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  • Karman Wittry Hotchkiss

Cleaning Out Your Closet – and Other Stuff to Let Go of, Too

Woman looking at shirt while organizing her closet

It’s not lost on me that cleaning out my closet (or lack thereof) is probably a metaphor for other stuff in my life I should just let go of.

Confession: I have too many clothes. Too many shoes. Too many closets. And most of them don’t fit my life anymore.

A year ago, I retired from the company where I’d worked for 32 years. During those decades I had changed jobs and departments (and wardrobe needs) a bunch of times. Sometimes my job required corporate blazers. Sometimes a more creative vibe was right. Sometimes I dressed to please clients; sometimes to please myself. And my final job-inspired wardrobe change (at the start of spring 2020 lockdown) melded work-from-home comfortable with digital-publishing casual. So, yes, some of those corporate blazers haven’t seen the light of day for almost four years now.

And yet, I’m having trouble letting them go. Purging my closet(s) once and for all.

Why do we hang on to stuff that doesn’t serve us?

Most of us generally have trouble throwing things away for a combination of reasons: We worry that we might need the item in question later. Maybe we hate waste. Or the thing has sentimental value. (Hello, 25-year-old onesie in which I brought my infant daughter home from the hospital.)

While we sometimes casually refer to having too much stuff as “hoarding,” mental health professionals have recognized hoarding disorder as a specific diagnosis. And the most recent research has linked it to issues with problem-solving, planning, and organization.

My reluctance to purge my professional clothes collection probably comes from a combination of factors. After retirement, I launched a new career as a leadership coach. At first a lot of my work was done on Zoom calls (maybe I only need professional tops?). But then it evolved to include more in-person workshops, which require actual, full outfits. So I kept telling myself I couldn’t clean out my closet until I knew what my new life looked like and would require.

Woman preparing clothes for donation.

Was that true? Kind of. Was it a crutch? Most definitely. I couldn’t part with those pieces of my old identity until I felt comfortable with my new one.

Which doesn’t just apply to clothes. Right? More on that in a minute.

What the pros know about cleaning out your closet

In my previous life as a magazine editor, I edited hundreds of organization-theme articles for publications like Secrets of Getting Organized and The Magnolia Journal. But there’s one set of closet-cleaning tips that I go back to again and again:

Is this item one of your 10 favorite things to wear?

When it comes right down to it, when I was heading to an office five days a week, I had about five or seven pairs of pants I would reach for. And depending on the season, I rotated eight or nine tops. I didn’t have anything as intentional as a capsule wardrobe; my closet was stuffed with additional choices. These were just the pieces I felt most comfortable in. I doubt I’ll ever whittle my closet down to a dozen things. But this question has helped me recognize that I should only keep things that truly work for me. If it’s not a favorite, if it’s a little itchy or tight or frumpy … I’m not truly likely to wear it.

Closet with a capsule wardrobe.

Is this item faded, fraying, or unfixable?

When I was once on a tour of the Maytag laundry research center, the wash pros shared a factoid that changed my life: The average garment lasts about 50 washes, they said. After that, a piece is past its prime and probably ready to repurpose for painting or sleeping. This is a great reminder when you’re decluttering your closet. Sometimes we hold on to a favorite piece despite the fact that it’s lost a button, stretched out, or pilled beyond repair. And wearing it may not be the way you want to represent yourself anymore.

Does it fit my life?

Notice I didn’t say “Does it fit?” I’m purposely avoiding the discussion of clothes that you hold on to for “when I lose 10 pounds.” Weight and body image are a huge factor in how packed our closets are. But what’s more important in the purging process is deciding if a piece of clothing is serving a purpose in your life.

The year my daughter got married, I bought about five dresses for various showers, meet-the-in-laws events, and such. These days, I probably dress up like that about once a year – and five dresses is overkill. What are the pieces in your closet that don’t match anything else? That you bought for a once-in-a-lifetime beach vacation? That just aren’t “you” anymore? Let ’em go.

What else could you let go of?

Which leads us to a discussion about what else you might be holding on to that doesn’t serve you anymore. As a career coach, a common theme with my clients is how to give up situations and habits that aren’t getting you where you want to be.

“Your current behaviors are simply a reflection of your current identity,” says James Clear, author of the book “Atomic Habits.” “What you do now is a mirror image of the type of person you believe that you are (either consciously or subconsciously),” he says. You can’t become someone new while you’re stuck with your old baggage – literal and figurative.

These are the things my clients and I most often talk about letting go of to make room for something new.

Being busy instead of being effective.

Years ago, I worked with a woman who prided herself on how busy she was at work. Busy, busy, busy. Returning calls, triple-checking details, working late. But as her manager, I could see that she wasn’t particularly effective. She was spending time on tasks that didn’t get results – or at least not the results our business relied on.

Very busy working woman.

My colleague Tammy Rogers calls this “wasted excellence.” It’s when you do a really great job at something that … frankly … doesn’t really matter.

I would challenge you to look at the “shoulds” in your life that aren’t bringing you satisfaction or results. “I SHOULD vacuum under the couch every week.” Really? Does anybody notice? If you did it every other week, what would that create time for you to do instead?

And consider the “shoulds” at work that fill your time but might not make a meaningful difference. Are you one of those people who re-reads outgoing email messages again and again, poring over every phrase and punctuation mark? Sometimes even after you’ve already hit “send”? Would your boss tell you that’s the best use of your time? What could you do with that time instead that has more impact and meaning? Don’t waste your excellence with pointless busyness.

Telling, not asking.

I love having the answers! Ask me anything, and I’m ready to launch into what I know and what I think you should do. (Picture me rubbing my hands with glee.) But I’ve learned over time that asking great questions is way more effective than giving great answers. At work and at home.

In his book, “The Coaching Habit,” author Michael Bungay Stanier outlines the pitfalls of handing out answers like you’re throwing candy from a parade float. When you give answers all the time, the people around you stop thinking for themselves, and you end up with even MORE work to do. Which leads to getting overwhelmed – where your email runneth over and you spend so much time running from meeting to meeting that you can’t get any real work done.

Team of men and women asking questions at a work presentation.

When we give up “telling,” we leave room for the other person to learn and grow and become self-sufficient. And we leave more time for us to do more meaningful work.

Letting outside forces determine what’s important to you.

My eye doctor loves the people part of his job – chatting with patients, getting to know them, learning about their lives. He owns his own business and can set his schedule to allow him that extra time with each appointment. Being an entrepreneur is a good fit with that value, but being an eye doctor in a corporate chain might not allow him that same pace.

Misaligned values is one of the biggest causes of job stress. When what’s important to you isn’t what’s important to your company, your spouse, your friends … you’re in a perpetual state of conflict. It’s OK to decide what’s important to you and to pursue that.

Woman at work with a confident expression.

Letting go is tough. It requires seeing yourself in a new way. Whether that’s literally, like seeing yourself in new clothes, or figuratively, like seeing yourself in a new job or a happier frame of mind, my wish for you is that you don’t get stuck with anything that isn’t who you want to be anymore.

Guest blogger Karman Wittry Hotchkiss

Karman Wittry Hotchkiss is the founder of Level Up With Karman, where she uses her decades of corporate experience to coach others who are ready for more in their career and life. Karman has let go of: worrying about layoffs, Sunday night homework, and her big purse. She’s still holding on for dear life to: too many blazers, her hair coloring regimen, and a trunk full of her kids’ elementary school artwork.

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