Knowing how to declutter doesn’t come naturally to most of us. That’s why there’s an entire industry for professional home organizers! But if you’ve ever checked out their fees, you know their help is beyond many budgets. That leaves most of us trying to DIY our decluttering, an effort that can be frustrating for everyone in the house.
There are, of course, some brilliant books out there that teach people how to declutter. Maybe you’ve tried one or two and still have a house full of stuff you don’t want sitting around. I’m here to tell you it’s not your fault.
WHAT IF YOU CAN’T “KON-MARI” LIKE KONDO?
Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has hundreds of thousands of devotees. The basis of her system involves decluttering by category. So, one day you’ll pile everyone’s clothing all together in the same room, and you’ll sort through it. (On other days, you’ll be doing the same with their books, papers, toiletries, electronics, etc.) Then, after deciding what no longer sparks joy, you take everything back and put it neatly away.
That might work in a one-level, mid-sized home. (The average house in Japan, where Kondo is from, is 1,300 square feet on one floor.) In a larger home, your legs are going to be burning as you carry things up and downstairs. Repeatedly. For days.
Then, while you’re trying to decide what doesn’t “spark joy,” your kids will no doubt have their own opinions about their clothes, books, toys, etc. Of course, Marie Kondo didn’t have kids when she wrote her book, so there’s no advice about convincing your kids to pare down their stuff or, at the very least, keep it out of the rest of the house.
So, if you can’t Kon-Mari like Marie Kondo, don’t feel bad. Different strokes for different folks, as the saying goes.
WHAT IF YOU AREN’T READY FOR “DEATH CLEANING”?
Margareta Magnusson’s book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, is a surprisingly pleasant read. Underscoring this approach is the Swedish word, döstädning, which means “death cleaning.” As Magnusson explains, the idea is to “remove unnecessary things and make your home nice and orderly when you think the time is coming closer for you to leave the planet.”
But what if you just want to get rid of some of the junk in your house without having an existential crisis? Read on for the reality-based, five-step approach that I use in my home.
How To Declutter ANY Room
1. Do a surface purge first. You will build momentum and see instant results by getting rid of visible trash and clutter right away. Grab a trash bag and, starting at the door of the room, work your way to the left. As you go, toss crumpled paper, old magazines, broken items, etc. Don’t bother opening cupboards or drawers yet, just throw out what’s sitting right there but needs to go.
2. Now do a deeper purge. Rather than zooming all around the room, mentally divide the space into sections: this corner, that entertainment center, this closet, etc. Start with the least cluttered area, so you keep your momentum and go through its contents with three boxes marked RETURN, DONATE/SELL and TRASH nearby. As you work item-by-item deciding what to keep and what to get rid of, ask yourself:
- Is this the room where it belongs?
- Have we used this in the last year?
- Do I want to keep cleaning this item?
- Does it still suit our tastes/style?
- If it’s sentimental, does holding it bring more happy memories than a photo of it would?
If you can’t answer yes to at least THREE of the preceding questions, then the item goes in one of your three boxes. If it belongs in another room, put it in the box marked RETURN. If it’s in good shape, but you can’t answer “yes” to one of the questions, then put it in the DONATE/SELL box. If it’s not in good shape, then it’s TRASH.
You may find a box filling up before you’ve finished decluttering the room. Don’t stop to empty it! Set it aside and get another box, label it, and keep going. You don’t want to get distracted, or you might run out of energy before you’ve entirely decluttered the room.
3. Deal with the boxes. Once you’ve worked your way around the room, decluttering every cupboard and drawer, it’s time to deal with the boxes. Toss the trash and return what belongs in other places.
• Go through the DONATE/SELL boxes and decide if the 50 cents you’re going to get for each thing is worth the Saturday you’ll have to sacrifice to hold a garage sale, or the time you’ll spend (and risk you’ll take) waiting for complete strangers to come to your house to buy it.
• Take the donation boxes to your car, so they’re out of your home. The next time you leave the house, make a point of stopping by your local charity so you can drop off your donations.
• Put the boxes of things you plan to sell on your kitchen table or desk. You’ll be dealing with them in Step 5.
4. Arrange what’s left. If you’ve correctly purged your clutter, you’ll have much more space. If the room is still crowded, chances are you need to do another deep purge and, this time, be ruthless.
Once you’ve entirely purged the clutter, clean and arrange the room, then take a photo. That photo will help you remember how the room should look. When it starts feeling cluttered again, you’ll have an idea of what’s out of place and what’s got to go.
5. Start selling ASAP. Don’t just let those boxes sit on your kitchen table or desk: get out your camera or smartphone and photograph them. List them on eBay, Craigslist, or even Facebook Marketplace. Do it right away so you don’t have a chance to talk yourself into putting it off.
Schedule all of your sales for the same day (be sure to note that you won’t “hold” things for anyone’s convenience) and then schedule a garage sale for the very next weekend. Whatever you don’t sell in person can be turned into cash at your garage sale, and whatever doesn’t sell in the garage sale should go directly into your car so you can drive it to your local charity.
Once you’ve understood how to declutter any room and worked your way through one, move onto the next. There’s no reason to wait until you’ve completely decluttered your home to throw a garage sale — in fact, making money from selling your stuff might be the exact motivation you need to keep at it!
Note: This post first appeared on September 25, 2015. It has been revised and updated for republication.