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How to declutter your space — and keep it that way

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Let's talk about clutter.

STAR HANSEN: Clutter looks like anything you can imagine. Clutter looks like the way we talk to ourselves. It looks like our calendar. It looks like our Netflix queue. You know, it's not just physical stuff. It's anything that is causing chaos in our lives.

KELLY: That's Star Hansen, a professional organizer known as the Clutter Whisperer. Now, maybe you have a New Year's resolution to be tidier, keep a neater home, or maybe you just want to minimize the chaos but life gets in the way. So NPR Life Kit reporter Andee Tagle sat down with Hansen to bring you some tips on how to declutter your space and keep it that way. Ready? Here's where Hansen says you should start.

HANSEN: So when it comes to home organizing, you do really want to start in the easiest place first. I don't recommend starting with the most emotional things or paperwork. You know, memorabilia and paperwork are two things that I say, please save that for further down the line because those two tend to be the most emotionally triggering. We are looking at organizing as creating a skill set. Like, most people, if they have recurring clutter, do not feel like they have a handle on the process of organizing. And so you don't want to start, you know, with the most difficult thing first.

ANDEE TAGLE, BYLINE: Star says she's big about setting an intention for her space. So look around that messy office or living room and think...

HANSEN: What is it that I want to do in this room? How do I want it to feel? And, you know, what do I want it to look like? How do I know what to keep and get rid of?

TAGLE: For me, it's the bedroom. I store a lot of my clothes under my bed. To be fair to me, my apartment is super short on storage. But also, I have a really hard time letting go of clothes, and they can sometimes take over our bedroom entirely. Star says, to help, start thinking about 3 to 5 activities you want to do in the room.

HANSEN: You're going to sleep. You're going to store clothes. You're going to connect with your partner, right? Those are maybe three things that we would say in that space. And we would pull all the clothes out. And I always tell people, don't make decisions as you go. What you want to do is you want to look at your stuff with neutral eyes, like, as though you're helping a friend and none of your stuff means anything to you.

TAGLE: OK.

HANSEN: Just pull them all out, and then you want to put them into categories in a clear, neutral space - so, like, say, on top of the bed. So what you want to do is all jeans go here. All T-shirts go here. All socks go here. So you categorize everything all together. Then you want to go through each pile and make a decision. Does this stay or go, stay or go? That's what we're kind of looking for, right? And then once you're done going through everything, you want to take all those things that you're going to get rid of and get them out right then because you want to give yourself that openness, that freedom, that space to think. As long as you're looking at things you already made the decision to get rid of, you're kind of keeping yourself stuck in the past. So get it to the car to be donated or by the door.

TAGLE: Physically move it out of that space.

HANSEN: Yeah, get it out of there. And then you want to go through each pile, and you want to say, OK, where am I going to store this? That's when we're talking about building systems. OK, great. Well, I want all my T-shirts hung, so you hang your T-shirts. I want all of the jeans folded and put into this bin underneath my bed. Fold it. Put it underneath there. Label it on all four sides. Shove it under there. You're going to go through each category in that way. When we look at the concept of clutter as a whole, it's like one giant blob of chaos versus, oh, what am I going to do with my jeans? What am I going to do with my tank tops? And it becomes easier to dial in to.

TAGLE: Once you found a home for everything, Star says it's time to personalize your space and make it beautiful.

HANSEN: If you put some things in the closet, for example, do you want to paint the wall green? Do you want to hang a painting from your aunt? What do you want in there that reminds you of you and makes you feel happy? - because no one wants to live in a surplus store, you know? We want to feel personal. So what you want is that when you open that door, when you go underneath the bed, there's something that just makes you feel happy and peaceful and recognize yourself because when you decorate or when you kind of personalize a space, it stops you from adding more clutter. There's something about it that - we won't kind of defile an area if we feel an endearment to it.

And then from there, you want to decide, what's your maintenance plan, right? So it's pretty. It's set up. Now how am I going to maintain this? What I always tell people is make your maintenance systems for your laziest day. We all are superheroes when we are well-rested and, like, feeling good.

TAGLE: (Laughter).

HANSEN: And the truth is, what happens when you come home from traveling? What happens when you get the flu? Those are the moments where we really lose our systems because suddenly, we've gotten lost because things didn't go according to plan.

TAGLE: There's a lot of beautiful and also very expensive ways to get organized these days, you know? I'm thinking about Instagram ads for a various set of containers and all the videos I see for people's immaculate walk-in pantries. Does decluttering have to come with a price tag?

HANSEN: What I have found in all my years of organizing is in every pile of chaos is the solution - meaning that when I come into somebody's house and we're organizing an entire room - yes, I could go and buy bins and boxes, but I have never not found the organizing solution buried in the chaos. I promise you, there is something in your house that you can use for that, even if it's, like, a box from your iPhone. So just knowing that you have this option to shop from within your own home is really powerful, and it's really important to take the time to create systems that work for you and how you really think.

TAGLE: Is clutter a problem if it doesn't bother you? Is - does clutter only become a problem when it bothers you?

HANSEN: It is only a problem if it's a problem for you. And it's really important that we mind our own side of the street because, again, you don't know what someone is going through. It sounds like I'm very pro-clutter, and in some ways I am. It is OK to have a layer of chaos and disorganization in your life. If we can be OK with that, it allows us to stop the shame, stop the judgment, start to see what the root of it is so we can actually have a chance of letting it go.

TAGLE: I want to touch a little bit on relief versus completion. When you're tackling big projects or when you're just in the middle of it, and you can't see your way through, can you talk to us a little bit about how to avoid overwhelms and some tips or strategies for - you know, for staying on top of it and not losing the thread?

HANSEN: Absolutely. You can say, I'm not going to be in servitude to this clutter. I am choosing to take X amount of time to devote to clearing this clutter. So instead of saying, I'm going to take as long as this clutter takes to get organized - because the truth is, you could spend five hours on a pile of clutter, 20 minutes on a pile of clutter or five days on a pile of clutter, and you get to determine how long. So you could say, I'm willing to give this one hour. And in one hour, you just make it better. You don't have to get it completed fully all the way done because that's a moving target. You can just say, I'm willing to give this an hour and really give yourself that hour and do the best that you can.

Like, sometimes getting organized is not about this thorough, down-to-the-needle, you know, process. Sometimes it's just, I just need to walk in this room. And so that might look like you just walking through with a garbage bag and grabbing everything that's trash that you can see with your eye, or the same with donations, or saying, I only have an hour, but I need to walk in this room, and boxing things up and stacking it so that it gives you a breezeway - like, a real walkway.

And so you really have to notice, like, OK, what is it that I need from this process right now? What kind of resources am I able to devote to it? - because, again, we have this idea that we're supposed to, like, get it all done. And it's, like, that's not always the case. And what if that's OK? What if this is you accomplishing something very big in small, manageable steps? What if that's enough?

KELLY: That was Star Hansen, the Clutter Whisperer, speaking with NPR reporter Andee Tagle. Life Kit wants to help you make and keep your New Year's resolutions. You can check out Life Kit's Resolution Planner. Choose areas of life you would like to focus on, and the tool will guide you to some of Life Kit's best tips on the topic. You can find it at npr.org/newyear.

(SOUNDBITE OF KERO ONE AND ACE HASHIMOTO SONG, "4EVER AFTER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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