The Golden Rules of Decluttering and Organizing Your Home

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Overwhelmed by mess? Don’t give up hope. Learn the basic rules of decluttering and organizing your home to get it under control for good.

Our homes get cluttered for many reasons, and not all have to do with laziness or lack of desire for a tidy home. The longer you live in one place, the more stuff you accumulate. Add in a partner or spouse, kids, and pets, and you’ll get even more stuff. Even when the kids grow up and move out, there’s no guarantee they’ll take their clutter with them, either. By that point, you’re also older and might not have the energy to keep up with everything.

Life Changes Lead to Clutter

That’s what I tried to explain to a woman who wrote to me shortly after the publication of my book, 30 Days to a Clean and Organized Home. She introduced herself as a recent college grad. Newlywed, she had just moved with her husband into their first city apartment. The title of my book caught her eye because she wanted to create an idyllic new home for them. But her email, in a nutshell, said, “Who the heck needs thirty days to get their home under control?!

I’ll confess right now, I wanted to write, “Ah, my sweet summer child, wait until you’ve lived more.” But I didn’t. I don’t recall the details of my response — it’s been six years — but I must have been polite and friendly. She recently wrote to thank me for my helpful book now that she’s dealing with three kids and a husband in a large home. “I totally get it now,” she said. “I might even need more than thirty days.”

In other words, a full life is often a busy one, and busy lives lead to clutter. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to put up with the chaos, though. If you’re fed up with not being able to find things, or feeling like your stuff is taking up too much space, you can fix it. You just need to know the basic steps to declutter and organize your home.

How to Declutter and Organize Your Home

Jumbled clothes on the left and neatly folded clothes in a drawer on the right

To declutter your home, you get rid of things. To organize your home, you arrange what’s left. Working in this order saves you both time and money. By decluttering first, you free up space. Then you organize that space to make things easy to find and put away, which keeps clutter under control.

1. Decluttering Is Not a One-Time Event

It helps to think of decluttering like grocery shopping. Before you go to the supermarket, you make room for what you plan to bring home. You toss out old stuff or things you don’t like. You don’t keep foods you can’t stand, or hold onto outdated leftovers because you spent money on their ingredients. To declutter, you need to treat your possessions the same way. Don’t get more than you need or have room for, and make room for new things if you do.

2. Get Rid of Things That Aren’t Useful or Enjoyable

If you don’t use an item often, it’s clutter. The same goes for things you don’t like. No matter how much you spent on something, it’s clutter if it doesn’t improve your life in some way. You can’t organize your home if you’re holding onto clutter. If clothing doesn’t make you look or feel amazing, you won’t wear it. Get rid of it. If a kitchen gadget is a hassle to use or to clean, you’ll avoid it. Get rid of it. If you keep trying to read the same book but get bored by page 30, you’ll keep sticking it aside in favor of something more entertaining. Get rid of it — unless it’s a textbook or something you have to read for work, obviously. (Related: How to Decide What’s Clutter and What’s Not.)

3. Have a Short-term Holding Spot

When you start purging clutter, you’ll wind up with piles of things you want to get out of your home. Pick an area to put them for now. Stuff that’s trash goes into the garbage, of course. But you need a spot for other things like charitable donations or items you want to give to friends. The trunk of your car works well and lets you drop them off next time you’re out of the house. Make a donation trip as soon as it’s full.

4. Don’t Hoard Clutter Hoping to Sell It

Garage sales are so pre-2020 — don’t plan to live with your clutter until it’s safe to sell in-person again. If you can’t list it online for a no-contact sale, drop it off at a charity and take the tax deduction. Other options: give it to a friend, list it in your neighborhood’s Facebook page as a freebie, or stick it on the curb with a “FREE” sign. Someone will snap it up fast.

5. Don’t Start by Buying Containers

Beautiful bins and baskets are inspiring, but hold off on buying them. Containers commit you to specific locations and sizes. Then, when a box doesn’t fit where you’d hoped, it turns into clutter. Or when you find things don’t fit into the container as you expected, you wind up shoving other stuff into it that might not make sense. To get your home organized, you need the freedom to move things from where they are to where they’d work better. You may discover you don’t need containers at all.

6. Make Using Your Stuff Easy

If you use something daily, don’t keep it where you’ve got to move things to get to it. And don’t stack stuff on top of it, either. The harder something is to get out, the harder it will be to put away, and that means you’ll just leave it lying around. Before long, it’ll attract more clutter. (Related: How to Reduce Clutter in 5 Daily Steps.)

7. Put Things You Use Together in the Same Spot

If you have to search for various things you need to do a task, you’ll avoid doing it. Or you’ll do it, but leave the things sitting out. For jobs that you do often, keep all the necessary elements together. If you pay bills by check, for instance, have your stamps, envelopes, a pen, and your checkbook in one spot. Love to bake? Keep your baking ingredients, tools, and supplies in the same cupboard. Organizing your home is about making it useful and efficient for you.

8. Curate Like a Collector

An essential basic rule of home organization is to store similar things together. To do this, think like a collector. Find all of your shoes and put them in one spot. Gather your books from where they’re all scattered and shelve them. Put kitchen linens in one cabinet or drawer. You get the picture. Once you see things as a collection, it’s easier to notice when you’ve got too much of one thing. No one needs a dozen flat-head screwdrivers of the same size or seven pairs of casual black flats. Curate your collections by choosing the best and letting go of the rest.

9. Put Heavier Things on Lower Shelves

The harder you have to work to get something out, the less likely you are to put it away. That goes for heavy things, too. That clunky stand mixer belongs in your lower cabinet, not on your top shelf. (And never on your kitchen counter, unless you use it daily.) Ditto for the 50-lb bag of dog food you got at Costco, or the barbells you bought to buff up your biceps. So, as you organize your home, keep in mind how much effort it’ll take not only to get things out but also to put them away.

10. If You Must Use Storage Containers, Choose Them with Care

Try to pare down your stuff, so you don’t need containers at all. Most just become glorified junk drawers, anyway. Wire containers look great in magazines, but rarely in real life. Your stuff winds up poking out of the holes, and those wires collect a lot of dust, too. Baskets get dusty as well. For long-term storage, go with straight-sided clear containers with tight-fitting lids. They make the most of your space while keeping your stuff protected from dust and pests.

11. Have a Place for Everything

This rule of home organizing gets repeated so often that it’s become a cliché, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Every item in your home should have a designated spot where it belongs. When you can’t figure out where something should go, it’s a sign that you need less stuff — or might not need that item at all.

12. Put Stuff Where You Look for It

If you find yourself frequently searching for the same item, pay attention to where you look for it first. That’s where your brain expects it to be, so work with it. Rearrange to put it where you need it when you need it. Don’t get bound by someone else’s idea of where things “should go.” If you prefer sorting mail in the kitchen but put off shredding it, move a shredder there, so it’s more convenient. If naps on the sofa are your thing, stash a cozy blanket and small pillow near the couch. It’s your home. Make it work for you.

Bonus Rule: Be Willing to Re-organize

Life changes, sometimes without warning. To thrive, you must be willing to change how you do things, too. Who’d have imagined last year, for instance, that we’d all be home so much of the time? Or that many of us would start working from home, too?

As time goes by, the home organizing system you had in place can stop working well. That doesn’t mean your system was bad — it just means it’s time for a change. If you stick with the way you’ve always done things, chaos will take over. Work with your life changes by reorganizing, and you’ll stay in control of your home.

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