The 5-, 10-, and 15-minute unclutterer

When it’s hard to carve out an hour or two (or more) to complete an unclutter mission, sometimes we forgo organizing at all.

That’s where the speed unclutterer comes in handy. When your boss is about to drop by your cube or friends have called to say they’re coming right over, uncluttering has to take on velocity. I have found that this works best when you close off all distractions, focus solely on the targeted area, set the timer for 5-, 10- or 15-minute increments and unclutter until the timer dings.

What you do in your 5-, 10- or 15-minute increments depends, of course, on the degree of disarray in the area you plan to unclutter and the system you use. Here are some ideas to get you started. Adjust them according to your situation.

The 5-minute Unclutterer

To know where to begin on a 5-minute uncluttering project, asking yourself questions will sharpen your focus. As I wrote on page 20 in The Naked Desk:

If you have limited time to organize, ask yourself, “What single action would make the greatest impact right now?” Or, “What can I do in five minutes that will make the biggest difference?” Scan the office and choose the area that is calling out for order the most. Then take action!

These questions will help you quickly home in on the area that if you unclutter it, will bring you the greatest relief, serenity or beauty. Overwhelmed? Put a bull’s eye on one corner of the table to get started, rather than trying to conquer the whole thing.

Zen Habits also has a great list of 5-minute uncluttering actions in the article 18 Five-Minute Decluttering Tips to Start Conquering Your Mess.

I love Leo’s tip #6:

Pick up 5 things, and find places for them. These should be things that you actually use, but that you just seem to put anywhere, because they don’t have good places. If you don’t know exactly where things belong, you have to designate a good spot. Take a minute to think it through where would be a good spot? Then always put those things in those spots when you’re done using them. Do this for everything in your home, a few things at a time.

Make a mental note of the new spots for items so you can retrieve them when you need them.

The 10-minute Unclutterer

You can power through a small uncluttering task in 10 minutes or make progress on a larger project.

Admittedly, the morning dishes in our home sometimes get left unwashed as family members dash out the door for work and school. I set the timer daily for 10-minute dish washing blasts — instant sink and counter uncluttering. Other things you can knock out in 10 minutes include:

  • File one inch of paper
  • Organize a book shelf
  • Start a load of laundry

From home to work, there are many 10-minute uncluttering opportunities. For example, you can reserve the last 10 minutes of the day to unclutter your desk to start fresh and clear the next day.

To fend off return-from-home clutter piles, make it a habit to use your first 10 minutes through the door to put things away, such as your umbrella in the umbrella holder, your jacket in the closet and your keys on the landing strip.

The 15-minute Unclutterer

With all that you can accomplish in five or 10 minutes, 15 minutes can make an even bigger dent in clutter. You won’t streamline a bedraggled garage, but you can clear out one box.

When you find yourself with an unexpected block of 15 minutes, you can use the time to clear out clutter from your home or office. For example, you’ve arrived 15 minutes early for a lunch appointment — unclutter your car. Additional ideas:

To unclutter and clean, check out About.com’s Sarah Aguirre article”15 Minute Cleanups.” The article provides cleaning checklists for six different rooms, from the kitchen to a kid’s room.

I put the Bedroom Cleanup checklist to the test one evening from 8:00 p.m. to 8:15 p.m. As I followed each of Aguierre’s steps (except I substituted vacuuming with dusting), the room took on an extra sparkle. (Earrings that had collected on my dresser got returned to their home. I also unpacked my husband’s suitcase from last week’s business trip.) It was fast and easy to run through someone else’s pre-made to-do list. I’m glad I did it and will try her suggestions for other rooms.

Some cluttering projects do take hours, days, or months to finish. But, starting with 5-, 10- or 15-minute uncluttering bursts can give you instant progress. These timed uncluttering sprints are also useful for daily maintenance.

What are you able to get done in 5-, 10- or 15-minute unclutter sprints? Let us know your regular routines in the comments.

32 Comments for “The 5-, 10-, and 15-minute unclutterer”

  1. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    My husband and I do a living room blitz where we spend 10 minutes dust mopping our wood floors and picking items and putting them in their rightful place. We usually find time to dust, too! It’s awesome, and the feeling of accmoplishment is great!!!

  2. posted by Tabitha (From Single to Married) on

    Great ideas! And it’s so true – I often think I don’t have time to work on uncluttering the area so I just avoid the project altogether. It helps to break it down into manageable blocks of time.

  3. posted by Rahul Gupta on

    @Fit Bottomed Girls — that’s exactly what my wife and I call it: a blitz.

    We used to do a 20 minute blitz when we had one kid… now with 2, we do a 10 minute blitz, but it makes a big, big difference at the end of the day.

    When we can get enough days in a row, we end up graduating from cleaning/straightening up to cooler things like hanging blinds…

  4. posted by Stuart on

    We do a blitz before going to bed too. We pick up toys, sweep the floors, and clear the countertops. We can do this in about 15 min. It makes waking up in the morning much nicer!

  5. posted by allen on

    These are great ideas, thank you. I can’t tell you how many times my depression & messyness have done a tango-to-clutter in my life, each brining the further down.

    I am totally asking for an egg timer for my birthday. :D

  6. posted by Peter (a different one) on

    I like the idea of using a list. Remember how much easier it was to clean your room when mom told you when and how to do it?

    Right Now!
    No stuffing things in the closet/drawers or under the bed!

  7. posted by Nicole on

    I am a huge flylady.net fan. Following her advice for 5 minutes, two times a day, to clean your Hot Spots (horizontal spaces that seem to collect stuff) is a life-saver. I also love, love, love her motto, “You can do anything for 15 minutes.” I set my timer and I’m off with the knowledge that I can quit when the timer goes off. All my second grader students are fans of the timer method too!

    Thanks, as always, for the fabulous links and ideas!

  8. posted by infmom on

    My husband’s a perfectionist when it comes to cleaning and he wants to get every last detail taken care of. Unfortunately, there often isn’t time to accommodate that level of attention when we find out company’s coming. “It doesn’t have to BE clean,” I tell him, “it just has to LOOK clean.”

    The questions to be asked are: What needs to be done to make this room look clean? What task will take the most time? What can reasonably be skipped and still leave the room looking clean? The most time-consuming un-skippable task has to go first.

    Tidying up stacks of stuff, straightening out the slipcovers, and running the vacuum cleaner over the floor and rug can make a huge difference in our living room. We both tend to be magazine-pilers, so doing triage on the magazines and putting the ones we’ve read into a brown paper bag to be donated to the medical center’s waiting room gets rid of one obvious source of clutter. Putting the cat toys in their bin and brushing the cat hair off the furniture does wonders too. Sure wish someone would invent a self-cleaning cat. :)

  9. posted by maxie on

    One of the things I did that helped me top procrastinating, was to time some of the things I used to put off doing. I seriously thought it took 10 minutes or more to empty the dishwasher–it’s actually ~4 min.

    I checked out Sarah Aguirre’s 15-min for the kitchen–seriously, why are you soaking dishes in soapy water if you’re going to put them into the dishwasher? Waste of time, water and detergent. If your dishwasher doesn’t clean your dishes, you need to get a new one.

  10. posted by maxie on

    Uh, that was “stop” procrastinating!

  11. posted by delphine on

    My problem is that I actually enjoy decluttering/organizing so once I start it’s hard for me to stop with just one shelf or one inch of papers.

  12. posted by Craig on

    Where is “The Naked Desk?” I can’t find it. Excel;ent article, by the way.

  13. posted by Craig on

    I am reluctant to clean out the junk drawer.

    The last time I did, My Better Half said it was no longer any fun to search through it for stuff.

    She likes finding things she has forgotten about. She is very artistic and artsy-craftsy.

    Any suggestions?

  14. posted by STL Mom on

    Craig,
    If the only place in your house that needs cleaning out is one drawer, I think you should pat yourself on the back and leave it be.

  15. posted by Liz on

    I have gotten into the habit of straightening the kitchen each night – takes about ten mins on a good day and up to twenty on a bad day (or thirty if I’m having fun and do some “deep cleaning”) but it makes a big difference to my mornings…

  16. posted by Sarah H. on

    I love it! Great tips…very practical. Sometimes uncluttering can be so overwhelming, but these short bursts are easy and effective!

    Here’s an example from me: I am reorganizing my recipe collection little by little to get it uniform and updated. I am retyping each recipe in a special format to suit my needs. Instead of sitting down and retyping piles and piles of recipes all at once (ya right!), I try to do one per day. That way each one takes me about 5 minutes…no time at all!

  17. posted by momofthree on

    Love this idea–now only people would follow it!!

    I have worked the past two school years as substitute school secretaries or nurse’s office assistants. I am AMAZED at the amount of clutter on and in the desks I have worked at!! Last week I found 10 receipts from fast food restaurants that were over two school years old in one desk drawer. And the loose change–I am sure that most desks have had up to $10 in loose change sliding around in drawers.

    Finding useless papers like that in a busy desk really makes me wonder how well those people take care of their homes!!

    A clean desk may be sign of a sick mind, but hey, for a stranger to come for a day or two and be able to find necessary forms, etc., I think a clean desk is a must!!!

  18. posted by Sky on

    Excellent post!! I always take a few minutes to tidy up before I go to bed. Straighten the sofa cushions and throw pillows, put everything where it goes and make sure the kitchen is clean, dishes in the dishwasher, etc. It starts my day off right in the morning and is so worth the little bit of time.

  19. posted by Karen on

    Where can I order a self cleaning cat?

  20. posted by Julia1060 on

    The 15 minute rule is one of my favorites, and I don’t limit it to clutter. When I am stuck on a project, I use the “15 minute rule” (as in, set a timer, work until it rings) to motivate me to get started – and I often found that that was all the motivation I needed to keep going!

  21. posted by Alora on

    I have actually gotten in the habit of setting my egg timer for 15 minutes whenever I clean — even if I’m doing a whole day’s worth of work. When it goes off, it jolts me back to ‘reality.’ That’s especially helpful if I’m sorting through boxes or something that is prone to distraction. It’s also great on tasks that I particularly dislike, because after 15 minutes is up, I allow myself to move on to something else. If I rotate through the house in 15-minute increments, then I build up speed and momentum. I can circle back to anything left undone later, but chipping away at something for a high-energy 15 minutes usually makes a huge dent in it, and it makes it much less intimidating to come back to in 30 or 45 minutes, if it’s even still necessary. Thinking of my cleaning time in terms of 15-minute blitzes has made ALL the difference in my ability to find the energy and motivation to tackle housework.

  22. posted by Sarah Aguirre on

    Thanks for the mention. It’s still amazing to me how much I can get done in a very little amount of time. Our brains trick us into thinking we need a block of time to organize and clean. Unfortunately, those blocks of time rarely appear. These short spurts are especially helpful for kids. If I tell my son to clean his room, the moaning and groaning commences. If I hand him a checklist and tell him it will take 15 minutes, he sees light at the end of the tunnel.

  23. posted by maxie on

    MOMOFTHREE: “Finding useless papers like that in a busy desk really makes me wonder how well those people take care of their homes!! ”

    Not necessarily. The woman I used to cover for at work would put Martha Stewart to shame when it came to her home. However, her desk was a disaster. I hated having to touch her keyboard because there was so much gunk/food/mysterious substances stuck on it. The one time I had to use her computer, I brought my own keyboard.

  24. posted by The Crafty Cactus Lover on

    Excellent advice – I did a 15 minutes bathroom cleanup and you can’t really tell that it’s not a ‘proper’ cleanup. Shame my husband didn’t notice at all though…

  25. posted by FrugalNYC on

    Great advice. Most important aspect is to get the baby step forward and do something “effective” now. Thanks for the continued ideas and inspirations!

  26. posted by The Power of Less | At Your Service Cincinnati, Ltd. on

    […] The 5-, 10-, and 15-minute Unclutterer […]

  27. posted by Toby Doncaster on

    Found an online timer which I use to time myself while surfing, taking breaks from the computer and de-cluttering. Here is the link, and seriously, I’m not trying to spam!
    http://timberfrog.com/countdown/

  28. posted by Chris on

    I also try to get up at every commercial when I’m watching t.v. to do some small task–empty the dishwasher, put away some laundry. You can get more than 15 min. of tasks done during a one hour program.

  29. posted by Links – 10/30 « Jeff Lail on

    […] The 5-, 10-, and 15-minute unclutterer from unclutterer – for those who have a hard time cleaning up and decluttering or for those who have a hard time finding time.  This article breaks down some easy projects to take on that will help with the mess. […]

  30. posted by five minutes to unclutter: go! « simplehuman blog on

    […] making your home or workspace that much less frenzied and that much more organized and peaceful. The Unclutterer advises asking the question: "What can I do in five minutes that will make the biggest […]

  31. posted by pr on

    @infmom and @karen
    My cat cleans herself, it’s just the space she cleaned herself in that needs to be self-cleaning afterwards ;-)
    On a more serious note, I find the 5 minute dashes are great, I can get a load of clothes washing on, or clear the kitchen benches down or make my bedroom look restful in that time. Sometimes I start the work day with a 10 minute desk clearing so I can get in the right frame of mind.

  32. posted by Amy on

    @Chris- I call that “Cleaning on Commercial.” I can get SO much done during otherwise lazy tv time.

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