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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 a solution.

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 coaching client:

Here is a summary of our discussions from yesterday and a quick plan for getting the work done by April 12th.

Feb. 1-7


Feb. 8-14

Clothes in closets

Feb. 15-21

Clothes in drawers

Feb. 22-28


Mar. 1-7

dining room

Mar. 8-14

Kitchen cupboards

Mar. 15-21

Papers and Filing (You may need a partner for this. What is your daughter doing during Spring break?)


Living room

Mar. 29- Apr. 4

Organizing smaller items. (labels, trays, dividers, hooks, shelf dividers, etc.)

Apr. 4-10

Learning to use you house in an organized way

Apr. 12


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 you.

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 the shelf?

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 Sheila's guest.

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

Illustration by Rachel Willms of OTB Marketing & Design

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