Going from pack rat to clutter cutter

For a former Idaho farm boy, Don Aslett has made quite a name for himself. Not for growing spuds, but as a cleaning and decluttering expert.

While modesty may not be Mr. Aslett's strong suit - he calls himself the world's expert on the subject of cleaning and clutter - there's no arguing that he's accomplished a lot.

He's published 38 books with such intriguing titles as "Clutter's Last Stand," "No Time to Clean!" and "How to Handle 1,000 Things at Once." He's made thousands of speeches, presentations, and media appearances. And his cleaning business, Varsity Contractors Inc., cleans an estimated 300 million square feet of floor space in 43 states each night.

The seed of the business started when Aslett organized a "cleaning company" to work his way through college.

The business originally focused on housecleaning, but evolved into a commercial cleaning operation based in Pocatello, Idaho, where the business is still based and Aslett was reached by phone.

That experience, he says, put him on the path to dejunking. He bid on jobs by the square footage, but found that some houses of the same size and with the same number of occupants could take twice as long to complete. The difference, he realized, was junk and clutter.

"We figured out that 40 percent of most cleaning time is taken up with stuff," he says. "You can't clean the floor until you find it."

Modern living presents two major challenges, he believes. "One's called 'too busy,' and the other is 'excess,' " he says, "and I think 'too busy' is caused by 'excess.' We have too much. We're overhoused, overclothed, overfed, and over-entertained. We're in a real over-offered society," he adds, pointing out the knickknacks, junk mail, and Happy Meal toys we accumulate.

Aslett says he and his wife grew up on ranches with the simple necessities. They live "rich" now, but not encumbered with things.

They own two homes, one in Idaho and the other on five acres in Hawaii, where they've built a low-maintenance, easy-to-clean house with no closet doors, lots of glass, and kitchen chairs suspended over the floor.

"We have nice homes; they're just not full of stuff," he notes. "Most people have 25 percent more furniture than they need, and kids have 75 percent more toys than they need."

He has seen the attitudes toward possession change over the years. His grandmother had one butcher knife, his mother two, and one of his daughters, who owns a knife holder, 12.

Aslett calls such organizers, including those used in drawers and closets, "junk bunkers."

"The law of 'pack rattery' says that junk will accumulate to the space available," he states.

Aslett owns only three suits, drives an older car, and can't understand why people haul bulging carry-on bags onto airplanes. "When you're not lugging a lot of weight around, whether heavy toolboxes or suitcases, you can move faster, better, and quicker."

Ironically, Aslett points out, people are fighting to keep trim at the same time they're saddling themselves with stuff. Thus the inspiration for "Lose 200 Lbs. This Weekend: It's Time to Declutter Your Life" ($12.99, Marsh Creek Press).

Those who take the decluttering plunge are often ecstatic about the results. "Once people start dejunking, a quiet spirit will creep into them and testify that they don't need stuff to be happy," Aslett says. "When you start letting things go, all of a sudden you start feeling the freedom. You don't lose things. You don't have to keep in charge of so much. It gives you room to grow."

Although clutter is no respecter of gender, Aslett believes that women are often superior organizers because of the demands often placed on them to juggle family, jobs, and outside commitments.

"My wife can go to town and do in two hours what it takes me six hours to do," he observes.

People like to ask Aslett what to keep, but he doesn't presume to know what an individual truly values. Dejunking, he's convinced, is a personal matter with public impacts. ("The weight in, on, and around you is carried and shared by others," he emphasizes.)

Aslett says that in sorting, one question must be kept uppermost in thought, namely, "Does this enhance my life?"

"It doesn't matter if something was a gift; it doesn't matter how much money it cost; it doesn't matter how long you've had it," he explains. "All that is irrelevant if it doesn't enhance your life."

Possessions with sentimental value, therefore, can be worth keeping, which is why Aslett holds onto his scout leader's uniform.

He doesn't subscribe to the adage that if you haven't used something in six months, toss it. "I haven't used my fire extinguisher in 15 years, and I haven't thrown it out," he says.

Aslett says his six children may not be as fanatical about dejunking as he is, but they generally share his philosophy. "They weren't 'thing' people growing up," he notes. And with a little encouragement, his 18 grandkids are getting the message, too.

Start dejunking with yourself - your wallet or purse, closet, bureau drawers, and locker. "It's amazing what you will throw out of drawers," Aslett says.

He suggests putting an old blanket on the bed and dumping everything out. Such "cave clutter" (whatever is out of sight) easily gets out of control, and seeing it all together helps you decide what to throw away.

He also recommends starting early in the day, when people are inclined to make more objective decisions, and sorting into four boxes - one for junk, and the others labeled charity (giveaways), undecided, and emotional withdrawal.

Many other pointers are shared in "Lose 200 Lbs.," such as:

* Don't just go through stored things, go through them often, since assessments of their value change.

* To avoid backsliding, dump things the day you determine you don't need them.

* Make room to work and clear a place to put things.

* Don't dump things on the floor or pile them to "pick them up later."

* Take a few minutes to draw up a plan of attack.

* Buy the best furniture the first time, and most of your furniture clutter problems will be over.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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