Feb 212015

Heather asked me a question not too long ago that was easy to answer. She asked me how I felt now that my final disorganized hoard (my workshop) was clean and organized. My response was that I couldn’t have done it without her. It’s not that she helped me as much with the shop as she had with previous organization projects (she couldn’t because it was so dirty out there that she would spend one day helping, and the next 3 days coughing). I was referring to the last 14 years of downsizing, which has been a long, hard road. Fortunately, I’ve learned so much about decluttering and organization that I was able to tackle a lot of the shop work on my own. I no longer need help every step of the way.

Shop FB collage

Tonight Heather said she had received questions from readers about how to motivate their spouses to declutter, downsize, and organize. She thought it would be most beneficial for me to attempt to answer that. I’d like to start by saying that I’m glad I’m not the only one with this problem, but I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

I think the first step in helping a spouse with disorganization or hoarding tendencies is to determine if there is actually a problem. To me, it’s a problem when:

1. You can’ t find things you need
2. You have similar items stored in different places
3. You don’t remember what you have
4. You buy things only to later find that you already have them
5. You spend a much larger amount of time accumulating and storing than disposing of items
6. You keep most of your collections in boxes (or piles) rather than displaying them
7. Everything is dusty or dirty, and not easy to clean
8. Things are deteriorating due to poor storage, stacking, moisture, lack of attention or maintenance, or even damaged by insects (or even rodents)
9. You currently own more than three items that are in need of repair, however you won’t discard them because you intend to fix them someday
10. You have things that you are keeping only because they “may be worth money someday.”
11. You have things that you keep only because they are worth money.
12. You have things that make you sad or bring back bad memories.
13. You own photos or posters that you would enjoy seeing framed and on the wall, but aren’t.
14. You have things that you are keeping for no reason other than someone gave them to you as a gift.
15. Your possessions cause you anxiety, stress, pressure, conflict with others, and/or depression.
16. You constantly think “I should be working on that…”
17. You purchase new projects when old projects are not completed or even started yet.
18. You spend more time with your stuff than with your spouse, your children, or with God.
19. You take vacations constantly to get away from it all.
20. You have hoards rather than collections.

That last item should be defined, but it usually goes along with the first 19 on the list.  I’m not referring to the trash and cat feces-type hoarding you see on TV, though that would certainly be a problem. I believe a collection becomes a hoard when you have multiples of the same item. For example, a coin collection of pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, half dollars, and silver dollars in collector books is not a hoard. Bags and bags full of bulk silver coins may rise to the level of a hoard. A reasonable collection of small die cast cars is not a hoard, however 30 or 40 identical die cast cars could be considered a hoard (an example from my own life).

I had become a hoarder, based on all of these definitions. Because this had been a problem all my life, I didn’t know how to deal with it. Hoarders and disorganized people need help because they can’t do it on their own. By the time the telltale signs are easily identified, the task of reversing years of mismanagement of possessions is overwhelming, and decision-making is difficult or impossible. In order to help your spouse, you need to be gentle, patient, and most of all willing and able. Keep in mind that if you don’t help them, the problem will most likely get worse over the years.

Based on my experience with Heather’s help, there are many important considerations and steps to move forward:

1. Start with the obvious. One of the first things she found with me is that I placed quite a bit of value on stuff. This meant that the way to get started was not to just throw stuff away (unless it’s just plain trash). Heather started by patiently going through things with me that were obviously things I didn’t want to keep such as ugly home furnishings, outdated clothing that didn’t fit, and personal items and purses abandoned by my ex-wife. These items were all in a storage unit along with things I wanted to keep.
2. Don’t push too hard. This wasn’t a TV reality show with only two days to keep the city from fining me for violating the junk ordinance. In a large storage garage, it’s much easier to motivate the hoarder to get rid of 40% of the stuff rather than 90%. Within the next few years, the hoarder will have an easier time getting rid of more, once he sees how much cleaner and more organized the project is with the first 40% gone.
3. Ease into de-collecting. I already mentioned coin collections. I enjoyed collecting coins when I was younger, but eventually fell into hoarding. The first downsizing of coins was selling my bulk bags of silver coins. Eventually over the next few years, I sold more coins, silver bars, and collection books. I finally got down to the one collection book I always enjoyed the most, a 20th century type set. It took several years, but was more fun and less stress.
4. Help the hoarder or collector see that almost nothing is truly rare. The internet has been a great help to me. When I go to sell anything on EBay, Heather does a completed item advanced search to see what similar items have sold for. Many times you will find that many similar or even better items have sold in the past 90 days. This helps in two ways. If they all sold for $35 to $55, it tells me that this would be a fair price range to let my item go. More importantly, it tells me that if I decide later that I made a mistake, $35 to $55 will get me another one. Rarely have I bought back something because I decided later that I shouldn’t have sold it. 99% of everything we keep is 100% easily replaceable.
5. Go through items that are not replaceable (such as photographs) and sort them, like with like. When you find that you have 67 photos of your dog Rover, and 55 photos of your first car, you can pick out the best ones and throw the rest away. Keeping too many means that photos will get damaged in storage, and never looked at.
6. Take photos of things that are difficult for the hoarder to let go of, and offer to put them in a scrapbook. This may sound like babying a child, but there’s a method to the madness. Offer to take a photo of the 3rd place gymnastics ribbon from fifth grade, the honorable mention in the brother-sister dance competition, and the Cub Scouts woodworking award certificate for a future scrapbook. Then the hoarder can always “see the memory” once the item is disposed of. And you guessed it, the hoarder will never ask you to make the scrapbook.
7. Provide a loving relationship in which the hoarder would much rather spend time with you than in the man cave. Have some favorite routines for coffee, TV shows, and low-stress, low-anxiety activities that make home the place to be. Make it so your spouse would rather be at home with you than on vacation, at the bar, out with others, in the man-cave or shop, or any place they may go to get away from it all. That’s how it is for me. I can’t think of anyplace I’d rather be than at home with my wife. Part of the reason is that our home is a clean and organized place of peacefulness.
8. Organize when things are good. The hoarder or disorganized person will be less accepting of your help during times of stress in your relationship. All marriages have peaks and valleys, so work with your packrat when you’re on the mountaintops. Give yourselves a break when you’re in the canyons.
9. Have fun with it. Watching Ebay auctions together can be good entertainment. When you’re in the city, stop at the consignment store, pick up the money from your sales, and go out to eat.
10. Show them the value of organization. I used to think that it was a waste to stop working and spend time organizing. I couldn’t make a dime while I was cleaning up my mess. Heather helped me by celebrating the   victories, taking small steps over the years. We think back on how much work it was, but how much easier life is now. Spending less time looking for things and repairing problems caused by poor storage and disorganization saves money. As we get older, we realize that time flies. Spending time dealing with chaos has the highest cost; lost time. We could get stuff back by clicking on a website, but the time is gone forever.

I’ve probably forgotten to list some of the ways Heather helped me, but to give you an idea of how overwhelming the downsizing process of the last 14 years has been….it’s difficult for me to even write about it. Between the ages of 18 and 42, I not only didn’t have time to play with all my toys, I didn’t have time to fix or maintain them. I can remember times when I was so overwhelmed that I just sat crying, surrounded by all my stuff. My hoarding and collecting and obsessive behavior is part of what led to my divorce from my first wife.

Life is so much different now, and so much better.  God never intended for us to be slaves to stuff. Now I’m free, and I couldn’t have done it without Heather’s help.