Kicking off 2018 with a declutter will not only put your home in order but, says Margareta Magnusson, will make you feel happier and more energised, too.
While going through your belongings, remembering when you last used them and saying goodbye to some of them can be a difficult process, freeing yourself of clutter now will make your life feel much easier in the long run.
Also, should the unthinkable happen, you will be sparing your grieving family and friends the burden of going through your mountain of possessions.
GIVE YOURSELF PLENTY OF TIME Trust me, the more time you spend going through your belongings, the easier it will be for you to decide what you want to keep and what you are ready to part with. You might even discover how wonderful it feels to visit a rubbish dump and throw worthless things as far as you are able to. The aim of decluttering is not to get rid of things that make your life pleasant and more comfortable; it is to take stock of what you’ve got and, if you can’t keep track of your things, then perhaps you have too many.
It took me almost a year, working at a steady pace, to sort out our home after my husband died – and it would have been nice to have his company while I did it. Going through the things that documented our 50 years and five children together by myself made me feel lonely. My husband and I should have done the job together earlier. But in hindsight, in some ways it was easier for me to do it by myself – had he been with me it would have taken years because he had a tendency to want to keep everything.
LIFE IS BETTER WITHOUT MESS In a home where you have been living for some time, it should be easy to keep some order. Even so, people still wander around trying to find their keys, gloves and phones. When you can’t find everyday essentials it’s because they don’t have a place of their own – so give them one.
Start by sorting the basement, the attic or the hall cupboards. Tell your loved ones and friends what you are doing. They might want to help and even take things you don’t need. Perhaps a young person you know is about to move into their first home. Invite them over, give them pots and pans, chairs from your attic, an old carpet. Tell them stories about the objects and your life. They can then take these stories and objects into their lives.
CLOTHES To get your decluttering off to a good start, begin with a category that is extensive but without too many sentimental connections, such as clothes. Take a good few hours to go through everything thoroughly and put your clothes into two piles – those to keep and those to throw or give away. There will be impulse buys you’ve never worn and clothes or accessories that don’t go with anything else. In my opinion, all garments should look good together and you should be able to mix and match them with each other. Only keep clothes you really feel you will wear or that have a strong sentimental association.
‘THINGS’ Appliances such as coffee machines, high-speed mixers and new pots and pans fill our kitchens, while we still keep the old coffee brewer, whisk and skillets. In the bathroom you might have ten years’ worth of eyeshadows or nail polishes. Your cabinets may be full of supplements nobody takes any more and medicines that have expired. Even tablecloths and bed linens go out of fashion, and you replace them before the old ones are worn out.
I’ve come to realise that my vice is my love of ‘things’ – such as my African wooden bird, my singing magnetic pig and my solar-powered waving bear. It has taken me a while to understand this, but you can enjoy things without actually owning them. You can train yourself to take pleasure from just looking at them; you don’t have to buy them.
All the things I love are small and easy to give away. If you’re invited to lunch, instead of taking flowers or buying a present, give your host one of your own special possessions.
BOOKS I only keep books that I haven’t read or ones I keep returning to. In my case these are mostly about art and some reference books such as a dictionary, thesaurus and an atlas. I find it easy to get rid of cookbooks, no matter how helpful they have been. However, it is my personal collection of recipes and stories that I have gathered over the years, given to me by friends and relatives, that I most want to keep. While I have gradually parted with some of them – the time-consuming ones and recipes for cakes and biscuits – some real gems remain, such as my mother’s meatloaf, my neighbour’s rosehip marmalade and a few other favourites.
UNWANTED GIFTS If I give a present to someone, I understand that it may not stay with that person for ever. I know of people who have a cupboard full of unwanted gifts that they put on display when the giver comes to visit. This is a bad idea. If people see these on show they will only give you more! If you don’t like something, get rid of it.
PHOTOGRAPHS Sorting through photographs and letters will take the most time, so leave this task to last. So many memories come back – memories you will want to keep. However, I usually get rid of photos that are simply bad pictures. I also like to be able to name everyone in a picture because, as the oldest person in the family, if I don’t know their name nobody else is likely to. One problem for me was the number of pictures I had on slides. I spent time going through them and scanning the best into my computer and then put them all on to a memory stick as Christmas presents for each child.
ENJOY YOUR JOURNEY INTO THE PAST Going through your possessions should be a pleasure and a chance to find meaning and memory. It’s such a delight to look at your things and remember their worth and, if you don’t remember why a thing has meaning for you or why you kept it, it has no worth and will be easier to part with.
The more I have focused on clearing out the clutter in my life, the braver I have become. I often ask myself: will anyone I know be happier if I save this? If after a moment of reflection I can honestly say no, then off it goes. But before it does, I have had a chance to recall the event or feeling, good or bad, and to know that it has been a part of my story and of my life.
Margareta Magnusson is a Swedish artist and advocate of a process known as death cleaning, whereby the elderly and their families set their affairs in order, but it can be beneficial at any age. This is an edited extract from her book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning – How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter, published by Canongate, price £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39 until 14 January, go to you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; free p&p on orders over £15