A cluttered home feels overwhelming, but the process of getting rid of clutter can feel overwhelming, too. These steps guide you through decluttering at your own pace and explain how to keep clutter out of your home for good.
Why Decluttering Feels Overwhelming
The biggest obstacle to getting rid of clutter is that most of us make a big deal out of it. We look at our crowded kitchen counters or \bedroom closets and think we have to set aside an afternoon or even an entire weekend to deal with them.
Since it seems overwhelming, we put off dealing with the clutter, and it continues to grow. Soon, the mess takes over the kitchen table and maybe even a chair. The jumble in the closet spreads to the bedroom floor, the top of the dresser — anywhere where there’s space.
And then what happens? You start feeling stressed because clutter overwhelms your mind with too many things. You feel guilty for letting it get that way. And yet you feel too drained to deal with it. We’ve all been there.
Overcome the Anxiety Bite by Bite
There’s an adage, which I discuss in my book 30 Days to a Clean and Organized House, about the best way to eat an elephant. The answer: one bite at a time.
In other words, you don’t think about the enormity of the beast. You don’t think about how miserable you’re going to be the entire time. You certainly don’t think about how long it’s going to take you to do it. You just grab a fork (or whatever implement you’d need to eat an elephant) and start in… one bite at a time.
The same thing is true about decluttering. Once you get the hang of this approach to ending clutter for good, you won’t even have to think about it. It will merely be part of your average day and, by doing it day after day, you’ll have eaten that elephant — I mean, conquered that clutter.
How to Declutter a Room
These steps are in order for a reason. It’s not just because the 1-2-3 approach is catchy, though it is and that helps you remember it. The steps are arranged to tackle the mess in short bursts without becoming distracted, overwhelmed, or bored.
Step 1. Choose One Priority
Pick ONE area to tackle. If your home isn’t too bad to start with, work on a room you can’t stand seeing messy. If you’re dealing with a lot of clutter, choose just one area in a room.
The point is to start with something that personally affects you — not your kids’ room, not your spouse’s dresser drawers, nothing that involves sorting through someone else’s stuff. This is about letting you see the rewards of your effort from the onset, which will help you stay motivated.
Step 2. A Two-Minute Frenzy
Once you know what you’re decluttering, spend two nonstop frantic minutes grabbing everything that’s trash. Don’t think about it. Don’t debate about getting the money you spent back through selling it online or in a garage sale. Don’t start rationalizing about how you might use it someday or that a friend might like it. If those things were true, you’d have sold it, used it, or given it away already. It’s trash. Treat it as such and toss it.
Step 3. Put Away Three Things
Find three things that belong somewhere else and take them there. Now.
- Kids’ shoes in your family room? Put them in their room.
- Dirty dishes on the coffee table? Take them to the kitchen.
- Library books to return? Put them on your seat in the car, so you remember to deal with them the next time you leave the house.
By limiting your efforts to just three things, you’re getting a start on decluttering the room. But — and this is important — keeping it to just three things doesn’t give your brain a chance to get bored or overwhelmed. So, before those thoughts start to creep in, it’s time to shift your focus again. How? By going back to the start of the loop.
Step 4. Loop Back
By this point, you’ve been working for just five to ten minutes. And yet you’ve made progress toward getting rid of clutter! So, switch to another priority area and repeat the cycle there. Spend two more minutes tossing trash non-stop then put away three things that go elsewhere. Wrap up your efforts by moving to yet a third spot and do it one more time.
If you’ve been counting, this has only taken a total of 15-30 minutes — not an overwhelming amount of time at all. But by doing it this way, you’ve made progress in three different areas. And by limiting yourself to a set time in each area, you’ve avoided feeling overwhelmed or bored.
Keep At It
You don’t need to declutter your entire home in one day. It’s not a project, it’s an ongoing process. That said, you can do the process every day or once a week — whichever works for you. Just remember to set a specific amount of time then do steps 1, 2, and 3 in one room and loop back in a different room. When your specific time is up, give yourself permission to stop and be proud that you’ve made progress.
How to Keep Your House Decluttered
The steps above will help you tackle the mess. To keep it from returning, you need to follow three more steps to end clutter for good.
Keep One Bare Surface Per Room
In every room of your house, pick one horizontal surface to keep entirely clutter-free. That means no knickknacks, no frills, no books or papers placed there for “just a second.” Nothing. It stays bare.
Why? Because having one bare horizontal surface will prevent clutter blindness. So, rather than walking into a room and ignoring the mess, your brain will register the contrast between this one bare surface and the clutter on others. That, in turn, will motivate you to keep working on it.
Do a Daily Two-Minute Reset
Every day, spend two minutes in each room of your home picking up trash. Again, don’t start debating with yourself whether it’s clutter. If it’s broken, outdated, expired, if you haven’t used it lately, or wouldn’t spend money on buying it today, get rid of it.
Have Three Reasons for Anything New
Before you buy anything new, make sure you have three strong reasons for bringing it into your home. And, sorry, but I want it, I like it, or it’s on sale (or free) aren’t good reasons.
Instead, ask yourself:
- Do I or someone in the family really need this?
- Do we have anything that would work just as well?
- Will we use it regularly?
- Is it worth the money they want for it?
- Do I have a storage spot for it already, so it doesn’t just sit around making the house look cluttered?
- Is it so essential that I won’t mind having to put it away every single day if no one else does?
If you have to talk yourself into a “yes,” or you don’t feel absolute certainty in your answer, don’t bring it home. It’s easier to go back for something later if you change your mind than it is to make time to deal with an overwhelming mess. Once you understand that crucial difference, you’ll conquer clutter in your home for good.