Make uncluttering easier by using basic rules

An axiom of organizing is that clutter often represents unmade decisions. Since decision-making is often difficult and time-consuming, it helps when we can have basic rules for whole categories of things, so we don’t have to make decisions about each item individually.

Here are some examples, just to get you thinking. Of course, your own basic rules might be very different from the ones I’m listing.


You might decide that news magazines only get kept for a week, because the information is dated very quickly. For other magazines, you might decide that the backlog of unread copies will be no more than five, because you’re never going to have the time to read more than that.


Dinah Sanders lists categories of books you might decide you can discard, ranging from out-of-date reference books to cookbooks that no longer fit the way you eat.


Some discards are obvious: photos that are out of focus, or ones that have people’s heads cut off. But you might also want to discard the ones that are unbecoming shots of yourself or others, the ones of acquaintances or co-workers you can’t even remember, and the shots of scenery when you know you could easily get better photos online. Then there are duplicates, or near duplicates, where you may want to say you’ll keep the best one or two photos. A more all-encompassing rule would be to get rid of all those photos that don’t have either personal sentimental value or great artistic value: the less-than-stunning photos of flowers, sunsets, the neighbor’s dog, etc.

Clothes that don’t fit

If you think you’re likely to lose weight and don’t want to give away all the clothes that don’t fit right now, you can still set rules for which ones are definitely not going to be keepers. Even if you do indeed lose that weight, you won’t want clothes that are going to look dated or that don’t fit the way you dress now. And you probably want to give away those that were never quite right: the color was wrong, the item was uncomfortable, it required too much care, etc. And you might set a simple rule like, “I’ll only keep the things that really inspire me to lose that weight, because I’d really like to wear them again!”

Old greeting cards

My own rules include not keeping cards that don’t have personal messages in them. And here’s a different sort of rule: I give myself a specific amount of space for these cards. Once the box is full, I need to be more selective, and keep fewer cards.

Food storage containers

You might have a favorite brand of storage containers, and decide to only keep those types of containers. Or you might decide to only keep square and rectangular containers, because they use space better than round ones do.

Things needing repair

You may want to say that if the repair doesn’t get done in the next three months, you’ll acknowledge it just isn’t likely to ever happen, and the item needs to be discarded. You might also set some basic rules about how much time you’re willing to give to the repairs; sometimes, the time investment might not be worth it to you.

If you have some basic rules that work well for you, I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

15 Comments for “Make uncluttering easier by using basic rules”

  1. posted by Pat on

    A couple of years ago, I went through my closets and put all my too-small clothes into a box which I labeled “Anything I can’t fit in by (a date about 6 months in the future) will be doanted.” I actually lost enough weight to wear many of the things in that box by the specified date, and the rest I donated to charity

  2. posted by Dede on

    So many things in this article hit home. A magazine I’ve been getting for several decades is now online both as html and pdf, as well as 40 years of back issues for free. I’ve tossed all the back issues I’ve been saving and I’m not renewing the subscription.

    I’m working on scanning and culling photos, but it is so slow and tedious and I don’t have a laptop. Sigh.

    The hard one for me is clothing. I’ve gained/lost 50+ pounds a couple times in ten years and each time I tossed my “fat” clothes. And then had to re-buy that size. This time, while I hope it is the last time I will have to lose weight, I am boxing my fat clothes and storing them under the bed. Maybe that will be incentive to never need them again.

  3. posted by Celeste on

    I haven’t had photos printed in years, but at the time I was good about tossing the junkers. EDITING. It’s a good thing!

    This winter I’m going to round up my photos and take them to one of those places where they’ll scan them for me. I think the price is a nickel apiece. I don’t really have a lot, and for me it’s worth it to get it DONE.

    Clothes are easier for me to part with. I don’t buy a lot and tend to wear them out, because I wear sizes that are difficult to find in the first place.

    My hardest clutter problem is sentimental items and craft items. I overestimate the life value of the former and overestimate the time I will have to work on the latter. So I really have a head problem to solve more so than a clutter problem!

  4. posted by Pat O on

    My hardest things to part with are receipts since I worry that I will need a receiopt for returns etc. To keep receipts from getting overwhelming, I put them in one large envelope for the whole year. I try to purchase everything with cash. I can then throw out the receipt envelope at the end of the year, without shredding them, because there isn’t any personal information on the receipt that could be used to steal my identity.

    (It also keeps my spending in control)

  5. posted by infmom on

    We used to subscribe to a LOT of magazines. Over time, it became apparent that many of them were no longer worth the price of a subscription, so we didn’t renew them. It’s become a habit–any time a magazine subscription comes up for renewal, we discuss whether it’s worth continuing. I think we’ve cut down to pretty much the core number of valuable magazines, thus saving us both money and time.

    Most magazines, after we’ve read them, we cut the mailing label or other identifying material off and put the magazine in a bag. Every so often, when one of us has a doctor’s appointment (and, being older, that happens quite a lot) we take the bag with us and donate the magazines to the medical center waiting rooms.

    There are two notable exceptions to this policy. We keep one year’s worth of Consumer Reports in one of those cardboard magazine files, because being able to read the full article is more valuable than reading the summary in the annual “book” they put out. And we keep Cook’s Illustrated indefinitely. They charge for access to back issues on their web site and often reprint recipes from the past. We can look those up in our neatly archived collection rather than pay for access.

    I recently bought a Doxie One scanner and have gotten started on scanning documents that I’d like to keep but don’t necessarily need the paper version on hand. The next task is to convince my husband to use it too. Given his choice he’d cling to anything on paper forever.

  6. posted by Viv Evans on

    My big one is that just because someone gave it to me as a gift doesn’t mean I need to keep it.

  7. posted by Leslie on

    An appropriately timed post. I’m one year out of a 10-year relationship and have been going through what I have left of the possessions I brought with me. I marveled that contents from a 2bedroom condo fit nicely in a small bedroom and part of a shed. Having avoided the process for almost a year, the shed had a mouse infestation. In that instant, I was able to make quick decisions on what stayed and what went. And I feel really good about the decisions I made. Still. Washer/dryer/heavy furniture or the depreciating assets as I call them have been given to family to fill an immediate need.

    My two guilty clutters are photos and papers. I had to pull all the photos out of the albums and the albums were tossed. Photos still have to be checked for scat droppings. As I do so, I will be digitizing them. So many of the photos are fading or damaged. Soon they’ll be unrecognizable. I want to preserve them now while I still can. And share them with family.

    Papers I’m currently avoiding. Toss a blanket over it and turn it into a cat bed.

    But for the most part, it took a whole lotta mouse poop to remind me that family is worth more than clutter. And as I declutter myself, I’ll know that wherever my next stage in life takes me, I will be packing light.

  8. posted by Sasha on

    Wow liked your tips. I am worried about things given as gifts which I hardly use and consume lots of space in my closet.

  9. posted by Casey on

    Go digital!

    I decided about 6 months ago to switch from paper to digital as much as possible, including our home-based business. I scanned 7 years of business records (experts recommend keeping 7 years’ worth of financial records in case of an IRS audit), as well as 7 years (or more) of personal records. (Many banks and credit card companies offer up to 10 years of PDFs of statements on their web sites, so check before you scan.)

    The most difficult part of this chore was shredding everything. Well, not difficult but time consuming. I still have two trash bags of documents to shred, but I’m getting there. The free shredding events that are offered by banks and other companies every so often limit you to a shoebox or two of paper; not worth the trouble if you have a ton of stuff to shred, as we do.

    Despite the time it takes, I highly recommend going digital. Once you catch up, it’s easy to stay caught up. We were able to get rid of 3 file cabinets, which also frees up space and clutter. You don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on a sheet-fed scanner (although a sheet-fed scanner does make the scanning process faster); good quality flatbed scanners are available for around $100 or less. Takes more time, but you can spend an hour or two a day on the task when you’re too tired — or it’s too hot — to do anything else.

    I’m now in the processor of scanning our pre-digicam, pre-iPad/iPod touch photos, which is turning out to be a bigger project than I expected. I tried an inexpensive sheet-fed photo scanner, but the quality was poor, so I’m using the flatbed scanner instead. We have thousands of photos and I’m finding it more difficult to eliminate photos (other than blurry, heads cut off, etc.) than I expected. My goal is to toss most of the printed photos (except family — including pets — and friends), which makes the decision process especially difficult, because they’re irreplaceable. On the other hand, I don’t want to dedicate the next 5 years or more to scanning photos.

    Thanks for your web site and blog. I’ve picked up many helpful tips here, and have actually been doing fairly well at decluttering. It’s amazing how much stuff accumulates when you’re in the same house for a while. Frightening, even. 🙂


  10. posted by WilliamB on

    A rule I implement for old photos (on the rare occasions I go through them) – if I can’t name the friends in it, the photo gets tossed unless there’s a very good reason to keep it.

  11. posted by Standolyn on

    A lot of good information here. I’m downsizing, so I need these thoughtful reminders.

  12. posted by AinOakPark on

    Downsizing as you read this from 3 bed/2 1/2 bath with a garage and excellent built in storage to 2 bed/2 bath NO GARAGE and very little storage. I ask myself, “Can I borrow this if it is something I don’t use often?” If yes, out it went, donated, given away to a friend, trashed or whatever seemed appropriate. I was shocked at how many totes, duffle bag, backpacks and luggage pieces I had. Now I have one huge rolling duffle, one tote bag, one weekender/carry-on type suitcase, as well as a backpack for my husband’s fishing gear. The rest FILLED MY TRUNK! – but off it went to the Salvation Army. After we move (and I use the extra sheets and blankets to wrap/cushion things on the short local move) I will wash them and off they will go as well. Do I really need more than one set of sheets/blanket for the guest bed and an extra set for our bed? Nope. Gone. I guess the hardest thing for me is the pantry, which I like very full. Every January, we “eat down” the pantry (after the excesses that happen during the holidays, it works for us) and we do it again in September (I am a para-educator and get paid only during the actual school year, so September is a lean month.) Now if I could just get my children to take their stuff…

  13. posted by S on

    It took a little while, but I pulled all my printed photos from albums and scanned them with my ScanSnap. I found that went more quickly if I didn’t decide about keeping or deleting pics as I went. Of course, I still have that part to do, but it’ll be easier with all the pictures in iPhoto.

  14. posted by Julia Bloom on

    Food storage containers – I like to only keep clear containers, so that when they are in the fridge, I can easily see what I have. Then food isn’t wasted as easily. Also, I’ve found wide-mouth mason jars of all sizes (half-pint up to quart, even 2-quart) to be great multi-taskers – for canning and also for everyday food storage.

  15. posted by Fazal Majid on

    @Pat O: try the service. You send them your receipts in a prepaid envelope, they scan, OCR and categorize them, then optionally shred them for you.

    If clutter represents deferred decisions, it helps to know some research on decision-making. You get decision fatigue as the day goes on, so it’s best to do this in the morning. Assuming you do not have important decisions to make later in the day that are a better use for your decision stamina.

    For food containers, it’s best to standardize on a single brand, as they will stack efficiently. Having a menagerie of different sizes and shapes will take more room in your cupboards.

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