How to conquer your clutter
August 12, 2017
Does your home look like a candidate for an episode of Hoarding: Buried Alive? Probably not, and thank God for that. But it probably doesn’t look like a Zen monastery either.
If you find yourself further down the buried-alive road than you’d prefer, welcome to the club! Americans are major clutterbugs, and the research says it’s stressing us out. So much for “home, sweet home,” that refuge from stress where we can relax after a long day.
Once you become a homeowner, this tendency can get worse. “Homeowner stuff” like hardware and gardening tools starts piling up. You might have more space than before … and you expand into it. One infamous study of 32 Los Angeles families found that most of their garages were so full of junk that there was no space for their cars.
The fix, of course, is to declutter. Once you’ve done it, you’ll be more relaxed every time you walk in the door. Maybe you won’t need to buy (and clutter your home with) all those soothing aromatherapy candles.
And by the way, decluttering is great prep for buying a home. You can take it all with you … but packing and unpacking will sure be easier if you don’t. It’s hard to imagine a better time to turn over a new leaf.
But where do you start? We can help with that part. Here’s our how-to guide to get motivated, get organized, get your stuff into a new home, and prevent clutter relapse.
First, find your motivation
Letting go of our stuff is in many ways a lifestyle change. It can be hard to do if we don’t know why we’re doing it. A compelling vision for something new can help with that. So take a few minutes to consider how clutter affects your life and the pleasure you take in your home.
Here’s a mini-quiz to see if you might be suffering from the effects of too much stuff.
- Do you experience high levels of stress due to the background of chaos?
- Do you feel guilty because every room reminds you that you “need to get something done”?
- Do dust and grime build up because cleaning is harder when you have to clear your surfaces first?
- Do you waste time looking for stuff that’s buried or camouflaged by other stuff?
- Do you waste money buying duplicates of things you can’t find when you need them (or haven’t seen in so long that you forgot you own them)?
- Do you forget to pay bills that you've misplaced under a pile of other stuff (which, btw, is not good for your credit score)?
If some or all of these problems resonate with you, let’s move on to solving this problem.
Divide and conquer
To some extent, decluttering is a matter of personal style. Maybe that’s why there are dozens of decluttering and organizing books and websites out there claiming to have the perfect system. Each one is perfect for someone. But the foundation of most seems to be some version of “divide and conquer.”
The process we like best will help you divide your stuff into four categories: donate, throw away, keep, store.
Here's the step-by-step:
- Get a box ready for each category: donate, throw away, keep, store. Add a fifth box for sellable items if you’re the enterprising type.
- Start sorting either one room at a time (bedroom, kitchen, study) or one category at a time (clothes, books, toys).
- Only keep or store items that you know you’ll need in the near future, have used in the last year, or love.
- Donate the items that you don’t need or love and are still in useable condition.
- Throw away the items that are outdated, broken, or just too used.
- Now assign a specific “home” to every item in your box of keepers, ideally in the same general area where you’ll be using it.
By now, you’ll be feeling like the wind is at your back. So keep going: how’s that storage pile looking? Is it time for some self-examination? Perhaps you’re storing things just because you can’t make a decision. Or maybe you’re seized by the faux logic of “What if I need it later?” Let's not kid ourselves… decluttering often involves making a lot of decisions all at once, and that can be stressful.
But it’s not impossible. Organizing experts might encourage “tough love” at this point, but we like the gentle kind. Why not de-escalate by adding a sixth box and writing “round 2” on it? You can come back to those items in a few weeks.
Micro-divide and semi-conquer
Is this really tough for you? Try the divide and conquer method, but working one area at a time. Your desk, a closet, the dining room table. Make a series of decluttering appointments with yourself, and you’ll get there. With a fresh, clean work or relax space to enjoy, the momentum is sure to pick up. Hallway closet? Junk drawer? Bring it on!
Do you need a guide?
If you need more inspiration, encouragement, guidance, or low-duty psychological help (not kidding about that last one) … again, welcome to the club! Like we said, there are enough decluttering and organizing books out there to do a hoarder proud. Here are two of the most-loved.
Organizing from the Inside Out
A classic entry in the decluttering genre. Professional organizer Julie Morgenstern approaches organizing as a skill that can be learned. And the learning starts with identifying your goals, natural habits, and psychological needs, so you can work with them instead of waging a losing battle against them. How sensible. She favors divide and conquer by category.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
This recent favorite is such a phenomenon that in 2015 Time named its Tokyo-based author, organizing consultant Marie Kondo, one of the 100 most influential people in the world. At the core of her “KonMari Method,” which also uses the category approach, is the idea that we should keep only what “sparks joy.” As for the rest, thank the items for their service and let them go. Some consider Kondo extreme, but the joy test leaves room for that ancient concert T-shirt with a hole in it while giving you a warm glow every time you visit it at the bottom of your dresser drawer.
Where to get rid of your stuff
Now that you have a big “donate” pile to deal with, it may feel like yet another chore to responsibly get rid of it all. On the other hand, it can feel great to take all that stuff you were hanging on to and give it to people who can really use it. As the saying goes, one human’s trash is another’s treasure.
If you’re not sure where to donate, here are some places we’d recommend:
- Freecycle. This worldwide grassroots network is all about reuse.
- Swap shack. Your city transfer station might have a “take or leave” spot.
- Goodwill. They take a wide array of clothes, furniture, and household goods. Check to make sure your local store accepts donations, and ask for a giving receipt if you’d like to include it on your taxes.
- Libraries. Many collect books for fundraising sales. The nicest ones sometimes end up on their shelves.
- Clothing drop-off boxes. An old and easy standby, but note that these days some are for-profit.
- Women’s shelters. Shelters sometimes collect clothing for women and their families who've fled abuse with little more than what was on their backs. Search for a shelter near you at DomesticShelters.org.
- Dress for Success. This worthy organization empowers women to achieve economic independence by providing professional attire and other support.
- Consignment shops. Is some of your stuff worth selling? Secondhand stores often take consignments. Online, try Swap.com for clothes, toys, and games.
- Facebook. If you’re feeling neighborly, do a quick search on Facebook for your local “Buy Nothing” group – a place to trade free items with your neighbors.
- Nextdoor. Neighborhood social networks like Nextdoor are great places to announce free or reasonably priced items.
How to avoid clutter relapse
Once you’ve done the work of decluttering, chances are you’re going to love your new space. How do you keep from slipping back into your old ways?
These simple habits might help:
- One in, one out. You’ve probably heard this one. If you buy, for example, a new pair of shoes, get rid of another.
- The volume rule. Assign a specific amount of space to a category of stuff, and when it’s full, “one in, one out” kicks in. For example, you get to keep as many books as comfortably fit in the bookcase, but no more.
- Watch your magnet zones. These are places that tend to accumulate and hang on to stuff. The dining room table? The “drop spot” by the front door? Keep an eye on these, and clear them out regularly.
- Don’t buy in bulk. Let’s call it The Costco Syndrome. A lot of us tend to stockpile discount food, cleaning supplies, etc. … at the cost of clutter-induced stress. Bulk purchases sometimes make good economic sense. But try to only buy what you can realistically use.
- Share. Swap and share things like tools and rarely used kitchen equipment with your neighbors, and you do more than stop clutter: you save money and resources.
Beautify your “new” home. Once you’ve decluttered and your space is feeling so much better, you may well be inspired to launch into some decorating. Here are 20 key dos and don’ts for both beauty and function.