Five classic clutter-busting strategies

These are the strategies we repeat over and over again — to others and to ourselves — to keep clutter under control.

  1. A place for everything, and everything in its place. If an object doesn’t have an official home, then it will always be out of place. Every screw, photograph, business card, and piece of clothing needs an official place to live. Additionally, once you’re finished using an object, immediately put it back in its place.
  2. Establish routines. Set up a regular schedule for tasks that have to be completed daily and weekly: laundry, mail sorting, cleaning, cooking, meal planning, organizing, filing, decluttering, home and auto maintenance, etc. The more methodical you are, the simpler it is to maintain your home and office. You’re never overwhelmed by your environment because you have consistent progress.
  3. Pick the quintessential item, and pass on the rest. If your grandmother leaves you her cherished grand piano in her Will, and you would love to own her grand piano, then accept the grand piano. However, you don’t also need her collection of plastic butter tubs, a box of used twist ties, and a rusty carving knife. The grand piano reminds you of your grandmother and her love and generosity, the other objects don’t.
  4. If you don’t use it, need it, love it, or feel inspired by it, get rid of it. Just because you might have space to store something, doesn’t mean you have to keep it. Your home and office should be filled with useful and inspiring things, not objects that cause you stress and anger. Plus, the less you own, the less you have to worry about, clean, organize, finance, and maintain.
  5. Inventory and educate. If you know what you have, and you fully know how to use what you own, then you don’t accidentally buy or own duplicates or overlapping products. Understanding how to use the software on your computer, reading the complete instructions about your appliances, and imagining the possibilities of your wardrobe means that you can get more use out of what you already have. It also means that you know the best way to care for what you have so that you get more years of use out of your possessions.

34 Comments for “Five classic clutter-busting strategies”

  1. posted by Another Deb on

    Thanks for posting this, I learned something new! Number 5, “educate” is a concept that I had not fully considered before.

    Multi-taskers are everywhere. I use those kitchen shears constantly, yet I forgot that they also have a bottle opener on them! That would save a little time, as well as clutter, since the bottle opener is always lost in a drawer and the shears are on the counter in a handy crock of tools.

    I remember buying a blouse a few years ago and claiming that it went with thirty other things in the wardrobe. Now I cringe to think I would have needed a blouse to ADD to thirty other things! I have learned to make essential style from fewer articles of clothing.

    Now I am learning the Excel program. Any great hints on how it can reduce clutter around the home?

  2. posted by Chris on

    Great tips, I’ve used (most) of these myself.

    Here’s a concept for you; I call it the “Cheat Drawer”.

    It’s like the cheat day in a diet (where you can eat whatever you want and still be OK for your diet).

    The Cheat Drawer is a single, preferably small, drawer when you can keep your clutter (just toss anything in there). Like a cheat day is a small window of opportunity, a cheat drawer is the same. You can do what you want but within those set boundaries. When you go over those boundaries on either your diet cheat day, or your clutter cheat drawer, then that is when you start to have the problems.

  3. posted by becoming minimalist on

    i’m realizing that maintaining a minimalist lifestyle is just as difficult as becoming minimalist. these 5 strategies are good. i would also add “inform” – especially when it comes to spouses and/or children so that everybody is on the same page.

  4. posted by Rue on

    @Chris: So, a junk drawer? 😉

  5. posted by Monica Ricci on

    Erin, great post. I have found over the years that so many of my clients have unrealistic expectations about life maintenance. They have a fantasy that once our team comes in and gets them organized, it will just stay that way. I always say, “It will, if you rope it off like a museum room”. Then they get it.

    I have been saying for years that life is a series of maintenance tasks, and if you have too many things in your life to maintain, chaos ensues. Ongoing maintenance is THE biggest contributor to a clutter-free life, in my opinion.

    ~Monica

  6. posted by 14k on

    MG, finally an article that I CAN use on myself. Thank you.

  7. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    #1 is a big one for me. And I find that if something doesn’t have a place in my home, then I probably don’t really need it to begin with!

  8. posted by Karen on

    This is a great post. It gets to the heart of the issue for me. In fact, I’ve referenced it on my blog and I’m printing it out and framing it.

  9. posted by Crystal Tillman on

    I’ve been using 1-4 off and on. They’re finally starting to stick now that I’ve been using the Flylady system.

    Number 5 is one that I hadn’t really thought about before. Trying to use what you buy to the full came from my parents, as part of being frugal. There are times when the cost of your time is worth more than doing it with what you have. (Such as using a feather duster vs. cleaning ceiling fan blades with a rag + stool.)

    I tend to collect free software, simply forgetting to uninstall it sometimes. It hadn’t dawned on me that this was clutter too. An that’s rather embarrassing considering I’m a trained computer tech. I guess it’s one of those situations where you notice it on other people’s computers but not your own.

  10. posted by Sky on

    Very good information!

    Any ideas on decluttering family photos? I love my pic’s but I have so many. I’m in the process of sorting them but I’m overwhelmed.
    HELP!!!!

  11. posted by Sarah H. on

    Great strategies to keep in mind. Sometimes it’s nice to be thinking about the big picture so when we go through our life day by day we can really stay on top of de-cluttering. Thanks!

  12. posted by Leslie on

    Thanks for this post. It really presents the essence of decluttering. I’m going to print it out and share it with my husband. I think it will be a really good reference for us as we go through our house together.

  13. posted by purpledot33 on

    Sky…..
    Have you considered putting them on a cd? I started going through my pics and picked out the most valuable to me then put them in a scrapbook. It was not only a fun project, but a coffee table conversation piece instead of magazines. =) All our pics are on cd’s and I can print whatever ones out whenever I want. It cleared out 22 picture boxes to a single file in our drawer.

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

    these are great tips. I found myself thinking of my “junk drawer” at home (thankfully I only have one) and trying to remember the last time I even opened it. Maybe I should use your tips and just clean it out!

  15. posted by Chris 2 on

    In defense of the junk drawer; I use mine for the odd items that don’t have a place. If I find a screw on the counter I toss it in the junk drawer. If I find out that I need the screw I fish it out, when the drawer fills up I can throw the screw out if I never used it.

  16. posted by CoffeeKim on

    Sky- I had the same problem, and my children enjoy looking through the many albums, so here is how I did it:

    I went through all of the pictures in an afternoon (or several) and pulled out the MOST cherished ones TO ME. I pulled only the ones I loved myself, from babyhood on up, and along with my childhood family favorites and pre-children years, I put them all chronologically in two of those albums that hold several hundred in columns of three slip in pockets per page. They reside in my dresser in a cabinet section behind a closed door alongside a decorative box of treasured keepsakes from my whole life as well as my children’s baby shoes and a handful of my deceased father’s tools and my wedding album and video. Now the children can have ALL the rest; I don’t mind a bit!

    I have, needless to say, instructed everyone in the house that if we are forced to evacuate suddenly and we are all safely able to leave, please grab or toss all contents of said cabinet out the window if possible on their way outside!

    (Lest you think I’m crazy, I know it has been said that the test of a keepsake is the old “would you run through flames to save it?” routine, so there you have it!)

  17. posted by CoffeeKim on

    Sky- I had the same problem, and my children enjoy looking through the many albums, so here is how I did it:

    I went through all of the pictures in an afternoon (or several) and pulled out the MOST cherished ones TO ME. I pulled only the ones I loved myself, from babyhood on up, and along with my childhood family favorites and pre-children years, I put them all chronologically in two of those albums that hold several hundred in columns of three slip in pockets per page. They reside in my dresser in a cabinet section behind a closed door alongside a decorative box of treasured keepsakes from my whole life as well as my children’s baby shoes and a handful of my deceased father’s tools and my wedding album and video. Now the children can have ALL the rest; I don’t mind a bit!

    I have, needless to say, instructed everyone in the house that if we are forced to evacuate suddenly and we are all safely able to leave, please grab or toss all contents of said cabinet out the window if possible on their way outside!

    (Lest you think I’m crazy, I know it has been said that the test of a keepsake is the old “would you run through flames to save it?” routine, so there you have it!)

  18. posted by Sky on

    purpledot33 & CoffeeKim, Thanks for the ideas! I will get a couple of albums and pick my favorites and put all of them on CD’s.
    Thanks!

  19. posted by Another Deb on

    Sky, I had a lot of pictures with a few people and a lot of furniture, ceiling, yard, etc. I made collages of the faces, cut the pics apart and glued the best together. I also scrapbooked a couple of the favorite pics using small uniform square face cutouts as borders.

    In 20-30 years these pictures will be all faded out so you might want to consider how many photos you would be willing to scan, or pay to have scanned. That could help you cull the masses.

  20. posted by Ann at One Bag Nation on

    I’ve finally realized that #1 is essential for helping my daughter keep her room tidy. She can’t put stuff away that doesn’t have a home. I’ve been weeding through her things for the past few weeks and it’s looking a lot less cluttered in there, but now we need to create storage for the stuff that remains.

    I learned in Laura Leist’s book that the place to start is with sorting: find out what you actually have to store and then go shopping – not the other way around!

  21. posted by Spiritowls on

    Sky. As a family genealogist I too recommend that you keep your most treasured photos in a good quality album. In an acid-free environment photographs will last over 100 years. Scanning, while space saving, does require more time now and every few years as you have to re-save to newer storage mediums (lest you end up the “8-track” version of storage medium 30 years from now). May I suggest something my mother did for a Christmas present years ago for me and my siblings. She presented each of us with a family photo album, which is now treasured. Another advantage of sorting and selecting your most treasured photos now is that you can weed out all those unflattering photos that you don’t want 50 years from now to become the only saved photo of grandma and grandpa. Your decendants will thank you.

  22. posted by Dream Mom DBA www.dreamorganizers.com on

    Great list. I think putting things away when you are done is huge, especially for those who are disorganized. I am always surprised that once organized, the biggest challenge is often helping people make a habit of putting things away when they are done. If you fail to do that, you will always be wasting time, spinning your wheels to clean up those hot spots.

    One other thing that I didn’t see on the list,is a list. For example, I have certain things that I need to send to school each day (my son is disabled)so I created the following: feeding list (everything they need to feed my son), changing (things to change a diaper-diapers/wipes/pads/plastic gloves/plastic bag for dirty diaper, etc.). You get the idea. You can create lists for virtually anything you need to do every day, to get you out of the door faster, whether it’s a gym bag or a diaper bag. I put the list in a plastic page protector and keep it handy.

    Also, on the routines, I think it’s important to write them out. For example, I have a weekly list of things I do on Saturday morning and when Saturday comes, I just go right down the list knowing everything is in it’s proper order and that it’s the fastest way to get the job done.

    Nice job.

  23. posted by supersocco on

    Thanks for these.

  24. posted by Jon on

    These are great tips. What I’m having trouble with specifically is finding a home for certain items. Examples:

    – extra batteries (I’ve thrown a bunch out but do want to have a few AA and AAA types handy)
    – digital camera accessories (wire to connect to the TV, extra batteries, extra memory cards, etc.)
    – sunglasses

    Mainly they are things that take very little space on their own, and aren’t really associated with anything else so there is no logical place to put them.

    Any suggestion for stuff like this? Thanks in advance

  25. posted by Athena on

    I really enjoyed this article. I might need to print it out at work and tape it next to me as I clean my apartment this weekend. 🙂

  26. posted by Suzanne on

    Loved this post! Very limited and to the point, but every single one gave me pause.

  27. posted by FrugalNYC on

    Great List! The inventory part is probably hardest for most people, since there is so much “stuff” around.

  28. posted by gypsypacker on

    Re sunglasses, etc: I just found a wood-frame plus canvas-drawer unit which has three different sizes of drawer/bag. Fits on a closet shelf. Digital camera goodies fit just fine in one, or if you have an abundance, they can be sorted. I’ve mentioned Harbor Freight’s wall-unit battery organizer before. They’re cheap enough that anyone can afford one.
    I’d suggest putting those family pictures on DVD’s rather than CD’s. That way you can load them to a portable DVD player or TV, in addition to the computer.

    I’m awaiting the blessed day when I can put all my music on SD cards and dispense with anything larger, if SD’s last long enough to be useful as archival media.

  29. posted by Natalie Bock on

    Hi there. In response to Sky about the photos, I have two answers. 1) Scan them to a disk and only display the ones that are very special. 2) If you scrapbook, I have a Coluzzle jigsaw template and you can put together the main part of pics and discard the non-essential bits of the photos (background, extra ppl etc)and have about 12 photos all on the one page, making one large jigsaw. It looks great.

    I was given some great advice with childrens art. Its too hard to keep it all, so take a photo and keep that in a special ‘art’ album for later reference.

  30. posted by Totally Unrelated Links « Musings of a Random Nature on

    […] site is surprisingly calming to someone like me; this post was a good reminder – especially […]

  31. posted by Linda on

    Make an Excel file for:
    an address book
    Christmas card list
    birthday&other important dates list.
    Having information like this on your computer makes it so easy to update and to print out a new list. Be sure to back it up. Also, do a list for your cell phone numbers, just in case. Sometimes you have numbers in there that aren’t anywhere else.

  32. posted by Deb on

    Great tips! Everyone can use a reminder now and then to stay motivated!

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