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Organize vs. Declutter

If you’ve ever seen the TV show “Clean Sweep” or any of the other organizing shows on television, you’ve seen weepy couples agonizing over decisions of what to keep and what to toss.

Usually, the show’s organizing guru points out that their house is X square feet and their stuff takes up Y square feet so Z percent needs to go. After the “clients” have been shamed into dumping Z percent of their belongings, they are often awarded a framed swatch of fabric from something precious — a wedding dress, sports uniform, baby blanket or what have you. The viewer might wonder, “Will they have any regrets?”

I admit, I wear a big smile on my face when I see clients readily letting go of years of accumulated clutter. But organizing and decluttering are not one and the same. You can have quite a bit of clutter yet still be organized.

Longtime professional organizer and author Julie Morgenstern states that, “Organizing is identifying what is important to you and giving yourself access to it.” That doesn’t mean that you have to get rid of anything. It means that you put in place a system that is easy to maintain so that you can find what you need when you need it, quickly and effortlessly. Purging can be completely left out of the organizing process, Morgenstern says.

Decluttering needs to happen when you are in transition. You’re switching careers? You may not have to hold on to paperwork from your old job and could just keep a few items to support your résumé. Your kids grow up and move out of the house? It’s time to get rid of the baby clothes, high chairs and car seats. Morgenstern believes it is impossible to organize someone who is in transition. A person transitioning from one path to another can declutter and refocus, and then, when on the new path, get organized.

Whether organizing or decluttering, one should never feel shamed into throwing out or donating something. A good organizer will help the client find a storage system that works, no matter the size of the space. I often work with storage the client already has — with some clever tweaks.

A word about clothing: I usually encourage clients to keep clothes that fit and flatter them now, not the size 2 dresses from high school, etc. But this rule also has to be tailored to the individual. I was talking with a colleague in New York who has a female client with a wardrobe of clothing ranging from size 6 to 14. The client’s weight fluctuates widely and she knows that about herself and has come to terms with it. Therefore, her wardrobe very practically reflects that fact.

There are a few things that I will strongly encourage clients to part with: broken items that have been laying around for over a year, old newspapers and magazines, junk mail and catalogs, and garments that are stained or irreparable. And definitely get rid of food, meds and cosmetics that are past their expiration dates.

Otherwise, you got memorabilia, collections, craft supplies and closets full of clothes? Bring it on, we can organize it and you don’t have to part with a single baseball card, glue stick or pair of jeans — unless you want to.