by Susan McCarthy
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Everyday practice: Identify your goal. That way, when you get stuck you can remind yourself of the reason you're doing this work.
When I tell people that I’m a professional organizer, I’ve had some people bemoan the fact that they’ve been decluttering for two years – every time they think they should be done, they go back through a room to discover that more stuff had piled up.
Other people will talk about decluttering their entire home in the space of a few months.
Of course, time is a major factor when it comes to decluttering. It can take roughly 10 hours to go through a room – depending on how much stuff you have and how quickly you can make decisions about items … and maybe 20 hours to go through a storage space like the garage, attic, or basement. These are estimates – a room or storage space could take you a quarter of that time, or twice as long.
So, how can you make the time you have for decluttering as efficient as possible?
Stock Up on a Few Supplies
Grab some bags and boxes so you have someplace to put items that you’re letting go of. Create a space in your home or garage to collect items until you can schedule a pickup with a charity or bring items to a donation center.
Have plenty of trash bags on hand. If you’ll be bagging some items for trash and others for donation, consider using different types of bags so items don’t end up in the wrong place (or get mixed together). There’re white trash bags, black, and clear to help you sort bagged items.
Have boxes available for items that need more support than a plastic bag. I like bankers boxes because you buy them flat, you can pop them open with a few folds, and they’re small enough that even when filled with books I can still carry them.
Use markers (and colored tape, if you wish) to label boxes as “donate,” “sell,” “give to ____.” If you want donations to go to different charities, sort the items into different boxes instead of wasting time later re-sorting everything.
Oh, and if you want to be done and over with the task of decluttering as quickly as possible and get the stuff out of your house, you may have to accept the financial loss and donate items instead of trying to sell them, which can be a lengthy process. If you do want to sell things, give yourself a deadline to handle the task and another deadline for when you’ll pull items from sale if they don’t sell online.
Want to hold a yard sale? Set the date now so you have a decluttering deadline to help keep you focused.
Quiet your phone and allow yourself to check it only once an hour (if you must). Don’t get distracted looking up how much an item might be worth. Set it in a box and answer any questions about it later, after you’ve decluttered.
Ask your spouse or partner, or an older child to watch young kids and keep them out of the room (unless some of their belongings are in the space). Or, work during naptime or right after they go to bed.
If pets will be underfoot, close the door – or hope that they’ll get bored with what you’re doing and nap (although, hopefully, not in the middle of the floor).
And, if the clutter in another part of the room will distract you, cover it with old sheets or blankets so you can stay focused on the project ahead of you.
Identify Your Goals
Why do you want to declutter? What to you want from each space in your home? In my book, Clear Your Clutter and Create Space for Your Life, I recommend that you fill out worksheets that detail what you want to do in each room and storage space in your home.
Although that type of planning might seem like a waste of time, it helps to clarify what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Even if you can walk into your bedroom and state, “No kids’ toys on the floor and no clothing draped over the treadmill,” then you have a clear vision of what you want to do.
Knowing what you want to do, before you start, saves you time when you’re doing the work. Each time you pick up an item you aren’t reinventing how to evaluate the item. You are clear on your goal for a space; so, each time you pick up something, ask if it fits your vision of how your rooms should get used.
Avoid Zigzagging through Your House
You know the zigzag. You start to clear off your desk and decide to carry the dirty coffee mugs into the kitchen. Once there, you realize you didn’t wipe down the counter. Then, the dishwasher finishes, and you put away the clean dishes. You notice your coat hanging on the back of a chair but when you try to put it into the coat closet, you discover there isn’t any space. So, you start emptying the coat closet. Then you Give a Mouse a Cookie. Oops, wait, that's a zigzag. (I couldn’t resist mentioning this kids’ picture book; it's the epitome of how one thing makes you realize something else).
Zigzagging is tempting. However, if you want to work fast, you also want to feel as if you are accomplishing something. And, if you're currently working in five different locations, you’ll just notice that you’re creating more of a mess and feel frustrated.
Although, if working this way is right for you, go for it. Chances are that everything will be a disaster until suddenly it starts wrapping up all at once. If you have someone else in your home who can’t handle chaos … or could get a little too excited about the fun of having stuff everywhere, you might want to curtail your natural inclinations to zigzag.)
The most controversial bit of information I give seems to be telling people to curb future purchases. You can pay your bills and buy groceries, but if you’re trying to clean your kitchen, buying new gadgets will fill the spaces you’re clearing. The same goes for clothing and books. If you bring something new into your home, eliminate something similar. (And, no, you can’t count the stuff you decluttered last week or last month.)
Put on some music that will keep you going. Podcasts and audio books are okay if you feel that you won’t get distracted by the content.
And, remember, you don’t have to work full-out day-after-day. However, if you know why you want to declutter your space, you can power through the task as quickly as you’re able.
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Susan, chief (and only) organized squirrel at A Less Cluttered Life, loves learning and sharing information about organizing, productivity, and habits. She also likes reading young adult novels, crocheting, and spending time with her cat and husband in their riverside home in Massachusetts.