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Rules for Cleaning Out Your Closet

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You know you need to do it. You know you'll be glad you did. But cleaning out the closet is pretty much no one's idea of a good time.

That's the bad news. But the good news is that there are a few rules that, if you follow them, will result in a successful closet purge. You can choose not to follow them! Throwing these rules out the window doesn't necessarily mean you won't execute a meaningful closet clean-out, but following them will virtually guarantee success.

But because rules are a drag, these rules have some wiggle room built-in. In part, this is to make them feel like less of a bummer, but much more so it's to account for the needs of your closet tidying project — it will be different for everyone, so what works for one person won't necessarily work for someone else.

Non-Negotiable: Understand Why You're Doing This

Negotiable: Why Are You Doing This?

Remember when 'mindfulness' was the hot trend in the self-help world? It may be an out-of-style buzzword, but take a moment to consider the reasons behind your closet purge. This will help you focus, and will be extremely helpful when your emotions inevitably take over.

"When clearing out and decluttering it's not the time to beat yourself up. It doesn't help one bit."

About that last thing: Here's a truth to square in your mind before you empty your closet and begin sorting through your stuff — you're going to feel some things. You may feel sad, or guilty, or angry, or frustrated, or all of the above. You may feel an entirely different set of feelings. But you will have feelings, and knowing that before you start will help you manage them when they inevitably crop up. As Ann Lightfoot, a professional organizer and co-founder of Done & Done Home, put it, "So many people are hard on themselves about having things they no longer need or want. We always remind our clients that when clearing out and decluttering it's not the time to beat yourself up because it doesn't help one bit."

One way to work through those feelings of sadness, or guilt, or anger, or frustration is to go back to the reason you're doing this in the first place. It's easier to let go of a hoodie that belonged to that guy who broke your heart if you can put it in the context of saying, "Getting rid of this will make more space in my closet, so I can see the clothes that make me feel great." (Also, get rid of that hoodie anyway, it's got bad juju.)

Non-Negotiable: Take Everything Out

Negotiable: Define 'Everything'

Here is another truth to square in your mind: Picking through clothes that are on the hanger, hanging from the rod in your closet is a terrible way to determine what to keep and what to get rid of. It's a form of denial, really — you know you should take everything out so that you can truly assess your collection (were you aware that you own nine black turtleneck sweaters?), keep an eye out for garments that have seen better days and can be put out to pasture (signs to look for are shiny patches, pills, stretching, fading, fraying and/or damage like rips and tears), and try things on to see how they fit (more on that in a sec).

Picking through clothes on the hanger is a form of denial.

However, you may opt to do a more focused purge and that is absolutely fine. In fact, it's recommended if your reason for cleaning out your closet is one that's more emotional (a weight loss or gain, a change in career, an upcoming move, etc.) versus one that's more practical (your closet is so jammed with clothes you can barely shut the door). The idea behind a focused effort is to take items out and sort through them by category, stopping after one, two, three etc. categories when you begin to run out of steam, emotional energy or focus. This is also a good choice for people who have ADHD, which can add an extra challenge to these kinds of organizational projects.

If you're going to take the more focused approach, do take a moment to assess any potential pain points, like blouses that are always wrinkled and sliding off hangers because they're so jammed up, and start with those. In this scenario, you may begin with tops, then move onto dresses before deciding that you just don't have it in you to tackle, say, pants and skirts. That's okay! Successfully sorting through one or two categories of your clothes is still a success, and you should already see some rewards from that effort.

Non-Negotiable: Have a Pile System

Negotiable: Pile System Naming Conventions

Now that everything — no matter how you're choosing to define 'everything' — is out of the closet, you'll have a clearer eye and can begin sorting the clothes into piles based on a system of categories. There are a bunch of different approaches you can take, and you should pick the one that makes the most sense to you. Some people opt for simple 'yes, no or maybe' piles, and that's perfectly fine! There are, though, other choices for thinking about sorting through your clothes; for example, Apartment Therapy suggests using 'definite, potential, questionable,' while Done & Done Home likes 'damaged, enough already, uncomfortable, keep' which has the benefit of building in a judgment on how your clothes affect you emotionally and physically.

"If you don't wear it, it should go. It's that simple."

Ann offered this framework for thinking about what to keep and what to remove from your life, "The idea is to make the decision about what should go to donate or trash while only thinking about whether or not it is useful to you anymore. If you don't wear it, it should go. It's that simple."

Ah, but sometimes it's not that simple, which brings us up to our last set of rules.

Non-Negotiable: Your Piles Require Action

Negotiable: How You Take Action

This will be the toughest part of your purge, but I know you can do it. The yes and no (or whatever terms you're using to quickly figure out what's a definite keeper and what can absolutely go) will be pretty easy to handle. Get those out of the way first, so you have a clear view heading into the decision-making process for that middle category — return clothes you're keeping to the closet in an order that makes sense to you, and bag up the clothes you're pitching and/or donating. If you have a separate pile for items that need mending, sort through what you'll fix yourself at home and what needs to go out to a specialist. Make a plan for when anything leaving the house will be taken out and aim for that to happen within a week of the purge. Longer than that and you're unlikely to actually make the donation or repair and should be honest with yourself about that. Toss those things.

Be brutally honest with yourself about whether or not it still has a place in your life.

Okay now you've made a lot of progress and you should be feeling really good about what you've accomplished. If you're tired, take a 15 minute break and think back to that goal you set for yourself at the beginning of this project. Now is the time when your mental and emotional fortitude is going to be put to the test, because now is the time when you have to try on everything in your maybe pile and be brutally honest with yourself about whether or not it still has a place in your life.

This is HARD. But your life is going to be better if you plow through it, no matter how difficult it is. It's okay to feel those feelings, it's okay to cry, it's okay to speak out loud to a pair of pants that is too tight in the waist despite your efforts to eat better or hit the gym more often. Tell those pants, "You make me feel bad, pants. And I'm not going to let you make me feel bad for one more day, you're going in the garbage!" You're the boss of those pants, those pants are not the boss of you. Make it their fault that they don't fit you, not yours. They're just pants, they won't talk back.

You're the boss of those pants, those pants are not the boss of you.

And then get rid of those pants.

Now then, there will be one pair of ill-fitting pants that, for whatever reason, you cannot bear to part with. That is okay, but understand that you're still taking an action and that action is two-fold. 1. You're letting something that makes you feel bad remain in your life. That's a choice you can make! But when you see it put like that, is it really one you want to make? 2. You're delaying your grief. Or your anger, or guilt, or whatever feeling it is that you're suppressing by putting those pants — the pants that don't fit, and make you feel bad! — back into your closet. But that's also a choice you can go ahead and make. Just acknowledge it to yourself, and also remember Ann's words and be kind to yourself about it. There's always next time!