by Susan Caplan McCarthy
A Year of Decluttering
If you declutter your home for 15 minutes every day, in 52 weeks, you will have devoted over 90 hours sorting possessions, eliminating items from your home, and grouping similar items in places where you’ll go looking for them so that you don’t repurchase items you already own.
If you devoted eight hours a day to decluttering, it would take you more than eleven days to put in that number of hours.
You could also schedule a two-hour block of decluttering once a week. However, it’s too easy to look at your plans for the weekend and realize that two-hour block would make you feel pressed for time. You decide that you’ll skip the decluttering session – just this week, you insist.
Fifteen minutes doesn’t seem like enough time to complete a project – and, it isn’t. Fifteen minutes is a file folder, not a file cabinet. However, how often do you hold off starting a project because of how long it will take to complete?
Please note that this isn’t a good technique for sorting through sentimental or emotion-laden items or memorabilia.
This Isn’t a Technique for Projects but for Tasks
When I suggest spending 15 minutes on decluttering every day, I hear a lot of backlash from people who insist that this technique won’t work for their situation. They then mention that it would take more than 15 minutes to declutter their home office or attic or boxes of memorabilia, etc.
Fifteen minutes will not encompass a project, which has many steps, but a task, which is one of those steps toward that larger project. Instead of looking at a room, you focus on a shelf or drawer or, depending on how much stuff you have stored or displayed there, perhaps half a shelf or half a drawer.
If there are small pieces (say, craft supplies, jewelry, office supplies, paper – especially paper) in the space you want to work, it will take more time to sort through these things simply because there will be so many of them in that small space.
And, let’s face it, even if you devote four hours to sorting through your file cabinet, you are still working folder-by-folder, running quarter-hour segments together.
Prepare for Decluttering
Have trash bags or buckets available for trash and recycling. If you are sorting through soft items such as linens or clothing, bags are also useful to gather items for donation. If you are working through kitchen gadgets, books, or items that could be damaged banging around in a bag, have a box or two available.
You don’t have to fill the bag or box in 15 minutes, so have a spot where you can move them off to the side until the next day.
Hint: If you are using bags for both trash and items you want to donate, use white or clear bags for items you will donate and black bags for trash – the different colors will save you from accidently tossing a donation or donating your trash.
Plan Your Decluttering Session
Because you are planning such a small task, you needn’t devote much time to this step. Maybe you plan while putting the dishes in the dishwasher or even during a bathroom break. Although this takes a minute or two, it will help you stay focused once you start decluttering.
One. Select a small, contained space. This could be a shoebox, a shelf, a bin of bulky items, a drawer.
Two. Pair your decluttering with another task. Add 15 minutes of decluttering after you’ve cleaned the kitchen after dinner. Or, sort the contents of 5-to-10 clothes hangers when you are getting dressed in the morning. Tying decluttering with another task can be more effective than setting a time (you might miss your 7 p.m. start time and then decide to skip the task that day).
Three. Decide what you want to accomplish. If you are sorting through your files, you may decide that you will only keep the copy of your most current bill or statement that’s in a file folder and shred the rest. You may decide that you’ll eliminate any book that has sat on a shelf for more than a year without being read.
Four. Consider why you are decluttering this space. Instead of saying, “to be more organized,” consider what that really means to you. For example, “If I limit the number of food storage and lunch containers, then I won’t be so frustrated trying to match covers or having the excess containers fall off the shelf when I try to wrestle free the one container I do want to use.”
While your ‘what’ is the task you want to accomplish, your ‘why’ adds an emotional element that will help keep you motivated and focused.
Ditch Your Distractions
For fifteen minutes, don’t answer phone calls, texts, emails, or decide that you need to do some online shopping for something to help you organize the space you are decluttering.
Also, try to time your fifteen minutes when the adults, children, and pets in your home won’t need your attention. Don’t try to squeeze in your decluttering just before your grandkids will be looking for their bedtime story or your dog will want its walk.
Skip listening to a podcast because they take much longer than fifteen minutes. The same goes for watching television or a movie.
Set a Timer
Set a timer and you won’t keep looking at the clock or wondering when you started. If you get distracted while decluttering, set the timer for eight minutes to remind you that you’ve past the halfway point. Then reset the timer to take you to the end of your session.
One, clear off the space. Remove everything off the shelf, pull the items from the drawer, tip out the contents of the shoe box. As you remove items, if you see something that you can declutter, immediately move it into the donation box or bag. If it’s trash, bin it.
Two, quickly wipe down the surface (optional). This is not the time for lining drawers or shelves or setting up any organizing tools or even labeling things. Remember, this is just a small task that is part of a larger project. Don’t worry about organizing until you’ve sorted through all your kitchen cabinets, your entire closet, your home office.
Three, return the items you use, like and want. If you aren’t certain about an item, remember, you can always go back to it another day and decide.
Move trash and recycling to where they will be disposed. Put aside your box of donation/give to someone else/sell/return to owner items; or, divide the items in separate boxes if you’ve discovered you need this number of categories.
Acknowledge What You Accomplished
Offer yourself a few kind words that acknowledge what you accomplished. This isn’t a “I am so awesome!” cheering session (unless that’s what you need). Instead, a simple, “I’ve sorted through that entire drawer of tee shirts in less time that I thought;” or, “It will be so much easier to grab what I want to use now that I don’t have to shove things out of the way.”
Remember, if you get to the end of your fifteen-minute session and you are still working on the project, you overestimated what you could do. In a few days, you’ll get a better sense of what you can accomplish. Also, some categories of stuff will be easier to sort through. You’ll be able to sort through a drawer of socks in much less time than a box of papers.
And, of course, if you have days when you can tuck 30-minutes of decluttering into your schedule, you can either work through two small tasks or one larger task (say, the contents of a box or bin).
If you say that you can’t find the time to declutter, consider if you really mean that you can’t find a block of hours to devote to this task. Then, give this technique a try.
Do you have success scheduling large blocks of time for decluttering? Do you work this way on a consistent basis (say, weekly or every other week) or do you devote large blocks of time to decluttering once or twice a year on special projects (like the garage?) Please leave a comment below.
I help people focus on what's important to them by guiding them through clearing clutter and distractions from their lives. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; courses; speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.