Whether you’re trying to clean, simplify, downsize or reorganize, it’s best to use a system when you want to declutter. Otherwise, you’ll get overwhelmed and stop in the middle. Plus if you ever have to move, you’ll be glad you decluttered in advance. I use this method frequently throughout the year—even minimalists build up clutter! Here’s how to declutter in five steps.
What you’ll need
You’ll want to gather some supplies before you get started, so you’re not just moving clutter from one place to another. Here’s what I recommend:
- Trash bags (or bring your trash can into the room with you) and recycling bin
- A container, box, or bag you don’t want to keep for items to donate
- Plastic storage bins or boxes for storing items - you’ll need at least four
1. Pick a room you want to work on
Time to get started. Rather than moving all over the house, pick just one room. You are going to pick a corner of that room to work on. You’ll move from that corner along one wall, either to the left or right, and keep moving in that direction until you’re back in the corner you started. Then you can work on the middle of the room.
I recommend this method because people usually have more stuff along the edges of a room than in the middle, so you’ll want to address that first. Also, the middle of the room will have your bags/containers in it. Lastly, by working in a straight line, you have focus, and you know you’re completely done with one area before you go to the next. This is very helpful for me because when I see clutter it usually does something to my brain. My thinking gets muddled and I just want to give up or throw away everything I see (a weird reaction, I know!). By implementing these steps, I can focus on the task at hand and not worry about the situation as a whole.
2. Remove trash and recycling first
You want to clear the way to see your actual possessions, so first, remove anything that’s beyond repair or meant to be thrown away but hasn’t been yet. This doesn’t need to be a comprehensive removal of trash; if you’re looking at a pile and there’s more trash farther from the top, don’t worry about yet. Just put the obvious trash or recycling into their respective bags or receptacles.
3. Start sorting
Now for the fun part. You should have at least five boxes, bins or containers. Here’s what they’re for:
- Donation - stuff you’re sure you can’t sell but don’t want anymore.
- Put away - items you use all the time and have a home for, but were not put away and need to go back.
- Don’t want - this is stuff that is still in useable condition but you don’t want it anymore. It may be saleable. You don’t have to determine right now if you can sell them; for now, just put them in that container.
- Fix it - things you still use but are broken and repairable.
- Not sure - this is your catch-all box. It’s stuff you haven’t used in a really long time, but you aren’t sure if you’re ready to part with it yet. Maybe it’s a piece of clothing you like that no longer fits, or a gift someone gave you that you’d feel guilty about giving away or selling. Whatever it is, put it in this box.
Use this method around the room as discussed. The good thing about this method is that you can easily stop to take a break or come back to it another day, and you know exactly where you left off. You can quickly stack up your containers and move them to the side if one room takes more than one day.
Repeat this method for each room in your home that you want to declutter. Now, we’ll talk about what to do with the boxes.
4. Empty boxes one and two
It’s time to donate those items from the first box. But before you do, you want to take inventory so you can get a deduction at tax time. There’s a great spreadsheet/calculator here to find out how much your items are worth: https://www.donationcalculator.com/. Then make sure you get a receipt from the organization when you leave your donation.
Also, just as a word of caution: I recommend against using those “donation drop-off” bins you see in parking lots. First of all, some of them aren’t run by reputable companies. Sometimes they are put up illegally (without the permission of the property owner) just so they can collect your stuff and resell it for a profit that has nothing to do with a charity. Also, people often dump trash in there, including food waste. Apparently, they think it’s funny or are too lazy to find a real trash can. If a charity receives donations that are soiled or stained by rotten food or other substances, they are more likely to throw them away than try to clean them. It’s just too much work and expense. Lastly, there’s no way to collect a receipt for your tax records from an unmanned bin.
So use a charity that has a live person present to take your donations and hand you a receipt.
Box two is the “put away” box; this should have items you often, are planning to keep, and have a home for. Put them all where they belong.
5. Take action on your remaining boxes
Box three is the “don’t want” box. Time to figure out whether you can sell any of it. If you’re flush with cash, then go ahead and give it away to friends or donate it.
But maybe you’ve got some things in box four that require money to repair. If you've been putting off the repairs because of money, could you afford it by selling stuff from box three?
If you need help with pricing and selling items, I’ll cover that in a different post. But if you don’t want to get too involved, a garage sale or Craigslist should work just fine.
Take another look into box four. Give yourself a deadline to fix each item. Put it on your schedule if necessary. If it doesn’t seem feasible to repair something, consider changing it to trash, recycle, sell, or donate the item. Worst-case scenario, move it to your “not sure” box.
Regarding box five, the stuff you’re not sure about. Close that box up and put it away somewhere you won’t see it. Put it in your garage, your attic, under your bed. It doesn’t matter where; it just needs to be someplace you won’t be able to look at it.
Now, set a reminder on your phone or add a note to your calendar about this box. 30 days from now, you’re going to retrieve the box and open it. But before you do, ask yourself: do you even remember what’s in this box? Do you miss anything from it?
You’ve now gone a month without those items. Do you really need them? Do a mini-sort, moving things out to donate, sell, or repair.
Welcome to your new, uncluttered space
Your bonus step is to do a deep cleaning while everything is in order. Think about how good it feels to have everything organized and in its place. Maybe you have a little extra cash in your pocket, too.
I recommend using this system regularly because clutter is bound to crop up again and again. I suggest once per month or once a quarter.
Do you use a different method for decluttering? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.