As the spring days brighten, natural light streams into our spaces, showing us anew what has been cast in shadow all winter. With that can come a renewed awareness: dust bunnies everywhere! Things out of place! Why are there sixteen loose screws on this windowsill? Suddenly, the urge for a purge can be strong.
And lately, it seems that methods for decluttering have turned into near-religious movements. Our own very first viral pin came from the Fundamentals of Staging series, for a kind of decluttering that I would not recommend unless you’re selling your home!
I actually feel terribly guilty that people are using that as a personal standard. You can have things on your counters! Closets and cupboards can be more than 60-75% full! But at the same time, we can all use a little inspiration and maybe some guidance for what can feel like a dreary task. So, this post covers various techniques for decluttering the home you live in.
In every life, some cruft will form. Unless you have perfected your routines for dealing with paper, old clothes, the stuff in the medicine cabinet and so on, you’re probably going to need to comb through your stuff periodically and see what has outlived its function, or just it’s place in your life. This sort of decluttering makes for an excellent pair with seasonal cleaning.
If you need to get started on decluttering, but you aren’t ready (or in need of) one of those major programs that rearranges your whole life, here’s our Fundamentals of Staging, Decluttering process, adjusted for everyday living.
Schedule time when you will declutter, limiting your sessions to what you know you can do. The WORST part of decluttering is getting to that “it gets worse before it gets better” moment at the point where you are just physically and/or emotionally done for the day.
You can declutter in small increments if you want, from as little as 15 minute if you schedule those increments regularly and stick to them.
Below we’ve revised our master checklist from the Fundamentals of Staging post, so that you can break down your decluttering into small, doable chunks: one counter, one drawer, one closet and so on, if that’s what will help you get it done.
You can use this list in a couple of ways. You can identify the areas that need the most decluttering and use the list in those areas. Or, you can go room by room and tackle every relevant area in that room before moving on.
Depending on how much you need to do and how stressful you find decluttering, it can be useful to start with the most problematic areas so that the worst is over fastest. But in the end, there’s no right or wrong way to approach it, there is only making progress or not making progress!
The Sorting Process
All decluttering programs basically boil down to sorting your things into a few basic categories. Our process involves creating a large pile of whatever needs to be decluttered, and then sorting through it. This has the benefit of making the cluttered area immediately feel uncluttered, and also distinguishing what needs to be sorted into a clear “to do” pile that is hard to ignore. The categories are as follows:
- do a quick pass and get rid of anything that is obviously garbage. (If you’re in Waterloo Region, check out our post on where to get rid of stuff that doesn’t necessarily belong on the curb.)
- In good repair and has a place to go
- put it away
- In good repair, you want to keep it, and no place to go
- put it aside
- In good repair, but you no longer need it or want it
- donate it
- In bad repair, but you need it or something like it
- put it away, make a note to replace it when possible
- In bad repair, and you no longer want or need it
- trash or recycle
- Unsure if you still want or need it
- put it aside
Papers are similar, but have a slightly different set of categories:
- Recycle or shred
- anything that has no action required and is not necessary to file should go here
- Take action
- create a zone where the action happens, and put actionable items (say unpaid bills) here
- File / store
- Things you need to keep for records should be filed. Things with sentimental value should be stored in a designated place (scrapbook, picture box, etc.)
The two categories that result in putting things aside need to be dealt with in a final pass, but how you deal with them is very dependent on your context. We’ve expanded on that below in the “What to do with the overflow” section.
Basic decluttering and purging
For each focus area, you can either pull out everything in or on the area and follow the sorting process, or only pull out what doesn’t belong in that area for sorting.
Which you choose depends on how cluttered the area is and how deeply you want to purge. So, for example, you could pull everything off your bookshelves to sort if you wanted to reduce your books, or you could just pull out the random bits that had accumulated and sort those.
Counters and horizontal surfaces
- Pull out what has accumulated into a central pile, or remove to a working area.
- Sort items and papers
- Some things may return to counters and surfaces because you need them to hand. If they are getting messy or overwhelming, consider boxes or baskets to keep them contained.
Closets and storage spaces
- If the area is too much to do in one go, break it up into hanging things, things on the floor, things on shelves
- Take everything you are decluttering out of the closet into a working area and sort it.
- Ideally, you should be able to access and see everything in your closet. If you have a very large wardrobe or a very small closet, you can reduce the stuff in your closets by removing off-season clothing and linens.
- Storing things on shelves in boxes or baskets can contribute to an uncluttered look, but if you’re doing a deeper purging, go through and make sure that you don’t have anything in those boxes or baskets that needs to be discarded or donated!
Bookshelves and display shelving
- These can be tackled anywhere from one shelf at a time to one unit at a time depending on how you’ve scheduled your cleaning.
- Remove the items you are decluttering to a central work space, leaving the shelf as you would like it to look for a light declutter, or removing everything from the shelf for sorting if you are doing a deeper purge.
- All items should fit comfortably on shelves. If you have overflow, assess what is on the shelves before buying more shelving. Purge books you never get around to reading, old text or reference books that you no longer need, and apply the general sorting method to non-book items.
Cupboards and personal storage
- Take cupboards and drawers one at a time. Unless you are rearranging your kitchen or bathroom (or other storage area), you can skip decluttering the ones that are functioning well.
- Pull out everything in the storage space into a central sorting location.
- It is best if the plumbing under your sink is visible, and the things you store there are easy to access and remove. Use caddies or shelving under sink cabinets to organize here, keeping in mind that you need to see your plumbing to monitor any problems and everything around it should be fairly quick and easy to remove.
What to do with the overflow
So, what happens if you go through the decluttering process and you have a bunch of stuff that you want to keep and no where to put it? Well, if so I (Carmen) definitely feel your pain! This is a common struggle for adults with ADHD, and one I’ll be periodically returning to in more ADHD-specific ways in the Structured Space series. The first post on that topic discusses evaluating your clutter to determine what activities and routines create it, and which spaces in your house are not functioning well.
But this is an issue that affects a very broad group of people for various reasons, and so we’ll cover some other starting points for “too much stuff” here.
A very common place to start is by looking for more storage – and that can totally be the right option sometimes. But it can also create a bit of a treadmill of accumulation and there is an eventual limit to how much one home can hold, so before you buy more storage solutions, there are a few things to consider.
One option is to make sure the things that are on your shelves or in your closets are actually things you want to keep. This is where we start to get into deeper purging, as well as taking a deeper look at why we’re hanging on to things.
For example, I’m in the midst of purging the accumulations of my academic career. As you can imagine, there are a lot of books. These were not in the way: they were all neatly shelved and rarely pulled out. But those shelves at this point in my life would be better used for the books that do go in and out of circulation, as well as my daughter’s toys and games, which do not all have a space.
I had kept these things for a long time, but I had a set point of when to let them go: when I got a new career. So here I am, and there they go. But for things that don’t have such a clear break with our lives, deciding whether you should keep them can be difficult.
Some of the most famous decluttering programs are actually dealing with this deeper process of personal evaluation rather than the basic techniques involved in dealing with what is out of place. I call these programs “decluttering lifestyles.”
Decluttering lifestyle programs generally have a two pronged approach: first, reduce the things you have. Second, reduce your rate of accumulation.
Two particularly popular trends right now are the Kon Mari method and minimalism. Now, Kon Mari is a single method while minimalism is a broad term that a lot of people have adopted, so keep that in mind if you’re considering either.
Undertaking a decluttering lifestyle program is going to take longer than spring cleaning. For people who are well established in their adulthood (and so have accumulated much more stuff!), expect a six month to year commitment when you are making your decluttering schedule.
It’s a bit hard to typify minimalism, but if you are looking for a good guide, I would look for people who emphasize these things:
- seeking satisfaction through actions, relationships, and community over objects or accumulations
- only keeping items that have value, but recognizing that value can be intangible
In general, minimalism usually involves some extreme reductions and often a fairly utilitarian approach.
My number one person for starting with minimalism is The Minimalist Mom, mainly because I found her how to get ready for a baby list to be some of the best advice out there for anyone! She has a down-to-earth and family-friendly approach to minimalism that doesn’t fetishize reducing your stuff for the sake of reduction.
The Kon Mari method is often mistaken for a minimalist approach. But although Marie Kondo herself identifies as a minimalist, her method does not require minimalism.
In the design world, we would call it a “curated” approach, and of the curated approaches, I would call it “meticulously curated” – meaning that each item in the home is there because it has meaning and has been chosen on purpose for reasons that go beyond a momentary and passing impulse or need.
Her process is entirely different than the one we have listed here: you go through all of your belongings, and you do it by type (all your clothes from everywhere in the house; all your books). You keep things according to whether they “spark joy.”
The question of joy is one that is a sticking point for many people. As an anthropologist, I have SO MANY THOUGHTS about this, and I could easily double this post writing about emotions, mindfulness, and environment. But I will leave it at this: if you decide to use the method, don’t limit your understanding of “joy” as a simple substitute word for “happy.” It is a more complex feeling that is related to happiness, satisfaction, hope, contentment and maybe more. How it brings up those feelings can be quite different based on the context.
As for how Kon Mari works in people’s actual lives, there are a lot of people out there blogging and YouTubing about it. A fun place to start (if you don’t mind a little swearing) is the How To Get Your Sh*t Together series. If that’s not your cup of tea but you’d still like a starting point, Project Lifecoach has a (shorter) series documenting his process.
Some final thoughts
Whatever approach you take to decluttering and spring cleaning, I think it’s important to avoid getting caught up in perfection or end points.
Always keep in mind that picture-perfect is exactly that: all professional and most amateur photographs of spaces are staged so they look good in a two-dimentional, motionless presentation. (Lenore wrote a great post on this in relation to Holiday Decorating a few years ago.)
Some kinds of clutter are the signs of a life well-lived. Coffee cups and out of place cushions can be part of a visit with friends. Other clutter can come from a beloved hobby or the last lingering moments of a holiday. Clutter only becomes a problem when it becomes discouraging or stressful. So, I wish you luck in clearing the cruft of spring, but I also wish you joyful (temporary) clutter that reminds you of your happy moments.