Four strategies to use when helping someone unclutter

When you need to unclutter, getting help from someone else can make the task seem less daunting. Sometimes, all you might need is another person who can be in the room with you while you actually do the sorting and categorizing of your items, which in the industry we refer to as an accountability partner. You might even be very willing to assist when you’re called upon to help a friend, family member, or colleague with getting more organized. Though it’s helpful to keep rules of thumb in mind, you’ll also want to remember that organizing another person’s items is not exactly the same as sorting through your own belongings.

To give yourself the chance to offer the best help possible, first …

Establish goals

Before embarking on any uncluttering project, you likely come up with one or two goals and then figure out the steps needed to achieve them. When you’re helping someone else unclutter, you will also want to establish goals — not yours, but theirs. Having a goal (or goals) gives you both direction and a path to follow. Since you are there to be supportive, you first need to know what the desired result is (clear the floor around my bed, get rid of paper clutter from my desk and create a desktop filing system, get my car back in the garage).

Helpful strategies:

  • Get a clear picture of what they want to accomplish and consider having a quick meeting over the phone or in person to discuss it. Talking it through can help you both make a solid and reasonable plan of attack.
  • Find out if he/she has a deadline in mind. This will help you understand how much needs to be done and figure out if indeed you have the time to help.

Understand that uncluttering can be an emotional process

When you’re organizing your things, there are times that you probably find yourself feeling motivated, surprised, productive, overwhelmed, and everything in between. You can go through a range of emotions at varying points in the process. Chances are, the friend or family member you’re helping will also take a ride on the same emotional roller coaster. And, those feelings may be heightened because they now have another person (you) present. Yes, they know you care about them, but by sharing the experience with you, it can feel as if they’re exposing their deepest, darkest secret (and perhaps they are).

Helpful strategies:

  • If the person you’re helping begins to feel vulnerable or uncomfortable, reassure them you’re not judging them and you genuinely want to help.
  • If emotions start to run high, stop and take a break so you can both regroup. Before jumping back in, re-focus on the goal(s) that were established. Pause after a reasonable amount of time so you can see which action items you’ve completed and which ones you will move to next.

Be patient as you facilitate the process

When you’re working with someone else, you’ll likely want to exercise more patience than you’re expecting to, particularly if the process doesn’t move along as quickly as you would like. For example, although you may know the person you’re helping very well, you’ll still need to ask if you can throw things away, even if those items seem like trash to you. To help keep yourself from immediately acting on items, think about how you would feel if the roles were reversed and someone else (seemingly) took ownership of your belongings. That’s not the impression you intend to give, but that may be how it is perceived.

Helpful strategies:

  • Before you be being working, come up with ground rules that you both can follow (all magazines prior to August 2012 can be recycled). This will help speed up the process a bit and be in line with the parameters you both agreed to.
  • Be aware of how you’re feeling and take breaks when you need to so that any frustration you may be feeling isn’t conveyed in your actions or words.

Remember that backsliding is possible

Keep in mind that organizing is a process, not an end point. Systems may be created to keep things in order, but they have to be kept up with on a regular basis to make sure that clutter doesn’t return. It will take some practice to do things differently and there’s a possibility that there may be some backsliding. This is not unusual or necessarily a reflection of something you did or didn’t do.

Helpful strategies:

  • If you intend to continue helping, don’t be discouraged. It’s possible that backsliding is situational (something traumatic or dramatic happened) or that they need more time to practice a new way of doing things.
  • Consider using mantras to help you both stay motivated and in a positive state of mind.

Helping someone else unclutter is a very thoughtful thing to do. With a bit of planning before you begin working, patience, and reasonable expectations, you’ll likely end up with more organized space while keeping your relationship intact.

12 Comments for “Four strategies to use when helping someone unclutter”

  1. posted by sue on

    I’ve helped out a few friends with their decluttering projects. I’ve also helped when they’ve been getting ready to move. Both involve sorting, purging, packing and lots of emotionally charged stress.

    My strategy tends to involve lots of questions. “What do you want to do with this?” “Do you want to keep, toss, or donate this?” “What room/area do you want to work on next?” “What do you want ME to do?” “Do you want to work on this section or do you want me to?” “Where do you want to put your (books/files/clothes)?” “Are you using this?” (usually when something is not where it ‘should’ be)

    Sometimes the person is uncomfortable, but I assure them that it is fine… we just need to get started. No pressure. No recriminations. Just affirming support.

    It also helps that everyone knows that I have LOTS & LOTS of books!!

  2. posted by Michelle on

    Forgive me for taking this issue to its extreme, for I know you are not talking about hoarding per se.

    I have a question. When it comes to helping someone in a severe case, i.e., hoarding, the recommended advice of being patient and letting the homeowner have the control to an almost placating degree never sits right with me. Most of the time, the person seems to have definite issues or even a mental disorder such as OCD, and so you are saying you have to wend your way into the illness itself in order to lead them out of it? (I am reading what I’m writing, and yes, I see that I would totally give the advice of meeting people where they are. Bear with me. 🙂

    Does this approach change their thinking in the long run, or does it just prolong or even derail the process?

    Full disclosure: I grew up in a home with normal rooms and hoarding rooms, with random rules and inconsistent follow-through, and the person has only gotten worse over the years. From my personal experience, every bit of patience and understanding I have offered has been put into a conversational tangent, much like the items put into innumerable plastic bags that litter the house today, and never dealt with. So I can’t see an outcome here that patience and soothing “you’re in control” will achieve.


  3. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Michelle — I’m of the opinion that if you don’t have specialized training, it’s best not to help someone with an actual hoarding diagnosis. Their problems aren’t with clutter, so unless you’ve been trained to help them with their underlying issue or to work in coordination with a licensed mental health provider, you could end up doing more damage than good. I’ve been through training, and I still don’t work with diagnosed hoarders because I feel there are more qualified people to work with these clients. It’s best to contact a professional organizer who has been certified to work with hoarders in coordination with a licensed mental health provider.

  4. posted by Deb Lee on

    @Michelle: Thanks for your question and for sharing a bit of your own background. You’re right – this article wasn’t specifically about hoarders, though some of the principles can be used by those trained to work with hoarding clients. That said, hoarding is not my area of expertise and I would defer to a certified professional organizer trained in chronic Disorganization (CPO-CD®).

  5. posted by Linda Samuels on

    Hi Michelle,

    You are right in that this post is not geared to a hoarding situation. While patience and compassion are important when working with someone with hoarding behavior, there are many other factors that also come into play. The first being that hoarding behavior is a complex psychological disorder. Therefore, it’s essential that “help” come in the form of trained professionals with specific knowledge in this area. There’s a term in the organizing industry called “do no harm.” While this is true for all clients that we work with, it’s especially important to keep in mind when working with clients that hoard. Regular rules and ways of organizing will NOT be effective and could be harmful. Help from mental health professionals is an essential part of the mix.

    There are some great resources from the Institute for Challenging Disorganization website – They include free fact sheets, the Clutter-Hoarding scale, and lists of professional organizers that are trained in working with clients with hoarding behavior.

  6. posted by Dr Marla Deibler on


    I address this question on a post I wrote a while ago (toward the bottom). Check it out: http://www.thecenterforemotion.....diction_8/

  7. posted by squibby on

    Thanks for the timely article. I’m about to help my sister-in-law clean up her deceased mother’s belongings, and some organising needs to happen both physically and mentally before we really start making decisions.

  8. posted by [email protected] on

    Over the last 3 years I have made significant progress ‘uncluttering’ however from time to time I get stuck. This post may be about helping others, but I thought I’d share how I get myself ‘unstuck’. I look at it through the eyes of a third party. So the points listed in this post are very helpful as a reminder on being objective with ones own stuff.
    (ps – I have hoarding tendencies so the slow steady route has worked better for me. My mindset has gradually changed over time and hence my behaviour and habits have followed and remained – I haven’t yo-yo’d and gone back to my old ways…)

  9. posted by on

    Great Advice. I love to help friends declutter…maybe a little too much. I become like the Professional counselor on Hoarders!

  10. posted by Kate on

    I am not a professional organizer in any way, but I’ve helped several friends with uncluttering/purging projects at their homes and offices.

    I think having a realistic goal for the day (or whatever the helping session’s timeline is) is the MOST useful thing. It seems to me that folks who are really disorganized with objects thend to also be time-disorganized, meaning they’ll look at a large bedroom piled with stuff and unrealistically think we’ll get through all that by lunchtime. I try to set more realistic goals (“Today, let’s just get the closet emptied and all the clothes sorted out, and we’ll work on the books and boxes later”).

    I also find keeping an eye on moving the process along to be helpful. You don’t want to rush the person too much and stress them out (my challenge is always to remind myself that I’m helping, not the boss!), but if someone gets really stuck on a certain decision, I always suggest an “end of the day” pile/area that they can come back to when we’ve finished everything else.

    It’s amazing to me that the same person who was completely stymied by whether or not to keep a certain item at 10am, and getting worked up about it, after a day of successful purging and sorting, can at 4pm make a snap decision about the same item–and feel good about it.

  11. posted by Elizabeth on

    Can I add one more idea to the list of strategies? Remember to praise the person for what they have achieved. This might be at the end of the decluttering session or at the point where you have to regroup after tensions got high.

    If the clutter is serious this might be a sign that the person you are helping has a hard time valuing themselves generally. Also, if there is a lot of clutter, the individual may easily focus on how much remains to be done (and feel like a failure) instead of welcoming the effort they have put in and results on the small area they have achieved. I know I am guilty of both.

    Be that person’s cheerleader, preferably to the extent that they acknowledge what they’ve done and start to join in with praising themselves.

  12. posted by Deb Lee on

    @Elizabeth: You make a great point. Though the process may seem slow, every step forward is progress. Focusing on what was accomplished(vs what’s still left to do) can be very motivating, and help you get more done in the long run. So can a nice reward at the end of reaching a goal.

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