Use it or lose it

The idea may fill you with dread but now help is at hand to declutter your home and free yourself from junk.

Close your eyes and picture a light, bright, clutter-free living room, where every item justifies the space it takes up. Now open your eyes. If the scene hasn't changed, congratulations. But if the view is now more bombsite than show home, you might want to add an extra resolution to your list: declutter and organise. But then where will you put all those Christmas presents? A study by financial services firm Citi recently found that 53 per cent of Britons received three unwanted gifts last year. Then there are all those gadgets which have been rendered obsolete by the new ones you found in the January sales. A study for Esure found that more than 290 million gadgets that still work but have been replaced by upgrades are cluttering up household storage space. In a world where we seem to accumulate ever more "stuff", living a clutter-free life can feel like a distant dream.

A recent survey by the Clutter Clearing Consultancy found that one in five people make New Year resolutions to clear out clutter. Alas, more than half of us are destined to fail. So when it comes to sorting out our overflowing possessions, some of us need professional help. You may not have heard of it, but the Association of Professional Declutterers and Organisers UK (APDO) is the place to turn to. Sue Kay was one of the founder members, and she explains that when she set up her company, No More Clutter, the notion of professional organisers was a foreign concept in the UK (unlike the US, where it's a thriving industry). Gradually, the idea of hiring a declutterer is catching on, helped by TV programmes such as Life Laundry and House Doctor. "APDO was founded in the autumn of 2004 with just three members," she says. "Now we have 126 member businesses and our website gets an average of 2,500 visitors a month."

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Although many of us dream of the day when a house doctor knocks on the door, ready to tidy up our troubles, it seems we're still a bit squeamish about admitting that we need help. "British people seem to be somewhat ashamed or nervous about working with a professional organiser," says Sue Kay. "This is changing slowly but surely, and I notice that people are less amazed when they discover what I do."

In Scotland, APDO has just 12 members, perhaps suggesting that we're particularly reluctant to ask (and pay) for help sorting out our houses. Elaine McKinlay is a woman on a mission to change that attitude.

Now based in Glasgow, it was the years McKinlay spent working as a ski instructor in Switzerland that really set her on the path to establishing a decluttering business. "I'm a born organiser – I've always had that streak," she says. "I lived in Villars in the Swiss Alps for seven years and their way of living is very crisp and clean, with no clutter. I brought that attitude back home with me." The process of moving house a year and a half ago finally galvanised her into setting up her own organising business, which she decided to name Clear Mountain.

It's a job that requires not just organisation, but plenty of tact and diplomacy. "Decluttering is quite an emotional thing," McKinlay says. "It's a way of starting to sort people's problems out – if they can get one part of their life organised that tends to fix other areas because their self esteem is raised and they know they can take it a wee bit further." She says that there are several areas her business focuses on, including downsizing, when children have grown up and flown the family nest, leaving parents with too many rooms – which are usually filled to the gunnels. "It can be very difficult to get rid of things that belonged to your children," she says. "But there are solutions to that – we make a memory box and they pop bits and pieces into that box; not everything that they've kept, but things they feel are really important to them."

McKinlay says that downsizing can be a hugely emotional and stressful task, as it often involves giving away a lot of possessions. But she says that there are positive ways of doing it, such as giving things to charity or selling through eBay to raise a bit of extra cash for the move. McKinlay's involvement can vary from giving a consultation on what needs to be done, right down to project managing and boxing things up.

Another part of her business is home staging, as seen on House Doctor, where people need to improve the look of their home to achieve a good selling price. The other area McKinlay works in is bereavement – helping families who have lost someone and need to decide what to do with their possessions.

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The Scottish members of APDO all specialise in slightly different aspects of organising, some focusing on offices as well as homes, others catering to people with long-term illnesses, while one company – – sets out to help over-stretched mothers fit everything into their daily lives.

Gina Bremner, founder of, says she set up the company because she found housework to be such a boring and thankless task. "My aim is to inject some fun into the chores, make women feel they are not alone in this and that they can have a clean house but still go and have fun," she says. "I want them to stop thinking, 'A woman's work is never done,' and start thinking: 'I am finished for today.' "

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At Clear Mountain, Elaine McKinlay says that tidiness is much like noise – people's tolerance varies. When she visits someone's house it's not a case of throwing everything out to create a show home. "That's not everyday life," she says. "It's important to have your bits and pieces around. But in some cases it goes to the extreme and someone's got every newspaper from the last five years. So it's about weighing up and making sure people feel comfortable in their surroundings."

Although McKinlay doesn't return to her clients' homes to perform spot checks, as the TV house doctors do, she says she does sometimes get invited back. "In general, people have managed to keep roughly to the guidelines that were given to them," she says. "They often say, 'I don't know why I didn't do that years ago.' It can help them a lot."

So if you're facing a clutter mountain, it might be time to call in the professionals. It'll be one less resolution to put on the list next year.

To find an organiser in your area, visit the website for the Association of Personal Declutterers and Organisers ( To contact Elaine McKinlay and Clear Mountain, tel: 0141-616 0597 or e-mail [email protected]

Tips for decluttering

Don't try and blitz the whole house in a day. "Because it's such an emotional and physical exercise, the main rule of decluttering is to take it one room at a time – and one small section at a time," Elaine McKinlay says.

Sort out your linen A nice easy job to get you started – work out how many sets of bedlinen and towels you actually need, then get rid of the excess.

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Don't spend a fortune on storage solutions Shoe boxes, ice-cream cartons and any other old containers you may have lying around can be put to good use.

Prioritise Think about what you use most in a room and prioritise what's important – and what's not.

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Label your boxes It's important to label things that are being put into boxes, especially in the loft. Then it's easier when you go to find something.

Adhere to the one-in, one-out rule Every time you buy something new, let something similar go to the charity shop or recycling bin.


1 Books

2 Watches

3 Records

4 Mobile phones

5 VHS videos

6 Jewellery

7 Soft toys

8 Cameras or camcorders

9 Ornaments

10 Computers and computer accessories