Uncluttering method: Tackling the most annoying thing first

The question I am asked the most is: “Where should I start uncluttering?” I typically respond to this question with the standard “start small” response — a drawer, a purse, a pocket of a coat. Although this is the answer I most often give because starting small is really easy, it’s not actually what I believe is the most rewarding place to start.

When faced with a cluttered home or office, I find that people get the greatest satisfaction from uncluttering the area that annoys them more than any other area. It’s the area of your home or office that makes you curse each time you look at it. Even just thinking about it makes your stomach tighten and jaw clench. If you used a word as strong as hate, you would say you hated it.

Back in my cluttered days, there was a stack of boxes by the front door that drove me bonkers. Worst of all, it was the first thing I saw when I came home after a long day at work. I’d be ready to relax, and then AHHHH! I’d see it and instantly tense up again. “I have to take care of that,” would be the next thought that popped into my mind. And then, I’d walk into the living room and forget about the boxes until the next time I left or came home. I grumbled about those awful boxes of clutter for years.

When I finally sorted through the contents of those boxes and cleared them away from the front door, it was as if I had won the lottery. I took myself out to dinner. I called and told a few friends. I may have pulled a neighbor in from the hallway just to take a look at what I had done. I was elated, and the remainder of my uncluttering work was a breeze after that.

Starting small is easy, and it’s actually how I started my first big uncluttering project. I went through one box at the bottom of a closet. I didn’t get a giant burst of motivation and satisfaction, though, until I tackled those boxes by the front door. It was only after the biggest frustration was gone that I really wanted to get rid of all the clutter and embark on my new, uncluttered life.

If you’re looking for a boost of uncluttering motivation, slay the clutter dragon that is your biggest frustration in your home or office. Stop putting it off, and take care of it. You’ll be glad you did.

30 Comments for “Uncluttering method: Tackling the most annoying thing first”

  1. posted by Rowena on

    Excellent advice. I’m going to move that box of files out of the dining room right now.

  2. posted by Kelly on

    I’ve been working little by little on my home office. I’ve gotten to the point where it’s really noticeable that I’m making progress. In fact, my daughter noticed the other day and said, “Mom, your office is so clean it’s creepy.” Yay! I still have several hours worth of work to do on it, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it feels great!

  3. posted by Amanda on

    I really like this as an alternative or companion to “Start small.” Starting small gives you some encouragement but not direction. “Start the one that annoys you most” gives direction.

  4. posted by WilliamB on

    Roommate and I did just this last night. Neither of us felt like doing it, but there was detrius from two trips scattered around and I wanted it taken care of. Roomie agreed because the cleaners came today – they can’t do their job if there’s stuff everywhere.

  5. posted by Rachel on

    I absolutely agree with this! It definitely spurs me to keep going when I realize how much satisfaction I get from taking care of that one most annoying thing.

  6. posted by BevAnn on

    I’ve been decluttering since 1/1/11 – and been doing as Erin suggested in her book – the areas you see first in the morning, or when you come home. So I haven’t really been doing the small places first.

    Here’s my issue – my most annoying area is my hobby room. As I’m declutterng my house, I find myself throwing stuff I don’t know what to do with, in that room. So as my garage is filling up with stuff to sell/get rid of, and my house is looking better and better – my hobby room is wall to wall, floor to ceiling full of stuff. Now I have the door closed becuase it upsets me every time I walk past it. I knew it’d be the last room I’d do, as it’s the worst…but now I’m not sure I can wait until the rest of the house is decluttered!! Becuase it’s driving me nuts that it’s in the condition it’s in. :/

  7. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    This is so very true. You get such a boost in your spirit by tackling that thorn in your flesh that had bugged you for so long. It becomes a mental burden but you may not realize it until it is actually clean. Then it is like the weight has lifted!
    Same works for your to-do list too!

  8. posted by javamonster on

    This sounds like corollary advice I’ve seen in debt forums. Usually the advice is to start with the smallest debt first and work your up to the largest debt in a snowball. But there is someone who advises you start with the debt *you hate the most* first, and THEN go on to the other ones you dislike.

    Debt and clutter are a lot a like.

  9. posted by Patti on

    So what was in those boxes of clutter by the front door? Any forgotten treasures?

  10. posted by Kimberly on

    I do something like this. I call it my “top ten” for the day. It’s a list of the ten things that are annoying me the most. Usually they are clutter things, but sometimes they’re cleaning things.

  11. posted by Marjory on

    I do a “don’t wanna” first and reward myself with a “that’s an easy one.” It all has to get done, and there’s no sense in being sadistic to myself.

  12. posted by Keter on

    Erin unknowingly highlighted something that I noticed a while back: there is “anchor clutter.” Anchor clutter is something that is either out of place but you don’t know what to do with it instead, or for some reason you can’t psychologically bring yourself to deal with it. And until you clear that blockage, you can’t get the other pieces to fit. So you work and work and work and seemingly don’t get anything done.

    I don’t have a good answer for anchor clutter. It’s the cluelessness I can’t remedy, and have to wait for that one day when the brainstorm hits and I know what to do. And then organizing the rest of the space is, as Erin mentioned, easy.

    What ticks me off most about anchor clutter is the inevitable comment from the S.O. about how simple it was “once you got down to it.” As if this was something I was doing deliberately. Sorry, buddy, it just took my brain X months or even years to solve it, you just couldn’t see it. And what stopped YOU from solving it all that time, eh? Arrrgh.

  13. posted by Rachael on

    I have been avoiding cleaning out our office, which is part office and part catch-all for containing messes behind a closed door, until we figure out a better filing system, but I get grumpy just thinking about having to go in there. Maybe it’s time to pick a filing system, make it work, and make it so we can keep the door open!

  14. posted by *pol on

    It usually is the stuff that’s in the way because it doesn’t have a truly practical home. The stuff that gathers on the counter because it doesn’t fit in the pantry, the lone socks that accumulate on the dresser (where ARE those matched socks anyways?) The piles of papers that need to be dealt with “when I have the time” on my desk…. I clear them all off and it feels great, but they always COME BACK!

  15. posted by chacha1 on

    @Rachel: exactly. 🙂 It’s not filing in our case, it’s “how many different activities do we really want to be supplied for/are we really going to participate in ever again.”

    We both just don’t want to start because it’s going to be a big, fat, stinky, multi-day job complete with furniture-moving and cable-organizing and probably renting a pickup to take stuff to Goodwill.

  16. posted by Tan @ Tan/Green on

    The box example perfectly mirrors my shoe issue…right at our door our shoes were taking over…and driving me crazy! I put in pace a simple, cheap solution and have been happily entering my home for a few weeks. It is amazing how good it can feel to get rid of that most annoying thing…I will surely be inspired to more decluttering!

  17. posted by Julia on

    Over the years I did a good job of training myself not to see this stuff. Maybe 5 years ago (maybe longer) I began to realize that I really did see this out-of-place junk; not only did I see it, but each time I saw it my neck and shoulder muscles tensed because I was seeing Something Undone – something that, every time I saw it, nagged at me (silently) to do something about it.

    Amazing that my muscles could “see” something that my eyes could not. My list for today includes clearing enough space in my HUGE front closet to actually walk inside it. I’ve been piling stuff from my parents’ house in that closet, and it’s no longer usable. Time to do something about it.

  18. posted by Embembol on


    Unrelated to the rest of today’s blog, but just put the mismatched socks straight back in the laundry basket. That way you don’t lose them, you don’t have to look at them, and often the match turns up sometime before you do laundry next.

  19. posted by Rae on

    Very good advice. I have a friend whose home is badly cluttered. I offered to help her, but she found the prospect too daunting until, like you, she was brought to the brink of madness by what she saw when she walked in the front door. I spent three hours with her showing her how to make decisions about what to keep or not, how to group like items to avoid buying duplicates, and how to containerize. She is so happy with her clutter-free, organized entrance and that motivated her to start on her kitchen cabinets. She’s been beaming and full of energy since we made this one small change to her home. Her clutter-bug husband even got on board. I bet her living room will be soon.

  20. posted by Amy on

    My kitchen was the place for things that had no home, that I wanted easy access to or that I wanted my kids to have to ask for.

    I have cleaned out the kitchen, but it needed to be done last as I had to figure out what storage solutions I needed.

    It was a major break through when I realized that EVERYTHING in my home and everything that needs to come into my home NEEDS a dedicated place, no matter how insignificant, or I will be on a permanent cleaning hamster wheel. The solution is not to constantly clean but to have systems in place that will help keep things neat.

    Now I keep magnetic dry erase markers on my fridge, and every time I find a new category of item that needs a storage solution, I jot it on my fridge so that I will not forget. (I can write right on the fridge surface.) When I had a nice list, I cleaned out my coat closet, installed a pantry shelf and created bins and easy access storage for all of the random items that had been thrown together in my kitchen junk drawers.

    Getting organized has been the best gift to myself, my husband and my kids!

  21. posted by sunny on

    I do the same thing by calling things my “ugh” corners. You know, it’s the drawer you open and immediately go “ugh” because it annoys you…..

    or the bowl in the cupboard that sits inside the bowl you use most…I go “ugh” and eventually tackle it so it makes me smile instead of saying “ugh”.

    I have friends who make lists of things to complete and they mock me by calling my method “letting your environment speak to you”.

  22. posted by Lindsay on

    What happens if the clutter is does not belong to you but to a flatmate? Is there a nice way to tell them that it bugs you?

  23. posted by Elaine on

    Lindsay asked:
    What happens if the clutter is does not belong to you but to a flatmate? Is there a nice way to tell them that it bugs you?

    Lindsay, I think you need to ask yourself a few questions.

    How long do you plan on living with this flatmate? If it’s a short time (less than one year), you might decide to just live with it. If the time frame is indefinite or permanent, then you do need to discuss it.

    Can the mess be contained to the flatmate’s bedroom? If so, you could keep the door closed.

    Is the mess a health risk of any kind? Food left out could go bad, and could attract insects. Rooms not cleaned could breed mold or allergens. Things piled up can tip over and fall on a person (or a foot).

    How well do you know your flatmate? If you know this person well, you should be able to figure out how to approach him or her. Some factors to bring up could be hygiene, attractiveness of your home, and/or the basic housekeeping standards of your home (especially if it’s *your* flat and the person is there because you allow it). Use as much tact as possible. Perhaps offer to help clean up the clutter (wear rubber gloves, if necessary).

  24. posted by tpdval on

    I got lucky – my “tupperware” drawer annoyed me the most – and it also happened to be something relatively small. I walked around all weekend grinning from ear to ear! If you would like to see the very satisfying transformation,

  25. posted by ecuadoriana on

    I jumped on board with this idea just last night. I was lounging around waiting for the time I was to go out & meet a few friends & I asked myself “What cluuter annoys me the most right now that I can remedy right now?” And the answer was: The little basket on the wall by the door that is crammed with ???? and always spills out onto the floor! So, I got up, went over to the basket, unhooked it from the wall & dumped the contents out right there. Why in the world did I have old stale packets of gum in there? Oh, yeah, to grab on my way out the door. Trash! Why was there a bottle of headache tablets in there? oh, yeah, because I had a headache one day on my way out the door & dropped the bottle in there rather than walk back to the bathroom to return it to the cabinet. Back to the bathroom it went. Why was there a dirty travel coffee mug in there? Can’t even remember why! Into the kitchen sink. A handfull of rusty screws? Uh, no idea! Trash… When all was put away or thrown away, I was ready to hit the road with a fresh clear head, knowing that when I returned home I wouldn’t plunk my keys onto the top of a heaping overloaded pile of junk in the basket that was originally put there to hold ONLY my keys, wallet, and lip balm!!! LOL! Thanks, Erin, for again giving me the push I needed!!!

  26. posted by Kara on

    @ Embembol
    Beautifully simple remedy! I had a small drawer devoted to those socks, but leaving them in the basket makes more sense and frees up a drawer!

  27. posted by Jane on

    So true!

    I’d moved several times from 1996 – 2008. When I finally bought a house (Aug 2008) I gave myself 1 year to totally empty the boxes that filled (yes, filled) the garage. These boxes had followed me from place to place. I had many duplicates of things because when I’d move, the boxes would go into the garage and I’d be unable to find things so I’d get a replacement.

    Tackling those first few boxes was daunting, somehow the oldest boxes had ended up nearest to the front of the garage so I had to tackle sorting through report cards, childhood collections and even clothes from when I was in my teens.

    In the evenings and weekends, I’d make myself pull up the dumpster and sort. If something wasn’t going into the house if it was in good condition it went to Goodwill, not so good, trash. Yes, I was ruthless, I had to be, this stuff had been dogging me for more than 20 years!

    Once I got going, I found it easier to break “connections” with stuff and look at it as stuff, not a memory of some one or some place.

    I’ve been able to continue getting rid of things, I go through my closets every few months and if I haven’t worn something, it goes to Goodwill. I have nothing stored except for holiday items in 2 bins in the garage.

    The biggest thought to keep you going is that things are not, and will never be, the people tied to them. If something is really hard to toss, take a digital picture of it, it is almost guaranteed that you will never look at the picture, but you’ll be able to move on and part with the item.

  28. posted by Sue on

    Great idea. Simple. The thing that bugs me most is the continual pile of mail & paper on the kitchen counter. I get rid of it, and in a week it’s back. I’m wishing I didn’t get rid of the desk in the kitchen when we remodeled. Like Amy, I need to find a better place.

    Thanks for all your great ideas. It keeps me inspired.

  29. posted by Melissa A. on

    For me this would be my kitchen. It’s a huge undertaking.

  30. posted by Steve on

    I was always told, to avoid procrastination, to ‘eat the frog first’. In this case, start with the most undesirable thing, the thing that you dread doing more than anything else.

    The rewards will be great.

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