10 Steps to Decluttering - Written by Mark Reed
In her public life, she's always championing a cause, making
a sale or helping someone in need. Her blouses are nicely
starched and her desk is orderly. Her private life, however,
is a different story.
It's only apparent to her and her housekeeper, but Sheila's
guest bedroom is really a storage room. She hasn't asked anyone
to stay there in over a year. For, among the piles in her
guest bedroom, are the decorations from last year's Halloween
blowout, her collection of sweatshirts from around the world,
the remnants of her old job, and a long-forgotten NordicTrack.
As a professional organizer, I meet folks like Sheila everyday.
In fact, I believe we all have some degree of disarray in our lives.
The challenge is to manage it by reducing and containing it for
easy access when we need it.
Clutter problems evolve when we allow our possessions to take over
our space, cause procrastination in our lives, or fill our spirits
with guilt. Are there spaces in your home or office that are crying
out for a decluttering moment or a decluttering campaign?
Reducing clutter is different from merely cleaning up a mess. Different
clutter problems require different solutions. In this article, I've
tried to distill for you 10 steps you can use to plan and execute
your decluttering effort. Within each step are decisions you need
to make based on your objectives, your living space, the nature
of your clutter, and maybe even the weather.
Step 1: Recognize, own, and embrace your clutter problem.
Every item of clutter has a thought or a feeling attached to it.
Maybe it is just a thought about how an item can be used in the
future, or a guilty feeling about a worthless item dropped into
the space after a long workday. Recognizing that you have clutter
and that you, and the others in your household, share the responsibility
for it, is an essential realization that will help you move toward
At this point, you can begin looking at your clutter as a solution
in process. Try to release your embarrassment and keep only enough
guilt to drive you toward and help you maintain your objectives!
Step 2: Develop a vision and commit to a result.
Consider the result you would like to achieve. Do you merely want
to reclaim your foyer, or is there some way you would like re-purpose
the room? If you are sorting through the drawers of an antique sideboard,
what will you store in the drawers later?
A large decluttering project can be overwhelming and being very
specific about your outcome will help you through the obstacles
that will arise to discourage you. While you are out shopping or
on your lunch break, pick up some paint samples, look at your options
for organizing products, or visit a furniture or decorating store.
Clip pictures from your favorite magazines or draw a picture of
your ideal result.
Step 3: Make a time plan.
What are your time constraints? Some of my clients want quick results
so they can 'move on' with their lives. They see a big event such
as an upcoming family visit, a vacation from work or a significant
birthday as an opportunity to finally dig through their messes.
If you prefer a speedy result, you should consider scheduling a
professional organizer with a crew, or a group of trusty friends
and family. During the sorting process, you will be inundated with
decisions a professional organizer will provide an overall plan
and lead the "troops," freeing you up to concentrate on
the individual pieces of clutter.
Other clients have plenty of time and prefer to work through their
clutter with the help of a weekly coaching session with a professional
organizer, and on-going support from a "clutter partner."
A clutter partners are a close friends who help you declutter, often
in exchange for helping them do the same.
Having a set of time goals that are tied to your vision is essential.
Here is an example of a set of time goals I created for a weekly
Here is a summary of our discussions from yesterday
and a quick plan for getting the work done by April
Clothes in closets
Clothes in drawers
Papers and Filing (You may need a partner for this.
What is your daughter doing during Spring break?)
Mar. 29- Apr. 4
Organizing smaller items. (labels, trays, dividers,
hooks, shelf dividers, etc.)
Learning to use you house in an organized way
Step 4: Divide and conquer
"The problem is so big, I don't even know where to start!"
It's normal to feel overwhelmed when starting a decluttering project.
There are many ways to break down a decluttering project and find
a starting point. Here a few methods I use to help clients get started.
Large items vs. small items
Consider your decluttering project on two levels, large and small.
First, take on the "large" items. Large items are furniture,
bags, boxes, large art pieces, etc. Once the large items are handled,
move on to the smaller ones.
Always make the problem smaller.
Many people find it helpful to see a project as a set of smaller
projects. By taking on these smaller projects one by one, they feel
assured that the larger problem is getting solved. For example,
you may want to search through your pile taking out only trash.
Once the trash is gone, you might begin searching through your pile
for decorative items. Then stuffed animals, for example, and further
down the line. In that way, you are continually making the problem
smaller as you go.
Take one area or thing at a time.
Others prefer working their way around the room handling each item
as they come to it. They might say, "First, I'm going to clear
this doorway. Then I'll work my way over to that toy box."
Feel free to break the project down in your mind in the way that
helps you move forward.
Step 5: Sort items by destination.
During this stage of the job, sort items into the categories of
"trash," "donate," "give to friends and
family," and "keep." Notice, you are not sorting
based on the function but based on destination.
Be ruthless. If there were space for all of the stuff, you wouldn't
have a clutter problem in the first place! Think of each item in
terms of its present usefulness in your household. If you find yourself
saying, "This might come in handy someday," it's not valuable
enough to keep. Besides, if it's so handy, you can probably find
another one when the need arises.
When deciding whether an item should be donated or tossed, put
yourself in the shoes of the person who will be receiving each item.
Would receiving this item bolster your self-respect? If not, go
ahead and toss it.
Check each container's contents to see if they can go right out
with the trash, donate or friends and family items. Containers without
a clear destination should be sorted through at this time.
Step 6: Take advantage of "breakthrough" moments.
Almost without fail, every clutter client I've worked with has
reached a singular moment in their work when they just "get
it." Often, the moment comes when they are forced to decide
the fate of an item that, for them, symbolizes the larger problem.
(Believe it or not, for one of my clients it was a neon yellow head
for an octopus costume!)
For some, the moment occurs when they regain use of an important
resource, like for one client, being able to invite her son's girlfriend
over for dinner on their recently cleared dining table. However
your moments of inspiration arise, use the feeling they produce
to drive you on to further moments and ultimately you final vision
for the space.
Step 7: Remove everything but the "keep" items.
As soon as you can, remove your "trash," "donate,"
"give to friend and family" items from your household.
For trash, you have three options. You can load it up in a private
vehicle and drive it to the local landfill or, for recyclables,
your local recycler. You can call a hauler to pick it up at your
house. Or, you can ask your city trash service for a bulk pick-up.
As you know, there are countless groups that accept donations either
to place on sale or to give to those in need. Some will actually
send a truck out to pick up your stuff. Call the organizations you
prefer to ask about pick up or delivery options.
Place the "give to friends and family" items in your
garage or better yet in your car and look for your earliest opportunity
to give them away. Or, plan some time to drive your "give to
friends and family" items to your loved ones.
Step 8: Sort your "keep" items by function.
This is an exciting moment! Everything left is truly valuable to
Now, it's time to sort by function. Typical categories for a household
decluttering project are "decorative items," "electronics
and entertainment," "office supplies," "papers
and filing," "gifts," "kitchen," "clothes,"
and "toys and games."
Step 9: Visualize the proper storage for each category.
Once the "keep" items are sorted, you will get a sense
of their volume and the proper products for storing them. It's time
to pull out your drawings or magazine clippings - your vision --
for the space and go shopping for storage products. If your budget
is reaching its limit, which items can be appropriately stored in
the furniture and organizing items you already have?
When choosing storage products, picture yourself using the product.
Will it hold up under the weight of your stuff? Does the lid close
easily and stay closed? Do you want to be able to see the items
in the container or is hiding them a better idea? Would this item
store better in a drawer or on a hook? Will the container fit on
Take the time to label the new "homes" for each of your
possessions. In my mind, making the right storage choices and labeling
each new "home" gives you the ability to maintain an organized
space going forward.
Step 10: Celebrate EVERY victory!
From a single item going in the trash, to the final attainment
of your vision, each small step forward is cause for celebration.
While you are decluttering, look for a bell, siren, noisemaker or
hat you can use to celebrate your achievements. In the end, consider
throwing a party in your newly decluttered space.
Remember Sheila, who was not able to have anyone to stay in her
guest bedroom? What better celebration for her, than to enjoy an
evening at home with a visiting friend, lingering over dinner with
the soft flicker of vanilla-scented candles lighting the room? Because
tonight, the guest bedroom is clutter-free and ready to accommodate
Mark Reed is owner of Stuff Police, a professional organizing
& Staging company based in Grandview Heights, Ohio. He is also
an Accredited Staging® Professional specializing in helping
homeowners declutter and prepare their homes for sale. For more
information visit www.stuffpolice.com.
Illustration by Rachel Willms of OTB
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