I am no expert at organizing. The Japanese organizing dynamo Marie Kondo would have a heart attack at seeing my house filled with knick knacks that may or may not spark joy. I like to think my home is eclectic, with objects from around the world representing my travels and experiences and forming a visual interest in their randomness. Or you can just say it’s a lot of random stuff.

About two weeks ago, I was once again stuck and, in a moment of sheer desperation, looked up at the shelves above. Piles of books and papers. A random pink bell. A piece of the Berlin Wall. A crystal owl perched on a copy of How to Make Friends and Influence People. The office clearly needed reorganizing.

An experienced procrastinator, I needed to research this and came across a video about a 30-day decluttering challenge. The idea is simple: each day get rid of stuff. Day 1 – one thing, day 2 – two things, day 3 – three, and so on. Or you can go backwards and start with 30 things on the first day and eventually bring it down to one.

Office space before decluttering. Credit: Anna Huddleston

Office space before decluttering. Credit: Anna Huddleston

I’m not a very patient person, so 30 days seemed like way too long. I’d get fired by then. So I had to tackle it right there and then, using my favorite approach I discovered during the epic quest of cleaning out the attic at my dacha.

One August, my mom invited several friends to her weekend birthday celebration. There was only one challenge – there was no place for all of them to sleep, unless some miracle happened in the attic, which over decades has turned into Aladdin’s treasure cave.

My family has always followed the cherished Russian tradition of accumulating clutter, justifying it by saving everything for an inevitable rainy day. It’s sort of understandable, considering that the past couple of generations have gone through a war, regime changes, and financial crises. Saving everything is just their answer to adversity, and clutter is a natural side effect. En route to its demise, stuff usually migrates from the closets to the apartment balcony to the dacha attic where it is stored indefinitely or eaten by mice.

Understanding that doesn’t make it easier to address. When I volunteered “to help with the attic,” I knew I would be “the enemy of the state” for a while - even if I accomplished something my family couldn’t for decades. They hate their stuff being tossed, and I knew it wouldn’t go down easily. So I waited till everyone was gone back to the city, turned the music on, and went on about creating three piles: toss, save, donate.

At the end of the day, I had several black trash bags ready for the dumpster, grandma’s suitcase that I packed with some of her 60s and 70s clothes to be preserved for future generations, and a copper samovar that I took home. Clothes that could be donated went Spasibo! donation boxes and old magazines were recycled. Mom had a hard time accepting my “edits” but ultimately was happy to have space for guest beds.

Back at my office, still very little progress was being made. “Mom, do we have glue?” asked my little son. I knew we did but where was it? In a radical “search for glue” mission, I pulled everything off the shelves and out of drawers, and once again made three piles, with trash being the biggest one. The Berlin Wall and the owl migrated to a designated shelf. Books unread for ages went into boxes. With a bunch of shelves now empty, the space felt lighter, as if it were inviting new projects and knick knacks from new adventures.

Office space after decluttering. Credit: Anna Huddleston

Office space after decluttering. Credit: Anna Huddleston

An unintended consequence? I came across a brand new box of watercolors that I bought back in 2003 hoping to start painting again. Apparently inspiration has been taking its time. I opened each color and ran a wet brush across them – and what do you know, the office could just be a perfect art studio.