Prioritizing uncluttering and organizing projects

Reader Jane wrote in and asked us how she should decide where to begin uncluttering and organizing in her home. I got the feeling from her e-mail that she feels overwhelmed by the tasks ahead of her and doesn’t know where to start.

I always suggest starting in one of three ways:

  1. Small. Tackling a drawer or single shelf in a cupboard can be a simple step moving in the right direction. You’ll get a quick boost of motivation and figure out your uncluttering and organizing pace. From something small, you can move onto another small project or gradually enlarge your scope.
  2. Grating on you. When you are in your home or office, what is the thing that causes you to grumble the loudest? Whatever is the one thing that irks you the most is where you should begin your uncluttering and organizing project.
  3. First thing you see. If the first thing you see when you wake up in the morning is chaotic, your entire day starts off on a bad foot. Organize your closet, your bedroom, or your coffee station if they are where you first focus. At work, organize the first place you see when you walk in the door. Having these Firsts organized will help you move onto the Seconds and Thirds.

I also recommend establishing a minimum of three piles when sorting through your things and creating a plan of action for what you want to accomplish before you dump or pull everything out of your cluttered space. A little preparation will pay off in the long run.

Also, don’t run out and buy organizing supplies before you know what you’ll need. Wait until all of the clutter is gone before deciding how it’s going to be contained. You may find that you don’t need any extra bins, boxes, or doo-dads than what you already own.

How do you prioritize your uncluttering and organizing projects? Add your suggestions for Jane in the comments.

20 Comments for “Prioritizing uncluttering and organizing projects”

  1. posted by Marcie Lovett on

    Decide that you will work for a defined period of time – 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 1 hour. If you think you have to spend half a day to make any impact, you may not get around to starting at all. Small chunks of time will move your project forward; set a timer and when the time is up, you get to stop. Commit to spending the same amount of time daily on your project and you will get through it.

  2. posted by Elena on

    I always start with visible clutter to get me motivated. Between sorting out a messy drawer and sorting out a stack of papers that is piling up out of control on the floor, I will prioritize the second. Hidden clutter is less stressful to look at!

  3. posted by Katie Alender on

    When the house is just sort of generally untidy, it helps me a lot to take a “10 Things” approach. Every time I get up from whatever I’m doing, I put away ten things. It can be as simple as putting a pen back in the penholder or a portable phone back on the charger, or it can be washing a dish or carrying something out to the garage.

    It’s fun and it’s really effective. Especially for people with short attention spans.

  4. posted by Dawn F on

    When I have a couple of decluttering/organizing projects on my To Do List, I usually put them in order of how fast I can finish them. I really get motivated when I can mark things OFF of my To Do List so I usually try to complete the smallest projects first.

    It’s real motivation for me to accomplish my plans/tasks and see real results – keeps me pumped up to finish the rest of them!

  5. posted by Roshni on

    I find that labeling boxes with the contents helps a lot in stopping me from buying duplicates and increasing clutter

  6. posted by infmom on

    I tend to start in one corner and work my way around. That way at least part of the job gets done right away and I have results to inspire me to keep going.

    I say, after spending three days cleaning up my office. 🙂

  7. posted by Godiva on

    Great advise though in the past I usually lost my momentum until I found flylady.net which advises nearly the same but also adds daily routines to keep the clutter away forever. 🙂 Love it!

  8. posted by MrLA on

    My wife and I suffered from paralysis when faced with the problem of clutter in our home – until we tried a different approach, of which there are two dimensions: rooms to attack, and the parts of the rooms to attack.

    Room sequence: We focused on our sanctuary (master bedroom) first. Although the clutter in the public areas was overwhelming, having a clutter-free bedroom substantially reduced our stress level. After our bedroom, we attacked the kids bedrooms. Once the bedrooms are complete, then we move to the functional rooms and so on.

    Space sequence: De-clutter current storage areas (closets, cabinets) first, followed by floors then surfaces (cabinet tops, etc). That way, you’ll be able to optimize your valuable storage and have it available for later de-cluttering decisions. Afterwards, if you need more storage, you could always make a decision to add some furniture, shelves or the like – knowing that everything in the entire room is in its proper place.

    Good luck!

  9. posted by Marie on

    I work faster if I search by eventual destination, rather than picking up an item and standing around making a decision about it. For example, I’ll say “I’m going to go to Salvation Army tomorrow” and I’ll walk around the house picking out items to donate. Or, “It’s trash day tomorrow” and go around choosing things to pitch.

  10. posted by chacha1 on

    I find for me, it’s best to clear surfaces first. For one thing, you’ll need a clear surface to do major sorting/culling operations! For another, a large empty horizontal plane creates a sense of visual space (= peace).

    So I’d say start with any cluttered horizontals: dining table, coffee table, bathroom counter, kitchen counter. Coffee table clutter tends to mostly be trash – unread mail/magazines, etc. Dining table shouldn’t have anything on it but a centerpiece (if desired) – how else can you use it to set a dinner? Kitchen counters, once cleaned off, make it so much easier to turn out a drawer or cabinet (not to mention, you know, prepare a meal). A clear bathroom counter is the first step toward that calm spa-like space that’s on the wish list for most of us.

    Good luck!

  11. posted by lola meyer on

    I prioritze by ‘action stations’. Places in the house that are part of the daily routine, such as kitchen, bathroom, and desk area. If these are organized, the day goes smoother and I have more energy to devote to other areas.

  12. posted by Peter on

    I feel making a list of all the things you want changed beneficial. In your notebook start writing everything down which you can think about, keep the notebook handy so that as things arise you can add them.
    Pick at least one thing everyday from your list to change. By making one small change every day from an organised list you will feel in much more control and be getting things done.

  13. posted by Lori Paximadis on

    I’m a big fan of both the small chunks and the timer approaches. Projects are much easier to tackle if you break them into small, doable chunks: “clean the house” will never get done; “dust the living room,” “sweep the foyer,” and “clean up the coffee table” will. When you have something that seems unmanageable and can’t be broken down any further, use the timer for 10 or 15 minutes and see how far you can get. I usually find that I’ve got enough momentum going that I go well beyond the alloted time and can make significant progress or even finish.

    As for prioritizing, I find that going for the visible and the low-hanging fruit (easy stuff) helps me see the progress and thus gain momentum. My office and my studio are my continual trouble spots, and I almost always start with the top of my desk or workbench. I work from one side to the other and put stuff away, then clear off the surface entirely and give it a good wipe-down.

  14. posted by Michelle C on

    When I did my initial decluttering, I was inspired by the Clean Sweep show. Did the house a room at a time, more or less piled everything in the room in a heap and sorted through it. That worked, but it probably helped that I was very motivated. I had no detailed plan.

    Now, to maintain organization, I do discrete things as the mood strikes me. So I will sort through a closet, or a cupboard, or just do the candlesticks.

  15. posted by Ellis Godard on

    Michelle’s full-house sweep is admirable. But it’s also good to apply small pockets of time, to smaller sections of clutter. While waiting for my laptop to boot yesterday, I emptied my “pencil holder” by half, getting rid of the cruft and making what’s still there much more accessible than it had been: easier to find, and easier to remove from the container.

  16. posted by WilliamB on

    For me, usually either Grating On Me or First Thing I see. My first priority for daily tidying is the First Thing I See, aka the eat-in kitchen where I spend the most time in. Untidyness there has the biggest effect on my life and mood.

    Since that’s a constant task I sometimes put it off in order to do things that have been Grating On Me. If I’m really pissed off or frustrated, then I just start somewhere and attack all those little tasks that I haven’t yet another 5 minutes to do. (I have more 5 min tasks than I have 5 min for). One spectacular fit of pique led to a thoroughly cleaned, vacuumed, and wiped up car.

    I also have tasks that will take several hours;these are very hard to find time for. Mostly they’re “capital” tasks rather than daily ones, the equivalent of spring cleaning. The most recent was to reevaluate kitchen gear. I’ve been in my place a number of years now. Plenty of time to reevaluate what I actually use, what’s a convenient place for stuff (tell me again why extra paper towel is stored in the sunroom?), and what I’m unlikely to use for a long time. Four boxes to donate, 3-5 to go to the basement, some minor reorganizing around the edges for improved efficiency.

    Alas, *none* of these moods cause me to attack the paper on my desk with the same fervor.

  17. posted by Beth Frede on

    Smart to start with what grates on you…. In feng shui, this is essential.

  18. posted by Household Tips | TheHouseholdHelper on

    […] Unclutterer posted on how to prioritize your decluttering and organizing projects. (I coach this when someone doesn’t know where to start. Great minds think alike!) […]

  19. posted by frippy on

    I have been decluttering — I devote one weekend to one part of the house and always start with drawers, shelves and cabinets first. Not only do I assess what I’ve been keeping out of sight, I can also clean off these areas.

    The tip about not buying organizational items until you’ve started decluttering is a good one — I used to work in reverse. It’s easy to get caught up in a store like Target or Organized Living and buy specialized storage items. I actually have been getting rid of storage containers as I lighten my load — if I don’t have anything put in them, they’re just clutter themselves.

  20. posted by Jane on

    Thank you! First to Unclutterer for posting my question, and to all of your comments! I feel encouraged and supported and armed with ideas. Unfortunately, I’m reading this just before bed, and will have to start tomorrow (no, I’m not procrastinating, just sleepy!)

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