Ask Unclutterer: Rituals, mechanisms, habits and traditions to ensure an uncluttered home

Reader Sasha and others submitted questions to Ask Unclutterer that were very similar in content, asking:

The quote at the end of Tuesday’s post by Anthony Graesch has been on my mind: “The inflow of objects is relentless. The outflow is not. We don’t have rituals, mechanisms, for getting rid of stuff.” After an initial uncluttering project is completed, what rituals and/or mechanisms do you suggest to maintain an uncluttered space? When should we unclutter our homes again?

Many groups of people have uncluttering and cleaning as a ritualistic component of their culture. For example, in many south Asian countries in preparation for Diwali the entire house is cleaned and all old clutter removed before a family begins celebrating. This holiday is in the last quarter of the calendar year when temperatures are mild (60ºFs and 70ºFs) and families can work both out and indoors. Some sub-groups even include painting and decorating as part of this ritual, where walls get a fresh coat of paint and older decorative items are replaced with new (pictures are even swapped in frames). There is a religious purpose for this behavior, but even the non-religious observe the secular aspect of uncluttering and cleaning around this holiday.

On the whole, we don’t have such holidays in the U.S. where everyone observes a ritual for annually cleaning and uncluttering our spaces. I’ve noticed most families only go through such whole-home uncluttering activities when moving or right before entertaining guests. And, when entertaining guests, it’s usually more of a pick-up and put-away surface cleaning than a deep uncluttering and cleaning. As a result, I agree with Graesch and his statement that most families bring stuff in but rarely let stuff go. We’re definitely a culture of acquisition.

To maintain an uncluttered home, I think it’s a good idea to have habits and traditions in place to keep the outflow of goods equal to (or greater than) the inflow.

Four good habits to observe every day of the year:

  1. Don’t bring clutter in. Keep a trash can, recycling bin, and shredder near the main entrance to your home so you can immediately trash the trash, recycle what can be recycled, and shred anything you don’t need that contains personal information on it (like those preapproved credit card applications you get in the mail).
  2. One-in-one-out. Try your best to get rid of one item each time you bring in a newer item (this works for most products except for quickly consumable items like food). For example, if you buy a new pair of jeans, get rid of your oldest, hole-iest pair. If you’re starting to notice one-in-one-out isn’t enough, aim for one-in-two-out or one-in-three-out.
  3. Permanent box for charity. I also recommend keeping a Rubbermaid bin in your laundry room for deposits of donation items. I suggest the laundry room because it is incredibly simple to pull a piece of clothing you no longer want out of the dryer, fold it, and then put it straight into the donation bin. A sturdy bin is great because it can also hold non-clothing items you wish to donate to charity. Once the bin is full, toss it in the car and take its contents to your charity of choice.
  4. Put things away after you use them. When you put things away after you use them, you don’t have stray items all over your home and you know when your storage spaces are getting full and ready for uncluttering. It also helps you avoid having more possessions than you can store.

Four traditions to observe during the year:

  1. Spring cleaning. Getting your home ready for the warmer months of the year is good for many reasons. You’ll be able to clean things thoroughly, as well as notice if any damage has taken place to your home over the winter months. For a comprehensive list of spring cleaning tasks, check out pages 185-190 in my book.
  2. Fall cleaning. Just like spring cleaning, it’s always a good idea to get your home ready for the cooler months of the year. For an exhaustive list of fall cleaning tasks, check out pages 100-105 in my book.
  3. Cabin fever uncluttering. There is a point during the winter when you become tired of the snow and ice and cold temperatures that keep you indoors and you are longing for warmer weather. When these days set in, I know I’m mentally ready to do a thorough uncluttering in the house. Go through everything in your home and get rid of all the clutter. (For me, this is usually the first or second week of February.)
  4. Too hot to move uncluttering. When it is too hot to move outside and you start looking forward to fall, this is a good time to do another full-house uncluttering project. You’re inside retreating from the heat, anyway, so you might as well put that indoor time to good use. (Never fails, this happens for me the last week of July or first week of August.)

If these winter, spring, summer, and fall times don’t work for you, find times that do — the week before your birthday, the week before Easter, every weekend in October, etc. Attach rewards to the end of these projects so you have something to look forward to, in addition to your uncluttered and cleaned home. Also, be sure everyone in your home is involved in working to get things done. Everyone should feel responsible for and have a stake in the smooth running of the home.

Thank you, Sasha and the others, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

19 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Rituals, mechanisms, habits and traditions to ensure an uncluttered home”

  1. posted by Leslie on

    I always do a deep cleaning on Thanksgiving weekend in preparation for decorating my house for the holidays.

  2. posted by Pam on

    My mother used to always stress to the family the importance of cleaning the house before New Year’s day.

    This included your person (getting a haircut, making sure to take a bath/shower on New Year’s Eve before midnight to be clean for the New Year)as well as the whole house.

    I grew up thinking that everyone did this tradition, but found out as an adult that wasn’t the case…mom left out the tidbit that not everyone did this!

  3. posted by Another Deb on

    Honestly, in the Arizona heat, it IS too hot to move. I don’t want to go to the garage to recycle anything, need sunglasses just to pop out the back door to toss a garbage bag. The shades are drawn and the house is not feeling clean and light which is where I get energy from. Not to mention, going to a donation center would mean sitting in a hot car in blinding light for an hour trip. To top it off, this is the only time in the school year when I have that block of time to work on a task like thia. So, I do as much as possible at night or early morning. I work on decluttering paper, which does not entail a lot of movement or garage work. This year I hired a yard service to declutter a couple of years of clutter (leaf litter and tree trimming) from the yard. It was worth every penny!

  4. posted by Kait Bird on

    Thanks for this! I am a minimalist college student living in an apartment and my clutter-free system tends to run on a morning-by-morning basis rather than climax at certain points of the calendar year. I’m a morning person, so I get up with enough time before I have to leave the house to do my daily morning rituals (shower, breakfast, water my fire escape garden, feed the cat, put anything away that is sitting out, make sure all dishes are done, make the bed, etc). I find this works well for me and lets me feel in control and productive right from the start of the new day.


  5. posted by Erika on

    The first day it’s warm enough to open the windows, I always feel motivated to Spring Clean 🙂

  6. posted by Garth Moore on

    Fall cleaning is amazing and you don’t sweat while doing it. Right before October is a great time.

  7. posted by Babs on

    I finally set up a monthly calendar of things I should consider doing. For example in April/October I check my battery supply to make sure I don’t run out during Tornado/ice storm season. I replace my windshield wipers in September so they work in the winter snowstorms. I clean my carpets in May after I put my plants on the porch for the summer. This schedule is a result of trial & error and some “Duh” moments and it is flexible but it has saved me a lot of aggravation. It also ensures that all areas get deep cleaned at least once a year.

  8. posted by Melissa A. on

    If it’s too hot to be outside, it’s too hot to declutter inside, at least where I live 😉 No A/C here.

  9. posted by HM on

    We’re working on a yearly ritual related to sleep away camp. My pre-teen son and I just spent the afternoon doing a deep decluttering of his room before he goes away: getting rid of old school papers, going through his book shelf, reuniting legos and other bits with their respective sets, etc. It’s the second summer we’ve tried this and it works out very well. While he’s gone for a week, I can do the deep cleaning — vacuum behind and under the furniture, wash windows and bedding, flip mattress. Then he comes back to a clean and tidy room and tries to keep it that way until school starts!

  10. posted by NutellaNutterson on

    Before gift-receiving holidays, we try to go through each category likely to get new items – especially books, clothes, and (for our daughter) toys.

  11. posted by Layla on

    Good ideas.

    Although I laugh at the “too hot to move” uncluttering. It was too hot to move last week for a while, and I thought about cleaning up but…well… it was too hot to do anything but lay on my bed with a wet towel draped over me and the fan blowing on me.

  12. posted by liag on

    The pre-Passover clean-out does occur in the U.S., so some Americans do have one cleaning ritual based on religious beliefs.
    It is just slightly irksome that many assume everyone has AC, a laundry room, and enough non-working hours to go beyond minimal maintenance.

  13. posted by [email protected] on

    I love reading this blog! Literally I can feel the energy rise to go and tackle some clutter as I type! Anyhow…did I dream this or does ‘spring cleaning’ actually refer to a ritual from cavemen times? I’m sure I read that they used to hibernate in the winter, and as spring bloomed they literally emptied their caves and decluttered? A fresh start.

  14. posted by Carol S on

    My sweetie and I are on a schedule of March through October with one room a month. We take everything out of the closets, off the shelves, roll up the rugs or shampoo them if needed. We declutter and deep clean. We have been doing this for a couple of years. After the first year, it doesn’t take much to do and it can be done in one day usually. We can then deep clean another time during the year if it needs it.

  15. posted by Rachel on

    Liag, I agree that it’s annoying when people assume that “everyone” lives with all the conveniences of a freestanding home or well-appointed townhouse, condominium, or luxury rented apartment. However, the secret for those of us living in small spaces is that we are _forced_ (eventually, hopefully) into learning better habits. Otherwise, instead of being happy, cozy spaces, our doll-house-sized homes become dens of misery, gridlocked with our wanted or unwanted possessions, and daily life is like a Rubik’s Cube puzzle because we cannot access item A without first moving items B, C, and D. We also have a smaller carbon footprint, and a somewhat lighter impact on the planet, because we cannot indulge in amassing possessions and using up resources to the same extent as people who live in larger spaces. We simply DO NOT HAVE THE ROOM. (We can still do damage if we drive a car, but that’s a longer conversation. And there are good reasons why not everybody is able to take public transportation everywhere: transit nonexistent or not even close to one’s regular essential destinations, physical limitations of oneself or one’s family members…)

    For inspiration on chipping away at one’s clutter, see Jo’s comments on the Unclutterer entry for July 19. “Slow and steady wins the race” is her conclusion. So true!

    Hang in there in your small space, especially if you don’t have “enough non-working hours to go beyond minimal maintenance.” There are others of us struggling to find our way within our lives’ constraints.

  16. posted by liag on

    I am retired and have tons of time and AC (though no laundry room).I love my uncluttered apt.! I do become annoyed that people seem to think there is material equality in this world, though.

  17. posted by Maya on

    Years ago I developed a tradition that I call a “Winter Solstice Purge”. Between Thanksgiving and Yule we go through the entire house (or as much of it as we can manage) to find what can be purged. It always amazes me that year after year there is always stuff that we get rid of. Somehow you can look (or ignore) an item all year, but when you are actually looking with the intent of finding what is no longer useful or desired, they just pop up. I like this tradition because I like starting the new year off with less clutter and stuff in the house, and it also works out to balance against new stuff acquired during Christmas.

  18. posted by Kate on

    I tend to take a couple of days in October — sometimes weekends, sometimes days off from work if I have the time. On one day, I do decluttering and purging and bring the things to Goodwill. On another another day I might tackle a few projects such as putting up pantry shelves, finally bringing that broken whatever in to get repaired, stocking up on cold season supplies, checking fire alarm batteries, etc.

    In the Spring I do another purging and re-organizing day, and on another day (or weekend), I do a more traditional spring cleaning, tackling those cleaning chores I don’t necessarily do on a regular basis: cleaning out the garage, laundering the curtains, washing the window screens, etc.

    I’ve noticed over the last few years that these have seasonal cleaning/organizing/project days have become rituals, without intending it that way!

  19. posted by Allison on

    We have started a decluttering ritual on Sundays. We spend 15 minutes going through some chunk of stuff (books, toys, clothes, kitchen items) looking for something to send to the thrift store. You aren’t obligated to find something every week obviously, but we at least go through some portion of our stuff looking for items to let go of. At just 15 minutes each week, it’s not at all onerous.

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