by Susan McCarthy
Wondering where to start decluttering home when you want to declutter everywhere NOW? Pay attention to what would best benefit your life and you'll discover the path to follow to organize your home.
I’d bet that the most common questions asked about decluttering is, “where should I start?” There’s no easy answer here because everyone will have a different reason for decluttering…and that can influence your answer to this question.
Instead of focusing on the rooms in your home, you can come at decluttering from the angle of solving a problem. How will clearing clutter improve a situation?
I’ll address common reasons for decluttering and where you might want to start the process in each case. Yes, there will be overlap here, which shows you the power of decluttering and how it can do more than make your home neater; it can improve your life.
Look to what frustrates you
If you don’t know where to start decluttering, consider focusing on something that frustrates you. Start with a situation and use the Five Why technique so you better understand what needs decluttering.
You can never find ___________. For example, do you struggle to find a screwdriver or hammer? Then maybe you want to declutter and organize your workbench. If you realize that part of the problem is that you never return tools to this space, question why that happens. Maybe there’s boxes of stuff piled all around your workbench.
If you don’t have a workbench, where do you keep tools? If your answer is ‘here, there, and everywhere,’ then you’ll want to create a drawer or cabinet where you can keep this stuff.
Being unable to find something that you’re looking for shows you that you need to decide where it belongs and then declutter and organize that space.
How do you know where something belongs?
Question why you’re late. If you struggle with showing up late to work, appointments, or get-togethers with friends, why? Were you looking for something? Do you consistently find yourself looking for the same misplaced item, like your keys?
Resolving this issue involves a couple of steps. One, you’ll want to create a space where you can leave your keys (or whatever your often misplaced item is). Two, you’ll want to develop the habit of putting the item in this space.
To develop the habit, you might want to post small signs that can remind you of what you want to do. Emphasize this action by reading the message on the note out loud when you look at it.
In the example of misplace keys, you might decide to take the common advice and hang a hook by the door. But if the area is cluttered with a paper-ladened corkboard and shoes strewn over the floor, you might not see or easily reach that hook…so of course you won’t use it.
If you narrow your focus and tell yourself that hanging up your keys isn’t a habit that you can form, then you’re looking at the wrong problem! While misplacing your keys may be your primary issue, you need to make the space by the door less overwhelming.
Have you noticed that trying to resolve one issue can lead to more actions? This isn’t being distracted! Sometimes, figuring out where the problem really is can involve going back steps.
I’ll mention using the Five Why technique again to dig down and understand where you need to focus your efforts.
You end up buying things that you know you own…you just don’t know where you put it. This overlaps with the “can’t find” category. You may get frustrated enough that you can’t find the thermometer or roll of gift wrap, black cardigan, can opener, or glue stick that it’s easier to go out and replace the item than to continue looking for it.
When you begin decluttering, you’ll find multiples of these items…each stored in different locations (none of which you can remember when you go to look for the item). Again, this involves deciding where you should store something and then making it easy enough to retrieve and return the item here, so you actually do it.
Ironically, you may end up with duplicates because you home is cluttered with items that you hold onto ‘just in case.’ Just in case items tend to be things that are useful but that you never use. If you find yourself thinking, “I could use this someday,” that’s a sign that it’s not something you use…or likely even need.
You feel stress whenever you are in this room…or looking at this area of a room. Are you late heading out the door because you’re struggling to find something to wear? Do you feel uptight every time you look at your dining room table because the clutter gets in the way of inviting family and friends over for a meal?
If a room or area of a room is causing you stress, then decluttering that space can ease that tension. I truly believe that feeling less stress in this area of your life can help you see the possibilities open to you…not just in this space in your home but in your life overall.
Connect the Dots
You may have noticed that in the examples for dealing with frustrations that may get resolved with decluttering that there wasn’t a simple, ‘do this one thing and you’re done’ solution. There will be cases where to declutter one location, you may then need to resolve clutter in other areas of your home.
Maybe when you go to declutter the dining room table you find an assortment of craft supplies, bills and other paperwork, gift wrapping supplies, clean laundry, books, and other items that landed here. When you go to put any of these items away, you may notice that you need to clear those areas to fit in the files, clothing, or books.
So, what do you do when your attention keeps getting pulled to other tasks that feel like a part of the original task you were working on?
Stay with your original intention. You don’t have to put away those other items perfectly. Let’s face it, they hadn’t been put away when you started, so it’s perfectly fine to get them near where they belong. But it isn’t necessary to start on another decluttering project in another room.
When you’re done with the original location, then you can decide on your next step, which may be an area where you carried your misplaced items.
You’re downsizing, moving, or emptying a parent’s house
If you’re cleaning out a house, start by emptying the attic or basement. Chances are that except for seasonal items, a whole lot of items that ended up getting stored in these spaces fell into the “I don’t know what to do with this stuff” and “I should hold onto this just in case someone needs it someday” categories.
For folks who aren’t planning a move, these storage spaces are the last places you’d want to deal with. Let’s face it, you’d feel far more benefits by focusing on your living spaces. However, if you are moving…or you’re emptying a parent’s house, start with these challenging storage places.
Because you’ll be climbing stairs…and carrying boxes…these locations are a workout. If you aren’t up to the physicality of this work, see if you can rally (young and energetic) family, friends, and neighbors to help move things.
(Be clear that you’re looking for muscle and not people to interject their opinions about these items.)
The challenge here is that if your living spaces are full of stuff, you might not have a cleared place to bring these items to. Heads up! Whether you have extra space in any of your rooms or not, things will get messy, very messy when you haul things out of the attic or basement.
People can carry boxes much faster than you will be able to sort through the contents of these boxes. If possible, you may want to request a certain number of boxes to be brought to your sorting area so you can sort through the boxes.
So, for example, you could ask your neighbor’s teen to carry as boxes to your sorting area for 15-to-30-minutes. Pay them for their time and then schedule the next day you want to see them.
Plan to find more stuff here than you expect
Chances are that there is more stuff in the attic or basement than you may think. My parents had so much stuff, that I emptied the main floor of their house before going up into the attic.
I carried (or tossed) stuff down the folding stairs, sorted through things, then went upstairs for more. I finally got to the point where there were heavy and awkward items that I couldn’t manage on my own, I asked my brother for help.
He hired a young guy from work and the two of them hauled the remaining items down from the attic. He called me to let me know there was much more stuff up in the attic than I thought. Oh, okay, I thought. I’d brought down so much stuff, what could be left?
But I caught the strain in his voice so I went to the house as soon as I could. The 800-square-feet of kitchen, living room, and bedrooms had been empty but for maybe six pieces of furniture that we planned to sell. What I thought was a dozen or so things in the attic filled the house.
Stuff was stacked on top of stuff! At first, I thought that everything was put into the living room so it would be close to the door and the bin in the front yard. Nope, the kitchen was filled. The bedrooms were packed. They even had to put stuff in the bathroom!
The moral of the story is that you’ve got a lot of stuff stored in the attic and basement…and you may not even remember everything that’s in these spaces.
Another reason to work on those areas before you start sorting stuff in the kitchen or living room is that it is damn discouraging to work through all the stuff you live with and look at every day only to discover that you now have to go through a bunch of stuff that you’ve already ignored for a few years (or decades).
Declutter to support a goal
You can also start decluttering by choosing a room that will support a goal. For example, if you want to start a home-based business, then you might realize that you want to ready your home office, so it looks more like an office and less like the dumping ground for things you weren’t certain where to store.
If you plan to improve your health, you could start by decluttering your kitchen – clear out the foods you can’t eat (or store them on an inconvenient upper or lower shelf for others in the house), pull out the gadgets that promise to make vegetables easier to serve, clear the counters so it will be easier to prepare meals at home.
Decluttering clears away the distractions and makes space for the things that you want to include in your life. Even if your goal is temporary (bake dozens of cookies for an event, craft holiday gifts), decluttering and organizing the space where you’ll do the work can save you from the stress of working in a cluttered environment.
You have immediate need for an orderly room
You may have an event on the horizon that will take place in your home. This could be hosting book club or another meeting…or it could involve having others in your home for more hours, days, or weeks.
For example, you have a guest visiting for a long weekend; you’ll be hosting a family dinner as part of a holiday gathering, a baby or wedding shower, or a graduation or retirement party. Chances are, these events will involve people moving through multiple rooms…at the least, the kitchen and bathrooms.
You may need to prioritize which rooms to work on first and work down the list to spaces you hope that you have the time to get to.
Consider what you need to declutter in each room and don’t give yourself more work than you have time for. For example, if you know people will be in the living room, think what they will need. They will want places to sit and flat surfaces to set drinks and plates.
In this case, going through a curio cabinet or spaces behind cabinet doors are not your priority. You may want to organize these areas, but it isn’t necessary to use the space for the upcoming event. On the other hand, you suspect that people will go into kitchen cabinets and drawers looking for glasses and utensils, so maybe these areas will be things you want to do.
If you’re decluttering for an upcoming event, some of what you’ll get done will depend upon how long you have to get ready. Hosting after a funeral might give you just days to clear three or four rooms, while you’ll have months to tidy for a wedding shower.
Remember, people will see the out in the open spaces. (Yes, I know, there are noisy people who will peek into your closet and medicine cabinet because that’s the type of person they are.) Prioritize decluttering the floor so there are not tripping hazards.
Then focus on where people will sit and set things.
Imagine what your guests will do in your home and clear space so they will feel at ease.
You’d like to feel a bit happier and less stressed
If you aren’t moving and you aren’t hosting any sort of gathering at your home, you may feel indifferent about where to start. And, honestly, if you’re thinking that everything needs to get decluttered, then it doesn’t matter where you start.
Of course, if you’re feeling indecisive, that isn’t helpful, so allow me to suggest decluttering your closet.
Why? You go into your closet every day; chances are at the beginning of the day so going into your closet can affect your mood for the day. Clearing out the clothing that you don’t, won’t, and can’t wear can create open space in your closet…and that makes people feel nervous!
They’re afraid that if they get rid of this clothing that they’ll have nothing to wear. But here’s the thing, they aren’t wearing that stuff. It’s in their closet, but it’s not really anything they do, will, or can wear. Instead, it’s just taking up space. (And, no, clearing out a lot of stuff from your closet doesn’t mean that you have to go clothes shopping! Remember, you’re only getting rid of the stuff that you aren’t wearing.)
You may think that decluttering your closet will be depressing…all that clothing you could wear if you just lost weight, the reminders of a former career, the cute outfits you partied in…oh so many years ago when you were a different person.
However, cleaning your closet lifts the burden of unrealistic expectations. Yes, you may wish that you were thinner (and if you were, would you really want to wear things you haven’t worn for more than a decade or would you buy new stuff?). You may miss the job that gave you all those wonderful travel experiences (but you decided you wanted to spend time with family).
But that’s not your life now. Decluttering things that you don’t, won’t, and can’t use allows you the space to live the life you have and not get stuck in the past or dream about a future you may or may not pursue.
If you can declutter your closet, you’ll remove those burdens. Getting dressed will take less time because you won’t be riffling through things you wouldn’t wear anyway.
You’ll feel better in the moment and about yourself. You’ll wear the things that you’re already wearing. And maybe, without the distractions of unwearable clothing, you’ll see what you really wear.
Yes, if you’ve ever heard of a signature style and wished you looked put together, then seeing what you really wear will give you a glance into the colors, styles, patterns, and fabrics. that you do like to wear. By getting rid of the things that you don’t, won’t, and can’t wear, you see what you do wear.
Knowing Where to Start Decluttering Your Home Doesn't Mean that Starting Will be Easy
It’s my hope that you’ve been able to find a situation like the one that you’re in and you have a better idea about where to start decluttering your home. Remember, you aren’t decluttering solely to clear space or make your rooms look picture-perfect.
Decluttering creates solutions for your life. This also ties in with your Why. Together you are creating a motivating intention for both you and your home.
Although decluttering seems to focus on what you are getting rid of, you can instead focus on what you are keeping. It’s like the sculptor chipping away at the block of marble, breaking off everything that won’t be part of the result to reveal the figure within.
You are getting clearer on what you want your home and life to look like. While in the beginning, you may feel more doubts, as you work you begin to reveal the things that are important to you...free of the stuff that cluttered your head and heart.
This is what being calm and clutter-free is all about. Discovering what matters and relieving the burden of indecision. You aren’t just getting rid of an item; you are freeing yourself from the to-do list connected to the item.
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.