Nine Pro Tips for Clearing Out Clutter at Home

June 18, 2020

If you have extra time on your hands because of the COVID-19 outbreak, you might use it to declutter and reorganize your home. There’s a lot to gain. When stuff piles up, it can make you anxious. It sucks away valuable time to hunt for things you need, or clear the way to simply go about your day. And it wastes money to buy items you already have but can’t locate, or pay late fees for mislaid bills.

Ready to get started? Before you start digging through drawers, consider these critical pro tips for success.

1. Observe and identify. Take time to consider how you live in your space. “For one week, keep notes about your space,” recommends Jessica Borelli of Infinite Space Organizing, in Portland, Maine. “What irritates you? Unloading the dishwasher? Piles of mail? What works? Where do you look for things when you can’t find them?” Write it all down in a notebook or on Post-Its. At the end of the week, read everything you recorded. After 17 years of professional organizing, Borelli says this almost always shows her clients where to focus their efforts.

Dawna Hall, founder of Organize ME! In Portland, Maine, calls this process finding your hot spots. “It’s usually surfaces that tend to collect things—kitchen islands, counters, tables,” notes Hall. “People don’t know what to do with something and they set it down on the closest surface. Then the piles grow.”

2. Choose your approach. There are two ways to tackle decluttering. Organizing guru Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, recommends tackling the job by category, like books or clothing. Both Borelli and Hall like to focus on rooms or zones within rooms instead.

“If you’re working on clothing by category, you would bring clothing from every corner of your house into one space to sort. That can be overwhelming and very time consuming to tackle,” explains Hall, who has been helping people clean out and organize since 2008.

3. Make a plan. Now you’re ready to establish goals, whether it’s cleaning out the garage, the first floor, or the entire house. “People who jump in headfirst without a plan, make headway, but then get overwhelmed or run out of space and time to finish. Then the work gets buried and the cycle starts all over again,” explains Borelli.

4. Break big jobs into manageable parts. Consider both space and time. Tackle one room or area at a time, and decide how much time you can dedicate to the task, says Borelli. Be realistic about how much time you can devote to each work session. “When I work with clients, most people hit the wall at around 2.5 hours,” says Hall, noting that decision-making is mentally exhausting, and it’s important to make mindful decisions about what to keep and what goes. 

5. Contain your work. At the end of each session, put away projects so they don’t interfere with daily life and create chaos. Stow unsorted items in a big bin or move things behind a couch and cover them with a sheet, for example.

6. Plan for discards. This trips up a lot of well-intentioned people, says Hall. And it’s trickier now, with many donation centers like Goodwill and The Salvation Army temporarily closed. “Put donations in boxes and label them with their destination for when centers reopen. Sell higher ticket items online,” she advises. (For resources, see our September 2019 article on recycling and Hall’s OrganizeMe! website.)

7. Plan for sentimental items. “Memories and emotions get tied up in our things,” says Hall. Consider downsizing a big collection to just one item. Hall makes pillows and bears out of clothing left behind by loved ones to help people remember them. If you run into something you just can’t part with, box it up, adding a label with the contents and a follow-up date. Put the date on your calendar and try again.

8. Set a proper mindset. “Remember, things will seem to get worse before they get better,” says Borelli. That’s what happens when you have to pull out a lot of stuff and find it a new home. Stay positive and acknowledge that you’re not alone—everyone has clutter.

9. Reward and maintain. At the end of your project, recognize your efforts and treat yourself. And think about adopting the one in, one out rule of thumb. Buying new jeans or a new toy? Donate, sell, or pass on an old one. It’s a great way to preserve that satisfying clear space you’ve worked so hard to create.