Vermont author and mom Eve Schaub previously set her family on an adventure in her well-known first novel, Year of No Sugar. For her next project, she set her sights (and her family) on the 567-square-foot, jam-packed spare room in her home, a spot/nemesis she nicknamed “Hell Room”. In her latest book, Schaub recounts her Year of No Clutter, an incredibly funny, relatable read for moms. She shared with us her realizations, challenges, and the state of Hell Room today (see above).
1. Why do you think clutter and organizing has become so hot over the past couple of years?
In the book I propose the highly scientific theory that people might be genetically predisposed to keep things — it makes sense, right? Because in the vast majority of human history there was pretty much never enough “stuff” to go around. A hundred years ago, who complained that they had “too much” stuff? Really nobody. Keeping things around could very well have presented an evolutionary advantage for our ancestors.
Fast forward to the industrial revolution: now we have an ever-increasing ability to produce goods faster, cheaper, easier than ever before. Objects of all kinds are in abundance. So there’s lots more stuff to go around, but we still have this deep-seated, biological urge to save things way down deep in our reptilian brains. So we begin to keep too much. In our culture today we’ve finally reached the breaking point of this over-abundance: People have more belongings than they can reasonably care for. Like so many things, too much stuff is a “first-world-problem,” and a problem we’re lucky to have, but a problem nonetheless.
2. What advice do you have for readers who have their own Hell Rooms? How can they get started?
The focus of much of my book Year of No Clutter was my attempt to reclaim the Hell Room — this was my nickname for the large spare room in our house that had long taken up the slack for my extreme-keeping-behavior. Over the years, this room had gone from being a regular room, to a very cluttered storage room, to a giant sponge. While everywhere else in the house was relatively OK, this was the room that absorbed everything extra. And there was a lot of extra.
The biggest obstacle to dealing with a long-deferred clutter problem like I had, is being overwhelmed. Every year I’d make a New Year’s resolution to, once and for all, whip the Hell Room into shape, clear it out, get it back into usable form. Ever year I’d fail spectacularly, due largely to the fact that whenever I opened the door, I’d be overcome with the certainty that by far the most sensible thing to do would be to shut the door again.
So I implemented the “Kitchen Timer” rule, which said that I had to work in the Hell Room for 15 minutes each day. Once the timer went off, I was allowed to leave, no matter whether I had managed to make any progress. But, amazingly, nearly every time the timer went off, I’d have gotten enough accomplished that I felt motivated to stay a little longer. Maybe 5 more minutes. Sometimes a half and hour or an hour. And every time I could see more space opening up, I’d feel energized about what I had been able to do. I made a point to focus on those little bits of beautiful, cleared-out space as they appeared, and not dwell on the larger mess that was still to be dealt with.
3. If your motto previously was, “When in doubt, don’t throw it out!” what would it be today?
I have a couple now. One is “Be suspicious!” This is because I am now highly suspect of any new item coming into my house. Where is it going to go? Is it worth the space and energy that it will take up in my house and life? I have small new habits, such as, when I come home from a play, recycling the program right away, or deciding not to feel guilty about giving away a gift that I know I’ll never use. These are all about Clutter Prevention, because of course we all have new things coming into our home environments every single day.
Another new motto is: “Decide Now.” During the course of my Year of No Clutter, it occurred to me to wonder: How is “clutter” different from “a mess”? I realized that a mess is pretty straightforward. If the kitchen is a mess, so you go in and clean it up. It’s pretty common sense: You wash things, you put things away. In fact, someone else could probably do it for you. But clutter? No one can solve your clutter for you. This is because clutter is all about deferred decisions — items that don’t really go anywhere because we haven’t fully decided where or if they fit into our lives. Once I realized this distinction, I found it very helpful and empowering. The key to cleaning out my clutter was making decisions: thousands and thousands of decisions. If I made enough of them, one day I’d get my room, and the sense of control over my life and my living space, back again.
4. What was the No. 1 lesson you learned over the year?
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that I am not alone. I’m amazed at the fact that every person I talk to about my book has a direct connection to the problem of too much stuff; either they themselves have a stuff problem, or someone they know does. It’s a much more common problem than people think.
Another important realization I came to during this project — and one that is in opposition to what you’ll hear in many decluttering how-to books — is that decluttering isn’t something you have done and then it’s over. Rather, it’s something you do — it becomes a part of the way you live your life. Although decluttering might come naturally to some, for a “too much stuff” person like me it is a conscious, carefully considered decision I make to part with some things while keeping others, realizing I only have so much space and energy and time to give to my things.
Just like making your bed in the morning or brushing your teeth, decluttering has now become a part of my regular routine: discarding things, bringing clothing to the consignment shop with every new season, books to the library sale, and so on. Above all it means making decisions without deferring them, knowing my decisions won’t always be perfect, but that it’s worth it in the long run because it means I will get to use and enjoy my objects and my home much, much more.
5. How did this process change you? How did it change your family?
Because of this project, I came to several fundamental realizations about myself. For one, I realized that the root of cluttering, for me, comes from an almost paralyzing fear of making a mistake. Thus, the deferred decisions. If I never made a decision, I’d never have to worry about having made the wrong one! Once I understood that this was what I was doing, I gave myself permission to make “mistakes.”
In terms of my family, I’d say that we’re all much more attuned to the concept of letting something go once its usefulness has been outlived. Both my girls have a much better handle on this than I do, and sometimes they look at me and go “Mom…?” while I’m struggling to part with something completely ridiculous. So we all help each other.
Additionally, we’ve all come to realize that one person’s trash is someone else’s treasure and learned to have respect for each other’s selection of what’s valuable and what isn’t, even when we really don’t agree with or understand those choices. I think this is such an important idea. While researching the book I learned that hoarders who have been forced to clean out, or who have had the cleaning out done for them, have a significantly higher propensity to be depressed and/or suicidal.
So I think that reality shows like Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive can actually be harmful, not only potentially to the people they are often forcing to clean out, but also to the people who watch these shows and think that forcing their friend or family member in a direction they’re reluctant to go is “for their own good.”
6. What was the most surprising aspect of this journey?
Toward the beginning of the project, I made the decision that there was going to be a fair amount of sadness in the course of this project — sadness and regret. Because I had experienced loss so keenly in the past over things I had gotten rid of, I fully expected the process to be very sad and upsetting. I figured it was just going to be part of the bargain for getting control of my house and living space back. What surprised me tremendously was that this time it wasn’t.
I attribute this largely to two things. First, I had a newfound sense of what was at stake in this process. This was my last chance to stop on the road to being someday featured on Hoarders, and that larger purpose helped me overcome that tendency to get bogged down in regret. The second was simply practice. I realized that the getting-rid-of-stuff muscle in my brain had lain so long unused that it had atrophied. So using it more and more, making lots and lots of decisions all the time, seemed to inoculate me to a degree against the tendency to obsess over one thing or another.
7. What was the hardest “category” of items to part with, and how did you do it?
My kind of cluttering is largely about memory and sentiment. For others it can be about other things. (For example, upon her death at age 95, we were surprised to discover that my neat-as-a-pin grandmother had a small hoard of canned food hidden away in her closets and shelves.) While I can pretty easily talk myself into getting rid of unneeded things that are still “perfectly good,” it’s the sentimental stuff that no one else would want that gets me every time.
I tell the story in the book about this pasta pot that I’ve had since college. It was my first cooking pot, given to me by my mother, and nothing special particularly, except that I had owned it for so very long, learned to cook in it, made every meal you can think of out of it. It had come to feel to me like a long-trusted friend. And then, during the Year of No Clutter, a handle broke off one side. It wasn’t fixable, was no longer usable, but I stalled. I moved it around the house. It sat on the floor in the kitchen. I took it upstairs. It started inching its way toward the Hell Room… and then one day I just said, No, I’m not going to do this.
And I put the pot into a bag of garbage and put it by the curb. It was almost like an experiment I was doing on myself: What would happen? Would I freak out? Would I run out and wrestle the garbage men for it at the very last minute? I am the only person I know of who has tried to get back items I have donated to the Salvation Army. (It does not work, by the way.)
But it was OK. The other shoe never dropped. I felt fine — no agonizing remorse, no regret. That’s when I realized I really was in the process of changing something about myself.
8. How is Hell Room now?
I’m terribly proud — it has a visible floor, even. But, seriously, I love that I come home now and I’ll call to my girls and say “Where ARE you?” and they’ll answer back “We’re in the ART ROOM!” The art room! It’s no longer the Hell Room. And they’re using it: making project, sewing, painting, looking for the button container and actually being able to find it. That’s what we all want our home living environments to be isn’t it? Usable, functional, enjoyable.
I’m not “cured” of cluttering, and I’ll probably always struggle with stuff on some level. By no means is my house going to be featured in the next issue of House Beautiful, either, but it’s so much better and more functional than it was. No matter how frustrating decluttering seems, what I say is: Don’t despair. I’m living proof that change is possible.