What does a declutterer do?
So what is your story? How did you become a professional declutterer?
It started with a pair of shoes. It's a long story, but I'd had them for ages before finally working out how to use Ebay, and I sold them. After that, I went through my whole wardrobe and continued selling my unwanted things and I actually couldn't stop. I started sorting through a barn full of my family’s things from three generations. My grandparents bought a farm in the 1940's and it is home to all sorts of things like silver spoons from 1797 and memorabilia from the coronation in 1953, which are really cool but there's also a lot of clutter that's worth getting rid of.
About a year after I sold my first pair of shoes, I did a career change course at Escape the City and started talking about my experience with clearing stuff. At the time I knew I wanted to quit my job but never thought I'd start a decluttering business.
What was your job at the time?
I was a project manager at a sign company and I was making signs for property developers. It was absolutely not resonating with my values and I had started to resent it. Some people on the course told me that they needed help with their over-stuffed wardrobes. And that is how I got my first job as a declutterer.
How did that go? Did you know what to do?
I'd recently finished reading Marie Kondo's book and I loosely based what I did on her methods. I went to a friend's house and we went through her whole wardrobe. We filled my car up with maybe 3 or 4 bags worth of stuff. One thing she gave me was her dad's 1980's leather biker jacket. Pretty ugly we thought, but also very niche. And it had a story so we sold that for £50. We were amazed. She was my first client and I said I'd take a 10% cut, which meant I made £7. Ridiculous (laughing).
And then I helped someone else from the course. She had spent a lot of time designing her new home and was upsizing but wanted less stuff so I worked with her and probably filled my car three times over. And this is basically how it started. I finally left my job in August 2016.
What do you enjoy most about being a declutterer?
I love working with people who need a hand getting rid of stuff. Most of them know how to do it but they need accountability to actually get it done. They need someone there to say, "actually, do you really need that?" I love working with people and love it when I get good feedback on my work now that I'm doing something I love.
Would you say it is a very personal job? What is your relationship with your clients usually like?
It is a very personal thing. It's important to have a connection with the people I work with so I rely on word of mouth a lot. I offer the first 30 minutes free as we have a cup of tea and they might give me a tour of the house. Sometimes we just need ten minutes to have a connection. I mean, I don’t mind going through people’s sock drawers but it can be quite personal for my clients, obviously.
What is your process of decluttering? Do you show your system to people so they can then apply it when they are by themselves?
I'm always refining the process but the initial tour of the house is useful because we can work out the biggest problem area together and start there. We often start with the wardrobe. There is always a fair bit that's easy to let go of before getting to the harder things. I go through each item with them and I ask if they want to keep the item that they are currently holding and they say, ‘yes,’ and then maybe the fourth or fifth thing that they say yes to, I come up with a different question or a reason why they might not want to keep it so they start thinking about their things a little differently. And then after 6 or 7 things, they hopefully start putting things in the ‘let go of’ pile and right at the end we use the Marie Kondo method of folding clothes (for those who don’t know her, she is the author of 'The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up). Sometimes though, we'll start on books, the cutlery drawer, or tackle a particular room that's overrun with stuff. It always comes down to the individual case and person and what their goal is. I always take away the things that we've gone through so my clients can see the immediate effect of the new space, and promise to use landfill as a last resort when rehoming their things.
What was your toughest declutter job?
I took on a couple of clients who just wanted to get rid of clothes they never wore. They had a pile already prepared for me to take away and hopefully sell. Money was the driving force, not the decluttering. They are probably the jobs that I'm least proud of because I don't think I helped much. Decluttering and making space is the most important thing I do, however I will always try and find a new home for something before it goes to landfill. This sometimes means I sell the things on, and if any reasonable money is made, I share the profits back with my clients.
How long is one decluttering session with you?
They don’t tend to go on that long actually. It can be a rather tiring process albeit rewarding at the end. I generally suggest to allow 3-4 hours but at the beginning it's usually around 2 hours. Then, as we get to know each other, and get our teeth in the project, the sessions get longer, and my car gets fuller!
Do you offer something like 'after-care'?
Yes, I take the unwanted things with me and sort through them. I usually sort them into separate piles, 'sell', 'charity shop', 'recycle'. Occasionally, I go to a specialist seller or auction house. I can help my clients get rid of the bigger things like furniture but don't have the space to take it away with me.
And do you feel like that you also have a responsibility to educate people on what happens to their things afterwards and how they should dispose of things in the future?
Yes. One thing about decluttering is that it is an ongoing process. It’s not a one off thing. I mean just in the process of decluttering people kind of educate themselves. Also, I try not to preach too much but will always chat about not buying so much new stuff in the future as well as thinking where their things will go when they let go of them. Landfill should always be a last resort.
Totally agree. I think that was one of my biggest problems with Marie Kondo’s ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up’. She just seems to throw away everything, instead of trying to giving the things an afterlife.
Yes, I mean I’d really like to know what she actually does with people’s things. I know she only ever talks about 'throwing away' but I am not sure if that is actually the case or if it’s just a phrase she uses.
How do you keep your own home clutter free?
I would say my own home is clutter free of my own stuff but I do end up having a lot of things from other people whilst I’m trying to find a new home for them. I like the challenge of keeping on top of this and everything does have its place in our home.
Isn’t it quite heavy on you having other peoples’ stuff around you all the time?
It does play quite heavily on my mind sometimes but I am very organised sorter. I might not be able to re-home some things straight away because that would mean putting them in the bin and then going to landfill but I will categorise things and put them into storage for some people. Everyone has space but you know that shelf at the top of your cupboard is not there for you to put something on only for you never to use. Sometimes I declutter 3 homes in a day so there are times when I have more things to work through. Out of sight is definitely out of mind so I keep an eye on where everything is and my storage facility is in constant use.
And for my own stuff, I have gone through my wardrobe and I actually only own stuff that I love and I can see everything in there at a glance (which is important!).
Everything you own should have its designated space. Lot’s of people for example have loads of pens all over their place, but really you only need one pencil, one pen and one marker. Preferably all in one place. You only need one place for toiletries, one for make up and you also only need one shelf of glasses and one shelf of mugs for example. When I come home from work the first thing I do is empty my bag and my jeans' pockets. The keys have a place, the wallet has a place, my phone has a place. And that habit of giving everything its designated place makes it a lot easier to keep the home clutter free.
Would you consider yourself a minimalist?
Hmm good question. Minimalism is quite an extreme concept but perhaps I'm working towards it. All humans need to survive is food, water, shelter and clothes. However, I've realised I love stuff but I love that it goes through my hands before it's sent somewhere else. If I really love something but have no use for it, I take a photo of it with my phone and just keep the photograph. My Instagram account is essentially a collection of things that have gone through my hands that I have really liked or appreciated before passing on.
That’s an interesting point. I have just recently come across this study which showed that it is actually a lot easier for people to part with something when they have taken a photo of it, even though they might never look at the photograph again.
It is more about capturing the ‘essence’ of that thing I guess. And for some people it might be useful just to write about that thing or its story and then give it away. Because it’s actually not the thing itself that contains the memory or story. The story is in your head and you just need something to remember it.
I have one client that owns a dress that she made herself when she was in her 20's and I still haven’t managed to convince her to let go of it. When really all she needs to do is take a picture of it, but there's an emotional attachment.
Do you sometimes educate people about the different ways of owning things. So rethinking their ownership? You know for example a drill is something you can easily borrow.
I do but I'm conscious of getting too preachy!
Some people find it really hard to ask others for something or feel bad about it so they rather go out and buy it, even though they know they will use it very rarely. My mum just won’t let me throw away any paper clips. And I mean fine you do need paper clips occasionally but I swear we have about 3000 of them now.
A good rule of thumb is “If you have used it in the last year, you can keep it.” Because a lot of things are seasonal as well, but if you haven’t used it in a year quite frankly you probably won’t ever use it and can get rid of it.
What do you think is people’s biggest fear when it comes to decluttering? Do you think there is a fear of empty space or void?
I certainly believe that people are unsure of space. When I was working with my mum, decluttering her house, she would say “But if I get rid of this now, the cupboard will be empty and what am I going to put there then?” And another friend of mine, we were decluttering her bookcase and I was telling her “maybe try and have only 30 books that you absolutely love.” And she said “But what am I going to put there? It’s a bookshelf?” And to be honest, she kind of has a point because her bookshelf is kind of the feature of her living room but on the other hand, it's actually just a shelf, and a shelf can be used for anything. She’s got so many beautiful things hiding under sofas and the bed or in the bulging cupboard back that could go on the shelves. I definitely think people are very afraid of the void.
Do people come back to you and tell you that apart from having a clutter free home that it has impacted other areas of their lives? Like their mental wellbeing or social life etc? I know this is certainly the case for Marie Kondo's clients (hence the religion-like following).
Yes, I mean when you end up with less things you do have more space physically and certainly also mentally. I wrote a short blogpost about our legacy as humans and what we want to leave in this world once we’re gone and you know whoever ends up going through all of my things when I die isn’t going to want to look through 3000 photos that I took. And that’s why I went through them and got rid of most of them. I think once people get their heads around that it’s so much easier for them to carry on doing it but it can take a mammoth effort to get to that stage. Anyway, the best thing about what I do now, compared to when I had a real job is the good feedback I get from my clients. So many are inspired to continue, and are really grateful to have had help starting on the journey of living-with-less.
Okay one more question: What was the strangest thing you found in someone’s home?
Actually, there is some cool stuff. Gimmicky things, such as silicone egg poachers, are always given to me to re-home. Also, vintage tech and old cables and chargers. I was given an old wedding dress once, because the dogs had ripped one arm off. Here's a blog I wrote about some of the earlier things I sold. I've got a little more fussy about what I sell and what I give to charity but my favourite story is about when I sold my Granny’s swimming cap.
Tash’s top three tips to keep the clutter at bay:
Go through your sock drawer. Take out any socks you don’t wear anymore, that have holes in or that are odd (put them in a bag and take them to your nearest charity recycling bin). Same goes for all underwear if you have extra time.
Assign everything you own its designated space in your home. If you put your keys in the same place every day, you’ll know where to find them the next day. You always know where to find your toothbrush, right? Make it the same for everything little and easily misplaced.
Use it all up. Pick toothpaste for example (whether it's palm oil free, home made or the tabs): finish up one tube before you reach for the next. If you try it and don't like it, give it away. Some charities are happy to accept nearly new toiletries. Don’t keep three of one thing open at the same time.