Clutter-Busting Secrets of the Pros
Seven strategies for getting rid of all the things you don't want, need, or even like.
Act Like You're Moving
Say you had to uproot and relocate. What would you take with you? You don't actually have to pack up anything―just set aside the few things that you love and use and see what's left over. "Chances are, you use only 20 percent of your stuff regularly," says Sally Allen, owner of A Place for Everything, an organizing service in Golden, Colorado.
- Envision your home as a prospective buyer might: Uncluttered spaces make the best first impression. They're also a lot easier to keep clean and dust-free.
- Imagine the potential buyer (or, worse, a relative) going through your closets or drawers. What would you not want him or her to see?
- Buy containers and baskets only after you've decided what to keep. This way you'll have a much better sense of the kind of storage you need.
Why It Works
- You don't have to get rid of things you love or need―you just have to determine what those things are.
- If you've ever packed and paid for a move, the motivation for paring down your possessions will be all too clear.
Assess Your Rooms
Walk through your house with a pen and a notebook, writing down the activities that take place in each room and the items associated with those activities. "Then 'purpose' your space," says Vicki Norris, president of Restoring Order, an organizing company in Portland, Oregon. "Note your desired use for each room, even if you are not using it that way currently." Remove anything that doesn't relate to your proposed activity for that space.
- Start with one room, but keep the whole house in mind.
- Think of rooms that have multiple purposes as several smaller areas, so it's clear where items should be returned if they stray. If gift-wrapping is the designated activity for a certain part of the study and you find a spool of ribbon in the kitchen, you'll know exactly where it belongs, and so will other family members.
Why It Works
- This strategy lays the foundation for long-term change. "By taking an `aerial view' of your entire home, you'll see how certain activities and their supplies are strewn throughout the home―like paperwork, memorabilia, or toys," Norris explains.
- Tackling clutter without knowing your priorities can be counterproductive. "People who take a `tidy up' approach are actually rearranging rather than organizing," Norris says. "Sooner or later, the space relapses to its original condition."
Clean Out for a Worthy Cause
Getting rid of things will be easier if you can picture someone else benefiting from them (instead of how they just signify wasted money for you). Pick an organization to donate to, and learn as much as you can about it. Read the literature, check out the website, and visit the facility, if possible.
- Don't just leave your stuff outside the charity's storefront or in a donation bin, to be ruined by the elements. Deliver it in person, or find out if the organization will arrange a pickup from your home.
- See if there are specific items the charity needs; this will make those things easier to give up. If it doesn't accept certain items ask if it knows of a group that does.
- If an item is truly worthless or beyond repair, don't make the organization deal with it. Find out the proper way to junk it instead.
- Get your kids involved, too, so they can see what it's like to give.
Why It Works
- Discarded items will most likely be used, worn, or appreciated a lot sooner in someone else's hands than they would in yours.
- You can earn a tax deduction for donated goods. But you are responsible for keeping track of donations, determining their worth, and itemizing them on your tax return.
"Edit" Your Rooms
Start in the upper left-hand corner of one wall and start "reading" from left to right and from top to bottom. "The room is a book, a dresser is a chapter, each drawer is a paragraph, the boxes or trays or Ziploc bags in the drawers are the sentences, and the things in the containers are the words," says Alice Winner, an organizing consultant in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. "Get rid of the extra words―things―that are making your life more complicated and unmanageable."
- Any time you feel your attention straying to another part of the room or house, take a break or simply repeat, "Left to right, left to right."
- Resist the urge to skip "chapters." If you jump around the room, dealing with a pile here and a pile there, the room might still look cluttered after a three-hour session.
- Find a motivator for your work. Tack up an image from a magazine or book of a room you'd like to emulate.
Why It Works
- It's difficult to determine the best place to plunge into an organizing project. This eliminates that problem: Just go straight to the upper left-hand corner of one wall. It also curtails aimlessness, because you always know what to tackle next.
- You provide yourself with a prototype as you go. Say you're editing your filing cabinets, and you feel your focus flagging as you encounter another overstuffed folder labeled "Miscellaneous." Look at the drawer you've just completed for a visual reminder of what all the drawers will look like when you're done.
Make Organizing a Team Event
Gail and David Newton, owners of the organizing company Your House in Order, in Greeley, Colorado, suggest finding a friend or two who support your organizational goals and who have decluttering needs of their own, and taking turns organizing each other's homes: Your house this weekend, your friend's the next.
- Make sure everyone is compatible and knows the difference between encouragement and coercion.
- The owner of the item in question should have the final say on whether it gets tossed.
- Have team celebrations when you've reached a certain goal. When the kitchen is done, for example, you all get to go out for dinner.
Why It Works
- Your friends don't have the same sentimental attachment to your stuff that you do.
- "Like a barn raising, organizing takes less time with more hands," says David Newton.
- It's fun having someone to listen to the story of why you're so emotionally attached to, say, a chipped Pyrex nesting bowl―before you put it in the to-go pile.
Shop in Your Closet
Next time you're putting away laundry or dry cleaning, grab an armful of clothes that you haven't worn since you can't remember when and try them on in front of a full-length mirror, suggests Jeanine Baron, founder of Streamliners Inc., an organizing company in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. Put the ones that you would want to buy again back into circulation; donate the rest.
- "The keepers must fit, be in style, and not need major alterations or repairs," says Baron.
- Don't let the mere fact that you paid a lot guilt you into keeping something. Your closet is prime real estate.
Why It Works
- You have to deal with only a few items of clothing at a time―not your whole closet.
- If your weight has fluctuated over the years, this method lets you pinpoint what fits now and bag memories of your body-size history.
- You might enjoy it, especially if you unearth a long-buried treasure.
Put Apples With Apples, Oranges With Oranges
To get an idea of what you own, group like things together. Use your utensil drawer as a model. In it you have forks, knives, and spoons, all in their own slots, and you know there are 12 of each. Can the same be said of your cooking tools? How many wooden spoons do you have? Put all your slotted spoons, spatulas, and pizza cutters in separate piles and toss the ones you don't need. Then group related items and give them their own labeled drawers: "Stovetop Supplies," "Baking Supplies," "Specialty Items." "Every shelf and drawer in your home should have a specific theme, just like the typical sock or utensil drawer," says Kim Cosentino, owner of the De-Clutter Box, an organizing company in Westmont, Illinois.
- Don't limit your search for similar items to just one room. Look all over the house for things like scissors, stamps, and batteries, and put them in one place.
- If you have two things that serve the same function, keep the newer or better one and chuck the other.
- Start with a clean surface or drawer, then put back only the things you use.
Why It Works
- Once you get everything in one category together, you can quickly assess what you own―and what you own too much of.
- If you know what you have and where it is, you won't waste money buying duplicates (think hair elastics).
- If an item resists classification, it is easier to deem it unworthy.