Instructions for uncluttering your home (in less than 500 words)

One of the most frequent questions I ever get asked about organizing is the process. How do you make the decisions to get rid of things? While there are many tips and tricks you can use to ease the streamlining process, it all comes down to 5 easy steps:

  1. Set yourself a goal “I am going to sort half this room before bed” or “I am going to streamline the contents of this one box.”
  2. Figure out broad categories and where you are going sort each category into.
  3. Sort your stuff, moving systemically through the space, and not bouncing back and forth.
  4. Purge what you don’t want.
  5. Stop when you’ve reached your goal.

Use the sorting time to reminisce about the objects — don’t make any decisions at this point. Allow the emotions to come up and clear themselves out so that when it comes to the streamlining stage you are free from the emotional ties and can make more objective decisions about them.

If the idea of sorting overwhelms you, give yourself some early victories and do a walk-through of the space, choosing to remove a few large things that will open up the space quickly.

After sorting:

  • Take one category and if you can, move it out of the space in which you are working, and into a clear space (like the dining room). This allows you to concentrate on the one category and not have to face the rest all at once.
  • Ask yourself two questions: Need it? Love it? If you can’t say yes to either then get rid of it. Life is too short to fill out our spaces with things we’re indifferent to.
  • Take the things you are not going to keep out of the house as quickly as possible. The longer they stay the more likely they will come back into the house.
  • Give yourself rewards – for example out of fifty childhood books you’ve never reread but have kept for sentimental reasons, keep five and store them in a place of honor where you can see them and appreciate the memories associated with them.

There are two instances in which you stop for the day even if you are not done:

  1. If you find yourself hitting a “brain fog” where nothing makes sense or you find yourself holding on to everything you are reviewing.
  2. If you have hit a manic state and start tossing everything without looking at it.

Simple, yes? So now tell us, what are you going to streamline this week?


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2009.

40 Comments for “Instructions for uncluttering your home (in less than 500 words)”

  1. posted by Tabitha (From Single to Married) on

    Great post and especially timely for me as my upstairs is getting a little ‘cluttered.’ I think I’ll have to start with the bedroom.

  2. posted by Simpler Living on

    I’ve started practicing “split-second decision making.” The longer I hold onto something, the harder it can be for me to let it go because I’ll find some reason or other to justify keeping it.

    That helped me get rid of a lot of sentimental and “someday, I’ll use this” clutter before I moved last weekend.

    This week, I’m streamlining the moving boxes and packing materials lying around our new house. That should be easy: I’ll give them away to someone else who’s moving.

  3. posted by Sherri at Serene Journey on

    I find it’s much easier to begin with the end in mind. If you take time to visualize what you want the space to look like when you’re finished it helps a lot. Then for each item ask does this add to my vision? If not then it’s likely best to get rid of it or use it in another place in your home.

    For sentimental items that you really don’t need I would suggest taking a picture of it as it’s typically not the physical item you are attached to but rather the memories it invokes.

  4. posted by Imelda on

    The FRIDGE!! It’s cluttered!!!! It’s crazy. It’s getting cleaned out today or tomorrow.

    Room wise, I’ll probably update my checkbook (starting to slack) and go through my finance papers that are in my accordion file. They’re at least in file slots, but need to be organized better.

    That’s my task. I need to put it in my TV and bedroom door so I remind myself.

    Great tips!!!

  5. posted by Tessa on

    I found a great way to de-clutter my wardrobe. I hung all the clothes hangers backwards – hooks turning out, rather than in, as normal. I switched each one back the first time I wore whatever was hanging on it. At the end of a year, I got rid of all the clothes that were on backwards hangers. If I hadn’t worn them once in the whole year, they weren’t worth hanging on to.

  6. posted by Another Deb on

    I began laughing when I read the two tips for when to stop. Yes, I am all too familiar with the brain fog state. The “manic” state got me giggling.. manically, perhaps. Remember, almost everything is replaceable if you get into a pitching blitz. (Try saying that real fast)

  7. posted by Alex Fayle | Someday Syndrome on

    My bedroom always gets cluttered when I’m doing to much. If I can’t see the floor, it’s time to slow down and unclutter my brain as well as my bedroom. 😉

    @Simpler Living
    I tend to make that type of decision even before bringing things into the house and so I end up buying very little. And yay to giving the moving boxes to someone else. They’ll appreciate that definitely.

    The picture thing is always a great idea as is the vision exercise before starting. Knowing what you want and why is a great way to define the keep/give away distinction.

    Deep fridges can get horribly cluttered. We try to keep everything up front so that food doesn’t go to waste.

    I love those sorts of slow organizing tools. It’s organizing without having to make an effort to do so. 😉

    @Another Deb
    I’ve had to replace things that I’ve gotten rid of and it’s irritated me to have to spend the money again (as well the eco-waste I created). All as a result of a pitching blitz. (yes, I’m one of those organizers who learned to be so by making all the mistakes first.) 😉

  8. posted by whyioughtta on

    I find it useful to approach all cleaning/decluttering tasks in a clockwise fashion…i.e. I work my way through a room clockwise, starting at the doorway. That way I know what I’ve already dealt with and it gives my brain less of a chance to bounce around all over the place.

  9. posted by ReformingPakRat on

    I just lost my job, so now I have time to clean out. I started with the never-ending stacks and boxes of paperwork. I’ve shredded about a 3 foot stack so far. I got tired of that so I’m taking a paper break for a week or so.

    Now I’m working on my aburdly large CD collection. I’m deciding what I don’t want and selling or donating them. Next project I’ll start on my enormous book collections.

    I’ve found that it helps to have a list of projects, big and small. I put the approximate completion time next to it. When I have some time, I pick a project that fits the time framed, or schedule a day to do the project.

    Large projects are broken down into smaller units. For instance, I won’t tackle my entire pantry at once. I’ll pick a shelp\f or two at a time. If I still have time and energy, I’ll do one more.

    I find this keeps me productive, without getting stressed out.

  10. posted by Catherine Cantieri, Sorted on

    Total agreement w/Sherri re: beginning with the end in mind. Starting with a vision is crucial for organization; it makes all those “keep or not?” decisions more sharply focused. When you know what you want, it’s harder/less legitimate/sillier to say “Well, I might need it…”

    Good post!

  11. posted by Another Deb on

    @Reformed PakRat,

    Your idea about having a projected time frame is great! I am guilty of assuming that every task takes forever and that I need the whole day, week, summer to do them. I end up just worrying about the task for the whole day, week, summer…

    Your idea about coordinating the projected time with available slots if also wonderful. Do I do that automatically or have I never thought of it that way before? It seems like a novel apporach to me.

  12. posted by Decluttering My Childhood - You 2.0 on

    […] I had a new goal: declutter my […]

  13. posted by Jack of Most Trades. on

    “Need It? Love It?”
    That’s solid GOLD!!!
    I’m putting that into practice immediately!

  14. posted by Cliff on

    The “purge it” part eludes me.

    HOW? I can’t just throw away tons of valuable stuff. It’s not particularly valuable to me, except as cash, but it’s irresponsible to just trash it. Some of it is family heirloom, some of it is simply high-cost. Your thoughts?

  15. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    Cliff, here are some ideas:

  16. posted by Sterling on

    I’ll try to keep this in mind for my midweek unclutter tomorrow. Especially the bit about stopping when you get manic and begin tossing everything. I’m pretty sure you were referring to tossing into the trash or donation pile- but it’s just as applicable for those (like myself) who get frustrated and begin tossing their wares in all directions like a tantrum-throwing child.

    It’s not just me, right?

  17. posted by Ally on

    Always remeber LESS MEANS MORE thanks for the article =)

  18. posted by Gregory Thomson on

    I’m a techie that has a terrible time with paper clutter. I keep articles, procedures, notes, how-to’s, etc… and they tend to pile up until overwhelming, after which I put them in a box somewhere, and then can never find what I need again – too much work to go through the box of stuff. But much of it doesn’t have a logical place to be filed, and some I may not need for a year.
    So, being a programmer-type person, I wrote a program to help. It lets me easily maintain and search an index of the papers/docs, and then stick in a ‘misc’ folder in numerical order. It helps me declutter the office of piles of paper. I wrote it for me, but also just decided to make available for others. I put up a simple web page, and have the program available here for anybody interested – It’s for helping with paper documents, not digital documents.

  19. posted by Instructions for decluttering your home | The Paper Tiger Blog on

    […] Instructions for decluttering your home by Alex Fayle (in less than 500 words) taken from […]

  20. posted by Diana on

    I’ve been working on de-cluttering for the past 10 years. It’s an everyday process. I grew up really poor and have had to deal with my hoarding issues. Right now I”m tackling my garage / storage. A good purge is needed every five years. Things that were important back then are not right now. I’ve been pretty good. Thank goodness for Goodwill and Craigslist. I’ve been able to donate things or give them away and I don’t feel so bad about getting rid of them.

  21. posted by 5 Reasons De-Cluttering Helps Career Development | on

    […] Fly Lady has a 15-minute at a time, step-by-step method to help you get started.  The Unclutterer also offers you a method to purge stuff.  If it’s clothing or other personal items […]

  22. posted by Overwhelmed on

    …My biggest problem is that I want everything recycled and that would mean a trip or two to the recycling center (if they indeed recycle those things) – so I hang on to the fused lightbulbs and the dud batteries and the half can of pesticide, bottles of old sunscreen — oh God!! I do not want to keep things – but I cannot trash it – I want someone to take it away – so that’s my big, big, big problem…

  23. posted by Jan - queenofkaos on

    I’ve been doing a lot of decluttering lately and am finding that remembering the value of clear space has really helped a lot.

    If I waiver on something I don’t really need I ask myself if it’s worth giving up the space for. Clear spaces make me feel so good that it has got to be pretty important for me to keep these days.

    It’s getting easier to let go of things that I have held on to for years since I started thinking this way.

  24. posted by Simple Ways to Declutter Your Home | The RoomPlace Blog on

    […] Instructions for decluttering your home (in less than 500 words … […]

  25. posted by Sheri on

    @Overwhelmed Knowledge is power…and in this case can be quite motivating. Check out the websites for your city or trash collector to see if they offer Hazardous Waste Collection and E-waste Collection events. Our city holds a hazardous waste collection every month, and a nearby city holds 2 E-waste events every month. Our local library will take dead batteries and small e-waste like cell phones.

    I was holding onto a LOT of things that were not supposed to go into the landfill and was elated to learn about the hazardous waste event. I filled my little pickup truck with old paint, fertilizer, propane tanks etc. and was thankful to have the space back in my garage.

  26. posted by Secret Squirrel on

    @Overwhealmed. Let it go on the recycling front. Get it out! I’d imagine your house might resemble a landfill if you’re hanging onto all of that “trash” that needs to be sent out. You know, trash is actually GONE THROUGH by the “technicials” aka: workers at the trash depots. They take magnetically remove cans and steel for recycling, glass bottles, bulbs, cardboard/paper, etc, etc, ad nauseum will be gone through for purposes to be recycled because they know not everone does so. Once it gets to the trash places in an effort to sort things out. They don’t just dump EVERYTHING in a landfill. For more info see Dirty Jobs Episode 101, 222 and others, as well asPenn & Teller Bullsh!t Episode 205. It would behoove you to just throw out an entire can full of “recycleables” to realize it’s OK to let it go. It sounds like it’s ruining your life.

  27. posted by How To Declutter My House | on

    […] Instructions for decluttering your home (in less than 500 words … […]

  28. posted by Mike on

    Nice post! I just wanted to say that clutter is like anything else. You have to get it set in your mind that you are going to conquer the problem. I know when I decided I had had enough. I got a game plan together to declutter my house. If you get a minute you can go check out my story on my blog just click my name it will take you straight to that blog post…

  29. posted by time to declutter - Thighs Thinner on

    […] fair weather bikers. It is, however, great weather for indoor projects. We’re about to launch the declutter and organize the home office project. This is something I’d rather not do, but hey, it’s just another aspect of a fit life, […]

  30. posted by 7 Ideas To Improve Your Home For Spring | BuildDirect Blog on

    […] should be a part of the new.  To get some ideas about how to de-clutter, check out this post about how to de-clutter in less than 500 words.  And for interior design insights and advice, why not do some research with the help of the […]

  31. posted by Woody on

    I’m a natural pack-rat, but here’s a strategy I use to help me deal with pitching out all those wonderful ‘treasures’ from time to time. Remember the last time you needed to pay a bill but couldn’t find it? How about the time you bought something that wasn’t on sale only to get home and realize you already had two more still in the package?

    When you pick something up and think, “This is in the way – but it’s so useful/expensive I can’t just toss it,” remember that simply having junk in the way costs you time and money.

  32. posted by anthony on

    Great article! That is the best way to approach decluttering your home because what usually happens is that we get stressed out just by the thought of having to sort out all the junk that is taking up valuable space in our homes.But if you approach it in a step by step manner then it becomes a lot more managable.

  33. posted by angie on

    I think the moment you start sorting you set yourself for a failure. Do not sort. First – discard anything that can be discarded ( brocken, useless, old, not loved). Then you either leave the rest as is because there is enought space now or find a new place. I am currently doing this little by little. I set myself on a mission to discard at least one thing every day. And I found that often I do not need to organize anything else, space clears by itself. I also put everything I cannot trash either into “giveaway” bag or “sell” box and make a rule of not touching anything in there until its out of the house.

  34. posted by Mujahid on

    I think that it’s a lot less demanding in any case the end as a primary concern. On the off chance that you set aside the opportunity to picture what you need the space to look like when you’re done it helps a ton. At that point for everything ask does this add to my vision? On the off chance that not, at that point it’s presumably best to dispose of it or use it in somewhere else in your home.

  35. posted by PATRICK CARVER on

    Early in our journey towards simplicity, one of my favorite decluttering techniques was to grab a simple large trash bag and see how quickly I could fill it. While much of what I collected was trash, this could also be used to fill a bag for Goodwill.

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  40. posted by Pauline on

    Since our office is big enough we are doing uncluttering on regular basis. What is more important, is to check our mind and to do regular uncluttering of our thoughts, i.e. bad thoughts that attack us almost 90% of the day time. Here is by the way a nice video on how to deal with thoughts

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