by Susan McCarthy
If you started decluttering in earnest at the beginning of the new year, then you may be enjoying some results from your efforts. You’re not done, but you’re seeing enough success to be motivated to put in the effort to clear out another cabinet or drawer.
On the other hand, if you’ve been decluttering for a while, the shiny glow of success may be tarnished by the feeling that you’re moving two steps forward and one step back (or one step forward and two steps back). It seems as if you clear off a spot only to turn around to find it filled in by something else. You’ve heard that space (and some cats) abhors a vacuum (yes, horrible parenthetical pun) but you’re pretty sure that this doesn’t involve kitchen counters.
So, if you’ve been decluttering for a while and are wondering how to keep your hard-won organization – or you’re a newbie to clearing clutter who’s convinced that if they just declutter the “right” way they won’t have to worry about the clutter coming back, I have some suggestions to keep order in your home.
Take One Small Step toward Clearing the Clutter
Whether you are decluttering room-by-room or category-by-category, each time you work you’re decluttering small spaces. So, if you are working in the kitchen, not only can you view each cabinet as a small space, but you can even view each shelf in the cabinet as a small space.
Each small space (or space within the small space) is a step that you can take toward bringing order to the entire room. Walking into the kitchen and contemplating all the counters, shelves, cabinets, drawers, table, and piles that you will need to work through can be overwhelming, breaking the room into manageable spaces makes the project seem doable.
Have fifteen minutes? Clean a drawer. Have two hours? Sort through that floor-to-ceiling cabinet.
And if you’re sorting things by category, instead of trying to cope with the contents of your closet you can focus on the subcategory of summer tops or loungewear during a single decluttering session.
Viewing decluttering not as a series of room-sized or category-sized projects but smaller tasks help you see success more often. If your goal is to declutter your bedroom in an evening but you don’t complete the project, then you’ll likely feel frustrated with yourself. However, if you start off thinking that you’ll sort through a drawer, once you’ve completed that you can move onto the next drawer and then the next and so on.
Really, you are changing your expectation of what you’ll accomplish with an eye toward small projects that can be completed instead of entire rooms or categories that will take longer. If you have two hours to declutter, then you do two hours’ worth of small projects.
Not only does this mindset release some of the overwhelm that can strike you when contemplating working through your entire home, but also when it comes to maintaining the order you’ve created.
Take One Step in Place for Maintaining the Order
When you think of taking one step forward and two steps back, you’re probably imagining clearing a space only for it to get covered by new piles, eradicating the progress you made. But let’s face it, those piles didn’t show up overnight, even if it feels like they did. (On the rare occasion they do, but they can be handled when that does happen.)
If you’re frustrated to watch some of your progress vanish at the hands of everyday life in your home, I’m going to suggest that for each step you take forward, you take another step in-place, aka, maintenance.
We often think that maintenance doesn’t come into play until after we’ve reached our goal. But with decluttering, each time you’ve decluttered a small space, you’ve attained that tiny goal. There’s no need to wait until an entire room is organized for keeping it tidy.
Each time you declutter and organize a space, no matter how small or large, is the moment you shift from creating order to keeping order. Not in a week or a month later or when you’re done straightening your entire home.
You may be thinking that if you shift into maintenance mode too soon then you’ll never have time to declutter new spaces. And yes, you’ll be taking some time from decluttering, but you’ll also be preventing the clutter from coming back which could leave you with the feeling that by the time you’re done decluttering you’ll just have to start all over again.
Maintenance is about taking a step in-place. You might not be moving forward while maintaining order, but you aren’t moving backward, which is more important. And by maintaining order while you’re still in the decluttering process, you can judge if your efforts decluttering and organizing are working.
If you notice that the same items aren’t getting put away each time they get used, you can do problem-solving and realize that either it isn’t clear where these items should go or that the spot you thought would work isn’t.
If you didn’t notice that you were putting away that same item time and again in your efforts to tidy, then that item might just end up lost in one of the many piles that would start to form, and you’d lose the opportunity to learn something about creating order that works for you.
Do-It-Now Habits that Will Help You Stay Organized while Decluttering
Maintaining order in the areas that you’ve decluttering doesn’t take as much time as you may think. A little bit of tidying throughout each day can prevent clutter from building up. Most of the time, when we become frustrated about the clutter coming back, it’s because we’ve let it build up over a few days (or weeks, or months).
One piece of mail sitting on the corner of the kitchen counter isn’t a problem, but when it becomes an invitation for more paper and other stuff to gather in that spot, it becomes a source of frustration. Picking up that one piece of mail and moving it to an inbox will take much less time than it will to sort through a week or a month’s worth of items that were probably set in that spot “for a moment.”
So, what to do?
Organize as You Go aka Reset the Room
Learn to organize as you go throughout your day. In most cases, these tasks will take a minute or two to complete and they won’t pile up to be tackled later on.
Teaching Others to Tidy Their Stuff
Okay, it isn’t always going to be easy or possible to convince others to tidy as they go. However, you don’t want to be left hanging up everyone’s coats and tucking away their stuff. If less desirable habits have been established (dishes getting put in the sink instead of the dishwasher, clothing getting dropped on the floor instead of being placed in the hamper, and stuff being left wherever the individual happened to be), then spouting new rules won’t really work.
What will work is helping others to form new habits (and these will help you too if you’re trying to establish the habit of tidying as you go.
Be clear about what new habits you want…and avoid trying to add them all at once. Remember, how I was talking about decluttering a space and then maintaining it? Develop new habits as you go. When you’ve just decluttered a space, it will be clear how you want it to look. A few habits will help keep that order.
If you’ve just decluttered the entryway, and you want coats hung up, this is the time to instill this new habit.
Make the habit easy. If coats aren’t being hung up because that action involves opening a closet door, pulling out a hanger, hanging the coat, and then putting it in the closet, this will feel like too many steps for someone who’s used to dropping their coat on the back of a chair. Consider a coat rack or hooks.
If one thing must be moved to fit something else into a space, it won’t get done (at least not consistently). What can get removed or rearranged so it’s easier to put things where they belong?
And it is much easier to keep an area neat when there are fewer items in the space. A bookcase with no wiggle room makes it more challenging to put away a book. What happens? It becomes easier to lay the book on top of other books instead of sliding it onto the shelf.
Make it obvious. Label spaces with words or cute illustrations to make it clear where things belong, particularly things used by kids or items used by multiple people in the household.
Again, not stacking items or fitting them puzzle-like into a space will make it easier to put things away because the empty space awaiting the item makes it obvious where it belongs.
Encourage the habit. Make appreciative comments about tasks that get done, emphasizing how it is helping you or the doer of the habit.
“Hanging your keys on that hook really saves you time and frustration in the morning when you’re feeling rushed.”
“It’s amazing how taking a few seconds to go through the mail and putting it into recycling or the inbox keeps the kitchen counter so much clearer!”
“I’m in a much better mood when I go into the bedroom and there isn’t dirty laundry on the floor. I bet you appreciate not hearing me complain about it.”
Keep in mind that habits aren’t easy to form, even when you’re trying to change your habits. If your significant other or child (young or adult) isn’t helping to maintain order, ask them how you can help them to remember what to do.
If they aren’t interested in hanging up their coat or putting away their clean laundry, then no habit trick will change their attitude. You can tell them why you think it is important, but that still might not sway them.
Chose your battles. One small habit established could encourage other habits over time.
Declutter. Organize. Maintain. Repeat.
Each time you declutter a space, go into maintenance mode the very next day. If everything is in order, fantastic! Check again the next day. Some spaces, particularly those containing less frequently used items, won’t require much attention.
Each time you tidy as you move through your day, offer yourself a thumbs up, “good job,” or smile. According to Dr. BJ Fogg in his book, Tiny Habits, these small celebrations can lock in the habits you’re trying to form.
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Take One Step in Place for Maintaining the Order
Hi, I’m Susan
I’m the chief (and only) Organized Squirrel at A Less Cluttered Life. In these articles, I meld my nearly 30 years as a teacher with my new career as a professional organizer to show you how to clear your cluttered home and schedule to create the life you want.