Decluttering 101: Your Big Friendly Guide to a Clutter Free Home

Decluttering will change your life.  If that sounds over the top, believe me, it’s not.  Clutter and decluttering are two sides of the same coin.  What clutter steals from us, decluttering can restore. 

declutter plan on napkin

 

What is clutter?

Even if you can’t quite put it into words, I’ll bet you can look at a room and point out clutter.  

But if we want to get really good at decluttering, we need to understand it a little better. 

Let’s start with the dictionary definition and go from there.

The ‘official’ clutter definition.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists clutter as both a verb (action) and a noun (state of being).

  • to run in disorder
  • to fill or cover with scattered or disordered things that impede movement or reduce effectiveness
  • a crowded or confused mass or collection
  • things that clutter a place

And here are some fun synonyms that provide another word for clutter.  I like these because they speak to the appearance and emotion of clutter.   If you can apply any of these, you’re probably dealing with clutter of some kind!

  • alphabet soup
  • crazy quilt
  • grab bag
  • hodge podge
  • jumble
  • litter
  • menagerie
  • miscellany
  • mishmash
  • muddle
  • rummage
  • scramble

Looking at the dictionary definition is a great start, but it only gets you so far.  You need more information about clutter if you’re going to conquer it.  

How to tell what is clutter and what isn’t.

Because clutter can be sneaky

Some is obvious and some not so much.

This list describes clutter, and will help you become an expert at recognizing it:

  • It doesn’t serve a purpose.  It may not be useful, or enjoyable, or important.
  • You may not want it, but have a hard time letting go of it.
  • It makes your daily life more difficult than it has to be.  You find yourself working around the clutter.
  • Clutter is not always messy.  It can be very tidy.
  • It can be hidden in plain sight if you become clutter-blind.
  • You may feel overwhelmed by clutter, like it’s bigger than you are.
  • It discourages you from making decisions.

I hope you’ll begin to identify clutter that you may have missed entirely before. 

Types of clutter.

Close your eyes.  Now, what is the very first thing you think of when I say ‘clutter’?

My mind immediately goes to papers stacked on a table, or a crowded kitchen counter, or a spare room full of things that don’t belong anywhere else.

Physical clutter does seem to come to mind first,  But clutter comes in more than just one variety.

5 kinds of clutter in your life

Every part of your life collects its very own clutter.

Think for a moment and I know you’ll be able to give examples of each of these:

  • Physical Clutter
  • Digital Clutter
  • Mental Clutter
  • Social Clutter
  • Schedule Clutter

The same universal pattern of clutter can be seen in every area. 

Things that we don’t need or want tend to accumulate, and over time this excess ‘baggage’ that we’re carrying makes it harder to function.  And without even knowing it, this excess begins to weigh us down and cost us in different ways.  

But once we know how to free ourselves from it, the results can be life-changing.

For now, let’s focus on Physical Clutter.

9 common types of physical clutter

This is not a list of specific items, because  I don’t know the details about your particular clutter.  And I want this information to be as useful as possible.

So here are categories of physical clutter that will apply to most every situation you come across.

  • Things that just need to be thrown away.
    Some items obviously need to be put in the trash.  This type of clutter is probably the easiest to deal with because it’s not hard to identify and doesn’t require much decision making.    Examples include items that are:  expired, unusable, unfixable, almost empty, need to be recycled, or not in good enough condition to donate.
  • Items that don’t have a ‘home’.
    You know the saying … “a place for everything and everything in its place.”   When an object doesn’t have a designated spot to “live”, that means it’s always out of place.  Always crowding in on something else’s space.  And always adding to the level of visual clutter in your home.
  • Items that are not where they belong.
    This just happens during daily life.  Lots of things end up somewhere they don’t belong.  It’s amazing how our belongings migrate through our home and sometimes into  the craziest places!  They just need to be put back in their place.
  • Things that don’t belong to you.
    How many things have you borrowed that never made their way back to their rightful owners?  I think we all probably have at least a few of these.  Books, clothing, sports equipment … the list could go on.
  • Things that need to be repaired.
    Not everything that needs to be repaired is clutter.  Some things are definitely worth fixing.  But if it’s been sitting in it’s broken condition for a while, it may well be that you don’t need it or even really want it.
  • Duplicates and excess amounts.
    It makes sense to own duplicates or multiples of some things, like dinnerware, drinking glasses and shoes, for example.  But it’s still possible to have too many!  Excess amounts of anything, even food, can cross the line into clutter.
  • Things you don’t like or use.
    There’s little reason to keep these things around.  Maybe it’s a pair of shoes that just doesn’t fit well, or skis you’ve used exactly once, or supplies for a hobby you’re no longer interested in.  You may decide you really don’t like a picture that’s on your wall, or that some of your clothes aren’t your style any longer.  Whatever it is, if you aren’t using it or don’t like to, it may be clutter.
  • Things you feel you have to keep.
    There’s a big emotional part to clutter.  We can be attached to items for many different reasons.  And we experience lots of different feelings about whether we should keep them or not.  Would you like to get rid of some gifts that you received but don’t want?  Odds are there’s some guilt attached to that.  Do you hold on to things just in case you might need them, even if that’s unlikely?  Then there’s some fear involved.  Maybe you spent good money on something and hate to lose that investment.  Understandable, but there are ways to deal with.
  • Things you genuinely don’t have room for.
    Sometimes this is what it comes down to and hard decisions have to be made.

What causes clutter?

“Things” are the symptom, not the cause of clutter.

We can still have clutter even if we have the perfect number of items in our space.

The key is to take a step back to find what the culprits are, and there’s rarely only one.    

And one size does not fit all.  A major cause of clutter for you may not be for me.   

Read through this list to identify the biggest reasons that clutter has been able to grow in your home. 

Daily Clutter Creep

It happens, every day, to all of us.  Things are moved and not put back, products are used up but not thrown away, junk mail invades our mailbox.  Clutter just comes along with life, and needs to be dealt with regularly.

Personal Challenges

  • Physical Challenges – Whether you have an injury, a disability, an illness, or a chronic condition, when your body is compromised in some way, you have less ability to keep up with clutter.
  • Mental Challenges –   Just as importantly, mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and ADHD, among others, make decluttering more challenging.
  • Emotional ChallengesThis is a big one!  Dealing with clutter can bring out many emotions:  fear, avoidance, regret, sadness, overwhelm, unpleasant memories, guilt, lack of motivation, lack of support from family, perfectionism, unrealistic expectations, fear of missing out.  It is so worth working through these, though, because there are a lot of good emotions waiting when you do.

Lack of Time

This can be a true hurdle in especially busy seasons of your life.  But be careful not to use it as an excuse for not getting started.  A little effort, done consistently, can have great results.

Lack of a Decluttering Plan

Without simple, ongoing routines we find ourselves fighting clutter randomly as chaos erupts in various places.  Not only does this cause stress and frustration, but you’ll never really experience the true benefits of decluttering.

Lack of Decluttering & Organizing Knowledge

Hey, no one is born knowing this!  And although it’s not rocket science, there are things you’ll need to learn that you won’t come up with yourself.   And why waste time making mistakes that other people have already made?  You’ll set yourself up for success by leaning about:

  • Decluttering basics 
  • Decluttering tricks and best practices
  • How to store things efficiently
  • How long to keep things
  • How to decide what to keep
  • What to do with decluttered items
  • How to get through the emotional hurdles

Change in Circumstances

Moving to a new home, having a baby, starting back to work after a time away, going back to school … life changes are a big contributor to clutter.  Not only do they usually bring more ‘stuff’ with them, but we’ve spread thin in terms of our time and energy.

Habits

These may hit home, as our habits tend to be resistant to change.  But the fact is that they can make or break your efforts.  If you’re a procrastinator, just know that delayed decisions are clutter’s BFF.  Another example is recreational shopping or thrifting.  Anything that causes you to regularly bring more items into your home than are leaving is working against you.   

If you’re a procrastinator, just know that delayed decisions are clutter’s BFF.

How clutter affects your quality of life.

You may be surprised just how much clutter is costing you. 

Yes, clutter is annoying and ugly, which is reason enough to get rid of it.  

But some of the ‘invisible’ effects may be the worst. 

It directly impacts our:

  • Mental Health
  • Physical Health
  • Relationships
  • Emotions
  • Goals
  • Family
  • Time
  • Money
  • Work
  • Assets

Now, not everyone experiences all of these, and not to the same degree.  It depends on the amount of clutter, type of clutter, and lots of other factors like our personalities and experiences.

Research agrees that clutter affects us in many ways, and none of them good.  

What happens when we declutter?

Decluttering helps us reclaim the things that clutter steals.

Here’s a quick list of common effects of clutter, and the positive changes that decluttering brings.

Effects of Clutter The Benefits of Decluttering
Lower Mental Focus We focus better when there are fewer things competing for our attention.
Reduced Productivity Our productivity increases because we’re less distracted, can find what we need more quickly, and feel more motivated by an organized space. 
Increased Stress Not only do we feel less stressed, but the stress hormones in our bodies are actually reduced.
Increased Anxiety We feel less anxious when our brain is not looking around and telling us there is constantly more to do.
Increased Depression Decluttering puts us back in control as we take action, make progress, and stop feeling that the situation is hopeless.
Strained Relationships As clutter-related frustrations and consequences decrease, so do the negative interactions among people living in the house.
Lower Sleep Quality We sleep better in a more serene environment.  Not to mention how waking up to an organized room gives us a better start to the day.
Weight Gain Our eating habits improve when a cluttered home isn’t contributing to emotional eating.  And our body isn’t working against us with stress-related hormones that make weight loss harder.
Dirtier Home A clean home is much more doable when there’s less ‘stuff’ in our way.
Social Isolation We naturally interact more with others when we feel free to open our home to them without guilt or embarrassment. 
Unsafe Conditions An organized space is a safer space, with less chances for tripping, falling, clutter fire hazards, and more.
Costs Time We save precious time because our daily life flows more smoothly, there are less things to maintain, and we are more intentional.
Costs Money We save hard-earned money not only from buying less things, but from being able to stay on top of our bills and other financial commitments.
Risks to Physical Health A cleaner home is a healthier home in many ways, including fewer allergens.  Also, better mental health contributes to better physical health.
Lower Self Image Having an organized, clutter-free home gives us a sense of confidence and accomplishment.

A special note about kids and clutter.

Children are especially sensitive to their environment.  They may not talk about it and may not seem to notice, but they’re absorbing the messages that their surroundings convey.  A well-ordered and maintained home contributes to a child’s need for structure, and helps create a sense of security and safety.  So don’t underestimate the benefits of a decluttered way of life to the youngest people in your home.

Your decluttering mindset matters.

This is where you ‘put on your decluttering hat’.

Mindset is really important when we are confronting clutter.

So let’s go over a few ways to get you set up for success.

  • Know your ‘why’.
    Really give it some thought.  Write it down.  Be specific.  What is clutter costing you and what do you want to reclaim by decluttering?Also write down what you want to achieve.  What will be different and how will your life look?Keep this in a convenient place and review it often to keep yourself focused on your real goals.
  • Know your clutter.
    I know this sounds like a completely unnecessary question.  Especially if you’ve read this far already.  But it’s not, I promise.  If you haven’t already, take a step back and review “10 Common Types of Physical Clutter”.   Think through your home and identify the types of clutter and which ones are causing the most disruption to your life.  You may decide there are some not-so-obvious areas that you hadn’t thought about, maybe even that you want to make a top priority.
  • Learn to get past roadblocks.
    They’re going to happen.  Those things, big and small, that make it easier to avoid or quit your decluttering efforts. But just know this.  Every hurdle you come across has been experienced by other people, and there is a way to deal with it and move forward.  So expect it, and decide they’re not going to stop you. The more roadblocks you find a way around, the easier it gets and the more your confidence will grow.
  • Find your motivation to declutter.
    Sometimes this can be hard.  But figuring out how to motivate yourself to action is as good as gold and will serve you well. It may be giving yourself a deadline, or finding some sort of accountability, or setting goals with rewards, or even taking the tiniest step because it’s better than not doing anything. In the end only you can do this, so experiment and see what works best.
  • Good enough is good enough.
    Yup, that’s right!  There’s no room for perfectionism when you declutter. So let go of that familiar old gremlin now.You will eventually get rid of something you wish you hadn’t.  And you’ll keep some things you didn’t need to. But that’s okay. Not every item has to be gifted to the perfect person or donated to the perfect charity.  You don’t have to squeeze every last possible cent out of items that you’re selling.  You’re not getting graded or inspected or judged.Just make progress and enjoy it!

 A good mindset will make decluttering easier, faster, and more successful.   

It’s as important as any other ideas, tool, or hack that you use.

Just keep reminding yourself of this.

5 basic steps of decluttering.

These are the simple, universal steps to declutter that you’ll use over and over and over again. 

You may already be doing these without even thinking about it.

If you’re just trying to get into the habit of decluttering, this is a good framework to walk through mentally each time.

  • Identify your target
    It’s important not to take on too much during any one decluttering session.  Being able to finish what you start will prevent you from creating more chaos and will give you a sense of accomplishment. So pick a goal that can be done in the time you have.  Some days that may be decluttering one drawer or one pile of mail, and others it may be decluttering a closet.  As you go, you’ll get pretty good at guessing what you can get done within your time limit.
  • Gather your supplies
    The supplies you need will vary depending on what you’re decluttering.  But whatever supplies they are, you’ll be glad to have them all at hand so there’s no need to interrupt what you’re doing once you’re into a groove.
  • Empty the space
    Whenever this is possible it’s a good idea.  And nothing goes back in the space except the items you decide to keep.  It does make a difference when everything is out and you can see it all as you sort.  This is also another reason to work on one small area at a time.
  • Sort
    Now we get to where the rubber-hits-the-road.  As you look at each item, decide whether you’ll keep it or not.  And if not, where will it go? This is the heart of decluttering and can feel overwhelming.  But focus on only one item at a time and do your best to make a decision at that moment.   Before you know it you’ll be done.
  • Get decluttered items to where they’re going
    You’re not done when you’ve worked through an area and decided what to keep.  It’s easy to let up at this point and stash the decluttered items somewhere out of sight.  But don’t fall into this trap.  It’s important to regularly clear these items out of your house. You need to get them off to where they’re headed, whether it’s the trash, a charity, onto eBay, upcycling, or another destination.  

Now you have the basics, so keep it simple and make them a habit.

Also don’t miss our big list of decluttering tips that will supercharge your decluttering efforts.

Tools that help you declutter.

It’s invaluable to have something that breaks down a big job into small parts that you can tackle.

I love a good checklist.   Maybe too much, LOL.  Is that even possible?

This way I don’t have to rethink the big picture and figure out where I am every time I finish a task.  I can just follow along and know I’ll get to where I want to go.

When it comes to decluttering there are some great tools to simplify the process and give you that great feeling of checking something off when it’s done.

It makes everything feel so much less overwhelming and more doable. 

Here are some examples:

Frequently Asked Questions

If you have a question about decluttering, you can be sure that other people do too.  There are lots of things to learn along the way, and always a new idea or trick to pick up.

Is decluttering expensive?

It doesn’t have to be.  You probably have much of what you need already.  One common mistake people make is to go out and buy new storage containers before they actually start to declutter.  Avoid this, since you can’t really predict what you’ll need, and some items you can use as containers will free up naturally as you let go of belongings.

How long will it take me to declutter?

This depends on you and your circumstances.  There’s no one-size-fits-all answer.   The key is to work at a pace that’s right for you, where you make regular progress without burning out.  Of course, if you’re really feeling motivated and you have the time, you’ll get through it faster.  It’s in your control.

How do I get my family on board?

Ideally, your family will understand why you’re decluttering and be supportive of your efforts.  Maybe even join in themselves!  But if that’s not the case, don’t despair.  A good idea is to start decluttering only items that belong to you, or that you use more than anyone else.  This will be less threatening to other, and you’ll set an example that will hopefully win them over.

How can I get motivated?

Good question!  You know yourself better than anyone.  What usually motivates you:  a deadline, a reward, an accountability partner?  One strategy that works really well for me is to just do something.  Anything is better than nothing.  Even if it’s just put one thing back where it belongs.  If I do more, great.  If it’s a tough day and I only do one thing, I’ll still take it.

How do I start decluttering?

You can tackle a small, tough spot first.  Is there one area that is just really bothering you?  Or you can pick some low-hanging fruit to start with.  Maybe there’s an area that with minimal work will look great?  In the end I don’t think where you start makes a huge difference.  The key is to pick an area that will give you some quick, great results to build your confidence and motivation.

What should I expect that might surprise me?

The emotions.  Some will be positive and some may be difficult, but it’s all part of the process.  Decluttering can have some real healing effects because it naturally forces you to confront your history and life experiences.   You’ll want to go a little outside your comfort zone, but don’t push too hard and take your time with difficult items.  And don’t worry, there are plenty of positive feels waiting for you.

If you have a question, please leave a comment below.  

Wrap Up

Clutter happens to all of us, and it costs us in more ways than we may think.

That’s why decluttering is so important.  It gives us back what the clutter takes away, and puts us back in control.

In fact, we don’t fully realize how our clutter is impacting our life until it’s gone.

We’ve taken a brief look at what clutter is, the types of clutter, where it comes from, how it affects us, how to adjust our mindset, decluttering basics, and some frequently asked questions.

Your assignment is to start with your “why”, take small steps, and be consistent.

You’ll be amazed at the changes in your life and home!

 

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