Eat the ElephantI was standing with a delightful client peering into her hoarded home. The house was so full that she was no longer able to cook in her kitchen and had to climb over piles of stuff to get to her bed each night.  She was facing eviction if she didn’t declutter. She felt completely overwhelmed by the size of the task. Trying to be encouraging, I said, “Well, you know how to eat an elephant”. To which she replied, “But I’m a vegetarian”.

Most of us know that breaking things down into small “bites” makes them much easier to digest.  Yet when it comes to decluttering many people treat it like an event rather than a process. They don’t want to start until they have enough time to do it properly. When they have two weeks off work (or long service leave or retire) they will set up a marquee in the back yard, hire a skip, assemble the supplies, and work day and night until every corner of their home is perfectly organised. They are going to eat that elephant whole!

I can’t say I’ve ever seen a case of this plan working out well. This is particularly true when dealing with people who hoard because the clutter is only a symptom of the true problem. Stripping away the clutter doesn’t address the underlying issue and a rapid clean out can leave the person feeling exposed, disrespected and anxious.

A less ambitious plan will pay dividends in the long run. With my vegetarian client we used a “discard agreement” to establish up front what we would dispose of so that she wasn’t forced to make multiple exhausting decisions during our work. At our first session we focussed on disposing of out of date foods, at our second we disposed of newspapers. Our sessions were limited to three hours (after that amount of time there is a good chance even the most reasonable people will become tantrum prone!), our goals were clear and achievable, and we were able to work calmly and methodically.

For people going it alone, it is wise to schedule a short amount of time daily and only take on what can be completed in that time. Don’t be tempted to clear out the whole wardrobe if you only have time to sort your shoes! You will just end up with a pile of clothes on your bed that gets shoved back into the closet at bedtime in a worse state than it was to start with. It is also wise to weed out items you no longer want as you notice them instead of delaying action until you have time to do a “proper clean out”.

Decluttering is a process that requires time, sound decision-making and sustained physical effort.  But it doesn’t have to be overwhelming or exhausting if you take it a bite at time.

Written by Wendy Hanes

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