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Reduce Clutter with Barbara Reich

Reduce Clutter with Barbara Reich

Typically, there is a certain trajectory that sessions of decluttering by Barbara Reich go through. First, the professional organizer from New York asks each client a few questions. Which room makes you the craziest? How is each room used? Next, she drills into centuries of clutter and whisks away mystery kitchen gadgets and ancient phone bills. At first, the clients grumble but after a while, they end up giving in. This is true whether they are CEO’s or harried mothers.


This is not always the case, however. When a client grumbles, she asks them about the events in their lives. Significant events, illnesses, work, until she gets to a reason convincing enough for them to get rid of clutter. Reich says that in every case, her job is to find the motivation behind the clutter. Sometimes, adult children give her services as a gift to parents who are pack-rats.


Imagine the Future

The clincher is when she tells the client to imagine the future. Your kids have to deal with the mess you will leave behind after you pass away. What emotions come up when you imagine this scenario?


This usually gets the job done.


On her latest client, Reich has just used the same tactic. He is Fred, a seventy-year old genial widower. He agrees that she is right as he surveys his chaotic apartment home office. He admits that it is going to be his children that will need to get rid of everything. It could be overwhelming for everyone, including his son-in- law to do this.


This is where Reich steps in. She looks around with narrowed eyes and her hands on her hips. A brunette in a black sweater boots and jeans, Reich surveys the paper teetering in piles on Fred’s desk. Dozens of boxes are taking up the floor space. The bookshelf is spilling over with old magazines. Okay, she says, “We have our work cut out for us.”


A Neat Freak

The 46-year old type A personality she describes herself will drink up to eight cups of green tea daily. She has an MBA from NYU in management and a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. She has been a neat freak for as long as she could remember and had previously already launched a firm for consulting. Around the same time in 2004 she repeatedly found herself doing toy rearrangements for the play dates of her kids. The thought then occurred to her to transform her ability into an enterprise.


Through her firm, Resourceful Consultants, she has since served over three hundred clients. Months in advance, she already has bookings. For many cluttered spaces, around ten sessions that consist of three hours each do the trick. Some clients schedule a tune up eventually.


Clutterers, Not Hoarders

Reich does not work with people who hoard stuff. Cognitive behaviour therapy is the best remedy for compulsive hoarding in houses that get filled up with trash from floor to ceiling. Real hoarders are going through more than anxiety. Just the thought of having to get rid of something is something that causes so much stress that an individual would rather keep the item than feel the anxiety. When it comes to hoarding disorders some specialists believe that there is a basis to this which is biological. Think about it- to survive the winter, many animal species need to hoard.


As she works, Reich talks about tips with rapid fire. A born nurturer, she is also quite blunt. Humor and kindness soften her advice. She nods sympathetically when Fred tells her that the hardest part is to actually start. She pats his arm as she tells him that everyone feels the same way.


A retired executive for menswear, Fred still has his doubts. Does he really want to spend the last years of his life sifting through papers? He says he would rather watch movies.


Organizing a Home

Reich says that the thing is, it takes about twenty to thirty hours to get a home organized. If you think a few minutes here and there are going to do it, a minute will be all it takes to undo everything. Rather, plot down a few hours and commit yourself to de-cluttering the way you would commit to an appointment with a doctor. Next, pour out some wine, enlist a friend to help and play some music. Do what it takes to get you started. Create three piles- donate, toss and keep. Tackle the craziest room first. After that, you will feel your level of anxiety exponentially drop and you will be amazed how much motivation you have to finish the rest of the task.


Tools for Organizing:

1. File Folders- Keep broad categories for files. If your categories are too narrow, it will feel like a burden to file.

2. Nice Boxes- Store items you want to keep in great looking boxes that can be displayed labelled and stacked.

3. Trash Bags- Collect items you plan to discard or donate in trash bags. Next ensure that all the bags actually leave your home.

4. Label Maker- When you get drawers labelled, you not only inform yourself what it contains, you are actually informing the entire family.


The moment you achieve infrastructure with every file in its place and are done with the purging, maintaining this level of organization takes three minutes a day. You can then watch all the movies you want. Reich then picks up one of Fred’s boxes and begins to dig through. She guesses that over eighty per cent of what the box contains is garbage.


Fred agrees and informs the professional organizer that it has been almost a decade that all the stuff has been in storage. He adds that he spent thousands of dollars to store everything. He does not even know what the boxes really contain.


Save Money

Think of the money you save, says Reich. No one ever wants the stuff in storage units. She begins tossing out old catalogues and statements from the bank. You can get these online, she tells him. Unsubscribe from the catalogues. They encourage you to buy stuff you don’t need, take up space and are bad for the environment.


Reich understands that stuff can provide security and comfort. However, that feeling of being safe can rapidly turn into oppression when it piles up. She adds that the things you own need to be well loved, useful or beautiful. She asks clients to ask themselves questions such as whether the object justifies the space it takes up in the home or whether they have worn an item in the past year. If the answer is no, then the item gets tossed out.


Clutter is Stress

Stress equals clutter. It is not just piles of garbage. It psychologically drags you down, nags at you and physically slows you down. Individuals have a tendency to hang on to various objects for one reason or another. Some have suffered early in life from a major loss. For these people, it can be a source of comfort to accumulate stuff that no one will get rid of. Others grew up with parents who didn’t save anything so they overcompensate. Others preserve memories they are afraid to lose through holding onto things.


Clients sometimes tell Reich that when things that are still usable are tossed out, it is wasteful. Reich does not agree. After a mega purge of between twenty and thirty hours, she urges people to stop being haunted by what-ifs and to live much simply. What if I need a third blender if my first two blenders brake? What if we run out of toilet paper? She reminds her clients that they don’t live in the North Pole. When supplies run low, you can always replenish. Her belief is to own less stuff and use them until they get worn out. Per bed, you only need two sets of sheets. One to wash and one to use.


She picked up an old computer box. Most men, she says, love saving boxes for when they need to send something back. Her husband does the same thing, she says. As she throws the box into the garbage bag, Fred says, ‘What if I need to send it back?’


She replies that if something breaks, put Styrofoam in a box and use that. She then goes to a box with ancient manuals stuffed into it. No one ever really refers to manuals anymore. You can get almost anything online, she adds.


Fred gingerly steps out of the way. Reich takes a file stack and labels them with categories: tax receipts, insurance, medical. People love making separate files for everything. However, documents will get filed better if you are not on the hunt for micro-categories so the file for your car can include expense records, maintenance and insurance.


The Horror Zone

Next, Reich takes a horror zone almost every household has: wires crammed into a bin. No one knows what the chargers and cords are for. On the other hand, this is the bin that everyone is scared of throwing away. Reich says to get over it- if you need something, go buy it at Radio Shack. You may not be able to replace the beaded vintage purse of your grandmother but cords? Replaceable.


Sentimental items are the hardest items to get rid of. This is because of the guilt and sentiment that goes along with them. However, if you don’t love your great aunt’s silver service completely, either sell it on eBay or donate it. Your life is different from hers. This doesn’t mean that you don’t love your great aunt or your kids, for that matter, if you don’t store their childhood antiques. It is their responsibility as it is their stuff. Don’t own the memorabilia of other people.


Fred brings Reich a box of photographs, which he has many of. What about pictures? He asks. Reich looks through the photos and tells him to burn them onto a DVD or put them together in a nice album. Treat it as preservable to make sure you preserve the memory. A few hours later, the trash bag is stuffed, four boxes are going to the closet and Fred’s desk is cleared. He grins like a kid and states that he already feels a bit lighter.


Her Own Apartment, Revealed

One week later Reich reveals her own apartment. She shares this apartment with her real estate lawyer husband Jeffrey and their twins Matthew and Rebecca, both fourteen. She shows me all her guidelines. Her immaculate room is in shades of soothing sand and cream. Her kitchen counters are granite and have acres of space. She says that she is amazed at how many kitchens duplicate items such as 10 wooden spoons or five spatulas. She tells clients to choose two, not 12.


She hates space-hogging gadgets that are rarely used as well. She had her mom throw out a fondue maker that wasn’t used for years. Her mom said it was expensive and Reich replied that when you pay for an item that means nothing in your life, this is sunk cost, something she learned in business school. Think about whether or not you like having it around.


Charly, their Havanese dog trails Reich as she opens up her minimalist pantries. If you don’t live in a warehouse, there is no need to recreate their inventory in your kitchen. Rather than a dozen boxes of cereal, three are fine. She does a weekly purge of her fridge or at the very least, monthly.


She then heads to her downstairs bedroom and flings open the closet of her husband. Everything is immaculate. She mentions how organized her husband is and he even learned to fold everything her way. She adds that she could not have dated a messy person.


Her husband agrees that marrying Barbara took his neatness to a new level. Everything has a place and everything in its place was her mantra. He finally got with the program after hearing this thousands of times.



Reich’s own minimalist closet contains a core garment collection. Most people have clothes in different sizes in case they lose the extra weight they want to lose. She says that they are entitled to new clothes if they lose those pounds. She remembers one client with clothing that was three decades old, and three sizes less. She firmly says that your closet needs to reflect the person you are today.


Reich further adds that if you felt passion for something, you would have accomplished it already. Don’t think of the imaginary life you might have in the future. Rather, think of the life you lead at the moment. Do you bake a lot or would you like to bake a lot? If you have sets of cake decorating sitting around in unopened boxes, give it to someone who will actually want to use it.


Since she was a child, Reich was orderly. At a Florida summer camp, there were two reasons she loved laundry day. One was because she would have clean clothes at the end of the day and the other reason is because she could precision fold all her clothes. She felt weightless and free on these days. It is astonishing how clutter weighs people down. You would be amazed how much confidence and freedom can be achieved when you eliminate and confront clutter, she says. The house tour ends at the orderly, gleaming bathroom of her daughter. It is here that there is a secret she reveals. Reich states that it looks very neat until you open a cosmetic-crammed drawer. Makeup everywhere and quite messy, she opens another drawer where hair products explode. She closes the drawer and mutters that she can’t look.


It is good to know even professional organizers have one messy drawer in their life. The goal here is not perfection anyway, as Reich says. Your home should not turn into an overnight magazine centrefold for House Beautiful. However, you will be happier, healthier and calmer if it is organized well. Life will throw you enough messes, says Reich, as she grabs Charly. You certainly don’t need to come home to another mess.


Organization Rules According to Reich

Act on Your Decisions. When you are trying to get rid of clutter, don’t look at an item, think about it and put it on hold. If you hate a vase, why store it in a closet? Get rid of it if you hate it.


Not on the Floor. It is not an option to store items on the floor. Visual clutter is created by boxes that permanently live on the floor. Instead, create a more serene looking room by stowing items inside a cabinet.


Like Items with Like. When it comes to supplies, having different locations for like items will create chaos. Instead, do the opposite and store like items with like, such as all light bulbs together.


Stick to a Routine. Every time you go about your day, do things the same way. Put your keys in the same place and your purse in the same place. When you need it, it’ll be there.


Do the hardest task first. You know that space that drives you craziest? This is the hot spot you need to do first. Before you start anywhere else in your house, you need to do this one first. You will feel a lot more motivated to do another room and your angst will lessen.

Consider getting rid of the clutter in your home the Barbara Reich way, or do it your own style. One way or another organizing your home will result in clearing your headspace which will make your life more pleasant and less messy. Happy decluttering!




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