Many professionals say that our outer life reflects our inner self. If that is true, hundreds of thousands of us have a psyche that is out of control. Research from Princeton University found that clutter decreases productivity as the neural circuits in the brain have multiple stimuli competing for attention. Disorganization and clutter can impact almost every area of your life – wasted time looking for things you need instead of being productive, increased stress in all areas, mood swings with self-defeating thoughts and behaviors, lack of attention to detail and time management issues at work and at home. The more ‘stuff’ on your desk (or in your home), the more difficult it is for your brain to focus on the task at hand. Does clutter affect your life? The funny thing about getting organized you may be delighted with the results – finding gift cards and extra hidden money, charges on your credit card that you did realize, better sleep (and maybe other benefits) because your bedroom is free of the piles of reminders, better mood and feeling of accomplishment. When I was pregnant, I referred to organizing as “nesting” as I get older, I say it’s so “cleansing”.
Follow the 10 Steps below to take stock of the job ahead and let’s get started!
Step 1: Taking Stock on the Task at Hand
Where is the Clutter?
- Is the clutter confined to one or two rooms? The garage? Basement?
Extra bedroom? Attic?
- Is the clutter on every surface in the house? All rooms and in stacks on
- Every room ceiling to floor? Maybe a storage shed or two?
What is the Clutter?
For some, the problem may be a surface-level mess and for others a literal pile of stuff hiding more stuff. For hoarders, it’s even more complicated and may require professional assistance. Identify your challenge - it may be one or all of these:
- Things on surfaces need to be trashed, filed, shredded, passed on, or handled (mail).
- Stacks need to be trashed, filed, shredded, passed on, or handled.
- Stockpiles of ‘stuff I may need’ or extra reserves need to be put away, given away, or trashed.
- Family treasures need to be sorted, passed on, donated, thrown away or put away.
- Piles of things that may be useful/recycled need to be sorted, trashed, donated, or passed along.
- Things you haven’t needed or used in years need to be trashed, passed on, or donated.
Who Causes the Clutter?
Is this your problem? Someone else in your home? All of you? It’s important to recognize what you can and can’t control. If you live with someone who keeps everything ‘just in case’ or ‘to be recycled someday’ or ‘in case of the apocalypse’ or ‘it was on sale and we need it,’ it can be difficult to convince them to change their ways.
They’ll need to be willing to make the changes and work through these questions to identify why and how to change the behavior. As you likely know, it can be complicated. Many couples and families spend a significant amount of time trying to clean up the clutter of others who aren’t ready, willing, or able to let it go and/or stop it. It can cause much family strife.
If the clutterer is you, you’ll have to be committed to not only getting control of the current situation, but also ways to prevent it from happening again. This requires changes in thinking and behavior.
Step 2: Get Prepared
It helps to get everything you need before you begin the active process of decluttering. Otherwise, you may have to stop to get supplies and it can be hard to start again. Grab a diary and journal your experience – Did you find something you were looking for? What about gift cards? Favorite items? Make sure you get those before and after pictures.
- Trash bags and/or boxes
- Markers and labels
- Clear, stackable storage bins
- Various sizes of zip bags
- Small trash can for every room
- Organizers for magazines and files
- File cabinet (if needed)
- Shelving units for garage, basement, attic
- Bookshelves or bookcases
- Over-the-door hooks for towels, coats, or whatever
- Mail organizer
- Drawer and shelf organizers
- Caddies for shower and cleaning products
- If you’ll be cleaning as you go (recommended), buy all cleaning products and supplies
- Label or set up bags or boxes for: Donate - Trash - Recycle - Pass On - Handle
Get anything else you need to organize what you keep - but not to keep things that you don’t need!
Step 3: Get Everyone on Board
If your spouse, partner, or other housemate is part of the problem, you’ll need to get them to support your efforts. In fact, this likely won’t work long-term without their buy-in. Many people who disagree on what is and is not ‘junk’ - learn the art of negotiation. They compromise on things that are important to them and let go of the small stuff. Some people allow their kids to have a playroom for their toys to keep them out of the other areas. Periodically, it’s a good idea to go through the toys and either trash or donate any that are broken or not being used.
Another good rule for kids and toys or adults and tools/books/knick-knacks is to give away one thing before buying another. That helps us think more about what is important to us and prevents adding to the clutter. Involve your kids in the process before the big day or weekend. Start by talking to them about why you’re decluttering. Help them understand the difference between needs and wants.
Step 4: Should I Sell It?
Many people decide to have a yard sale and keep things for the sale. However, keep in mind that yard sales are a lot of work for little return! Most items in a yard sale are priced at only a few dollars. It’s generally not a good return on investment of the time and energy it takes to do the sale. And, you end up with a lot of things that still need to be donated anyway.
If you have a few bigger items that may bring a decent sum, consider selling them online or to a local used or antique goods store. It is much easier and more cost effective than a yard sale.
Step 5: Choose a Day and Recruit Help
Ask for help if you have widespread clutter involving several rooms or a garage, basement, or attic with tons of stuff. Plan to work all day or all weekend if needed. Arrange off-site childcare if possible. Kids can make the process more difficult in many ways - especially if decluttering involves their toys. Offer meals/snacks for your friends who agree
to help. Be organized so that they feel good about making progress. If you’re tackling different rooms, put someone in charge of each room.
Step 6: Prioritize
Prioritize. Start where you need it most. For some people, that may be an office (at home or work). Others may want to start with the room in the house where you need the space most - living room, dining room, kitchen, garage or, the room where you stash everything out of sight. Are you able to park your cars in your garage?
If you have multiple rooms, make a list with the priorities. You may want to have a separate sheet of paper for each room - for more lists! If you need to make a path to the room, do that by filling trash bags or boxes labeled: trash, recycle, donate, and pass on. Things that need to be kept and organized should go in one place. Setup a stack to be filed, handled, or put away.
Avoid putting all those things in a box and leaving them for another day.
On the big day, set up the main rooms with your supplies and discuss how to begin with your helpers. Give them specific instructions about what goes where, what stays, and what goes. If it’s mail, it may be easy enough to identify junk mail to recycle, loan or credit card offers to shred, and bills to be handled. If they don’t know what to do, they can put it in a pile to ask you about. Books and magazines are hard for a lot of people to let go of. Some of us have hundreds of books that have been boxed and unboxed and moved and stored for ages. You may need to go through the books and magazines yourself. Just remember that most non-fiction information is available online now and most fiction can be obtained from the library or purchased as an eBook. Even most magazines and newspapers are published online - so why must we keep hard copies of everything? Something to consider. Friends of the Library and many used bookstores accept books for credit. Also, there are lots of family and women’s shelters that appreciate donations of newer books and magazines.
Step 7: Where to Begin
Some people start at the top and work their way down. Others start at the bottom and work up. Let the people who are doing the work in each room decide unless there is a reason to do it a specific way. Starting at the bottom, meaning the floor, is a good plan for those with stacks and boxes on the floor. Once the floor space is cleared, it may be easier to sort through things. After the obvious clutter is removed, you may have to go through knick knacks and personal items to choose what stays and what goes. Try not to think about it too much.
Step 8: Deciding What to Keep
Ask yourself the following:
- How long has it been since I used this? More than 6-12 months (except clothes and shoes, appliances, or other items used infrequently, such as a working lawn mower that you use seasonally)?
- How likely am I to use it in the next 6-12 months?
- Is there a way to borrow or use one should I need it?
- Depending on what it is - can I replace it if needed for less than $xx?
- Is it something someone else may need more than I?
- Is there a reason to keep this (pass on to my daughter when
she starts a family)?
- Family Treasures - These can be complicated. In some cases, people are very specific about what goes to whom and when. If that’s the case, you may need to honor their wishes and find a way to store things, so it doesn’t take over your life and home. In some cases, it might be useful to pass along things now. Particularly if they’re useful and your loved one can benefit from it. Jewelry, china, and such may be welcome at any time. You may also want to have a candid talk with your adult children about your belongings. Talk to them about what they want to keep and if there are things you can donate or liquidate now.
Step 9: Now What?
By the end of the day or weekend, you should have bags or boxes sorted into piles. It is important to take them to the identified location immediately, lest they sit there indefinitely. Take a load or two to the trash and recycling place. Get someone to drop off the donations.
As for the things to handle, file, organize, or store - your work continues. If you do it within the next few days, it’s more likely to get done. Carve out some time each day to work on it.
Use labels and file folders and clear bags and boxes to identify things. Put them where you can find them! Work on one thing until you finish it.
Start with the things to be handled - and handle them. Pay bills, make phone calls - do all of them at one time. When you finish handling all those things, move to the next stack and work on it until you complete it.
Do the same for each room of the house. Work in one room to finish up what your helpers started, if needed. If you need to go through each knick-knack or books/magazines, finish it before moving to the next room.
Find a way to celebrate as you finish each room but avoid going out and buying something! Get a pedicure or go play golf. Have a latte at the coffee shop. When you finish the whole house, go out with the family and celebrate! Do something fun, such as going to a movie, zoo, aquarium, museum, or other entertainment venue.
Step 10: Staying the Course
Unless you develop new habits, your house will look the same within a few months. It takes a concerted effort to prevent this. Plan times to continue to stay organized. You Got This!!
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