Eve Schaub on decluttering | Home Front

Eve Schaub
Mar 16, 2017

Can't get a grip on your clutter? Eve Schaub spent a year trying to tame hers. Her new book, “Year of No Clutter,” out this month, reveals her struggle to transform herself from a “clutter-gatherer” into a neat, organized person. Ask her how she did it.

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating and design questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and decluttering. For more than 10 years, Home Front has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share you own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small, send them over.

We've got an expert on declaring war on your clutter today on our chat. Eve Schaub spent a year trying to tame her clutter and turn herself into a neat, organized person. Her book "Year of No Clutter" which is just out this month, chronicles her journey into getting rid of things that really don't matter and organizing the rest. Stump her with your most difficult organizing dilemmas. Let's chat. 

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Hello there! Thanks for having me on... I am looking forward to chatting about a subject near and dear to my heart- Clutter!

Why do we all think our stuff is worth so much? Is there a point where we realize that we have used something to its fullest extent and now it should be recycled, donated or trashed? I have found saving bits and pieces to bring to consignment , is just not worth the effort in the end- for a few dollars. Is that ok to feel this way? And going forward- how to your prevent yourself from buying unnecessary items?

I think its human nature to over-value the things we have in terms of monetary worth to others- it can be a rude awakening when you begin to visit the consignment shop and learn that usually your things aren't nearly as valuable as you thought! For me it requires a routine- there are enough people in our house that I make a "next season" pile to take to the consignment shop. I make sure they are things in excellent shape- no holes or stains, because I know they won't accept those things. Anything else I put in a bag for the local charity shop- even if its something that's really beat up, because I know it will at the very least make its way to some kind of fabric recycling. Of course it is TOTALLY okay in my opinion to just bring everything straight to the Salvation Army, or the local church tag sale- skipping the "but I spent money on this!" step altogether, especially if expediency will help you to part with things more easily!

Lastly, what I have found is that because I've fought hard to win back my space from clutter, I have a deeper appreciation for the new open space in my life... I get defensive of it and protect it! After spending a whole year trying to get rid of clutter, I have a very different attitude about new things coming into my home- I'm more judicious about what I allow to stay and finding a place for it to live right away.

I hate going through things so it all just stacks up. I don't even like most of the stuff. I just can't seem to make myself go through it. Any ideas?

Whether its a single pile or a whole house full of stuff, I think the biggest obstacle for everyone I talk to is that feeling of being overwhelmed- I'd rather do anything else but this!- and not knowing how to get started. For me, I had an whole room in my house- at 567 square feet by far the largest room in my house, and  I couldn't even see the floor anymore- where to begin??

So I set a kitchen timer every day- I had to work for 15 minutes every day, and then I was allowed to leave. What I found was that that got me in the door. Once I started making even small, incremental progress, I got excited about it and ended up staying after the timer had gone off- ten minutes more, a half hour more, an hour more... It was all about getting the momentum moving in the opposite direction.

Some decluttering/organizing books are all about the how: boxes, lists, plans. Yours seems more about the why: why do we want to, why do we find it so hard. For someone whose "whys" seem to line up with yours, what are the sources of "how to" that you found most helpful?

I think it's appropriate that when I set about once and for all to clear out the clutter, one of the FIRST things I did was to get rid of a big stack of "How to Declutter" books! In sheer desperation, I've been collecting them for a while, trying to get ideas, inspiration, anything. But they never were able to provide me with any kind of lasting help... which is how I came to write Year of No Clutter- in a way it was the book I had wanted to read for so long- rather than a "Do this, not that" book, what I imagined was a book about the very real struggles some of us have with stuff.

Of course, in the end I did find some tricks and tips that were helpful to me, primarily through trial and error and sheer stubborness. I do like Marie Kondo's The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, because she comes at the subject with a really fresh approach- yet I'm not a Kondo-ite by any means- I'm pretty sure she'd be horrified by the stuff I choose to keep!

I do have a list those tricks and tips which I'll be adding to my website, along with other resources and info. Good question!

I've lived in my present 3-bdrm home since 1993 and will downsize into a nearby 1-bdrm condo that I already own in 2020. Because of the 23 years I've spent at this address I've already started the decluttering project and am even planning a 2 week vacation around it. Some say I'm getting started too soon but I see this as a long and more arduous project than many do. What do you think?

As someone who spent a whole year thinking about and dealing with clutter, I think it makes perfect sense to start now! Different people deal with clutter very differently, of course, and the folks who think you're starting too early may be people who, like my husband, favor the "dumpster method" of decluttering- everything must go!! For that, all you need is an afternoon and a shovel.

However, if you're like me, you are horrified both by the idea of useful items being consigned to the dumpster, and equally horrified at the thought of something truly meaningful getting tossed out- so it takes a more thoughtful and time-consuming process. Making literally thousands of decisions, and then getting the items to be shed off to the places that can use and appreciate them may sound like torture to some folks, but to me it was the only way I could confront my clutter problem and resolve it happily.

I've gone through a pretty successful declutter, though don't kid yourself, folks: by its nature decluttering is an ongoing process. So having de-crapped, how do I politely discourage people from giving me more crap? My family doesn't want to give up the holiday gift exchange, though I've had reasonable success in coaxing them to shop from my Amazon wish list or to give "experiences" like a Met Opera gift card. Friends are another matter. I'd guesstimate that 80% of gifts my friends give me go straight to Freecycle or Goodwill, of course after I've expressed thanks as sincerely as I can fake them.

Excellent question! I was amazed at how many of my difficult clutter items were gifts that I didn't want but harbored guilt over getting rid of. I write in the book about a friend of mine who- in desperation- experimented with a "gift ban" that very kindly requested that no one give her anything, ever again. 

What she found though, was that the gift moratorium caused some of her loved ones confusion and distress. They kept trying to get around it- here's a plant! here's some food! Here, have our kid give it to her! She won't say no to the kid!- They were made very uncomfortable by the inability to express their love for her in the form of an object... which of course was never her intention. She ended up forgoing the gift ban and simply donates unwanted gifts regularly now.

I think encouraging your friends and relatives towards "experience" gifts is great- but of course there will always be object gifts too, as you've discovered.  I survive this my reminding myself that the gift givers very LAST intention was to cause me anxiety or guilt, and then I donate the item to a good cause, or sell it at the consignment shop.

Eve-I think you are giving readers another perspective in this craze of decluttering. I like it and I look forward to reading your book. I just had Purple Heart pick up a large pile on my front porch. This is a topic on my front burner as well as a my friends. Thank you.

Thank you!! I've been amazed to realize just how many people this topic resonates with- which makes me feel that I'm not alone in the struggle with stuff. Perhaps there are many more people than we'd imagine out there who have "close the door" rooms like we did! 

I was dumbfounded to read the statistic that firefighters report seeing what they describe as "hoarding conditions" in 25 % of the homes they enter. Wow. 

Any advice for someone moving into a new larger home to set it up to successfully keep away the clutter before it even starts?

You are ahead of the ballgame to be thinking about this now- good work! Because of course all that wonderful new home space is so inviting for putting things in and shutting doors, cupboards, closets... 

In the book I talk about the difference between clutter and a mess. A mess, I realized, is something we know what to do with: we clean it up. In my kitchen I don't have clutter every night- I have a mess. So we clean things, we put things away- Voila! All better. In fact, someone else could probably come in and do most of it for me- it's common sense.

With clutter, no one can clean it up for you- because these are the things that don't have anywhere to go. Yet. Clutter is largely the result of deferred decisions- things that are waiting to be dealt with. So the very best advice I can give you is twofold: first to make decisions, and not let objects languish. The second is to privilege living space over object space- appreciate the open space you have and realize that it is beautiful.

 

Welcome back, Jura -- hope you had a nice break! I wrote in a couple years ago about being overwhelmed with the many boxes of stuff that I inherited when my parents passed away 5 and 6 years ago. Since then, I have gotten through about half of the boxes, and I've gotten better at figuring out which items that belonged to my parents don't have much meaning for me -- and so I can let them go -- and which items of theirs that have tremendous value and meaning to me -- and are then being incorporated into my home. I am hoping to finish by the end of this year. One of the things I'm about to attack is the many boxes of photographs. My mother was very good at keeping them organized by date and place -- but she never wrote on the backs who the people are, or her connection to them, and so I am stuck with pictures of people I don't know. This is hard. I would like to remind everyone to please write all relevant details on the backs of your photos; it's going to be so much easier to cull the photos if you know why you took it in the first place. ...

Thank you so much! You sound like you have done a thoughtful sorting of your parents things and are dealing with what you want to keep and where you will put it. You are very right about photos. First of all, don't keep every photo you have. If there are photos important to your family, sort them out and put them in one album, where you can identify who the people are for the generations to come. 

I give and ask for either experiences or things that can be consumed - wine, chocolates, homemade pie, special sauces, whatever. This way I and they can share any new food finds or fun things to do that we've discovered with no clutter beyond the recycle bin.

Yes- I find myself not only wanting gifts that are use-up-able, but giving them as well, because I'm so tuned in to the idea of what happens when good gift-giving intentions go wrong... Rather than try to buy my friend a purse for her birthday (which she may or may not like- no matter how well I think I know her) instead this year I sent her a flowering plant she can put in her garden this spring.

Last year, my mother died and I emptied her retirement apartment, and my sister moved out of the country and brought two carloads of stuff to store in my spare bedroom. Lots of clutter. So I attack one box at a time. I usually bring it into the living room and go through it with the TV on (usually Food Network, which doesn't require full attention). 80% of the stuff can be recycled, shredded, or thrown out. I found 30 years of tax returns in my sister's stuff, and more than 60 year's of tax returns in my mother's stuff.

Yikes! You have a good system. Keep it up.

Genius! I am first in line to get your book from my local library. I can't wait!

Genius? You are now my new best friend.

My family of origin was good at keeping canceled checks, medical info, bank statements. When we emptied the house, I found and stored this stuff. I finally found a way to get rid of it safely--the banks around here that have free shred days for 3 boxes of stuff--for what accumulates now. But for the historical stuff, I had so much I called a shredding company who sent a truck. I watched it be shredded--and felt much better than shipping it off to be shredded off site. The company i used also has hard drive, disc, and memory card destruction, for which I will take the box to their facility.

This is smart. Thanks for the idea.

I'm seeing more and more of these convenient bins. I use them to donate clothing that's past its useful life so it can be recycled. I'm told that we should even recycle old underwear and socks (clean, of course.) I found it useful to sort like things into a single pile or location. So all the socks in one place, all the winter pants in one place, all the winter shirts in one place. It makes it super easy to perform triage once you realize that you own over 120 turtlenecks (which I did, no joke!)

Wow! I agree- I write in the book about cleaning out my closet and realizing I had three sun hats... and I thought: three sun hats? Really? I kept my favorite and that was the only one I really wore anyway. But it was the seeing like things together that made me realize the unnecessary duplication.

I have also read that any fabric at all should be donated because no matter how bad of shape it is in, it will eventually be recycled- and I'm all in favor of recycling whenever possible. That way I can feel good about sending things on their way- they have new life ahead.

Any recommendations for couples who want to get rid of stuff, especially when one partner perceives an item as junk and the other partner cherishes it?

Ooo! This is tricky- I think it is terribly important to respect one another's stuff, even if one doesn't understand it. I found a TON of my husband's stuff in the Hell Room during our Year of No Clutter, (despite the fact that he was quite sure he had "nothing" in there) and getting him to deal with his pile of crap, sorry, stuff, was a challenge. In the end I piled it in the dining room and let him stare at it for every meal until he finally broke down and went through it. There was no way I could've made any sense of it, but once he did, he was so relieved- he kept saying "Hey, I've been looking for this!"

Tell them that the best gift they could possibly give you is a donation in your name to [name of a charity whose work you value]. Lots of people are energized by the current social climate. It would make your friends feel good. It would make you feel good. It would do some good. And the acknowledgment cards take up very little space, even if you choose to keep them.

Yes- this is another good one- One year I gave my friends money to give to any charity of their choosing- and they LOVED it- there's a website that does this.

One thing to think about - my dad went through all of his slides and got rid of duplicates and pictures that didn't matter, then had someone put them all on CD in approximate date order. He then gave a set of CDs to all of us kids. We absolutely cherish them. Much better than the photos going to one kid and cluttering our homes!

Indeed!

How do you get over the guilt when you get rid of an item that was sentimental to your late mother or late husband but you just don't want it?

I try to focus on the things that I have relating to that person that are significant to me- and realize again that that loved one probably would be unhappy to think their object was causing me any stress or guilt. And think too, about the person who will end up with that object at the charity shop or consignment, and will be thrilled to have it.

How do you tackle the clutter associated with arts and craft projects that bring so much joy . . . while the clutter the create may bring stress and anxiety? This is especially challenging in small urban spaces. Thanks!

This hits home for me because the Hell Room was filled with art supplies form all my family's creative endeavors- but we had to pare down- eliminate duplicates, get rid of all but the best and nicest more usable items and organize so you can find them when you want!

It was fun to hear about your experiences trying to tame your clutter. I think you inspired all of us today. Thanks for being on the chat. Get those shopping bags ready for the weekend everyone!  

Thanks everyone- this was so much fun!!

In This Chat
Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering, organizing and DC retail.

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Eve Schaub
Schaub is the author of two memoirs, “Year of No Clutter” and “Year of No Sugar.”
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