The tabula rasa method of uncluttering and organizing a room

The Latin phrase tabula rasa translates into English as “blank slate.” Philosopher John Locke described tabula rasa as a person who is similar to a piece of paper void of any characters. Poet William Blake wrote about it as innocence and said its opposite is experience. For our purposes, we’re going to use the phrase to represent a room empty of everything except for its permanent fixtures.

When uncluttering and organizing a room using the tabula rasa method, you start by moving everything — absolutely everything — that isn’t affixed to the walls, floor, or ceiling out of the room. As you’re pulling out the items, group them together by type on your dining room table or on a tarp covering the ground in your garage or back yard (assuming it’s a day when it’s not expected to rain). Shoes should be piled with other shoes or can openers with other can openers.

Once everything is out of the room, assess the space: Are any of the fixtures damaged? Does any paint need to be applied? Is every surface as clean as possible? Do any light bulbs need to be replaced? Do you need new storage shelves? When the room is empty, now is the time to address these structural issues.

After making repairs and cleaning, walk through the space and evaluate how you use it: What do you do in this space? How could you arrange the room to best meet your needs? Using sticky notes, label zones based on what you do in that area. If working in your bathroom, the sink area might be labeled “Toothbrushing, makeup application/shaving, hand washing.”

Next, head to your stuff that is in piles. Take with you a trash bag, your recycling bin, and two large boxes with one labeled “Donate/Sell” and the other “Special Attention.” Diligently go through each pile of your stuff and sort its contents into: Keep (simply leave it in the pile), Trash (put it straight into the trash bag), Recycle (put it into the recycling bin), Donate/Sell (put items you will donate to charity or sell into this box), and Special Attention (only put items in this box that need you to do something specific with them that doesn’t fall into the other categories).

After everything has been sorted, return the Keep items to their new storage area closest to their use zone in the room.

When all of the Keep items are in their new homes, you still aren’t finished uncluttering and organizing the room. You still need to address the Trash, Recycle, Donate/Sell, and Special Attention containers you created earlier. Obviously, put Trash with your other trash, and return your Recycle bin to its place. Then, sort through your Donate/Sell box and handle these items as necessary. Schedule times to drop off the charity donations at the collection site and immediately list sell items on eBay, Craigslist, or whatever system you want to use to sell your things. Finally, sort through your Special Attention items and do whatever you need to do to take care of these items. If you need to repair or return objects, do it right now or get it scheduled on your calendar. Don’t let these items continue to clutter up your life, just in another area of your home.

Over the years, I’ve learned that it’s easiest to do tabula rasa uncluttering and organizing projects when you have the entire day or weekend to focus on the project. If you schedule only a few hours, you leave out the final step of addressing the Donate/Sell and Special Attention boxes and these items will continue to weigh on you. When you give yourself a day or two, you can complete the project from start to finish.

37 Comments for “The tabula rasa method of uncluttering and organizing a room”

  1. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    This is basically the same method as used on Clean House TV show, and it is a good way of doing things. If you cannot do an entire room at a time, you may be able to break it down a bit. I have a large laundry/utility/pantry, and we cleaned the *pantry* portion 2 weeks ago. I still need to clean the laundry room section, and hubby will have to do the utility room section. To get myself going, I had to break it up like this, or else it never would’ve gotten done!

  2. posted by jan on

    My method is the total opposite. I sit in a room and evaluate what is out of place or something that bothers me by being there. Then I subtract it, find a new place for it or get rid of it. We all have things we have outgrown or moved on to a better version but we are reluctant to get rid of it. Subtract it!!

  3. posted by Sesberry on

    This is exactly what I’m doing with our study. The whole house needs redecorating and as it’s the room with the most junk, I’m starting there! I have taken it all out, will redecorate and put up shelves, and then only put back what is necessary.

    Hopefully I will have made an indent on the craft supplies by then!

  4. posted by Rae on

    This is how I approached the renovation of my RV. I completely stripped out each space, including the flooring and the stock RV furnishings, so that I could thoroughly check the structure, fixed what needed fixing, put in new floors, painted, and then only brought back into each room what belonged there or could logically be stored there.

    This helped me to see what I really had too much of, and while I’m living pretty spare now, I was still able to get rid of 20+ books, some dishes, some DVDs, some clothes, and some tools, and I also pared down my cleaning and laundry kits.

    I have some pretty cavernous overhead compartments in the study and library, so periodically pulling everything out of them allows me to reevaluate the contents and recontainerize and label. Next big project is a full inventory of everything on board.

  5. posted by Katie Alender on

    I agree! We just had the carpet replaced in the downstairs half of our house, and having to pull everything out of the rooms gave me a great opportunity to clear a bunch of stuff out and redesign the way the rest was placed.

  6. posted by priest's wife on

    I would love to be able to use this method- as it is with 4 kids- the best I can do is use black garbage bags and keep Goodwill donations in my car ready to go- less un-uncluttering by little hands

  7. posted by Andrea @ Behind Closed Drawers on

    I can see myself doing this. My modus operendi is like that but on a miniature scale: drawer-by-drawer.

  8. posted by Kathryn Fenner on

    The tabula rasa method–akin to the fire sale method I think I read about here (you pretend everything burned up in a fire and only keep what you’d spend the insurance money to replace)–is great for assuring minimal retention, as well as maximal cleaning, but be careful: I run out of energy sooner than I think, so finishing it up can be so onerous that I never want to do it again. It is wonderful to have clean closet baseboards, but only if I’m not a zombie after getting them!

    I prefer the sort of Flylady approach– only undertake small units of work that you are sure you can complete within the time alotted–15 minutes at a time or an hour, say.You can certainly chain these periods together, but you won’t have bitten off more than you can comfortably chew. Then follow up with some ongoing reduction technique–Toss a thing a day, or some such strategy.

  9. posted by Claycat on

    I agree with Kathryn. As much as I would love to do the tabula rasa method, my energy would be gone before I finished. However, I could do it on a smaller scale, like a closet or a chest of drawers.

  10. posted by Keter on

    I just did that with my office yesterday. I was the only one in the building, so stuff was going in the hall… I added a few items over the past year and the arrangement needed fixing…the only way I could even begin to see where things should go was the get all but the biggest pieces out!!!

  11. posted by Keter on

    BTW, it’s possible to finish a project like that in less than a day. I worked on the office for 7 hours and then gratefully sat down and did another 7 hours of work…free of distractions! But I recommend working alone. If I had a helper, it would have taken me twice as long and yielded half the results…

  12. posted by Lisa on

    I’m a mom who has been working on cleaning/organizing/purging the play room for an hour or 2 at a stretch for the past 2 days. There’s NO WAY I could or would want to take everything out of there and then deal with it! That thought alone is overwhelming to me, let alone how disrupted my family would feel. For me, choosing a “zone” and focusing on that for a half hour to an hour was perfect. I felt a sense of accomplishment when that one portion was clean and organized and I could then focus my kids on whether each object really was worthy of being kept (and whether it’s current position was the best spot) as I was working and make adjustments according to their input. I think if I put everything in a pile on the floor it would be hard for them to really consider things in an orderly way. We did pull everything out of the dress-up dresser, one piece at a time and sorted and purged as we went. Sometimes you may need the drastic approach, I guess, but I don’t think I could do it!

  13. posted by Nick B. on

    A great article. If the room is too overwhelmingly messy, I like to remove 50% of the clutter and then separate that pile by 50%. I call it the 50/50 method and have found it helps for people like me who freak out over excessive junk!

  14. posted by bandicoot on

    i am a big fan of the tabula rasa method.
    you get amazing results in a very short time (one day or one weekend!)…but it does require energy to finish.
    if people have a lot of clutter, they might be better off subtracting stuff steadily for a few weeks and then attacking it tabula-rasa-style.

  15. posted by Britty on

    What if you live in a studio apartment….?

  16. posted by Rae on

    You could divide the studio into spaces or zones, starting with the cupboards and closets.

  17. posted by Elke on

    I love this method, and it would be my preferred style of decluttering. Unfortunately, you really need a lot of “swap space” to move everything out of the room (or even into a different “zone” in the same room). But very often, this lack of “swap space” is what prevents us from using this method and getting started…

  18. posted by CR Linda on

    I agree with Elke. You need space and lots of energy and motivation. I am delaying getting a floor refinished because I have to move all the furniture out of the room. It will disrupt the rest of our small house. It will be worth it, but at least three days will be pandemonium. I like the idea of tabula rasa but do not have the energy or motivation to do that unless forced by other circumstances.

  19. posted by JustGail on

    It’s a good system if you have the space/time to do it properly. Although I think I’d change it so you have to move the “keep” items to a different place. It’s amazing what suddenly isn’t worth keeping if you have to move it yet again.

    Like others have commented, I also do a similar thing on a much smaller scale – 1 drawer or dresser or 1 closet at a time.

  20. posted by Vanessa H. on

    It seems like a lot of comments are focusing on how this couldn’t work on a room. But you could use the principle of clearing an entire room and just do a scaled-down version of it (a drawer, closet, or surface). The idea behind it is that removing all objects from a space opens you up visually to seeing other ways of using the same space, which might make it easier to declutter and use the space in a way that is better suited to your needs.

  21. posted by Leslie on

    We had a monthly contract for fumigation, which means before every visit I had to remove every item in our kitchen cabinets so he could get to the back. By the third month I had pared back the entire contents of our kitchen by 1/2-2/3. I got tired of constantly having to remove everything and then wash, dry and put back. While annoying, incredibly so, I was able to determine what we use most and would keep, what we could do without and what should never have been kept to begin with.

    This method works well for me and I get such a strong feeling of satisfaction when I’m done, but it definitely sucks energy.

  22. posted by Jay on

    This method would work well for porches, garages, or sheds. I used it several years ago on our screened-in porch, which we use for storage. I emptied the entire porch onto the yard or plastic tarps in the yard and only put back what I wanted to keep. I am due for a repeat this spring!

    I would suggest some planning. For example, before I emptied out the porch, I purchased lots of metal shelves and plastic boxes to improve the storage on the porch. Once the shelves were set up, I started putting stuff back.

  23. posted by daz on

    One step extra – you need storage space for things that you put in your special box, or things get nasty with your wife.

  24. posted by Chris on

    I did this today with the summerhouse – all except the postit notes bit (well, I hadn’t read the article at the time!). I agree that you need somewhere to swap stuff out to – which in this case meant the garden path, so I had to wait for a time when it wasn’t raining (I’m in England). Decided the main function of the room was relaxing and also storing the bikes and anything else might well be found a place elsewhere. Some durable items are still on the other side of the path but they will be moved (eventually). The summerhouse now looks a lot airier and it is possible to get to the far end and sit down!

  25. posted by DJ on

    I view this method as drastic, but sometimes entirely necessary. It’s the method I’ve used when friends have asked me to help them “organize” their spare bedroom/cluttered store-all spaces. It works.

    Much to my surprise, I came home one afternoon to find one of my children using this method to clean and organize her room. I was astonished and sooo happy that she was taking on that chore after years of living in a pile of clutter.

  26. posted by Sue on

    I’m a big fan of this method. I just did it in a bunch of rooms because we had to empty them out to tear up the carpet and get the hardwood floors refinished. I ended up removing a lot of clutter, including several pieces of furniture, from our living room. The other rooms got similar makeovers, which never would have happened had we not cleared out the space entirely.

    Now I”m just waiting for spring so I can get those boxes marked “yard sale” out of the basement. I can’t believe how much stuff I managed to cull.

  27. posted by chacha1 on

    I am longing to employ this method on our home office. I have been wanting some new furniture in there, but I have a sneaking suspicion that if DH and I devote a couple of Sundays to doing this, we won’t NEED the storage cabinet(s) we’ve been considering.

    We might even take the opportunity to rip out the horrible landlord-special cheapo carpet and put in a hard floor. Oh so much easier to keep clean … my allergies get worse every year (grumble grumble)!

  28. posted by Marie on

    This is my husband’s favorite method of decluttering, but he rarely gets to use it on a large scale because the unsorted stacks being piled wily-nilly stress me out!

    But I do enjoy using this in a more limited fashion applied to one drawer, one tabletop, one corner, one caddy. It’s refreshing to consider what you really want and need in a given space. It has sometimes helped me figure out what the true treasures are.

  29. posted by habithacker on

    If you’re going to use this method, I’d strongly suggest doing a pre-tabula rasa declutter first. It’s simply too easy for most of us to get overwhelmed or tired just at the point of a tarp full of paperwork and rain clouds on the horizon.

    But if you either have a terrific attention span, tons of time, or not a lot of extra stuff in your room, there’d be no faster way to get it done.

    Once I’m farther along in my own hellish craft room, I may do this.

  30. posted by wrennerd on

    Great suggestion! I like Andrea’s small scale “drawer-by-drawer” suggestion as well, for when the whole room idea won’t work…

  31. posted by Kaz in Oz on

    Will be using this to tackle the downstairs cupboard to cull to pack it up today. Will only be putting stuff back in there that will be coming with us (we haven’t got a moving date yet, and have our house on the market so open for viewings, but I start my new job in 18 days!). All other stuff will be going out.

  32. posted by Kimberly on

    Great article. When I redesigned my teenage son’s room, we took this approach. It helped him see what it could be like without all the clutter. When we were done, he asked if we could leave all the junk out of the room. Of course we did!

  33. posted by Talley Sue Hohlfeld on

    I did this with a single drawer. Several times. The only time it actually worked was when I did NOT look at the piles of stuff I’d take out.

    Instead, I sat in the spot by the drawer and said, “What do I do when I am sitting here? At different times of day? And then, what do I need to do those things?” I went and got those things (from elsewhere in the house, or from the pile of stuff I’d taken out).

    That was IT. Every other thing was not allowed back in the drawer. Even if it was a “keep” sort of item–it had to go somewhere else.

    In the past, I’d just say, “keep this, keep that,” and put them back in the overcrowded drawer. Instead of say, “keep this ELSEWHERE.”

    And in fact, by refusing to allow it back in the drawer bcs it didn’t fit in that test scenario, that made me actually more likely to ditch it.

  34. posted by Christa on

    I’m kindof doing this with my house, so far have the bedroom and half the living room done! I took everything out of the room except the essential furniture we could not live without. I rearranged the furniture then added the items we use everyday. Luckily I have a storage room that I can take things that we don’t use at all to sort/get rid of later. My plan is to only allow things back in the rooms if they have a place to live. Otherwise they need to go somewhere else or leave the house entirely!

  35. posted by Steve on

    My wife and I were able to do a mini-clean-slate project this past weekend. We took everything off a pair of book shelves, and then each of us put back those things that we wanted to keep. We put back 90% of the stuff, but 10% is about 10 times more than we would have gotten rid of if we had used our normal method of one spouse suggesting an item to get rid of and the other spouse getting offended.

  36. posted by LeeAnne Carlson on

    This method works great–if you have large blocks of time and no distractions. For the rest of us with little time and many distractions (those who truly need the uncluttered space more than most) it is impractical if not downright impossible–but oh-so-enticing. Like a vacation to Fiji it would be nice but not a fantasy more than a possibility. For those of us who live lives full of clutter in the form of many little bodies running around the house setting smaller goals are necessary. A contractor bag of junk in the trash and another to goodwill at least weekly is more practical.

  37. posted by Erin Doland on

    @LeeAnne — As a mom, I think getting the whole family involved is a great way to unclutter a space. Even my son who is currently just 19 months old enjoys putting objects into piles. When he tires, he can be set in a play yard and watch us work, sing, play with toys, and still be a part of the action … just a little more confined. Children are great helpers and benefit greatly from being part of the action. They learn important uncluttering and organizing skills early. In fact, if I uncluttered without the whole family’s help, I’d be filled with resentment. Having everyone chip in makes the process faster, more fun, and is a great teaching opportunity.

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