Nothing throws off our home organization game quite like the influx of stuff the holidays bring. From Christmas trees and ornaments to wrapping paper to the piles of presents (both outgoing and incoming), the clutter can start to get overwhelming. I’m eager for the whole season to be done with just so I can reclaim my office, which has become a holding zone for gifts galore and two mega bins of yuletide décor that I don’t know where else to store.
To help keep the chaos at bay, I consulted professional organizers and psychologists and learned that there's a two-pronged approached to managing the disarray: you must both eliminate existing clutter and prevent more clutter from coming in. Here’s how to tackle what I'm calling 'Operation: Declutter The Holidays.'
Step 1: Deal With Existing Holiday Clutter
1. Donate Decorations You're Not Using
Got any decorative baubles left over from last year that you thought you’d put up this year but didn’t? Rather than hanging on to them for another year, consider ditching them pronto. Ben Soreff, professional organizer with House To Home Organizing, goes by the following rule: “Whatever is left, ask why didn't I put it out? Some might now belong in keepsakes; others may be broken or in disrepair. How expensive and how hard to find it should be the criteria for all non-keepsakes.” Plenty of charities will accept Christmas decorations. You may also check with local churches, schools and shelters.
2. Get Rid of the Gift Bags Already (and Wrangle That Wrapping Paper)
Saving gift bags makes sense: they’re attractive, easily re-giftable and not cheap. It’s helpful to have a couple on hand, but I can count about 18 in my collection, some of which aren’t looking so hot anymore. And there’s no way I’ll use them all this year (especially not as I lean more toward gifting experiences and gift cards). It’s time to start using them for other things. Soreff recommends using gift bags for other purposes (say, to carry lunches in) and donating the rest (along with those mountains of wrinkled tissue paper) to preschools who can give them to students for crafting projects. Same goes for the wrapping paper.
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“When organizing whole houses in over ten years I have never not seen vast quantities of gift wrap,” says Soreff. “Try and keep all the wrap in the house in one place and one container. This will help you not only have a limit, but know if you need more.”
3. Make a Temporary Recycling Zone
We may wait until after the holidays to break down all the boxes and recycle all the paper scraps, but Rachelle Isip, a professional organizer author of the lifestyle blog, The Order Expert recommends setting up a temporary recycling area to manage the mess throughout the season.“Hang up three large garbage bags or bins in your hallway, garage or breezeway and designate as paper, box and plastic recycling,” says Isip. “Having a specific place to store refuse makes cleanup [easier]. You may also want to stock the area with a pair of scissors and a safety blade to easily break down boxes and the like.”You may also want to game plan where to recycle everything once the holidays are over. The exact protocol depends on where you live, so check in with your department of sanitation. Many cities invite you to drop off your (real) Christmas trees at designated centers where they can then be turned into mulch.
Step 2: Keep Clutter from Coming In
1. Focus on the Sentiment, Not the Stuff
Getting our own clutter under control is only half the battle. How do we prevent more from coming in? There are always a couple of family members bent on giving us tangible, physical items. This can present a dilemma as we don’t want to offend the aunt who insists on gifting us matching pajamas every year, just as we don’t want to make Dad think we wouldn’t love a fourth “Best Daughter In The World” mug. But at some point enough stuff is exactly that: enough. How do we respectfully communicate to our loved ones that we’d prefer non-material gifts?
First, we should understand that people usually want to give physical items because it feels more sentimental. Dr. Carolyn Rodriguez, director of the Stanford Hoarding Disorders Research Program, suggests giving loved ones ideas for meaningful gifts that won’t take up space.“It can be a delicate thing if a family member wants to give you a physical item, so gently suggest that they make a donation in your name, and note that there are charities that will give plants or animals to groups in need,” says Dr. Rodriquez, adding that if you’re looking to take care of gifts for multiple people, “enlist a family member to go on a group gift for a donation or one for the victims of recent hurricanes.”
This no-stuff concept may get trickier with kids. After all, kids love opening gifts, which makes it all the more tempting for relatives to buy them loads of toys. If you want to set some limits here (and are pro-tech for the little ones), psychologist Dr. Nekeshia Hammond recommends reminding family of all the virtual options. “We don’t need to inundate kids with toys,” says Dr. Hammond. “There are tons of virtual books and learning apps.”
At some point enough stuff is exactly that: enough.
2. Emphasize Family Time and Experiences
Perhaps the best way to make everybody happy (and also keep your environment clutter-free) is to suggest giftable experiences that everybody can enjoy together. “Remind family that quality time together may be more important to you,” says Dr. Hammond. “A picnic in the park is one idea, as is a museum trip.”The added bonuses of these gifts is that they don’t have to cost much money, if any at all, and they’ll foster the making of memories, and those are far more valuable than any gift-bag full of stuff and tissue paper could ever be.
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