Photo: James Bombales

With a background in social services, professional organizer Stephanie Butler is adept at helping clients push past the emotional hurdles often associated with decluttering. For many people, especially those dealing with depression, anxiety or ADHD, getting organized is more complicated than simply buying a new shoe rack for an overstuffed closet.

As the owner and Senior Consultant of Serenity Organizing Solutions, Butler works with clients who feel overwhelmed or unsure of how to begin paring down their belongings. “I think there’s a lot of shame and guilt around it if you don’t have the skill set to organize on your own, but professional organizers exist because not everyone does,” explains Butler. Here she shares nine tips on how to declutter your home and reduce stress in the process.

1. Identify problem areas and tackle those first

Photo: Emily May/Flickr

“Clutter creates anxiety, and it can also create depression because it can feel overwhelming to be looking at clutter in your home all the time,” says Butler. “I always ask my clients, what room of the house keeps you up at night and causes the most stress?” Focusing on problem areas allows you to see results quickly and really understand the benefits of decluttering your life. “From my experience, I’d say pantries and closets cause the most headaches. Due to their height, they’re really easy to cram full, and it becomes overwhelming because it’s a small space and therefore looks more cluttered than it is,” notes Butler.

2. Divide and conquer

Photo: Emily May/Flickr

“I like to divide a room into four quadrants — I start in the lower left hand corner and go clockwise. Organize for 25 minutes, take a seven minute break, and repeat,” suggests Butler. Taking short breaks allows you to track your progress, but it’s also necessary when dealing with what Butler calls ‘emotional work.’ Decision-making is no easy task, especially when dealing with items we perceive to be rooted in our self-identity. “Give yourself a mental and physical break, rehydrate, and talk to someone about how you’re doing.”

3. Use bins to sort clutter

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“Bins are an organizer’s favorite tool,” says Butler. “I use white plastic ones that are supposed to be for the kitchen. Label the bins as keep, donate, toss and fix.” She also recommends holding yourself accountable to the irksome ‘fix’ bin. “Make a timeline — if it’s not fixed by Friday, we’re tossing it.”

4. Ask a lot of questions

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“If a client is unsure about an item, I ask them, ‘When was the last time you used it?’ If it was less than a year, I’ll say, ‘When do you plan on using it next, and how?’ If they don’t have a specific situation or occasion in mind, then it’s probably not that useful.” But what do you do if you come across sentimental clutter, like a beloved dog’s old collar or a menu from your best friend’s wedding? “In that case, I’ll ask the client if they have other items that evoke the same memory. You don’t need 20 things that bring about the same memory.”

5. Set a schedule and stick to it

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“You should create a schedule for yourself because it’s easy to get overwhelmed and the clutter can take over,” says Butler. “For larger tasks, such as a garage, you’d want to make that a weekend task and get it done. If you’re decluttering the house bit by bit, start in one area and then finish in that area before moving on to the next. If you don’t, you’ll end up with a bunch of unfinished projects.”

6. Break the rules

Photo: Emily May/Flickr

There are all sorts of decluttering “rules” out there — the 90/90 rule touted by The Minimalists, the 80/20 rule, otherwise known as the Pareto Principle — but Butler says it’s best to ignore them. “Every person’s situation is unique. If I’m working with an 80-year-old, it’s going to be much harder for them to purge their belongings because they have so many memories attached to those items.” While it might be easy for a 25-year-old renter to pare down clutter with every move, it’s more difficult for a senior citizen to get rid of a lifetime of personal possessions. Do what feels right for you, rather than focusing on organizing fads.

7. Call it quits when you’re feeling fatigued

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“If you’re starting to feel tired, it’s time to be done for the day,” says Butler. “Depending on the schedule you’ve set for yourself, you can start again in a couple days. Once you’re fatigued, you’re not able to make sound decisions — you’re either saying, ‘I’m going to keep everything,’ or ‘I’m so tired, let’s just get rid of it all,’ which is a decision you could end up regretting later.”

8. Take photos to deal with sentimental clutter


“Once again, ask yourself if you have more than one item that evokes the same memory. If so, pick your favorite of all of those items, and then take pictures of the ones you feel you can let go of,” suggests Butler. “I like to create a photo album for my clients so there’s still something tangible, and they can look at the pictures to bring back memories without having to handle the items physically.”

9. Seek professional help if you’re still stuck

Photo: Emily May/Flickr

Can’t seem to make any decisions when it comes to ridding your home of clutter? Consider hiring a professional organizer. “Once we get to know you, we can figure out how to get you to see an item in a different light. I will never tell my clients what to throw away and what to keep,” notes Butler. “Clutter is a reflection of what is going on in the mind — if you have a messy house or a disorganized office, that’s showing where you’re at emotionally. Decluttering your space allows you to start fresh and have a clear mind.”

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