold as I produced two books that affirmed the strength and determination of my walking passion.
Time to free the tiger
And free up some space
But recently, as I embraced a new challenge, I took the masks off the wall and put them in the garage. The tiger, I decided, had mellowed, still part of me but content these days to spend more time in tranquil rest by the fire. I no longer needed the masks. It felt like a bold and significant decision. It came on day two of a 30-day Declutter Challenge that promised to propel me through paring down the backlog of history that has collected in my home.
The 30-Day Declutter Challenge caught my attention late last year in an article on Nextavenue.org, a website dedicated to the issues that emerge in the stage of life it defines as “Adult 2.” In Adult 2, —the second half of adulthood—the focus on acquiring that propelled us through Adult 1 gives way to the pressures of downsizing. A time of sorting and sifting the treasures and the remnants of active lives. Time to clean the attic. Clear the files. Simplify.
We all talk about it. Maybe shred a few old bank statements from time to time. Donate a bag of books to the library sale. It’s hardly a dent in the accumulation that haunts me. Just to clarify: I’m not a hoarder! I’m a you-never-know-when-you-might-need-it kind of saver of papers, products,
old clothes. But even I can see that my prudent preservation has become unmanageable.
The 30-day Declutter Challenge introduced a clear process and a starting place for a task I’ve avoided for years. The goal was to give away, throw away, or recycle one item on the first day of the challenge. Then, two items on day two, three on the next. You get the idea.
By day 30 you’re up to 30 items to eliminate in a single day. Tally it up and in 30 days you’ve achieved a total purge of 465 items. Now that’s an achievement!
I started the challenge with a crystal vase on day one—beautiful but too ornate for my tastes. Day three produced three stretched out ACE bandages from the medicine drawer in the bathroom.
At the close of week one, I’d piled 28 discards into bags in the garage. That’s when I noticed the cluster of burned-out energy-efficient light bulbs on a storage shelf. Eight useless bulbs waiting to be carted away for appropriate recycling. Interesting, how these energy-saving devices seem to demand extra energy from me! But now I had a motivating purpose: I bagged them triumphantly and dropped them at True Value Hardware to fulfill the next day’s challenge.
Thirty-six items down. Just 429 to go! Questions began to arise. Is a pair of shoes one item or two? Is a set of four votive candle holders one discard or four? How do old newspaper articles count? I made up “rules” as I went.
Each day of the challenge, I listed the items I was eliminating on a yellow legal pad and then piled things in appropriate boxes in the garage or dropped them in recycle bins. I found myself motivated by watching the accumulation grow. Proof of progress before my eyes.
By day 12, I was getting the rhythm. Pairs, I decided, demanded two items. Two sets of dusty cross country skies, unused for several years by my spouse and me, two sets of ski poles and two pairs of boots became a donation of 12 items for the annual ski swap. On the other hand, I determined that 1,732 old emails deleted from the on-line server on a Saturday morning were simply a bonus, inspired by declutter momentum.
By Day 15, the Declutter Stack
Held 120 Unneeded Items
By day 15, mid-way in the challenge, I had carried out 120 items and the quest was getting harder. It wasn’t difficult to identify seldom-used items, but sometimes that wasn’t enough. Deep into the challenge, I pulled the five-piece silver-plated tea service out of a cupboard. Then I put it back.It was a wedding gift 50 years ago, given by Dean’s grandparents. Sadly, it belongs to an era and a lifestyle we never inhabited, but I seem unable to part with it. Even tarnished it offers a warm serving of love and family ties.
When I reached Day 27, I moved into the storage area above the garage—a dangerous catchall of old accumulations. I pulled out a box of papers brought from my mother’s house after her death six years ago.
There was my report card from Mrs. Ruby’s 4th grade class. And Mr. Summers in the 7th grade. There was the program from a 1952 recital of Justin Miller’s piano students where I performed “Mistress Wren. I smiled as I opened each memory and then gently let it slide into the recycle box.
Same with the weekly pay receipts from my high school job at Bob’s Broiler. I could almost smell the frying chicken that permeated my white waitress uniform as I unfolded them. I read on and discovered that my reward for enduring the grease that summer was 85 cents an hour and a couple bucks worth of food each week.
At the close of Day 27, the discard list had grown to 378 items. I was feeling the heady pull of completion. This had taken much longer than I thought.
Overall, the 30-day challenge took more like 60 days for me. Because I knew that other projects and commitments would interrupt the day-to-day sequence of the challenge, I decided straight away to ignore the calendar. I didn’t want schedule disruptions to derail this feat. I simply moved ahead one day at a time as I filled the progressive number of discards each day.
On-line, I read that one reader divided the 30-day Declutter Challenge into three ten-day segments to accommodate work schedules. In the first ten days, he cleared 55 items. A second segment later in the month eliminated 155 items and a final ten day-cleanse produced a whopping 255 discards.
I pondered the possibility of splitting a future purge into a one-week-a-month alternative. A progressive seven-day declutter effort removes a total of 28 items. Do that once a month for a full year and you get 336 items out of the house. Not bad.
Or, what if I repeated the 30-day challenge, focusing all efforts on the plastic storage box of old photos? Maybe the structure of a day-by-day achievement would prompt me past the procrastination that has thus far protected duplicate shots and faded images.
Well, you can see that this has roused my love of clear goals and deadlines. In the 30-day Declutter Challenge I found a framework that vaults me over the nagging “shoulds” of clearing out and cleaning up. It became a game instead of drudgery!
Okay, maybe I’m overstating the ease of this. No question, there was effort, discipline, and plenty of drudgery in opening drawers and cupboards and attic boxes to come up with the 465 items eliminated in this purge. But a sense of satisfaction built steadily as I recorded the discards demanded each day. And with the progressive count of released items came progressive satisfaction. It swelled on day 30 to exhilaration. Why did I wait so long?
Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer,
and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.