Last summer, mere months after swearing that I wasn’t going to have a second baby, I found out I was having a second baby. Oh, universe.
Of all the varied emotions (most of them happy, for the record) I felt over “li’l surprise,” as we’ve come to call him, one of the most prevalent was panic over how to fit him in our two-bedroom, already overflowing, toddler-dominated townhouse. Like, actually, where is this baby going to go? A drawer? It might be a drawer.
This panic quickly morphed to full-fledged anxiety over the clutter I find myself surrounded by on a daily basis. Toys everywhere. An entirely unusable basement thanks to boxes we never unpacked from our last move. A shame-closet so stuffed with junk we can’t even open the door.
When I was about 12 weeks pregnant, I booked an appointment with my therapist to discuss my feelings about bringing another baby into the world. I spent $160/hour crying to her about the state of my basement.
It was time to to act. For the baby, who deserves more than a drawer to call his own, and for my own mental health.
Clutter really is linked to anxiety
Clutter and anxiety go together like boozy date nights and surprise pregnancies: kind of inevitable.
“Messy homes and work spaces leave us feeling anxious, helpless, and overwhelmed. Yet, rarely is clutter recognized as a significant source of stress in our lives,” psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter wrote in Psychology Today.
The negative effect of clutter is especially prevalent among women, the New York Times notes, citing a 2019 study that found a cluttered home is a stressful home. Another study from 2010 found that women who perceived their homes as messy or cluttered had increased levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) throughout the day.
But, as Carter explains in Psychology Today, clutter is actually one of the easiest sources of life stress to fix — much easier than fixing a stressful job or relationship issues, for instance. You just have to do it.
It took work. It took time. But I am pleased to say I have significantly reduced the clutter in my house and my mind over the last several months. Here’s how I did it, and how you can, too:
1. Pick one project at a time
It can be easy to get overwhelmed by de-cluttering your entire house, so break it up into bite-sized pieces. Pick one project, such as going through your closet and donating everything you never wear. Then bask in the glory of finishing something.
“This will give you a sense of accomplishment as you see your successes little by little,” Carter notes.
Even just taking a single night off from Netflix will give you two to three hours, which is plenty of time to tackle that junk drawer full of used batteries and dead pens.
2. Be ruthless
Adopt a stone-cold attitude. Now is not the time to weep over that genius essay you wrote in Grade 4. If you don’t use it, and there’s little sentimental value, give it away or toss it.
Here is a random sample of just some of the crap from my house I either threw out, recycled, or donated over the last few months:
- About 300 books
- Two bookshelves
- Dozens of kitchen appliances I have never used, such as an egg steamer (??)
- The elliptical machine, nicknamed “El Bastardo” that has doubled as a laundry hanger for at least five years
- My ex’s guitar (sorry)
- Dozens of giant photo frames or framed art we were never actually going to hang again.
- All of my impractical shoes. I’m about to be a mom of two, so let’s get real
- An entire cupboard full of bath and beauty products I’ve never or barely used
- An antique steamer trunk from the foot of the bed that my husband tripped over every. single. night.
3. Join a ‘Buy Nothing’ group
As satisfying as it is to drop off car loads of stuff at the Salvation Army or Value Village, chances are your neighbourhood has a “Buy Nothing” group where people will come to your house and take your stuff away, no questions asked!
That antique steamer trunk I mentioned? A mom in my neighbourhood took it, gave it to her pirate-obsessed son, and now he has his own treasure trunk. YARR!
4. Donate books
Yeah, I know. This one can be controversial for book lovers. And I am one, so I get it.
If you have the space, and don’t consider books clutter, great. But if you have a basement overflowing with multiple copies of Memoirs of a Geisha and every psychology textbook from your undergrad, it might be time to let go.
And let go I did. I asked my husband to do the same and we parsed it down to a meaningful collection.
And you know what? It didn’t even hurt. I’m happy thinking about other people finding joy in the books that were just collecting dust in my basement.
5. Invest in furniture that doubles as storage
Out of sight, out of mind. Consider investing in a piece of furniture that doubles as storage. I got this storage ottoman from Ikea, and now all of my son’s toy trains and tracks have a place to live other than my living room floor.
You can also re-purpose existing furniture for storage. One of my (now-empty) square bookshelves is now a handy toy shelf in my son’s playroom.
6. Look critically at the space you do have and how it can be used better
This one was huge for me, and important for anyone living in a small space. Instead of pining for more room (we very nearly moved), look critically at how your current space can be better utilized. For me, that meant tackling the biggest stressor of all ... my basement.
After, many, many trips to Value Village and weeks spent sorting, I morphed my previously unusable basement into a playroom for my toddler. This allowed us to move all of his toys cluttering my living room, thus creating usable space (for me!) upstairs.
Suddenly, I could breathe again.
I gave my bedroom a similar makeover. We don’t have a third bedroom to turn into a nursery for this little nugget, but we do have a pretty large master. After giving away the steamer trunk, half my clothes, and moving a few decorative lamps, the back end of our room is now the “nursery.”
We’re ready for you, li’l surprise!
7. Rotate toys
Did you know kids get overwhelmed by having too much “stuff,” too? A 2017 study found that kids with too many toys get easily distracted and have lower-quality playtime. Fewer toys lead to more, focused creative play.
Researchers suggest that parents pack away most of the children’s toys, and rotate them a few at a time.
8. De-clutter your schedule
Congrats, your house is looking more like a house and less like an emporium of crap! But there’s still more de-cluttering you could do.
If you’re anything like me, you spend your weekends shuttling your kids to museums, drop ins, classes ... anything to keep busy! But now that I have a house I can actually stand to spend time in, we’ve started embracing slow weekends at home, and everyone is better for it.
Send your kid to the playroom. Do an art project. Make pancakes together. You’ll all feel calmer when you use your down-time to actually relax.
Click slideshow for more de-cluttering tips. Story continues below.
9. De-clutter your socials
While you’re bettering your life, how about cleaning up your social media? Unfollow any accounts you don’t really care about (like all those baby product accounts you followed just to enter free giveaways), so that you’re more likely to see updates from those you do care about.
Take stock of how many online parenting groups you’re in (I’m in about 37, no joke). Mute the ones you don’t really need nor care to see on a daily basis.
Finally, if you’re doing any hate follows (we’re all guilty of this, right?), consider letting go. You live your life, little miss perfect mommy blogger we only follow to hate, and we’ll live ours. Go in peace. Enjoy your home-grown, organic mung beans.
10. De-clutter your mind
Your house, schedule, and social media are all cleaned up. All that’s left to tackle now is your mind (oh, just that?). Embracing mindfulness is a great way to help you roll with the punches, be more present, and control your reactions, parenting expert Alyson Schafer notes.
Here are some great apps to get you started:
20 Ideas For 2020 is our month-long series that explores easy ways to take action on the ideas and changes you may have already been thinking about.
Also on HuffPost: