What is decluttering?

Decluttering is not tidying, it’s not deep cleaning, it’s not even organizing. It involves these three things, but decluttering is the wholesale sorting and culling of unnecessary items, usually from an overcrowded space, in order to make the space more pleasant and more useful.  Done well, it may not need to be done again for many years, maybe never again.

For example, I regularly go through my kitchen cupboards and fridge, removing old food, cleaning up spills, getting rid of dishes and glasses that are chipped or no longer match. I would call this maintenance, not decluttering and I expect to do this regularly forever.

In contrast, I had a serious challenge with my spice drawer and needed to find a whole new way of dealing with those less expensive but inconvenient cellophane bags of spice. Plus, I was pretty sure I had at least 3 cinnamons, along with spices I had owned when I moved into the place, 20 years before. Dealing with my spice drawer is what I call decluttering. With a proper system for storing and cataloging I will never need to do that work again.

Top tips for successfully decluttering

1 – Declutter by type, not by room

Suppose your garage is driving you crazy. Start by sorting all the tools you have, no matter where in your house they reside. It may feel like this will expand the project but, the truth is, the results will be more satisfying and last a lot longer.  You can still put a basic tool kit back in the kitchen if you like, but having virtually all your tools in one place will help keep them sorted and make finding things much easier.

2 – Gently identify your resistance(s) to decluttering.

Some people LOVE to clean up clutter. If you don’t, knowing why you don’t can help.

It could be fear of letting go of things from the past, fear of letting go of things you might need in the future, fear that you will come face to face with parts of yourself you don’t like. Maybe you have tendency to start projects and not finish and you don’t want worse piles of clutter when you’re done.

Whatever your reasons for not wanting to declutter, respect that they are valid.

3 – Gently identify your reasons for decluttering

Ideally your reason for decluttering is a sense of anticipation and joy, knowing how expansive and energizing decluttering can be and how much easier it will make life for future you. Currently, that may not be your reason.

If your reasons include subtle judgements, like ‘I’m so embarrassed by this mess. I better do something about it,” or “People will/do judge me so I better clean this up,” be gentle. Most of us have private spaces in our homes (or our lives) that we aren’t proud of, and scolding yourself into doing something won’t help you stay with it.

Can you find encouraging reason to focus on? Having a positive reason why you’re doing what you’re doing can keep you going during the tough moments.

4 – Set aside the time

Decluttering takes time. Depending on the scope of the project, you may need a couple of hours or a couple of days. Giving yourself permission to be single minded while you declutter is quite freeing and could make the difference between abandoning the project and completing it.

5 – Start small/safe/easy with big impact

If you currently don’t get excited about decluttering, I recommend experiencing success. Choosing and completing a small project, like your spices or your hygiene products can give you that burst of satisfaction that might propel you into your next project.

Alternatively, picking a project that’s a moderate amount of work but has an enormous impact can have the same encouraging effect. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I think papers can be a great place to start since the decision making of what to keep vs what to ditch has little emotional charge and, in most cases, 90% of your papers can go.

6 – Pull everything out first

This might be the hardest directive to follow, but it is also the most critical, in my opinion. I have two reasons why.

First, making a big pile allows you to understand the totality of what you’ve got. Say you’re sorting tools. How many hammers do you have? How many do you want or need? By bringing all the tools you have into one place, you will be able to see what you have more than one copy of and which copy you like best.

Second, once your space is empty and clean you will feel more compelled to put things away in a useful manner and not over stuff your storage.

7 – Store one layer deep

So, how many hammers do you have? How many can you lay your hands on in the next 60 seconds?

By storing only one layer deep (meaning one layer of clothes in a drawer, a depth of only one object in a front opening cupboard, a stack of boxes only one box high) you make it possible to find and lay your hands on anything you’re looking for in 60 seconds or less. Also, you can put anything away in 3 seconds flat because nothing else needs to move for your object to be tidied away.

8 – Clear containers, solid doors

Whenever I see those design shows where the old kitchen uppers are replaced by cabinets with glass doors or open shelves I think, “Well, there goes that storage space.”

For practical reasons, most of us have some mismatched plates, unattractive but practical plastic glasses, maybe some pots that have seen better days. We may want to declutter our kitchen but that doesn’t mean we want to curate it.

By the same token, when I see a garage stacked high with those solid plastic totes I picture the effort required to find the one that contains the hockey skates, last used three winters ago. How about the camping gear, specifically the camping stove, where is it?

Life can be made easier if our cupboard doors are solid and our storage containers are clear.

9 – Label, label, label

I didn’t always know to buy clear storage containers and I’m not made of money, so I still have a lot of solid totes. When in doubt – label everything! Not only does a tub labelled light bulbs differentiate it from one labelled glue and tape, it also prompts you and the people you live with to put things back in the right place. It takes a special kind of defiance to put a light bulb in a container marked tape and glue.

Don’t be afraid to list items on a label. “Bed sheets, pillow cases, Grandma’s blanket,” will help you locate what you’re looking for far better than “Bedding.”