I couldn't cope with my messy house – so I hired a professional declutterer

Does it spark joy?

That’s the question clutterers are supposed to ask of every item in their growing mountain of sentimental objects too precious to dispose of, paraphernalia that might come in useful one day and just plain rubbish.

If an item in the mound doesn’t spark joy or at least speak up convincingly for being saved it has to go, insists declutterer extraordinaire Marie Kondo in her self-help book of the same name. But how to get going and turn that principle into practice?

‘Spark despair’ has for years been more the expression coming to mind upon climbing a not-entirely unencumbered staircase to fight my way into a stuffed-to-the-rafters home office, the worst corner of the cluttered, souvenir-stuffed home I share with a husband who does his own share of hoarding including unplayed guitars, unexamined inherited file boxes and unread books requested as presents the Christmas before last.

My office was the worst disgrace because my own stash is concentrated in the smallest room in the house, compounded by all our bank statements and other paperwork I have taken it upon myself to store safely, an overflow of jewellery from the spare room where chests and pouches designed to hold baubles are already full to bursting and the art equipment which is my personal equivalent of the unplayed guitars.

The only consolation is I am not alone in my inability to triage and trash like Kondo would have us do – hoarding is so prevalent and deep-rooted the World Health Organisation has declared it a medical condition, exacerbated by the ADHD, OCD, anxiety and depression that growing numbers of us are suffering.

But help is at from APDO, the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers. Who knew these gifted individuals had their own trade guild?

I long to know if this new breed of helping hands can liberate me from my chaos, still smarting from an encounter 20 years ago with an old-school organiser who abandoned her post mid-task because our overstuffed lair made her feel physically ill.

A younger generation of helpers is kinder and made of tougher stuff. There are only smiles and diplomacy from Jacqui McLeod, an APDO board member who breezes into the house and says she has seen FAR worse.

That even, apparently, goes for my office, once she has managed to jam both of us into it, barring the exit with a series of bags and boxes which are her stock in trade.

There is one bag for rubbish, another bag for recyclables, while each empty box is designated for a different category of stuff. Ignoring, for the moment, the bulging bookcase and desk topped with paperwork which merely needs sorting and filing into separate folders, she directs my attention to the mad wall of uncategorised stuff atop the packed filing cabinets.

It’s up to me not to say what sparks joy but merely what the stuff Jacqui feeds into my hands a few items at a time actually is.

There’s something strangely caring and non-judgemental in this hand-to-hand gesture, and Jacqui’s mantra, ‘everything has its place’, is so much kinder than the ‘What on earth is this and why have you kept it?’ I was expecting.

As I bark ‘art stuff’, ‘jewellery’, ‘books to sell on Amazon’, ‘sentimental’ and ‘press kits’ in this rapid, two-hour triage, Jacquifeeds it into an appropriate box on the landing – her unassailable principle is that no stuff comes back into the room being sorted until the area is completely clear.

Looking at necklaces and brooches I haven’t worn in years makes me realise I probably never will, and the fact Jacqui takes items to be donated away with her makes it all the easier to let them go.

Giving art equipment a box of its own elevates its purpose – tools for an activity to be cherished and pursued – and folding my endless holdalls and travel bags to stash into one large one liberates areas of floor I haven’t seen since moving in.

The flat, empty surface released by three hours of triage – those tops of filing cabinets which will soon accommodate the sorted and labelled boxes – provides temporary space on which to lay out decades’-worth of jewellery.

I resolve to give this treasured collection the purpose-built home it deserves once cleared of earrings with no partners, pins fallen out of love with and broken strings of beads.

As for the rest of the office – the overflowing desk, bursting bookcase and floor packed with boxes, files and sundry items unexamined for years – it needs a full day to sort out.

Jacqui’s tips for decluttering your home

  • Create zones for every room to make categorisation easier. All kitchens have cooking zones where pans and plates should be to hand and food prep zones where utensils live alongside groceries and spices, which should be stored alphabetically to find fast without fuss.
  • Keep bedrooms serene by storing clothes out of sight in wardrobes or dressers and minimise bedside clutter by restricting to a book, lamp and clock. Consider under-bed storage for blankets and extra shoes – stack those in regular use in racks in the wardrobe.
  • Harness the three Ms – minimise clutter by letting go stuff not used in the past year, maximise storage by adding drawers to dead space under counters or inside wardrobes, and tall shelving units to make the most of wall space, and maintain by having a good purge every six months.
  • Equip offices with folders and labels to keep paperwork to a minimum, and go paperless wherever possible. Stack passports and other important documents in a fireproof container, equip desks with pencil holders and fit drawers with dividers.

Paperwork is sorted into folders and every volume in the bookcase comes out to be categorised and reshelved as efficiently as a library – travel, art, fiction and non-fiction – with books saved to sell on Amazon stashed behind an accessible front row.

It’s hard work. Jacqui moves fast and keeps going through lunch, dusting and wiping every liberated surface while I grab a half-hour break and caffeine up. But it proves to be a treasure hunt as well as an exercise in liberation.

I find a diamond engagement ring dropped two years ago on the floor, a beloved
desk lamp buried under mounds of papers and the long-lost charger for my landline phone.

Now I have a clear floor, a desk with just one working folder, notebook and pen beside my laptop and, most importantly, room to breathe.

As for the overflow baubles, I have rewarded myself with a compact jewellery armoire which fits in the bedroom, where it belongs, and frees up the top of the dresser off which endless overflowing chests, boxes and pouches have been tumbling onto the floor for years.

One of the is the perks a professional organiser offers is sending links to the specialised storage solutions out there I had no idea even existed – who knew there was a dedicated jewellery armoire?

But the greatest value of Jacqui’s visit has been teaching me how to categorise and believe everything I want to keep really does have its place.

Now that sparks joy, as well as hope for a sparkling future.

You can contact Jacqui at bancroftsorganisationservices.com or search for local organisers at apdo.co.uk.

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