by Susan Caplan McCarthy
A Year of Decluttering - January: Everyday Actions
When I started telling people that I could help them declutter, I was met with a lot of enthusiasm as they described the excess stuff that they felt was preventing them from going back to school, giving their teenagers a space to hang out with their friends, or downsizing to a smaller home that would be easier to take care of.
So, I was surprised when these people who told me they wanted to declutter would argue with me when I suggested that they get rid of, say, a six-month-old receipts from the grocery store.
“Oh, no,” they’d say, “I have to record them in a spreadsheet before I can toss them.” When were they going to do that task? “When I find the time. Let’s move on to something else.”
When I’d suggest that they devote 15-minutes a day to a decluttering-related project, I’d get a look and be told “I really have to find an entire day to declutter so I can see big results.” But, then, they’d never schedule a day to work on what they’d said was important to them.
I was baffled by this tug-of-war that they were playing with themselves.
I was rereading Marth Beck’s book, Finding Your Own North Star, when I came to a section where she talked about the words we use when describing situations that we find ourselves in. She wasn’t talking about decluttering, so I’m taking some liberties here to impose her examples onto this scenario. I’m curious if changing our language can clarify how we feel about our stuff.
Do You Really Have to Declutter?
Unless the situation at home is hazardous to you or another family member, do you really have to declutter? Ignore the comments and jokes from your spouse, sister, and 8-year-old grandson, do you, you, want to declutter?
When you think that you have to declutter, you’re saying you don’t have control over the situation and that you’re bending to the will of others. Is it any wonder that you’d cling to items when you feel as if you have no control over what you can keep?
Take a moment to try this quick exercise, you don’t even have to say the words out loud, you can think them. Stand in a room or near a location that you feel you have to declutter and say, “I have to get organized,” and watch your body react. Do your shoulders sag? Next, clear the thought with a deep breath and exhale. Then, say, “I’ve decided to get organized.”
Consider, have you made the decision to declutter and get organized? If decluttering isn’t your choice, how will you decide what to do with the things you own?
Why Can’t You Get Rid of that?
If you say, “Oh, I can’t get rid of that lamp because my mother gave it to me,” are you saying that you like the lamp or that you don’t want to anger or disappoint your mother? I’m thinking that you don’t like the lamp or the obligation you have to it.
If, instead, you said, “I don’t want to keep this lamp,” or “I choose not to keep this lamp,” or even, “I choose to keep this lamp,” then there’s a lamp and your decision. It doesn’t need any explanation.
Do You Really Not Have the Time?
I’m not suggesting that you aren’t busy or that you could be busier than you are; however, if an opportunity comes up to do something you really want to do, you make it work.
Are you being accurate when you say, “I don’t have time to declutter the garage,” or, do you really mean, “I’m going to do something else?”
The change in language admits that decluttering isn’t a priority this day, week, month, or year. Instead of brushing away the task you identify your true priorities.
Clarify What You Want to Do
If you feel that decluttering isn’t your choice, but something you have to do to appease someone else or because it’s January or because you think you should want clear counters and fewer things in your closet, then chances are you will fight yourself throughout the process of decluttering.
Try changing the language of what you are saying and consider which statement is truer for you. “I can’t get rid of my mother’s wedding china,” isn’t the same as saying, “I won’t get rid of my mother’s wedding china.”
Remember, you choose to declutter.
Decluttering is a Journey; It's Not Your Destination
Two Things You'll Gain When You Declutter
Have you asked to join the closed Facebook group, A Year of Decluttering? Click below and feel free to start a conversation with others in this small but growing group.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
A Year of Decluttering - January: Everyday Actions
Decluttering isn’t easy work, so it’s always frustrating to “suddenly” realize that the clutter has returned. Tricks like doing a 10-minute tidy-up at the end of every day, tackling tasks that take a minute or two when they appear, decluttering for 15-minutes a day, and weekly Power Hours are all habits that, once developed, allow you to invest minimal attention and energy to maintaining those actions.
Systems also minimize the energy and thought involved in getting things done. If you’ve ever tried to follow an organizing or productivity system described in a book or suggested by a coworker and failed don’t think that you’re not a systems-sort-of-person. Instead, make a system that works for you.
What Is a System?
I’m playing loosely with the definition of a system, simplifying the concept because I think we hear the word ‘system’ and think complicated calendars, filing systems, and closet or kitchen organizing tools. So, here goes:
Systems are arbitrary rules that you establish and then follow so to maintain organization or to stay productive.
Some systems that others say they follow:
Habits, Routines, and Systems
While a routine is made up of a series of actions that use cues from your environment to begin the routine (wake up > go to bathroom > make coffee > check email > eat breakfast > put dishes in sink > take shower), systems manage daily, weekly, even yearly tasks.
After reading the above examples, you may realize that you have random rules like these that you’ve established, maybe without much thought.
So, why create systems (or, if you prefer, random rules) for yourself and your home? Like habits that you find useful to your goals, having systems in place save you from having to think about or plan things every time you do a task. Yes, you decide what your system will be, but once it’s in place, you don’t have to think about it.
For example, if you decide that you’ll start folding your clothing – right down to your socks – and you find that the time it takes to fold your clothing is recouped when it comes to finding what you want to wear each day … and it takes less space to store you clothing … then you’ve identified reasons and benefits to folding your clothing. You become a person who folds their clothing.
What Is the Best Organizing System for You?
A system works for you, you don’t work for it.
If a system doesn’t work for you, change the system instead of trying to change yourself to fit the system. A simple way to determine if your system is a good one? You do it without complaint (out loud or in your head).
I think that’s the power of systems. You don’t have to stop and think, “should I go through the mail today or tomorrow?” You know that you do it Saturday mornings before you go to your yoga class. You become a person who does X-task at Y-time – I look at my calendar and plan my week on Sunday evenings after dinner.
You can further deepen your system (or, arbitrary rules), by adding an emotional component – how do you feel when you do that task?
Create a Personalized Organizing System
An organizing system doesn’t help you get organized; it helps you stay organized. If you just spent ten hours sorting through papers in your home office, ask yourself, “Why did it get that way?” If you’re thinking that you never had the time to file paperwork, select a time to do that task on a regular basis.
You may bristle at that suggesting, thinking that if you had the time then things wouldn’t have gotten out of control. However, you aren’t looking for random bits or blocks of time that will open in your schedule here and there. You are saying that this task is important enough to you that you’ll do it every Wednesday immediately after dinner.
Remember, you can’t make time, you can only plan it.
How to Use a Weekly Power Hour
The Simple Side of Productivity
Share a system that works for you in the comments below. (Did you realize it was a system?)
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
A Year of Decluttering - January: Everyday Actions
Sometimes, the things we want to get rid of aren’t objects that we want to declutter from a shelf but tasks that have been nagging our thoughts for days (months) and we just want them done.
I’m not talking about the activities that you do on a regular basis – laundry, cooking, paying bills, grocery shopping – but tasks that might need to be done once (figure out how to use the new scanner), once a year (schedule physical) or a couple times a year (bring car in to get oil changed).
Because these irregular tasks don’t have to be done at a certain time, they risk not getting done at all. Instead, they loom in your mind until just thinking about what you’re not accomplishing leave you feeling anxious.
First, Do a Mind Sweep
A mind sweep (it’s also called a brain dump), involves listing every task that has been pestering your thoughts whether for an hour or a year onto a single list.
Get it all out – register for class, call doctor’s office to schedule physical, schedule oil change for car, bring classified ad to newspaper, donate bag of books to library, print photos for frames, order business cards, research vacation spots, order invitations, and so on – the personal as well as professional.
However, just making a list doesn’t help you. Instead, you need a way to work on these projects. Trying to address these tasks when you think of them can leave you feeling distracted as you jump from task to task.
Next, Schedule a Power Hour
In her book, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin talked about how she came up with the idea of a Power Hour to tackle odd tasks during a focused, scheduled time where she addressed a single task. (Although, sometimes, you can group similar tasks such as multiple phone calls to schedule appointments.)
Ideally, you’d be able to schedule your power hour at the same time each week. However, that won’t always work, particularly if the task involves other people. (For example, on a Sunday night you won’t be able to call your doctor’s office to schedule an appointment for a physical; however, if the office allows you to schedule appointments online, then you can handle the task that way.)
Also, your Power Hour doesn’t have to take an hour. Some weeks you’ll only be able handle a Power Half (or Quarter) Hour. Other weeks you’ll decide to devote two hours to a lengthier task as opposed to carrying it over two or three weeks.
If you frequently get distracted by all the, often, little tasks that demand to get done, the biggest advantage of a Power Hour is that you can defer a task to this set time as opposed to trying to tackle it when you have neither the time, energy, or attention required to get the task done.
Decide in advance what task you’ll tackle during your Power Hour so you can make the best use of that time.
Declutter Your To-Do List
Whenever you think of a task that you won’t be handling right away, you can add it to your Mind Sweep list to save yourself from dwelling on it.
Some people say that creating a list like this is stressful because it “reminds” them of what they need to do. However, this list already exists, either as thoughts or notes in numerous locations in a variety of formats. A Power Hour can help you declutter those nagging tasks that aren’t getting done by creating a time just for these types of tasks..
What task will you do in your Power Hour? Tell me below in the comments section.
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.
A Year of Decluttering
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Whether you resolved to get organized two weeks ago or two years ago, at some point you’ll start to feel frustrated. You’ll wonder why the process is taking so long, why so much thought goes into making some of your decisions, and why you end up decluttering several spaces a second time. Then, one day, you’re done even though you aren’t done. You’re in a slump.
A decluttering slump can happen days, weeks, or months into your efforts. I’d consider it a slump when you’ve been decluttering or minimizing your belongings with some consistent effort and then, suddenly, you feel that your efforts to date haven’t made the difference you thought they would. This demoralizing thought has you questioning what you are doing and why you are bothering.
Understanding why you are doing what you’re doing is important to staying motivated. Unless your motivation is coming from a move or some other event, the only thing that will keep you motivated is the decisions and reasons you’ve set. But, also, a reality check is useful to know that your feelings aren’t unusual.
Decluttering Challenge Burn-Out
You know that you won’t be able to declutter your entire house in 30-days, but you’re convinced that a 30-day decluttering challenge will get you motivated in a big way – like going on a crash diet only for your stuff.
On day 3, you couldn’t finish the task, but you figured you’d catch-up on the weekend. But then life happened and now you aren’t certain what today’s task even is. You try to unwind and flip through Facebook, but you see one picture after the other of people showing off the bags of stuff that they’re taking to the donation center.
Reality Check: Although a ‘challenge’ can be a great incentive to get started, it’s important to avoid treating it as The One Way to Organization and Clear Spaces. Allow the information and techniques to work for you – you aren’t working for them. If the day’s task to sort through your files takes you five weeks to complete, then so be it. Remember, your goal is to control your clutter; there’s no reason you have to do it in a month.
You Need a Second (or Third) Round of Decluttering
Chances are that you were a bit nervous when you started to declutter. You were afraid that you were going to get rid of something useful or that your great-aunt would be hurt if she found out that you got rid of the mug that she bought you.
Reality Check: When nothing horrible happened after you dropped off that first carload of stuff at the local donation center, you started to feel more confident in making decisions. A few months into the process, you were probably clearing out items that you would have once held onto.
That second or third round of decluttering is simply the result of you becoming clearer on your reason for why you wanted to declutter in the first place.
You Want to Keep Most of What You’re Sorting Through
A lot of people will say that they are ready to declutter, but they immediately jump to defending their sentimental items, memorabilia, or things with an emotional attachment.
Imagine two people who both used to ski and still have a lot of equipment. The person who realizes that skiing is no longer important to them will have an easier time donating or selling those items than the person who still identifies themselves as someone who could spend the weekend skiing, even though they haven’t done so for three years.
Reality Check: Sort through your cleaning supplies, medicine cabinet, sock drawer, or some other space where the stuff stored there is just stuff. If you are resistant to decluttering a group of items, like books, hold off trying to sort those items or you’ll end up frustrated, disheartened, or even angry that you feel you’re being asked to get rid of stuff that’s important to you.
You’ve Worked Hard to Organize Your Stuff, So Why Is Everything a Mess?
The January sales on organizing bins, shelves, and closet systems got your blood pumping. You knew that you’d feel better once you weren’t looking at piles of stuff and the bins and plastic drawers and cubbies did seem to make your home look neater. Only, new piles are forming.
Reality Check: Organizing stuff is really about giving items a home so that you can find them when you need to use them. Storing items that you don’t use or like only helps the companies that manufacture and sell the organizing tools that you bought.
Part of the decluttering process is learning what is important to you now and noticing how past purchases didn’t necessarily resolve a desire or situation. If you organize items without questioning why you have them, you don’t learn to question future purchases and you’ll end up with more stuff.
You’re Frustrated that Your Family Won’t Help
You’ve pointed out to your partner or kids how their stuff is cluttering the house. They don’t see a problem because this is how things “have always been.”
Reality Check: You’ve probably heard it before, focus on your stuff first. After you’ve decluttered your stuff, work on areas that you’re in charge of, like the kitchen or gardening shed. Clarify why you want to declutter your home and discuss this with your family. Also, is your immediate concern the family room? Then, don’t bring your kids’ bedrooms and your spouse’s home office into the conversation, at least right now.
Try to focus on small common areas – the stretch of kitchen counter that has become the dumping ground for paper or the dining table that’s being used as crafting central. Remember, if you are establishing a new rule, you need to replace the old behavior with a new habit. Don’t want mail, receipts, and other paper to end up on the kitchen counter? Would it help to have a central bin that gets sorted weekly? Or, in-boxes for each member of the family and a central calendar?
Be Easy on Yourself during a Decluttering Slump
No matter what else you feel you need to do, give yourself the opportunity to appreciate your efforts to date. Do you need to devote some time to tidying spaces you’ve already decluttered? Putting things away will quickly show off the hard work you’ve done.
If you’re faced with a difficult group of items, set out some of them so you can see them throughout the week. After looking at the items on multiple occasions, mull over your connection to the items and what you really want from them.
And, as always, consider why you wanted to declutter your home. Reminding yourself of your personal goals can return you to the mental attitude that will break you through your decluttering slump.
What decluttering challenges do you face? I’m collecting questions that I’ll answer in an upcoming video. Add your question to the comments section below.
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
While decluttering possessions can be fraught with emotions, organizing can seem more like a logic puzzle – where do I fit this piece? The key rule to organizing is, give everything a ‘home,’ a place where an item can be found and returned after use.
Sometimes, while you’re decluttering, you may find a lot of items that need to be ‘put away’ as opposed to being discarded or donated. When you encounter these misplaced items, take them where they belong (or, fill a laundry basket with the items and then walk through the house, distributing items in a single sweep through the rooms).
While one or two misplaced items may not seem to be a big deal, when they are joined by their friends (“oh, I’m just setting this down until I can put it away”), you’ll end up with a cluttered room. If you’re starting to declutter your home, you may find that you can devote several decluttering sessions simply to bringing items to their proper room.
Occasionally, when you go to put something away, you may discover that there’s no room for those DVDs, the books, the shoes, etc. where you want to store them. This is a sign that the space needs to be decluttered – not at that moment – but it’s definitely a task to jot down on your projects list.
Grouping similar items will help you declutter because you’ll see what you own and the what space you have to store the items. So, even if you think you just added more mess to your desk by moving the random papers off your dining table, remember, you’ve brought the papers one step closer to where they belong.
What ‘Organized’ Really Means
To me, being organized means that you can find and use an item when you want it. If you have color-coded file folders but you can’t locate your current car insurance policy, then you aren’t organized even if things appear neat and orderly.
Organized means items don’t get lost or misplaced because everyone in the house knows where to find – and return – the items. The time and stress saved from looking for lost items becomes the incentive for putting things away.
Organized means that it’s easier to tidy the house because you can identify items that are out of place and return them to where they belong without any debates or questions about what to do with the items. You may or may not consider a misplaced item as clutter; however, I’ve seen many cases where a cluttered space was filled with items that needed to be put away.
If you’ve ever said, with exasperation, “Why don’t you ever put stuff away!” the answer may be that the individual (regardless of age) doesn’t know where the items belong. I know, they found the scissors in the drawer, but they may have considered that “find” an outstanding bit of luck as opposed to the result of an organized plan. It may take a few clear announcements as to where a commonly used item can be found and where it must be returned before some individuals begin to see the logic you’re offering.
So, Where Should Things Live?
Keep items where you are going to use them. The more often you use an item, the closer it should be to the location where you are going to use it.
Keep similar or similar-use items together. How do you use an item? If you have tee shirts that you wear only to the gym, then store them with your gym clothes as opposed to with the tee shirts that you wear when doing other activities.
Store items by person. Unless an item is shared, give each person their own space within a space so they can keep their stuff together. This may mean that in the bathroom, each person gets their own bin or caddy for grooming supplies that they alone use.
And chances are that not everyone in the house reads the same books, so give each person their own shelf or bookcase. The same goes for knickknacks, give each person a dedicated space to highlight their interests. By giving each person their own spaces, they oversee keeping those spaces organized.
Yes, it can be difficult to convince someone who likes to sprawl their stuff everywhere that they need to contain their possessions. Start with a small, specific request that has a natural consequence. For example, “I know that you are concerned that we’ll spill food or drink on the papers you keep on the kitchen table. Since the table is for eating meals, what do you need so the papers get to the room where they really belong?”
Fit items to the available space. If you have a unit to organize your DVDs, then you can keep the number of DVDs that fit on the unit’s shelves. Once you start piling DVDs on the top of that cabinet, stacking them on the coffee table, or squeezing them onto the bookshelf, you are exceeding the space you dedicated to holding DVDs.
It’s either time to reduce the number of DVDs you own or to purchase another organizing tool. Always think twice about purchasing an additional organizing tool because they gobble up living space, reducing floor space and breathing room around pieces of furniture and can make a room feel more cluttered even though you just “organized” it.
Organize in a Way that Works for You
Sure, that organizing hack you saw on Pinterest looks great, and maybe it is. However, you always want to remember that being organized is about finding and using an item when you need it. And, although it may be tempting, avoid decluttering or organizing someone else’s stuff. Offer suggestions or physical assistance but let them make the decisions about their stuff.
The rule to staying organized is keeping items where you can find them when you want to use them. Think:
Organizing v. Decluttering
Do You Have Organized Clutter?
What is your biggest decluttering or organizing challenge? When I get several questions, I'll answer them in a video. Leave your question in the comments below.
A Year of Decluttering
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
Although we tend to define clutter as too much stuff in an area or stuff that we don’t want, another, looser (or is it stricter?) definition of clutter is that it is anything that is out of place.
If you go to a spot in your home that you consider cluttered, you’ll see items that belong someplace else. Maybe someplace else is the trash or recycling barrel. Maybe someplace else is the box you’re filling with stuff to donate to the local charity. Sometimes, someplace else may be someone else’s home (either because you want them to take their stuff or because you want them to have something).
However, you may also see items that belong in another room – papers that need to be filed in your home office; the snack bowl that belongs in the dishwasher; the book that needs to be shelved – that can contribute to the cluttered feel of a location.
You may also find yourself facing items that you know don’t belong where you find them, but you aren’t exactly certain where they belong. We’ll talk more about figuring out an item’s home in one of next week’s articles for A Year of Decluttering.
You may not feel that the following suggestion is really decluttering since it is about moving an item where it belongs. However, when you consider that clutter is stuff that’s out of place, then, over time, this is a habit that can help you get organized.
I first read this tip in Gretchen Rubin’s book on habits, Better than Before. It was advice someone gave her; advice she didn’t think would make much of a difference to the clutter around her house and yet she was surprised by the results.
Return Clutter to Its Home
This is a simple bit of advice – each time you move from one room to another in your home, take something with you so you can return it to its home.
For example, a couple months ago, I had a cold that included a lingering cough. To not annoy my husband who has his desk near mine in the basement, I kept a handful of cough drops on my desk. The cough is gone, the cough drops are not. So, on my next trip upstairs to the bathroom, I’ll grab those cough drops. And, done. (and it only took me two months!)
Although this doesn’t make a big difference to the physical space, the energy is a bit lighter if only because a task that I didn’t realize was a task has been taken care of.
Now, carrying one item with you isn’t going to make a big difference overnight. This advice isn’t meant as a substitute for sorting and discarding items, it is what it is – returning something to where it belongs. It’s a micro-habit.
This isn’t something that you need to schedule – when you get up to go into another room, take something with you. Maybe this means that you are returning an item to where it belongs. Maybe it’s taking it a step closer to where it belongs. (If you’ve ever put something on a stair so you remember to take it with you when you head upstairs, you’ve already engaged in this micro-habit.)
If you have kids or a spouse who aren’t looking forward to decluttering (or, just don’t want to do it), introduce them to the idea of carrying an item with them when they go into another room. The item could be something they were using or that belongs to them (bringing their glass to the kitchen, their sneakers to their bedroom).
Although micro-habits don’t create a big, immediate change to your home, they do help you to declutter, and, perhaps more important, lay the groundwork for staying decluttered and organized.
Organizing v. Decluttering
You'll Feel Calmer at Home When You Do This 10 Minutes Every Day
In my eBook, Why Can't You Stay Organized? I discuss 18 different techniques that can help you maintain all your decluttering efforts without taking up your entire day. Purchase the eBook on Amazon for $3.99.
A Year of Decluttering
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
While teaching a class about decluttering, an older gentleman commented that his major organizing challenge was all the paper he had to go through, particularly in his home office. Since there was so much, he wasn’t certain where the best place to start would be. I suggested that he start by scheduling 15-to-20-minutes a day for sorting through his papers.
He laughed. He had much, much more than 15-to-20-minutes of work ahead of him.
I understood. I also understood that an hour or two or sorting paperwork, is mentally exhausting. And discouraging (so much paper in such a small space!). So mentally exhausting and discouraging, in fact, that it becomes more difficult to convince yourself to do more decluttering, even though you know you need to in order to reach your goals.
You may feel that more time equals being more productive and so you’ve decided that you need to hold off on decluttering until the next long weekend or when you have an entire day (or at least 4-to-6-hours) to put in some “real” work.
It can be difficult to find that perfect convergence of available time, help from family (if that’s part of your plan), and the desire to spend that time decluttering as opposed to something more, well, enjoyable. When that entire weekend with nothing to do but declutter doesn’t manifest, it’s easy to convince yourself that this is a ‘Big Important Project’ that needs to get delayed.
It doesn’t. Remember my suggestion to declutter 15-to-20-minutes a day? It shows results a whole lot faster than doing nothing while waiting for that block of six-hours that hasn’t yet showed up.
How to Declutter in 15-Minutes a Day
Fifteen minutes is often enough time to declutter one shelf, drawer, or cabinet. If you think that there is more than fifteen minutes of work in that space (say, beneath the kitchen sink), instead of emptying the space, shift items around and remove the stuff that you obviously can toss or that belongs someplace else.
Return to that location the next day and pull everything out for some more focused effort.
Why Mini Decluttering Sessions Work
Now, you might be thinking, “Cleaning one shelf or drawer a day is going to take forever.” And, I’m not saying that, if you found yourself with 30-minutes or an hour, that you shouldn’t do more decluttering, given the opportunity and interest.
Trust me, I totally get it if right now you’re thinking, “I’d rather just do it all at once.” (And, this applies to more tasks or goals than just decluttering.)
However, if you fit in 15-minutes, five days a week, by the end of the month, you’ll have done at least five hours of decluttering. And here’s the best part – you won’t feel as if you spent five hours slogging through your stuff.
You won’t feel drained by all the decision-making. You’ll be mentally and emotionally ready to keep going which is important because five hours isn’t going to transform your entire house. There’ll be next month and the month after that. And, developing a habit of sorting through your stuff 15-minutes a day is going to send you a constant stream of small wins – “This week, I finished that shelf, and that one, oh, and that drawer, and today I went through the stuff I had piled in that corner!”
This way, when you do find four hours to start tackling your garage, you’ll be able to think about working box-by-box instead of expecting that you’ll be able to clear seventeen years of stuff in a few hours.
6 Ways to Make the Most of Your Decluttering Time
Do you have a decluttering question for me? When I get a few, I’ll answer them in a YouTube video and then post it to Facebook. (I’ve never done this. Bit nervous. I figure if I have some questions in front of me, I’ll have something to talk about.) Leave your question in the comments below or email me at Susan@ALessClutteredLife.com.
A Year of Decluttering
by Susan Caplan McCarthy
I remember reading Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit and being amazed by his story of a woman who, at a low point in her life, decided that she wanted to trek through the deserts of Egypt to go see the pyramids. Although she didn’t know what this involved, she decided that she’d have to give up smoking. That eventually prompted her to start jogging which, led her to change her diet and sleep patterns, as well as the way she worked, saved money, planned her time, and so on. Amazing.
For her, quitting smoking was her keystone habit, the habit upon which she built other habits.
I’m not a psychologist, and so I’m very likely oversimplifying the idea of creating a keystone habit since I’m going to focus on how it can help you to declutter.
How a One Habit Becomes Many Habits
When I first read about keystone habits, I thought that they were something that would magically or accidentally show up in one’s life, recognized as a keystone habit only in retrospect. Nope. You can choose your keystone habit.
To create a keystone habit, you select a very specific action related to an area of your life that you want to improve. Let’s say that you decide to choose a habit related to being organized. You select one small, specific location to declutter and you put your focus on keeping that one location organized.
A keystone habit shouldn’t be something that you’re already doing (or sort of doing). Look around your home for a specific location that you always struggle with. As you take things from that spot and put them where they belong, you gradually spread your organizing influence throughout your home. You’re still focused on maintaining organization in that one, original location, but to do so, you end up paying attention to other locations as well.
One – Select Your Keystone Habit
When I asked the question on Facebook about a location in people’s homes where they were always struggling with clutter, quite a few people mentioned their dining or kitchen table.
For my example in this article, we’ll pretend that you’ve decided that keeping your dining table clear will be your keystone habit. First, you want to define what a “clear dining table” looks like for you. Will the table be bare of everything or will you keep placemats and the salt and pepper shakers on the table?
I gave my husband a tray to corral his medications, checkbook, pens, mini screwdriver and other things he uses all the time at the dining table because this is one of two locations where he spends his days in the house. This isn’t a particularly attractive option but an improvement over a bunch of small items scattered over the table. I realized that my goal was to have an easy-to-clear table.
Two – List the Positive Reasons for Sticking with This Habit
If you have a family, and they contribute to the clutter in a spot, set up rules as to what needs to be removed and by when every day. If there will be an exception, define it up front. “Craft projects can stay on the table Saturday nights as long as the supplies get cleaned up by 4p on Sunday.” List the benefits of this new habit and invite your family to add in their own ideas.
Some benefits could be –
Three – Focus on this One Space
After clearing off the dining table, you may be tempted to think that you’ll tackle another location the next day. Not yet. Chances are that you’ll need to work at keeping the dining table clear. So, keep clearing the table and reminding others in your house to put away their stuff.
Remind them of the benefits. “Wasn’t it great that you and your friend had a clean space to work on homework together?” “It was so nice to have someone over for a meal without rushing around to clear off the table before they arrived.
Keeping this one space clear may prove to be an easy-to-maintain change – or not.
Four – Monitor the Process
You may need to do some problem solving if you notice the same things keep getting left in this space. Maybe your spouse drops the mail on the table every evening.
When you ask the question, “What’s the problem, here?” you realize that you don’t have a routine for dealing with the mail. The dining table is nowhere near the recycling bin and you don’t know what to do with mail that requires a future action. You decide that you need the habit of sorting the mail and tossing the junk mail before you set down the rest of it.
And where do you put the mail that you need to deal with later? You find a basket in your living room that’s been a catch-all for coins, paper clips, receipts, scissors and other small things. Now, when your spouse walks in the door, they toss the junk mail in a recycle bin and put the rest of the mail in this basket, with plans to go through it on Sunday nights.
Oh, and you also eliminated a catch-all basket without really noticing that your decluttering efforts were spreading to another location.
Five – Stay Consistent
By focusing on how you want one location in your home to look (as opposed to an entire room), you also engage another aspect of habit formation, consistency. Before, you may have worked at clearing off the table only when guests were joining you or you had a project that required a large, flat space. Now, it’s your expectation that you (and others in your home) return the table to its defined order every day.
Where Will You Start?
Maybe you’ll decide to keep your table clear (remember, you define what ‘clear’ looks like for you); or, your desk; or, the shoes that pile up in the foyer; or, that armchair in your bedroom where you pile your clean clothes. As you work on creating the order you want, you’ll be tossing some items, donating others, and moving some things to other rooms or locations around your home.
You might realize that you pile your clean laundry on a chair because your closet and drawers are so full that you can’t fit in anything new. Keeping your desk clean may be a matter of setting a timer to go off near the end of the day so you have time to file papers, bring your coffee mug to the kitchen, and tuck your planner into your tote bag.
Remember, you are focusing on keeping one very small area of your home consistently organized in the way you’ve defined. What will you be keeping organized? Leave a comment below.
Use a Habit Tracker
Change One Tiny Habit
By Susan Caplan McCarthy
Happy New Year! And welcome to the Year of Decluttering – 2019. If you participated last year, you would have received daily emails that included a ‘task of the day,’ a small, focused task that would have taken approximately 15-minutes to complete. This year will be different from last year in that there will be two emails a week, one or both that will be focused on the theme for that month.
You can look at A Year of Decluttering 2019 as a follow-along program or as a series of articles that you pick and choose what topics you want to work with. Below you’ll see that this isn’t a program that assigns cleaning certain rooms in your house during certain months of the year.
Why not? I think it’s too easy to pick up an item and think that you should hold onto it ‘just in case,’ but, because you want to complete the assignment for the month and declutter the bedroom or family room, you move the items in question to other rooms where you’ll have to deal with them again when they surfaces later. Instead of limiting yourself to a single room, you’ll focus on different categories of items, which will make it likelier that you’ll address your possessions when and where you find them.
Also, this method allows you to declutter even if other members of your family aren’t inclined to declutter with you. I’ll address this topic more throughout the year.
January – Everyday Actions
I know, you want to start filling those trash bags and scheduling donation pick-ups but getting a handle on some of the everyday actions that lead to clutter means that your decluttering efforts won’t disappear in the chaos of day-to-day life.
Another thing that helps you stay focused while decluttering is knowing why you want to declutter. If you weren’t dealing with clutter, what would your home and life look like? What have you put on hold until you’ve decluttered your home? Download the free booklet, Clarify Why You Want to Declutter, to gain insight into the personal goals that will help motivate you.
February – Decluttering as Self-Care
This month is about the stuff you use all the time – clothing, shoes, jewelry; grooming and beauty supplies, makeup; your handbag, wallet, tote bags, etc. The things you touch every day can be a source of stress if items are in poor condition or if you just have too much stuff. Decluttering and organizing personal items allow you to take care of yourself so that you have the energy for other decluttering projects.
March – Jump into Spring Cleaning
Learn the decluttering technique that can make a big change throughout your house and yet takes no more than 15-minutes a day. I’ll also cover how to declutter with your kids or grandkids, your parents, and your reluctant significant other.
April – Paper Decluttering
Sorting through paper has unique challenges. One, you probably have more paper than you think – the average cardboard banker’s box can hold 2500 (or more) sheets of paper! You may have thought that you were being organized by storing your papers by the year in boxes; however, just like other items, if you don’t need it, then you have organized clutter!
May – Get Ready for Summer
Spend time outdoors decluttering yard and garden ornaments and outdoor entertaining spaces like porches, patios, and decks. Get the kids or grandkids involved in sorting through outdoor toys. Since some of your summer stuff may get stored in the garage or in sheds, I’ll discuss decluttering and organizing these spaces now that you’ve pulled out the stuff you’ll be using for the season.
June – Digital Declutter
I know June is a busy month with end-of-the-school-year activities for parents and grandparents, weddings, graduations, and activities segueing you into summer. I decided to focus on digital decluttering for this month because, chances are, you have a smartphone, tablet, or laptop with you most of the time, which gives you opportunities to fit in digital decluttering even if you just have a couple of minutes.
July – Small Spaces
Yes, you have better things to do during the summer than get involved in a big decluttering project; so, this month is about small spaces like the medicine cabinet, coffee table, car, under the bed, kitchen counters, and other small spaces that are projects unto themselves. Most of these projects can be started and finished in 15-to-30-minutes.
August – Organizing Tricks from the Classroom
Think about it, kids greatly outnumber the adults in the classroom and yet the teacher doesn’t spend her day cleaning up after her students. Why? They set up organizing routines and systems that are easy to follow. You don’t need to have kids to take advantage of these organizing tricks.
September – Storage Spaces
If you have a lot of storage spaces – a garage, attic, basement, spare rooms, and outbuildings – then you may have to decide where to best focus your efforts this month instead of trying to do everything and getting nothing done. Storage spaces seem to demand a whole-weekend-or-don’t-bother approach, but I’ll cover ways you can tackle these spaces without devoting all your free time to the task.
October – Photos
Photos are challenging because they fall in with sentimental items and memorabilia. However, not all photos are of equal quality and if you hold onto every photo then it’s more difficult to appreciate the best ones. This month will cover the photos we display on walls and shelves, photo albums, old print photos, and digital photo storage. Note: If you encounter print photos while working through other tasks this year, gather them into a box(es) or bin(s) and set them aside for this month.
November – People, Parties, and the Holidays
While nature in the northern hemisphere is slowing down for a long winter’s nap, it seems life gets busier for us. We’re either entertaining or planning on being a guest (or, trying to turn down offers in a polite way), traveling, decorating for winter holidays, and shopping (or trying to explain that finances are fine, thank you, but you’d rather opt-out of quite so many gift giving/receiving events).
December – Here and There
This month’s 10-to-15-minute a day tasks turn your focus to surfaces – walls as well as floors and other flat surfaces that can, too easily, become the accidental new home for things that don’t get put away. These are areas where one out-of-place item invites clutter. And, sometimes, even intentionally placed items can become a visual distraction that call out to be curated or minimalized.
The articles on all the topics related to A Year of Decluttering – 2019 are part of the regular postings I make on A Less Cluttered Life. You can join any time during the year and find the articles archived on my website. As an organizing and productivity coach, I use my 25+ years of teaching experience to guide individuals through creating an organized life. Sign up for emails to get these articles sent to your inbox twice a week … and get last year’s program as a free pdf eBook.
Susan Caplan McCarthy
I'm a professional organizer-coach with 26 years' experience as a teacher. I believe that an organized home isn't your destination but a step on the path toward the life you want to create. I teach decluttering and organizing skills through articles; books; and speaking engagements; as well as virtual coaching sessions.