Yes, you and your crew can succeed at decluttering the entire house—once and for all.

By Petra Guglielmetti
Updated December 21, 2017
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Keepsakes or clutter?
Credit: Justin Fantl

Think of decluttering as the ur-resolution, the one move that makes all other goals more achievable. Our whole-house, whole-family plan is designed to save time (fewer closet excavations) and aggravation (no more pantry landslides). It might also erase guilt, since clutter reminds us of the decisions, big and little, that we’ve dodged. More shelf space is lovely, but more mental space is the real game changer. What will you do with yours this year?

1. The Prep

Confer with your team.
“It’s essential to get everyone in on the process to ensure buy-in. Without collaboration, it’s unlikely anyone will honor your unilateral decisions on where things live,” says New York City–based professional organizer Andrew Mellen. Spark your family’s interest by transforming a key shared space, like the mudroom. “Organizing is contagious—usually the less interested parties just need to see progress in one area to get on board,” says Jordan Marks, cofounder and owner of It’s Organized, with locations in New York City, New Jersey, and California. Ask everyone to share ideas on how your home could function better. Then divvy up jobs based on strengths: If your husband loves to wheel and deal, he can sell items on Facebook; your teenager can drive things to the recycling center; your 5-year-old can test the pens in the office.

Plan your attack.
Ask your family which areas bother them most on a daily basis. They’ll see the most meaningful result from tackling these pain points first. Reserve blocks of time to work—up to an hour a few times a week or a two-hour weekend stretch. Put them in the family calendar and stick to them; consistency is what matters most.

Take a “before” photo.
Look at it on your phone whenever you need motivation to tidy up. Or make a print—your family might think twice about dumping mail on the clean kitchen counter if there’s a reminder of past messes hanging on the fridge.

2. The Purge

Get in a zone.
Set a timer each time you dive in—this will remind the group that you’re on a schedule and will help keep a steady pace. “Shut off visual distractions—texts, TV—and put on music or a podcast you can zone out to,” says Melissa Maker, author of Clean My Space.

Sort and edit.
Bring three sturdy bags into every room: one for trash, one for donations, and one for items that would be better stored elsewhere. Large, opaque garbage bags you can tie closed discourage peeking or rethinking. For bulky housewares and furniture, use bright dot stickers (the kind you see at garage sales) to mark the categories. First sweep up anything that’s a no-brainer (worn-out shoes, obsolete sports equipment), then sort items, keeping like with like. In the entryway, group each person’s belongings. In the closet, keep blouses together and pullovers in their own pile. As you work, identify what else you can get rid of. General rule: If you haven’t used something in a year, it should go.

Move things out of sight.
As the bags get full, remove them from the space. Ask your teen to make a run to the dump and donation center or, if you’re planning to host a garage sale, create a temporary “declutter zone,” says Washington, D.C.–based organizing expert Rachel Rosenthal. Items that should live in other parts of the house can move there, too, but don’t worry about giving them a perfect home just yet. Delegate the task or make finding space for them your next mini project.

Assign every item a home.
It’s the cardinal rule of professional organizers: Every item needs one home. When the item is not in use, it’s in that home. Think about storage options you already own that you can repurpose and have family members help come up with creative ways to store things. If you need to purchase storage containers, make a detailed list first to avoid overbuying. The last thing you want is to introduce new clutter.

Label, label, label.
This step is crucial in helping everyone remember exactly what goes where and maintain the new system, especially in heavy-use areas like the pantry, playroom, and mudroom. You can make temporary labels with a marker and bright tape or use a label maker for a longer-lasting ID.

3. Post-Cleanse

Reward yourself.
Plan a little treat after each work session and offer kids stars on a chart to earn a trip to the movies or the ice cream place. Layering in pleasure keeps the organizing process feeling uplifting and transformative, not like drawn-out drudgery. Just try not to reward yourself with a shopping spree (new clutter!).

Fight future clutter.
Take an “after” photo to capture what you’ll strive to maintain. Adopt a hands-full mantra: “Never leave a room empty-handed, because chances are there’s at least one item you could return to its rightful location,” says Maker. When shopping, think about where new purchases will live and what you can get rid of to offset them. (That’s the stickier cardinal rule of professional organizers: One in, one out.) Molly Graves, cofounder of the San Francisco–based The Neat Method, suggests blocking off an hour once a season for a “space lift,” in which the family goes through each room, donation bag in hand.

How to Deal With Sentimental Clutter

“More things fall into the ‘sentimental’ category than people are prepared for—we imbue all sorts of objects with meaning,” says Gail Saltz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. As you come across memorabilia you just can’t get rid of, “set it aside as homework,” suggests Beth Penn, a professional organizer in Los Angeles and the author of The Little Book of Tidying. Later, work with a family member or impartial friend to determine what’s worth the real estate. Keep only those greeting cards with a meaningful note, not just a signature; choose one object from a group (your grandmother’s china, for example) as a memento to display; or take photographs of a collection before donating it. As for kids’ treasures, “it’s developmentally appropriate for kids to hold on to objects as they learn to navigate their environment,” says Elspeth Bell, PhD, a psychologist in Columbia, Maryland. Model organization yourself and make suggestions to help them learn to prioritize favorite things.