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Belongings, possessions, accoutrements. Keepsakes, mementos, sentimental items. It doesn’t matter what shape it takes – if any of this stuff is weighing you down, it’s clutter. And if you want to simplify your life, you need to lose it.
This means one thing – decluttering.
Yes, it’s a buzzword. Yes, it’s hard work. Yes, it may force you to face some of your demons. Yes, you’d prefer to be sipping margaritas in the sun. (Who wouldn’t?)
But when you’re done – even if it’s simply decluttering a single surface in your home – you will feel lighter. You will feel proud. You will feel a sense of calm when looking at that space.
So many of us get overwhelmed at the thought of starting that we never really begin, but if there is one thing I could tell anyone about decluttering it’s this:
Don’t tackle the store room, the garage or the toy box[es] first. They’re too big. You will get halfway through, become overwhelmed, stop, get disheartened and find yourself more discouraged than before.
So trust me, start small.
When people are trying to pay off multiple debts, they’re often told to put all their efforts into paying the biggest one first. This seems to make sense.
But so often, the better way is to pay off the smallest debt first. It will take less time, and you get a victory. You win right from the start. You beat that debt and won’t ever go back to it. This makes you hungry for more victory. So you focus on the next smallest debt. And so on. It snowballs and you build momentum.
Decluttering is the same.
Back in the day I would try to declutter an entire room at a time. I’d walk in to our cramped spare room and empty the contents of one storage container on the floor, start shifting through the pile, get distracted, start on another pile of crap, realise I hadn’t finished the first one, go back to that, get overwhelmed, discouraged, frustrated, until I’d give up and close the door.
It never worked very well.
So one day I focused on just the kitchen drawer. You know the one – random utensils, chopsticks, a couple of lego bricks and a fine dusting of bread crumbs. (Come on – everyone has one. There’s no shame in it.)
It felt good. I didn’t get overwhelmed. I didn’t give up halfway through. And because the space was contained and the task was achievable in one sitting, I was able to push through the distractions until it was finished. Never before had a clutter-free drawer been so inspiring!
I found myself itching to do more, so next I tackled the medicine cabinet. And over the following days I moved on to the bathroom cabinet.
Then the hall stand.
Dry goods cupboard.
None of these was a big thing on its own. Most took between ten minutes and an hour to do. But the combined impact of having a clean, decluttered kitchen, organised bathroom cabinets and tidy laundry felt amazing. And I hadn’t even started the big stuff yet.
So my biggest piece of decluttering advice is to start small. Give yourself 15 minutes and choose one space to declutter today.
Your Never-Fail Decluttering Technique
When it comes to the physical act of decluttering, many of us get stuck again. Deciding to start small, and actually decluttering that small space are two very different things, so here is my tried and tested technique for how to declutter. You can use it when working on any space and it will never lead you astray:
1. Decide on a single surface to declutter.
Once you begin, do not move on to another until this one is completely clutter-free and (preferably) well organised.
2. Establish an area as your work space.
You need a clear, flat work surface for sorting and organising.
3. Grab four boxes or bags.
- Donate Box – for anything in good condition that can be donated to charity, given as hand-me-downs to friends or family, or given away using Freecycle, TuShare or other similar services.
- Throw Away Box – anything not in good, useable condition.
- Recycle Box – items that can be recycled (typically papers, cardboard, some plastics, tin, etc).
- Holding Box (optional) – keep any items you’re unsure about. Put these items in storage for six months and then decide (based on whether you missed or needed the items) if you will keep or donate the contents.
4. Remove everything from the space you are decluttering.
Take everything out of the drawer/shelf/cupboard you are working on and place it all on your newly cleared work surface, leaving the space completely empty. Clean it with a damp cloth. I like to use diluted white vinegar in a spray bottle, as it helps remove mustiness.
5. Pick up each item individually and decide if you will keep it. If you’re unsure, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I need this?
- Do I want this?
- Do I use this? (Or have I used it in the past year?)
- Do I love this?
- Is it beautiful?
- Is it meaningful?
The amount of time you spend on the decision will depend on what it is and how much is has meant to you in the past. (Decluttering the fridge will take less intense scrutiny than decluttering a box filled with keepsakes from your childhood, for example.)
6. Work through each item, placing it in the appropriate box, or back on the now-decluttered surface.
7. Box up the items for donation and recycle/throw away the things you can’t give away.
8. Marvel at the beautiful clutter-free surface you’ve just created.
Once you’ve found your decluttering groove, this method will become second-nature and you’ll be able to tweak things so they work better for you. But while you’re in the early stages of simplifying, starting small and following these steps means you’re less likely to get overwhelmed.
Other Helpful Resources for your Decluttering Needs
- Sign up to join my free Slow Home BootCamp – it’s a 7-day email course designed to help you take the first important steps towards creating a slow home. Sign up here.
- The 2014 in 2014 Annual Declutter Guidebook has monthly checklists and loads of tips and ideas to start decluttering your home. You can grab a free copy here.
- If you’re looking for support as you begin your simplifying journey, I run a Facebook group you may be interested in joining. There are almost 3,000 of us in the group, and we share the ups and downs of our personal decluttering efforts, as well as ideas and encouragement. Plus it’s genuinely the nicest group of people I’ve ever had the privilege to get to know, and we’d love to meet you. (It’s a closed group, meaning you need to be manually approved, so bear with me if it takes a little while to pop you in. I may be sleeping at the time!)
- This post has a fabulous list of crowd-sourced decluttering tips that are invaluable.