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How to declutter your house without losing your mind

Decluttering a house filled with inherited treasures can be a monumental challenge. Debora Robertson explains how to sort out your stuff without losing your mind and alienating your entire family.

We’re all familiar with the mantra ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’, even if that place is concealed beneath a million other absolutely essential objects. In recent years, a whole industry has built up to encourage us to rid ourselves of possessions that clog up our lives or, at least, our hallways. Even The Archers’ Kate Aldridge has been divesting herself of any objects that don’t ‘spark joy’.

Objects must ‘spark joy’

‘Spark joy’ is the phrase that launched 1,000 skips. It comes from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, written by Japanese decluttering guru Marie Kondo, which has sold more than five million copies. I assume, despite its success, that it hasn’t sparked joy in all of its readers, if the number of copies available in my local charity shop is anything to go by.

One of the reasons that attempts to declutter stutter, stall and then fail is that books and websites assume we can breezily ditch a lifetime of memories and possessions between walking the dog and breakfast. They don’t adequately acknowledge that, if you live in a house filled with cherished inherited and acquired objects, it’s incredibly daunting. It’s easy to ditch an Ikea chest of drawers, yet not so easy to get rid of the ormolu cabinet you inherited but hate.

‘I love decluttering. People get paralysed by the thought of it and don’t know where to start,’ acknowledges domestic expert Aggie MacKenzie. ‘There are three questions you need to ask yourself: Do I need it? Will I use it? Do I love it?’

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Are you a collector or a discarder?

Simon Temple-Bennett, owner of Augill Castle in Cumbria, says: ‘I think your brain is hardwired to be a collector or a discarder. This September, our daughter went to college. I kept picking up things and saying “Shall we take this?”. She’d look at me as if I were mad. I said “But it’s granny’s bowl” or “granddad’s chest”. They all get given names.’

Here lies the first stumbling block. Grandpa’s desk is much harder to send off to the auction house than any old desk. Just as you should never name a pig you intend to eat, if we are to surround ourselves only with the things we love, we need to stop giving our possessions names. Try to think of it as the desk or, better yet, simply a desk.

‘It’s not really about the thing, is it?’ continues Mr Temple-Bennett. ‘We’ve got this hideous cut-glass bowl. It belonged to my grandmother and it’s the shape of a grape, quite the most unpleasant thing, but I’ll never get rid of it. To throw it away would be like throwing away the memory of her. That doesn’t seem right, does it?’

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Own your own space

According to Miss MacKenzie, throwing away things that are tied in with your memories of people absolutely fine. ‘I think it’s really important to own your own space and not have other people’s stuff invading it,’ she counsels.

‘My mother gave me a beautiful chest of drawers, but I just knew that I had to get rid of it. I wanted the space more. I told myself it’s just a thing, not a person and it’s not hurt that I’m chucking it away. Things have memories vested in them, but if they’re not actually giving you pleasure, then let them go.’

Her advice for tackling those important family pieces that inspire more guilt than love? ‘I think your first step should be to offer it to other members of the family. You look generous and it mitigates guilt. And it’s telling if nobody else wants it, isn’t it?’

The thorny issue of antiques

There is an argument that, with ‘proper’ furniture, we should be even stricter with ourselves, as it usually requires cosseting – the occasional run over with a damp cloth won’t do. ‘I married into a family of generations of antiques dealers. It’s a little like marrying into a family of very fussy hoarders, with the attendant complications of care, restoration and general overseeing of objects, furniture and art,’ admits author Lucy Inglis.

Lucy remains firm, however. She’s created a method that works for her, ditching what she can in order better to enjoy what remains. ‘Decluttering and attempting to run a paper-less house have helped hugely with freeing up living space and also creating a peaceful place to be, for everyone,’ the historian says. ‘On getting up in the morning, the knowledge that everything is in its place is immensely soothing.’

And, ultimately, a soothing, peaceful, happy-to-get-up-in house is what it’s all about. Keep your eye on that prize and get cracking. You have nothing to lose but (someone else’s) junk.

Top tips for tidying

  • Start small, with a drawer, a cupboard or a heap of photographs. Each small success is incredibly motivating.
  • Banish thoughts of perfectionism. It’s crippling and holds you back. Do what you can. Keep going.
  • Declutter first, shop second. Tempting as it is to dash out and buy boxes, cartons and crates, it’s displacement activity for the gritty business of throwing things out.
  • Don’t wait until you can get everyone in your house on board. If necessary, allow the permanently messy a limited area in which to express themselves. Fly-tying kit in the study – yes. All over the kitchen table – no.
  • You can get rid of wedding presents and still remain married in the eyes of the law.