HOW TO DECLUTTER WHEN YOU DON'T KNOW WHERE TO START
Updated: Apr 19
A Step-by-Step Guide by a Formerly Messy Person
When I started my minimalist journey five years ago I was NOT an organized person. I was a clean person, but not a tidy person. I just didn't know where to put things. The thought of getting rid of stuff was scary, but it seemed freeing to me. I was fantasizing about giving everything away except for one suitcase. Was anything I owned so important that I couldn't part with it? I was motivated by the result of having less. I was motivated to be the type of person who didn't waste hours looking for things. I felt empowered by the idea of having less, rather than more. But I quickly realized that some things were hard to part with; some things were an attachment to who I was in a past life---the person I was, the person I thought I'd be, and the person others expected me to be. Certain things were tokens of the past but didn't represent who I was today or who I desired to be in the future. So why hang on to them?
That answer is different for every one of us. And it's exactly why we leave the hard stuff for last. If you start with the things that evoke emotion, you will get overwhelmed and you won't follow through. The purpose of eliminating clutter is to create peace, not cause more stress. So let's get started.
Step 1: Loop your partner in.
For some, you will have this conversation with your partner and you'll start going through stuff room-by-room together. For others, you'll start with your things and kid things and show your progress to your partner to start the conversation. My husband is a results person, so he needs to see the reward of the work in order to be motivated to do the work. He also is a financially-focused guy, so he immediately started analyzing the waste going into the bags. You know your partner best, approach it in a way that will make them eager to join you. It's important that you stay consistent for it to continue in the long-term. Be partners. This isn't just on you.
Step 2: Start with your clothes.
For me, clothes is always the first place I start. Donating clothes is something I do every year anyway, so I knew I could get through it quickly and without much emotion. I bring a trashbag into my closet and go drawer by drawer. Then I go through the hangers. At some point I learned the "reverse hanger method" which is when you have trouble deciding on an item so you reverse the direction of the hanger and if the hanger is still reversed in three months you donate it. For "maybe" drawer items, I put them in a basket on a shelf in my closet. Have you noticed you wear the same clothes most of the time? My favorite work, leisure, and workout clothes circulate through the laundry from week to week. The only "hard" decisions for me are fancy work clothes and fancy going out clothes. Try things on. If they make you feel amazing, keep. If they make you feel just ok, donate. This is not the time to analyze how much the item cost you or how your body might change in a few months. Decide for the NOW. What helps me is assigning items to a friend. When I donate it to someone I think it will look great on, it makes me feel better than throwing it in a trashbag. Separate clothes, shoes, jackets, and accessories. Does the item represent the person you desire to be or the person you thought you were when you were working that corporate job before kids?
Step 3: Kids clothes
For most people, boxes or storage bins are the best method. As with your own clothes, go drawer by drawer and remove anything that no longer fits your child. The difference with kids clothes is that many people save them "just in case" they have another child. This is fine as long as you purge the things you know will not be worn. If clothes are stained, have holes in them, or are in average or poor condition, get rid of them. If your child is picky about how clothes feel, don't let the things you know they won't wear take up space. If you want, set aside one "picture day" outfit and box the others up. Label kids clothes by age so they are easy to find if/when you need them again. When I finally decided to get rid of all of our kids clothes, this made it so much easier to donate to friends with baby boys. You might also try to make a little money by selling clothes by "the lot" in a mom group.
Step 4: Bathrooms
I like to start with my makeup and skincare products. There are things you no longer use, brushes that are worn, and items that are expired. A lot of these items will be trash. Most makeup is only good for up to a year. Eye makeup is said to expire in 3 months. Lipstick, foundation, primer, are all good for about a year. Most people, myself included, keep makeup for much longer. Toss broken eyeliner pencils, old mascara, old foundation, cracked powders, and things you don't use. Go through drawers and toss things you know longer use. Move on to under the sink. If you're anything like me, you'll find things you haven't used in a year or more. If you didn't know they were there, you don't need them. Organize the items you decide to keep: hair accessories, cleaning products, feminine products, hair tools, make-up, etc. You want to be able to open your cabinets and easily find what you're looking for.
Step 5: Kitchen
I think this was the most overwhelming space for me to tackle. I love to cook and bake. I have multiple kitchen tools for specialty items. I could not follow the minimalist rules and get rid of things I hadn't used in 6 months or even a year. If this is you, no problem. However, there are multiples of things you don't need multiples of. Go cabinet by cabinet and pull everything out. If you know you don't use it, donate it. If it's a big item you only use a few times a year, set it aside to be stored elsewhere. Mugs, plates, cups, and even pots and pans are all things you probably have more than you need. We minimized most of our daily use items down to one set. The only thing we kept a lot of is storage containers and that's because we meal prep. Do what feels comfortable for you in the beginning. The key is to be able to open your cabinets and easily find what you're looking for. If your cabinets are too full, you have too much.
Step 6: Kids Toys
It's best to go through kids toys when they are asleep. Kids love to find old-new toys in boxes. Things they haven't thought about for years are suddenly their "favorite". Go through their play area and box up things they know longer use. Our kids accumulate so much from birthdays and holidays---so many plastic toys, action figures, cars, and stuffed animals. We donated almost ALL of these items to our local church daycare. When my boys play in the house, they play with Legos or they build forts with sofa cushions and blankets. I noticed that the only time the other toys were touched was when they had friends over, so we donated them.
Have you ever seen a little kid go over someone's house who has a lot of toys? The abundance excites them, but after they go through everything and leave a mess of toys on the floor, they only end up playing with a few. Kids have new-shiny syndrome. They want something when they want it but once they have it they want something else. I wanted my kids to have everything I didn't have growing up, so I said yes to everything. They didn't appreciate things; they expected things. Once we donated most of their things, they didn't even miss them. They are actually happier! My oldest said he's so happy he doesn't have to spend so much time cleaning up after he has friends over now. He gets it too! P.S. If you are the one cleaning up your kids toys, you are doing them a disservice and putting extra pressure on yourself.
Step 7: Odds-and-Ends, Tchotchkes, and Junk Drawers
Junk drawers are literal drawers for some of you, for others, it's a basket in your living room or a shelf on the bookcase. This is the place you toss the things that don't have a place. For me, it's the place I toss the kids gumball machine toys, extra hair ties, and stress balls from trade shows. Grab yourself a trashbag and start tossing. You'll feel super productive when you're done! Do this in all the places you store your "junk".
Step 8: Pictures, Kids Artwork, and Papers
My mother-in-law has a closet dedicated to this. It's full of shoe boxes and hat boxes with pictures from her entire life. The other day she was telling my husband and me how she was going through pictures and she'll bring Jonathan his boxes. This is how stuff happens.
We have a lot of pictures of our own we still have to go through. They don't take up too much space if the shoe box method works for you. For me; however, I think about the guilt I feel as an adult daughter, grand-daughter, and daughter-in-law. I don't want my kids and my grand-kids having to feel this guilt when I'm older or gone. That's one of the reasons I'm dedicated to going through the hard stuff now.
Store it like it's 2020. Snap pictures of the pictures or artwork and store it in files on a drive and back it up on The Cloud. We choose our favorite artwork to put on display and the rest gets saved in digital form and the hard-copy gets tossed. I save all the clay creations and toss most paper.
Important papers get scanned and saved in files. We keep hard copies of tax returns for 3 years. Everything else gets tossed, shredded, or burned in the fire pit when we're feeling pyro. It's hard to start, but so much easier once you're in a habit.
This about covers it. Send me a message with personal questions or challenges you're having.