Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project

Tips on How to Help a Friend Clear Clutter

I beg my friends to let me help them clear clutter; I love to play this role.

Posted Mar 12, 2019

Shutterstock
Source: Shutterstock

Some outer-order experts argue that you'll do a better, quicker job if you clear clutter alone.

That's certainly true for some people. They want to go at their own pace and make their own decisions.

And it's also definitely true that some people are not good clutter-clearing companions. One friend said that when her mother tried to help her go through her closet, all she heard was, "You can't give that away!" "That's still perfectly good!" "You might find a way to wear that!"

But from my experience -- both as the clutter-clearer myself, and as the friend who's helping — I think it can often be helpful to have a companion.

A professional organizer can be great, obviously.

But even a friend can help with morale, the drudge work, and the decision-making.

In my new book, Outer Order, Inner Calm, I make a point that there are no magic one-size-fits-all solutions for establishing order; we all need to do it in the way that's right for us. Also, outer order is something to pursue if it makes you (or someone else) happier; not for its own sake.

As part of my happiness-bully side, I beg my friends to let me help them clear clutter; I love to play this role.

Here are some things I've learned:

Often, people want you to witness their appreciation for a possession. They want to share an important memory, or they want you to admire something once dear to them. I find that after talking about an item, people are sometimes able to relinquish it. Help them explore these memories and associations.

Sometimes, it helps to take a photo of an item. Or if there are several items that are important for the same emotional reason, you can help them identify their favorite and get rid of the others. The favorite college t-shirt, not every college t-shirt.

Use gentle language and re-framing to help people let go. Instead of saying, "Realistically, you haven't fit into those outfits in five years, I really don't think you're going to be able to get back to that size," say, "If your body changes, don't you think you'll feel like getting new clothes? You won't want to wear things that have just been hanging in your closet this whole time."

Or instead of saying "That's not flattering" or "That's completely out of fashion," say, "Well, it looks good on you, but you have many things that look better. Don't you think you'll end up wearing those things, instead?"

Be a quiet, helpful presence. Often, I find, people don't really need my help at all. I don't need to do or say much. Just by being there, I help them set aside time to think about clutter, stay focused, make the extra effort (like running to get the step ladder to check the top shelf of a closet, instead of ignoring it), and make decisions instead of procrastinating. As you'd expect, this is particularly true of Obligers, for whom I act as outer accountability.

Point out people's reactions. It can be hard to know ourselves and our own responses. I say things like "It doesn't seem like you really like that," "You just said that you've never used that," "You have a dismissive look on your face when you hold that," or "I see your face light up when you're holding that." Whether they agree or disagree with my characterization of their reaction, people get clarity from it.

Make sure you both have the same vision. Recently I helped a friend clear her closet. She loves clothes, has a lot of clothes, and wanted me to help her go through them. She was defensive at first because she was afraid that I'd try to get her down to a capsule wardrobe. So I had to reassure her, "You love clothes, you love having lots of choices, you can keep all the clothes you love. I'm just here to help you identify the items you don't like, don't wear, or think don't look good anymore."

The point isn't to get people to a particular predetermined outcome; it's to help people clear away whatever feels like clutter to that person.

If you're looking for more ideas for how to clear clutter and add beauty, get a copy of my new book, Outer Order, Inner Calm.

Do you ever help other people clear clutter—friends, children, sweetheart, co-workers? Have you found any strategies that help?