by Susan McCarthy
Overwhelmed by the idea of decluttering? Feeling stuck trying to organize a room or category of items? Decluttering one item a day can reduce the stress that comes with a grander expectation. And you can always do more when you're ready.
The idea of decluttering one item a day may seem laughable. How could you possibly declutter your entire house one item at a time? Well, really, even if you spent ten hours in one day decluttering your home, you’re only decluttering one item at a time.
You pick up an item, decide what to do with it, and move onto the next. But decluttering for ten hours in a day isn’t a pace that you can continue for long. Chances are that even if you did push yourself to declutter every room and space in your home in a week, that process would become more difficult as you push yourself mentally, physically, and emotionally to your limits.
When I was emptying my parents’ house, working five or six hours a day, five days a week, I was done in by the pace. Tending to work tasks and doing things like laundry and cooking meals further stretched me. There were days that by the time I finished loading up the dumpster and hauling stuff to the donation center, I couldn’t manage anything beyond sitting on the couch, crocheting and eating peanut M&Ms.
If you don’t have the time and energy for massive decluttering sessions, declutter one item a day.
Why Decluttering Is So Stressful
At the core of the decluttering process is the desire to make a change. And that change isn’t only about not piling six months’ worth of mail on the dining table or covering the couch with clean clothing waiting to be folded.
If you’re at the point where you’re thinking about decluttering or maybe even incorporating the occasional burst of decluttering into your schedule now and then, chances are that you want to see a change in your life…not just your home.
For as much as you dislike these situations, the idea of changing them can lead to tense thoughts and beliefs about new expectations.
Other Reasons Why You May Have Been Avoiding Decluttering…and How Decluttering One Item at a Time Can Help
You’re overwhelmed by the clutter. Even if you’ve done some decluttering in the past, chances are that you have stuff that’s been in your home for years. Every room needs to be decluttered and organized. When you open a closet or cabinet, you face a mass of stuff.
You don’t know where to start because you’re viewing your entire home as the project. If you start to declutter your closet, you feel as if you should be working in your kitchen. But when you begin to empty a kitchen cabinet, you wonder if you would be better off tackling the piles of paper in your home office.
Why decluttering one item a day is the solution – removing one item a day from your home is progress without pushing.
You have health issues that make adding decluttering to your routine a strain. Whether you have physical or mental health issues, chances are that they sap your energy. No matter how beneficial decluttering would be you just can’t imagine taking on a big, multi-hour project like decluttering your home.
Why decluttering one item a day is the solution – choosing one item to let go of is the smallest action you can take when decluttering.
You’re struggling to make the decision to let go of stuff. With each decision you make, you wear away at your willpower to make effective solutions. Decision fatigue comes from making too many decisions in the course of a day…or facing too many options.
And let’s face it, in the beginning, you are facing the most stuff and the most options. If you push yourself to do too much too quickly (“I’ll declutter my entire house in a day/week/month!”), decision fatigue is inevitable.
You may end up indiscriminately pushing yourself to get rid of things for the sake of decluttering. Or you end up fried, unable to let go of anything, and find yourself keeping dusty, mostly burned candles because they seem useful.
Why decluttering one item a day is the solution – you’ll save yourself from decision fatigue.
You’re nervous that you’ll make the wrong decisions. The common joke about decluttering is that you never need a thing until you get rid of it. However, if you did need it, could you borrow or rent one? Purchase an inexpensive replacement…or, even better, use something else you already own?
If you are afraid of angering someone by getting rid of a gift they gave you, could you ask them if they mind? Or could you consider that you never see them use the gifts you’ve given them and perhaps the idea of decluttering a gift doesn’t concern them.
Why decluttering one item a day is the solution – by working with intention, there’s no need to get rid of difficult items right away. In a month, or two, or six, you may feel better prepared to make a decision.
You just don’t have the time to declutter. You have a thousand things on your to do list and the idea of finding an hour or four to declutter is impossible. You’ve thought that you could just wait until your kids are grown and declutter then. However, your kids are six and three and waiting fifteen years to declutter seems excessive.
Why decluttering one item a day is the solution – one item a day is better than zero items…and some days you can eliminate additional items.
Gradually Declutter Your Home by One Item a Day
As you can see, giving yourself the goal of decluttering one item, each day allows you to make progress while overriding overwhelm, indecision, nervousness, a lack of time, and overwhelm.
However, this pace may seem much too slow considering the amount of stuff in your home. Keep in mind that this is a minimal goal. If you find yourself ready to eliminate more items during a decluttering session, you can.
One day, a dried-up pen could be your item; the next day, you could hire a company to haul away an armoire.
Also, you can decide how you’ll define “one item.” Does one piece of paper count…or one file folder of papers? Don’t push yourself. Remember, you can declutter more than one item when you choose to. No need to claim, say, T-shirts as your one item for the day, forcing yourself to sort through all four dozen T-shirts you own.
To improve your chances of seeing what you’re accomplishing with the one a day technique:
Focus on one area at a time. If you declutter something from your kitchen today, something from your closet tomorrow, and a book the day after that, you may never feel like you’re making progress. Instead stick with one room or category of items.
If you focus on one room, you can further narrow your efforts by decluttering one item a day from a piece of furniture. For example, eliminate one item from your dresser or desk or a kitchen cabinet until you feel satisfied that you’ve eliminated the unnecessary items.
You could also focus your attention on a category of items like books, clothing, footwear, kitchen gadgets, and so on. Stick with this category until it fits more easily in its storage space.
If you want to declutter more items in a day, you can. One item is a minimum. Avoiding thinking, “Well, if I get rid of two items today, I can skip tomorrow.” One of the powerful elements of decluttering one item at a time is that you are doing the work consistently. Consistency puts you in the decluttering mindset.
Decluttering seven items once a week would be more challenging than eliminating one item a day for seven days because you wouldn’t have the identity of a person who is decluttering. Instead, decluttering would be something you do every so often. Don’t lose your momentum.
Fill one box with the items you’ll donate. As you fill the box, you’ll further reinforce the progress that you are making. You could also dedicate a trash barrel to items that you are throwing away. Even if you don’t see a difference in a room right away, you will see your box of donations filling up.
You can also track your progress by creating a list with the item(s) you declutter each day. Or you could even photograph the item and post it on Instagram each day. In both cases, you are journaling your accomplishments and adding in some accountability.
Other Benefits of Decluttering One Item at a Time
You’ll highlight what’s important. Michelangelo said that he saw an angel in the marble and carved until he set it free. Decluttering your possessions one at a time eliminates what is unnecessary. What is left will be the things important to you. You may not even realize how much you like a piece of décor until it’s no longer crowded by other possessions.
By working slowly, you may better discover what you truly use and enjoy.
You’ll become more aware of clutter. Have you ever had the experience of complaining about the cluttered state of a room but the moment you start picking up individual items, you feel all these things have a use in your home?
When you’re decluttering just one item a day, if something doesn’t seem like clutter, you can skip over it and move onto something else. At some point, you may realize that an item you’ve skipped over in the past doesn’t get used and doesn’t have a place in your home.
Because you didn’t force yourself to make a decision about the item the first time you encountered it, you feel more confident to let it go now.
If you’re not sure about what you want to do, you can leave the item where it is instead of packing it into a “maybe” box. A common decluttering tactic for items that you aren’t certain you’ll miss is to put them in a box and then label the box six months from now. If you don’t look for an item during that time, you donate the box.
But the problem here is that those boxes often get forgotten. Because the items don’t leave your home, you haven’t really decluttered, you’ve simply rearranged your clutter.
But when you look for one item a day to declutter, you can leave other items right where they are. I often find that the more I look at something and question if I should keep it, that I’ll get to the point that I’ll realize I’m not using it. Or if I continue to question holding onto the item, at some level I know that I don’t really want it.
You’ll notice patterns. While decluttering one book a day, you may notice that you’re still buying books from an author you no longer enjoy reading, you’re purchasing the books out of habit. You’ll realize that you’re pulling all the light gray items from your closet…and that you should stop buying this color because you obviously don’t enjoy wearing it.
When you aren’t pushing yourself to declutter more and to do it faster, you’re decluttering from a calmer mental space. Instead of feeling as if decluttering is an act of deprivation, you can better see what is important to you and what you can do without.
Decluttering Challenge – One Month, One Item a Day
Establishing a time frame for decluttering an item a day keeps the challenge a manageable one. One month isn’t a lengthy period and thirty items isn’t too intimidating. Another benefit to a time frame is that it allows you to review and reflect at the end of the month to see if you want to continue at this pace or if you feel comfortable with your success and you want to increase your daily goal to five or ten items…or try one of the other decluttering challenges you’ll find below.
And know that at the end of the month you may want to stick with an item each day. That’s fine. At the end of that month, you can evaluate once again.
Note that when I refer to a month, this doesn’t have to be a calendar month. If this is the middle of the month, don’t wait to start in two weeks when a new month rolls around. You can go from the 17th of January to the 16th of February just as easily as the 1st to the 31st of May or October.
Other Decluttering Challenges to Try
Decluttering challenges tend to focus on eliminating a certain number of items each day.
The Mins Game – Created by The Minimalists, the number of items you declutter a day is equal to the date on the calendar. So, on the third of the month you declutter three items and on the twenty-third of the month you declutter twenty-three items.
You’ll declutter over 400 hundreds during the month, and you can repeat this game for as many rounds as you want. However, you may feel pressured as you increase the number of items you declutter each day.
3 x 9 – Similar to The Mins Game, but with less pressure. You use the final number in the date to direct how many items you declutter during the day. So, on the 4th, 14th, and 24th, you’d get rid of four items. On the 8th, 18th, and 28th, you’d eliminate eight things. You get the day off on the 10th, 20th, and 30th.
The 12 – 12 – 12 Challenge – Every day, you look for twelve items to toss, twelve to donate, and twelve to return where they belong. If that seems too much, you could rotate your focus each day so you’re focusing on only one of those tasks.
60 in 60 - Set a timer for 60 minutes and challenge yourself to declutter sixty items in that time frame. Don't have an hour? Try 30 in 30 or even 15 in 15.
One Bag a Day – Each day, fill a bag. You could fill the bag with trash. You could fill the bag with recyclable items and then pour the contents into your recycling bin. Or fill the bag with items to donate. Use a 13-gallon bag over a 30-gallon bag which could be a little too challenging.
Beware of Buying Stuff Faster than You’re Decluttering It
While there’s no issue with buying consumable items that you need (grooming supplies, food, cleaning supplies, office supplies, etc.), stocking up on items that are on sale could quickly fill spaces in your home.
And the more stuff you have, the more stuff you need. Which means you might not be able to store similar items together. This makes it more challenging to see, remember, and find what you already have on hand.
Before buying something, consumable or non-consumable, ask a few questions:
This tactic gets you thinking before you make an impulse purchaser…what will you have to get rid of? One-in/One-out is a useful technique, one to keep for life because after you declutter, you’ll be able to maintain the number of items in your home and halt clutter from forming again.
How to Declutter One item a Day
If you’re currently decluttering zero items a day, that one item will make a difference. You could use this method to feel more comfortable about the decluttering process…or because this is all you can do at this time. Remember, one item a day is progress.
More Resources to Help You Declutter when You Don't Have the Time or Energy
Hi, I'm Susan
I'm a former teacher who became a professional organizer (and not because I'm a natural-born neatnik). I live with my husband and fluffy cat on a river in Massachusetts. I crochet, make handmade cards, and love reading young adult novels. Learn more about my decluttering journey here.