10 tips to beat clutter in less than five minutes

I’m happy to have Gretchen Rubin, the fabulous author of The Happiness Project, join us with a guest post today on Unclutterer. There just aren’t enough kind words in the English language to say about her. Welcome, Gretchen!

Having a clutter-filled house can make you feel overwhelmed and exhausted. Everywhere you look, you see little chores that should be done. No single task is particularly difficult, but together, they add up to a big headache and a big mess. Pretty quickly, it’s easier just to add to the piles than to try to attack the problem.

Here are ten easy, quick tips that, if followed regularly, will help keep your clutter under control. And none of them takes more than five minutes – if that.

  1. Make your bed each morning.
  2. Throw away the newspaper each night, even if you haven’t read it yet.
  3. Follow the “one-minute rule” – push yourself to do any chore that takes less than one minute. Throw away the junk mail, close the cabinet door, put your dirty socks in the hamper, hang up your wet towel.
  4. Identify an organization or person to whom you can give things you no longer need – it’s much easier to get rid of unneeded stuff if you can envision someone else getting good use from them. Also, figure out a place to store those things until you hand them over. We have a special shelf for books that we’re taking to the Housing Works thrift store. When the shelf is full, we drop off the books.
  5. Pause for a moment before you “store” something. Storing something means you don’t intend to use it much. Other than holiday decorations and seasonal clothes, you should strive to “store” as little as possible.
  6. Beware of freebies. Never accept anything free, unless you’re thrilled with it. A mug, a tote bag, a hand-me-down toy, the lamp from your mother-in-law—if you don’t need it, don’t take it.
  7. Get rid of things if they break. When I went through our apartment, I was astonished by how many things I’d kept even though they didn’t work.
  8. Don’t keep any piece of paper unless you know that you actually need it. I have a friend who, for years, carefully filed away the stubs when she paid her gas bill. “Why?” I asked, mystified. “I have no idea,” she said. Along the same lines, don’t keep anything that would quickly become dated—like travel information. Remember the internet! If you can easily find information online, you don’t need to keep a hard copy.
  9. Hang up your coat.
  10. Before you go to bed, take five minutes to do an “evening tidy-up.” Don’t tackle anything ambitious, but just stack up the magazines, put your shoes away, shove the chairs into place, etc. Just a few minutes of tidying can make your house look a lot better, and it’s a calming thing to do before going to sleep. Plus it makes the morning nicer.

53 Comments for “10 tips to beat clutter in less than five minutes”

  1. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    Tip #10 has kept me sane. When I just take a few minutes to declutter the house before bed, I wake up to a lovely environment. It’s a nice way to start your day. :)

  2. posted by Shanel Yang on

    Wonderful tips, Gretchen! Also for folks who want to organize their closet so it only takes a glance to know what’s in it, I’ve written “How to Organize Your Closet in 5 Simple Steps” at http://shanelyang.com/2008/04/.....ple-steps/

  3. posted by L on

    2. How about just not getting physical newspapers if you’re wont not to read them? Online newspapers eliminate clutter!

  4. posted by Content in a Cottage on

    Finally there is a list I can really follow on a daily basis.
    Thank you, Rosemary

  5. posted by Tiffany Holmes on

    Great post! Is the Housing Works thrift store referred to in #4 their Used Books Cafe? They take not only books but CD’s and DVD’s off my hands when I go there a few times a year. New Yorkers may want to check out their Crosby Street location (between Houston and Prince); equidistant between the Bleecker and Spring St. stops on the #6. Highly recommended!

  6. posted by Shalin on

    These are great!

    Although, let me suggest that for #7, consider repairing the item if it is useful rather than tossing it. Or, at least drop it off at some repair shop for them to use.

    Best,
    Shalin

  7. posted by Chris - Zen to Fitness on

    Awesome post, especially for lazy people like me who don’t know where to start with this stuff. Much valued!!

  8. posted by Meghan on

    Great post! Lots of good advice. Now should I print it out and put it up on my fridge? Or is that clutter?

  9. posted by Chris W on

    The time components to these tips are key. Perform simple tasks after you get up, before you go to sleep, after taking a moment to ponder, etc. Allow yourself time to do the things that result in order. Time is on your side when it comes to preventing clutter, but time always works against you when you have to clean.

  10. posted by June on

    Thank you for the helpful post! However, I had a suggestion for number 2 – “place newspaper in recycle bin” each night.

  11. posted by Nicole on

    #8… I had binders full of torn out pages… gift ideas, travel dreams, recipes… del.icio.us helped me dump 90% of it in the recycling bin. I just looked up the pages that I still cared about, tagged appropriately and tossed. THANK YOU, DEL.ICIO.US!

  12. posted by Michele on

    I think you are right on target with the statement about seeing undone chores everywhere. We are constantly working on our fixer upper house, and much of our stuff cannot be properly put away yet. Between things being all over the place and undone work on the house, I am constantly reminded of all the undone tasks. It is overwhelming.

  13. posted by Michele on

    I think these are some great tips. I use most of them every day to the point where I don’t even realize I’m doing them. And it is lovely to wake up in the morning to a neat kitchen to make breakfast in.

  14. posted by Michele on

    Oh, wait, I’m afraid I disagree with #6, because it contradicts a frugality strategy I use. “Never say never,” but I basically never refuse a freebie or hand-me-down. If I can’t use it, I’ll donate it to the local thrift store right away, but I won’t turn it down!

    When you turn down hand-outs, you tend to get fewer and fewer of them. But since I have a charity shop almost literally around the corner from my home, I can pass items along very quickly if a hand-out doesn’t work for me.

    The worst-case scenario would be that the relative who gave me something notices that I don’t have it in the house, and then gets upset. That’s never happened to me, but I guess I’d try to tactfully answer that it turned out I couldn’t use the item, so I donated it to charity.

  15. posted by Michael@ Awareness * Connection on

    I like most of them, love a couple of them and personally could never adhere to the making your bed one. Our bedroom is on another floor. Making it does nothing for me since I don’t hang out in my bedroom, and no one else sees it. So that is one chore where I’ll gain a few hours over the last several decades of my life. Personal choice, and not advice to anyone else, of course.

    If I were in a studio or had a room on the main floor I’d reconsider. But as it is I love not making my bed. Satisfies the kid in me.

  16. posted by sm on

    Michele-
    1) what’s the problem with getting fewer and fewer handouts? I don’t think I’ve ever found myself hurting for mugs or tote bags or white t-shirts, and the less stuff to have to worry about taking to the charity shop the better. There are enough things to which I’m attached that I need to donate or otherwise get rid of, so the last thing I need is schwag I don’t care about but need to “process.”
    2) There’s been some talk on here in the past (I think) about what charities *don’t* want. The vast majority of freebies seem to be the kinds of things they would not be able to resell or even give away.

  17. posted by Karyn on

    Even though our bedrooms are on the upper floor, I still make it, because it makes coming upstairs to bed at night much more inviting for some reason, if the bed is made and the laundry is put away, and the room is tidy. Just pulling the comforter up over the bed and smoothing it makes a big difference between a cluttered-feeling bedroom and a tidy one.

    I would also add, “Do it now” to this list. As in, when the dishwasher is done, empty it now rather than put the task off until later, when you’ll probably be making lunch or dinner and need those dishes.

    Put away the laundry when it’s done, rather than let it sit in the basket.

    Teach kids to clean up the playroom at least before naptime (we tidy up before lunch) and before bed.

  18. posted by sky on

    Great ideas! I use the two minute rule instead of one minute. It’s amazing how much you can do in two minutes.

    Making the bed doesn’t have to be formal with 20 throw pillows. Just pulling up the covers and folding them back and fluffing the pillows makes the bedroom neat and much more inviting at night than a rumpled bed. Takes under two minutes!

  19. posted by bobbin on

    Have been packing for a move, and the best thing I have done is open a “free store.” When I have a box full of stuff to get rid of, I put it on the sidewalk, tape up a sign that says “free stuff,” and within a few hours the stuff disappears. Much simpler than Freecycling, or Housing Works (where I have brought a lot of books, too).

  20. posted by Alisa on

    I like a lot of these tips but I don’t make my bed nor do I see it as necessary.

  21. posted by adam on

    I found #6 among the most useful tips, especially for anyone working in the entertainment industry where swag is the “coin of the realm.” If you don’t learn to turn this stuff down, you end up with cabinets full of mis-matched mugs and tote-bags and DVD’s that you are never going to watch.

  22. posted by Michael@ Awareness * Connection on

    @Karyn I find the bed inviting nonetheless. It’s inviting me to a nap right now ;0)

  23. posted by Tracy on

    Great list!

    I make my bed and my son’s bed (with his help) each morning. I don’t like the look of an unmade bed, and I really dislike getting into an unmade bed each night.

    I also practice the one-minute rule around here and it’s a lifesaver. Something else I do when I have time is to set the timer on the microwave for 15 minutes, and then see how much I can get done in just that time. When the timer goes off, I’m done — and I’m always amazed at how much I can accomplish in that relatively short amount of time.

  24. posted by Patch on

    This is great. I have to ditto recycling or donating. I try to keep as much out of landfills as possible.

  25. posted by Lex on

    Absolutely agree on #6. Just today, our office manager sent out an email asking what size logo polo she should order for us all. I NEVER wear company logo apparel, and responded that she didn’t have to order one for me. One less piece of crap shirt being ordered from an overseas sweatshop!

  26. posted by Lex on

    Oh, my favorite clutter-busting technique has been applying the “one in one out” rule proactively. For example, if I’m fondling a leather jacket in a store, I’ll ask myself what I’ll throw out to make room for it. Nine times out of ten I decide that my current leather jacket is more flattering and stylish and probably better made than whatever I’m tempted by. It makes it much easier to pass up “bargains” and impulse purchases.

  27. posted by Joyful Abode: Domesticity by Trial and Error on

    I need to start doing #10 more… it’s SO nice to wake up to a tidy house!

    #8 used to be my downfall (and paper clutter is still my worst nemesis). About a year ago, I finally shredded my bank statements.

    And by “my bank statements” I mean every statement for every account I’ve ever had, all the way back to my savings account when I was 8 years old.

    How ridiculous is that?

  28. posted by Deb on

    I have been working on #8 very hard for the past few years. Beginning last summer I got 75 notebooks, 6 file bins and a four drawer file cabinet full of teaching resources down to about about 30 notebooks and NO bins or file drawers! And this year I am working as I go through the curriculum to get even more of it purged.

    #1 is a must. I feel downright grimy if I crawl into a bed that was not smoothed and fluffed and the rest of the room looks like garbage with an unmade bed. Since hubby is the last one up every day, he makes it, even though he could not care less about an unmade bed.

  29. posted by Adam on

    Lex — Indeed. Who needs one more freakin’ corporate shirt! Even if the shirt might otherwise be useful — a rainproof sweatshirt, for instance — you’ll never wear if it screams “company giveaway.”

    Re #8, paper is the toughest. I can deal with just about anything else. I’m a huge believer in having a scanner, but scanning takes time and effort that may not be justified by the item being scanned.

  30. posted by Cynthia Friedlob, The Thoughtful Consumer on

    I’d like to suggest another one minute activity if you’re dealing with too much clutter:

    Every day throw one item away or put one item in a bag or box of goodies that you will donate once a week. (Make sure to donate it,too; don’t just let it sit around torturing you!)

    If you’ve got too much stuff, there’s no solution other than unloading some of it. Even at a paltry one item a day, you can make some progress. Of course, getting ride of one full bag every day would probably be more helpful to some stuff-suffering folks, but that might take more than a minute!

  31. posted by Ribs on

    We already do a lot of these, although we’ve only just started #4. There’s a Salvation Army within walking distance of us and now we have a box that we slowly fill up and then take there when it’s full. I have a rule that once it’s in the box it can’t be reclaimed.

    #5 is good advice too – hadn’t really thought about that one.

    All round, great tips!

  32. posted by Julie on

    I tend to save paid bills for about a year or so, mostly so I can keep track of how much each utility costs me through the year.

    I am planning on starting a spread sheet so I can just list those items instead. However, I’ve had just enough trouble with some of my bill providers that it’s worth it to me to keep those bills as proof for various reasons. (hence, the one year rule)

  33. posted by Joe on

    I like this list. I would add to #2 stop your newspaper supscription if you don’t read it that often. I have been stationed in Germany with the US Army for 10 years now and th only time I read our newspaper (Stars and Stripes) is online or when a co-worker brings it to the office.

    There are a lot newspapers that can be read online. One needs only to look.

  34. posted by Alex Fayle on

    What I find so wonderful about this list is that even if you only deal with your current stuff this way, you’ll find that you’ll start clearing out your backlog of clutter – mainly because you’re not adding to it!

  35. posted by Rue on

    1, 3, and 10 are the ones I live by, even though my husband doesn’t! :)

  36. posted by Michele on

    @sm asks: what’s the problem with getting fewer and fewer handouts?

    Not all handouts are totebags and mugs. If I turn down the totebags and mugs, then the next time someone has something actually useful to give to me, they may decide, without asking me, that I don’t want it. As an example, my sister and I used to be about the same size, and she wears suits to work every day. When I changed careers, I suddenly needed a few suits. If she thought that I would always refuse hand-me-downs, then she might never have considered offering me her old suits to use until I could save enough money to buy my own. So by accepting useless handouts a few times — totebags, mugs, small furniture that didn’t work, all stuff that I ended up donating to charity — I eventually hit the jackpot.

    It’s not an uncluttering strategy on my part; it’s a frugality strategy. It obviously wouldn’t work for everyone! As I say, I have a charity shop almost literally around the corner from where I live. My daughter and I keep a “giveaway pile” in my bedroom that we clear out every few weeks. But clearly my solution doesn’t work for every household.

  37. posted by Ann at One Bag Nation on

    I do “five-minute room rescues” daily (a tip from flylady). Moving around at a good pace lifts my mood as much as seeing the house get a bit tidier does.

    #10 is critical to sanity, especially with kids – though the grownups can be pretty messy too around here!

  38. posted by Sandy on

    I’ve been working on #8 today with the shredder on one side of me and the scanner on the other. I have (or had) every income tax form since I began working. And bank statements over one year are gone. Paper seems to be everywhere.

  39. posted by cdelphine on

    Am I the only one that is paranoid about trusting the internet and companies to keep track of things like bills and bank statements? I’m only 20 and I use online banking but I still get statements just to have a hard copy in case anything bizarre happens later. (Though I do shred them after a couple years)

    Also when I am paying lots of my own bills I will probably adopt my mom’s system. She has a binder full of the pocket pages and each one is a different bill. After paying the bill she writes the date she paid it and check number if it was a check and then sticks it in the appropriate pocket.

  40. posted by Adam on

    cdelphine —

    I agree about keeping bank statements, but only for any accounts that run high balances. (Our checking account receives an injection of cash each month sufficient only to cover monthly bills and so it runs a very low balance. And the rest of our income goes to a savings account. The former account is paperless, the latter is not.)

    As for bills, my view is that monthly small bills (say, perhaps, gas or sparkletts, but not Visa, Am Ex, etc.) are simply too small to justify keeping them at all (unless you are an immigrant and they fulfill some evidentiary purpose such as showing your time in the country). In my entire adult life, I don’t believe I ever needed to go back to a gas or sparkletts bill. And, even if you did, I would think that there are ample ways to retrieve anything recent.
    If you must keep them, I would keep only the previous months’ small bills.

  41. posted by Jude on

    This is why Gretchen Rubin makes me *unhappy*. I will never understand the “make your bed every day” rule. How does that reduce clutter? Also, throw away the newspaper? I could never say that. “Recycle the newspaper.” The rest of the tips are just silly.

  42. posted by LBell on

    Since I now acknowledge that clutter saps my energy and order gives me energy, and since I’m now in “middle age” and very aware of how I spend my time, I’m finally starting to get serious about keeping my personal spaces (home, car, office) in some form of order. I’m less concerned about spic-and-span than I am about simple tidiness. These tips are great for “beginners” like me.

    Some things:
    – #1: “Making the bed” doesn’t necessarily have to mean “down to hospital corners.” Once I realized that I started making mine more often. A comforter is good for hiding not-so-neat tucks.
    – #2 (change “throw out” to “recycle”) can apply to magazines as well: Give yourself a month (or less) to read it. Of course, not having paper subscriptions helps as well. My public library has a large magazine collection.
    – #3: My time rule varies from 5 to 25 minutes depending on my energy level. My little magnetic kitchen timer is one of the best $5 I ever spent.
    – Like others, I have to work on #8. Good to see I’m not the only one who’s skeptical about online storage of bank statements, checks, etc. I do agree with taking full advantage of the Internet for other things, though. And my $80 scanner is another valuable clutter-busting investment, as is my $30 shredder.

  43. posted by Emma on

    Excellent post, love all the tips – some for me to incorporate and some I can feel smug about doing already ;)

  44. posted by madsarah on

    I hate making my bed but the days I do I am better able to manage clutter in my room. If it’s not made, I can’t fold laundry on it or use it as a staging area for the next day’s outfit. Nor do I have an incentive to pick up the shoes piled in the corners.

    To me #4 is the best tip–within the last week I’ve given things away to St. Vincent de Paul, a food bank, friends, and “free stuff” seekers on Craigslist. Once you get in the habit of detaching yourself from all but the things you really care about, it’s easy!

  45. posted by Rosa on

    I take my magazines (except news weeklies like newsweek/time) to my doctor’s office waiting room–the nursing home down the road enjoys getting them, too.
    I keep a shopping bag in my closet and every time I pull out an item and think “I don’t really feel good when I wear that”, it goes into the bag. This happened more often than I thought it would, but I realize I am wearing my favorites more often and really enjoying it!
    My neighbor does what she calls a 15-minute sweep with her 4 kids, all under 12 years old. Every night before bedtime, she sets a timer and the kids have 15 minutes to clear their stuff out of the public areas of the house. Whatever is not cleared out, goes into a box in the closet and is given away at the end of the week. The first week was the hardest, because the kids didn’t believe she would really give away their stuff. (I don’t think she believed she could bring herself to do this, either!) But Saturday morning came, she loaded up the box of stuff and the kids, and drove to the charity shop. Once was all it took!
    This is a great thread!

  46. posted by meg on

    I like doing the 5-min tidy up in the morning before i leave for work. Then when I come home I can really relax in my straightened-up apartment. :)

  47. posted by Javier Ferrand on

    This post is translated to spanish, without crediting the original author at:

    http://www.habitosvitales.com/.....-5-minutos

  48. posted by Julie in Houston on

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU FOR THIS POST! My life is in total chaos right now *see blog* and I’m on this quest to simplify and declutter. Great post and great site!

    Thanks again!

  49. posted by Tielk on

    I saw a couple folks recomending recyclcing the newspaper. If you like to do that, fine, but it is much better for the environment and the economy to put it in the trash. The same for things like glass and plastic.

  50. posted by Laurel McBrine on

    Re: Item #6

    I have never in my life purchased a baseball cap, no one in my family has purchased a baseball cap – so why do we have at least 30 baseball caps. And this is after a cleanout several years ago where I got rid of most of the baseball caps we had at the time! Baseball caps are like rabbits – they multiply :)

    Obviously, time for another purging.

    http://www.creativelifeskills.blogspot.com

  51. posted by Make yourself a minimalist for university in 10 ways. « My Life on the Net on

    [...] has an excellent blog post with ten tips of how to beat clutter in five minutes.  It’s a great start for those students that are only getting used to fending for themselves.  [...]

  52. posted by coco on

    i love this list. we do most of these. i have a suggestion on “making the bed”. i learned this from my sis a few years ago. to keep the bed organized and easy to make skip the top sheet and just have a comforter or blanket. in my boys room, they have a fitted sheet, 2 pillows and only a lightweight comforter. all i have to do is shake it out (dog hair) and lay it on the bed every morning. i do something similar with my bed. my husband and i have separate lightweight blankets, and then a lightweight quilt that goes on top. so i just shake it and lay it on top. the beds are “made” with very little work.

  53. posted by Amy on

    I never realized that my obsession with freebies was a problem, but now that I think of it, I never ever say no to something free, even if it’s something I can’t possibly need…like ferret food. (And no, I have never own a ferret)

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