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How to declutter your life in a few minutes a day.
The best way to use this guide is to start here and work your way through the linked resources and articles. They’ll be highlighted in bright pink.
You know the expression “getting away from it all?”
It makes you think of a sunny beach, crashing waves, shady palm trees, and an icy beverage with an umbrella in it.
But what exactly is it that you’re getting away from?
What is this “it?”
Work and the daily grind, sure.
But isn’t it also all the responsibility of the things in your life?
Everything you own has to be maintained or stored in some way.
Getting your car washed or serviced; taking your clothes to the cleaner’s; losing a day of work to sit at home and wait for the serviceman to come to fix the broken washer; programming your DVR; finding room in your cabinets for the latest kitchen gadget; spending 2 hours at the cell phone store upgrading your phone, installing software updates, then debugging the damage done by the software updates; the souvenirs you bought on your vacations need to be dusted; your photo collection desperately needs to be organized and placed in albums.
You can’t find your keys, important papers, or that special baby picture your son wants to use for his senior high school yearbook. They’re there, somewhere, but you can’t even see them.
You might even have outgrown your attic and garage storage and rented a self-storage facility to house the overflow of your stuff.
The things in our life can be a blessing but they can also be a curse. They accumulate and require more and more effort and time on your part.
You know this.
When you look around, you feel like you can’t breathe freely because all those things are pressing in on you. You want to declutter desperately!
Margareta Magnusson, in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, adds a reason to declutter that most people have never thought about.
When someone dies, their family is left with the task of dealing with all of their belongings. Furniture and large decorative items are relatively easy but what about years of accumulated bank statements, personal (and possibly embarrassing) letters, and rooms filled with junk no one will want. Many people, faced with the huge job of going through a lifetime of a person’s belongings, just throw everything away without going through it. That means that the items you value and want to pass on will disappear because they are hidden into the larger clutter left behind.
Decluttering, whether you have a long life ahead of you or not, lets you curate what you will leave behind – what your survivors will see and remember. Far better to have beautiful and meaningful things that they will enjoy after you’re gone.
You want to declutter everything in your life but you just can’t take a week off work to get it done.
The hottest decluttering expert out there right now is Mari Kondo. Her book, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, ” and its sequel “Spark Joy,” has been a best seller since it was published and for good reason. Her approach of keeping only the things that bring you joy strikes a chord in most people. After all, you once loved the thing you’re holding now that has just become an object. By focusing on surrounding yourself with only the things that truly make your heart smile, you’re lightening the burden of living with things that don’t.
The Kondo method requires you to break the decluttering tasks to 5 main categories:
- Misc. items
- Sentimental items (ie photos and letters)
The method also requires that you:
- Tidy by category (see list above), not location – Clothing would be gathered and done completely, no matter what room it’s in. So you would be sorting the clothing in your closet, your dresser, your entry closet, seasonal storage bins, etc. And if your spouse and children will be participating, they would be doing the same.
- Tidy all the category at once – Kondo argues that if you declutter part of a room, as opposed to the category all at once, the room will not be fully decluttered and the mess will creep back in over the following weeks and months.
There’s a great deal about Kondo’s method that I believe in and love, but any method will fail when it’s not right for you.
That’s why, when it comes to her system, you need to Know What To Do And What To Ignore to make decluttering work for you.
There is a way to declutter and to do it in the small pockets of time you have available.
Remember the central idea of Plotting A New Course. We do everything in small blocks of time. One half hour at a time.
By deliberately making the decision to break down your declutter with planning your Declutter Planning, there’s nothing to intimidate us or hold us back from jumping in.
The biggest reason we fail to complete things is that they are too big. So big that we don’t know where to start and can’t believe we’ll ever finish. While I’m a huge Kondo fan, I’m not in a position to give up weekend after weekend to declutter my home and I’m betting you’re not either.
You can declutter a room, or a small part of a room, without it backsliding. The secret ingredient is consistency.
In the same way that you can commit to bringing a healthy lunch to the office every day, or to walking the dog in the morning, you can commit small blocks of time to your decluttering plan. You will get it done, but you’ll get it done on your timetable.
To be successful at decluttering a half hour at a time, you have to commit to a routine.
Sporadically doing quick declutter tasks won’t get you the results you want.
Committing to decluttering every day as part of a plan will.
Doing something every day, even a 10 minute quick declutter of a drawer, keeps the momentum going to decluttering the entire house. Commit to a time every day, for as many minutes as you can spare, to keep up with your decluttering efforts. Save the larger or more difficult jobs for the weekend when you can devote a little more time to it.
Don’t confuse organizing with decluttering
Have you ever read an article about decluttering your house, then goes on to tell you how to store things properly in bins, shelves or containers.
Compartmentalizing your possessions is organizing. Decluttering is a very different thing.
Decluttering is decreasing the amount of stuff you own, through thoughtful and deliberate decision making.
Organizing is about finding designated places to hide your stuff. Neatly and tastefully. All of it.
Who has time for that? One or two bins turned over by the kids and you’re back to sorting and organizing. You will get to the organization after you finish decluttering, not before.
Why box up the problem when you can get rid of it altogether?
Let’s take a minute to define clutter.
Noun: “a crowded or confused mass or collection”
Verb: “to fill or cover with scattered or disordered things that impede movement or reduce effectiveness”
A confused mass is exactly what living with clutter feels like. You can’t tell the good from the bad because there’s … so much of it.
How to declutter when you have no time:
1. Know Your Why.
Clutter overstimulates us. We can’t relax because our eyes are conditioned to look around and the clutter distracts and disturbs us. We feel judged when others come into our home. The clutter makes us feel we are projecting an image of ourselves that isn’t who we believe ourselves to be.
So ask yourself why it’s important to you that you declutter your home and life. How is your stuff holding you back and what do you imagine you’ll feel and do when it’s not anymore?
Whatever your reason, your why, is, write it down and put it somewhere you’ll see it every day. On your bathroom mirror, the fridge, wherever you’ll be reminded that this is worth doing. It will be the center of your motivation as you go through all the work of decluttering for good.
I know why I recently went through a whole-house declutter.
My daughter just gave birth to our first grandson and they are living with us. While we were buying all the paraphernalia that comes with an infant, I realized that my neat and organized house would quickly become glutted. Things that I used to enjoy didn’t “bring me joy” anymore. Instead, they irritated me when I saw them on surfaces I wanted clean and empty. What felt right for two people made me claustrophobic! I can happily visualize a baby seat, high chair, stroller, toys because they are part of the new phase of our lives we’re embracing. Knick-knacks, half-finished (for a rainy day) craft projects, and a ridiculous amount of back up toiletries and linens did not.
Our book collection – especially business books – was out of control. With few exceptions, I knew I’d never read them again.
Clothing was also a problem. I work from home and a fringe benefit is that no one sees me if I choose to wear sweats (or even pajamas) all day. My wardrobe was boring and I wore the same few outfits over and over. Because … surprise! … they were the ones that gave me joy. Decluttering my closet made my needs much clearer and I now have a small list of things to round out a wardrobe that’s right for me.
That’s my why. What’s yours?2.
2. Make a plan and commit to it.
Begin with the ending.
What do you want each room to look like? Where will things live in each room?
When I decluttered the kitchen I knew I wanted to set up a baking center where I’d keep measuring cups, funnels, and extracts. So I began by decluttering the cabinet where all those things would go. I removed everything, washed it down, laid fresh shelf paper in, and added the things that belonged there as I worked my way through the rest of the kitchen.
I did the same with the rest of the room, making decisions about what each cabinet and drawer would hold. It made the decluttering go much faster because it was just a matter of moving things to their designated places.
Your plan also needs to include you. It’s great to have a design for where things will go but unless you build yourself and your time into the plan, it just won’t work.
Treat the time you will declutter like any other important weekly or daily appointment. Make it a priority item and schedule it into your planner. You won’t miss your regular declutter appointment because you won’t allow anything to intrude on your commitment.
Declutter in a way that you can manage day after day, with a clear plan and a beginning and end.
When it comes to decluttering, knowing what you’ll do ahead of time takes all the stress out of it. It even becomes fun as you make a game of decluttering in as short a period of time as possible.
3. Treat Each Room As A Whole House
Here is where I deviate completely with the Kondo method.
“I want to declutter my entire house,” is a HUGE and paralyzing statement.
Yes, of course, you want to declutter your whole house, but if you think of it that way, it’ll be difficult to know where to begin. Or how you’re going to spend an hour or two just gathering categories of items into a single place to sort through.
Instead, think of each room as a self-contained house.
Now you have a smaller overall goal. Still too big, but it’s easier to understand that each cabinet, each drawer, each surface, is going to be a separate task inside that kitchen-house. Make the kitchen your plan for the week or the month, and tackle each area in the time you have available.
One note about the kitchen: If someone else does the dishes and puts them away, make him or her aware of where things will go from now on so you don’t have to move things back every day.
A bedroom is a sanctuary from the world (or it should be). It’s where you rest, make love, get yourself ready for your day, and dream.
The first thing I do every morning is make my bed.
Not because it makes the room look tidy. I do it because I rarely go back to my bedroom until the end of the day. When I do, that neatly-made bed welcomes me back into that intimate space. Even if there are things out of place elsewhere in the room, the bed establishes the tone of the room.
When you declutter your closet and dresser, those things might be out of sight when you enter your room, but you know they’re done and that awareness instantly drops your stress level.
Decluttering a bathroom is usually a quick win. You can declutter a bathroom quickly and most decisions can be made without a single pang.
Thinking of each room as its own little house will make decluttering easier to tackle and to break down into small achievable tasks.
4. Start With The Easy and End With The Hard
There’s a very good reason why Mari Kondo, Margareta Magnusson, and many other decluttering experts recommend starting with clothing and ending with sentimental items.
If you begin with photos, letters and other emotionally-laden items, you’ll find yourself slowing down to remember the people and events in them and grow reluctant to part with them at a time when you’re just starting to declutter.
Clothing, on the other hand, has much fewer emotional connections. Things fit or they don’t. They are flattering or they’re not. They make you feel comfortable or they don’t. Clothes that you don’t wear, that don’t fit, or that are not pleasing to you, are easy to get rid of.
Better yet, start with something so easy that you can do it in 5 minutes. Clean out your purse or diaper bag and restock it. Quick wins are always gratifying and make you want to do more.
5. Have Decluttering Tools Ready To Go
You don’t actually need much to declutter. Label 3 boxes with KEEP, THROW AWAY, DONATE, and have a box of plastic bags handy. By having these things ready to pick up and move to the area you want to declutter, you won’t waste valuable time.
Note that there is no “Later” box. Some people become frozen at the thought of letting some things go but having a “later” option means delaying your progress. If there is a single item that really gives you pangs at the thought of getting rid of it, either keep it or drop it into the drawer or cabinet you’re going to declutter tomorrow. You’ll have overnight to think about it, but it must go into one of those three categories the next day.
Don’t let it become a refuge item that doesn’t really belong. By the way, if it holds a lot of memories, consider taking a picture of it to represent its meaning but discard the actual physical item.
6. Be willing to make sacrifices.
You already know what it will mean to you to have your house completely decluttered. Your why is strong and you’re ready to go.
Are you prepared to make some sacrifices to get it done?
If you’ve already learned to prioritize all the things you do in your life to create space to work on your big goals, you may be wondering how you can find time, even as few as 15-30 minutes to get decluttering done. Remember that this is not forever. You just need to claim this time until your decluttering is done.
Here are a few suggestions:
- For the duration of the decluttering project, get up 15 minutes earlier to tackle one cabinet or drawer.
- Skip watching a TV show in the evening to knock out a few things in your bathroom, then take a shower and enjoy the rest of your evening.
- Or declutter your accessories during TV commercials
- Stay up a little later (but don’t overdo. You need your sleep) to finish a longer task.
7. Go For Some Quick Wins
If you want to knock out some gratifying and quick decluttering, check out 50 Quick decluttering projects you can do in a half hour or less for some inspiration!
Ten minutes here. thirty minutes there. Incorporate these into your overall decluttering plan and do them (in the room you already planned to work on) when you find yourself with an unexpected few minutes to do it. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.
8. Work At Your Own Pace And Stop When You Need To.
It’s ok to build breaks into your decluttering plan.
There will always be life events that take priority over getting the house decluttered. Give yourself credit for the grace and wisdom to recognize what’s important in the moment.
That said, build space into your decluttering plan to accommodate the inevitable. As my daughter’s delivery approached, I spent two weeks focusing on getting everything ready for my grandson’s arrival. That means actually purchasing more things and creating space for them. Come to think of it, there was decluttering still being done as I decided which items had to be relocated, or let go of, to make space for the baby’s things.
Writing this series of articles had to take priority because I needed to have them completed so I could step back for the baby’s first few weeks and focus on helping to take care of him. During that time, I satisfied myself with doing many of the quick wins declutter tasks in my 50 Quick decluttering projects you can do in a half hour or less. It was enormously satisfying to me to still be making progress with very little time invested.
When you reach the point of going through things that are difficult to let go of, you may decide to deliberately pull back and let yourself go through those items more slowly, or at a later time. Decluttering will give you space, serenity and clarity. But when it becomes stressful, it’s ok to take a break and examine why this particular stage has become so difficult for you. Revisit your why and ask yourself whether the objects can be separated from the memories.
9. One Surface At A Time.
Small steps can take you a long way. They build on each other and soon you’ll find you’ve come further than you could have imagined.
Declutter a dresser drawer today, another tomorrow and so on. By the end of the week, you’ve gone through much of your clothing and you can see a visible change. Even better, others can see the change.
For an even greater impact and motivation, start with surfaces.
We know that our drawers, closets and cabinets need to be decluttered, but we all have dresser drawers, coffee tables, and kitchen counters.
Don’t neglect them when planning your decluttering. In fact, give them priority so that your house starts looking better immediately!
10. Special Circumstances
There are some life circumstances that do affect the decluttering process.
When you are older.
Decluttering after your kids have left home might be done in anticipation of downsizing or even moving in with older children. In those cases, decluttering is critical because you can’t squeeze a lifetime of belongings into a smaller apartment or room in someone else’s house.
I highly recommend Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning to look at your clutter with the idea of curating the very best to enjoy and be surrounded with and discard what you don’t want to be remembered for by your heirs.
When you live on a limited income.
When you’re living paycheck to paycheck, it’s hard to only keep things that “spark joy.” If you have duplicates of things, you can’t rationalize that you can get rid of all but one and replace the item only when you need a replacement. You’ve spent your hard-earned money on these things and waste is not in our limited income plan.
Non-perishable or long-lived things, like toothpaste, paper goods, and clothing, have to earn their purchase longer than someone else’s budget might allow. Still, there are areas where the surplus is simply not a good thing and it might surprise you to find that even a home with a tightly restricted budget will have its share of disposable clutter.
11. Build Maintenance Into Your Decluttering Plan
The one thing to watch for when you declutter slowly is that things can creep slowly from their assigned spaces and invade newly-created open surfaces.
It’s important to build a maintenance plan into your routine and to enlist the family to keep it going.
If you find a few Legos on the family room rug one evening, you wouldn’t hesitate, would you? Legos could hurt you if you walk barefoot on them, the dog could eat them and get sick, and your child will be unhappy to be missing them. Once you’ve decluttered, it won’t even occur to you to leave them there. Leggos have a home and it’s probably not on the family room floor. Enlist your family in decluttering and in creating the designated spaces for all things. It will make it much easier for everyone when something accidentally is out of place.
You’ll find that scheduling 15 minutes a day to quickly cluttering the surfaces of your home will keep it shining and clean.
As you declutter each room, you’ll also naturally organize all the things you’re keeping. Your favorite clothing will now hang in your closet or be folded neatly into drawers. Toys, papers, kitchen appliances, all these things will have a designated area. Now is the time to take a further step and use organizational tools to compartmentalize and arrange things in each area.
Where Do You Go From Here?
It’s time to create a decluttering plan that you can commit to. Remember that everything task should be able to be done in a half hour or less. That may mean that you don’t do an entire closet at once and just concentrate on one rack of clothing.
If you free up a day and want to spend it on decluttering, just group as many of the half hour tasks as you can.
As I promised you at the beginning, all the decluttering articles and resources are referenced throughout this one in bright pink type. I’m also placing them below for your convenience.
Would you like some quick wins? Download my free 50 Quick Decluttering Projects You Can Do In A Half Hour Or Less and see results beginning today!
Check out all the posts in the Decluttering series: