pile of clutter including a smartphone, a shoe, a game controller, a coconut, a tripod, glasses, a lemon slice, a glove, a wallet, earbuds, a book, a tablet and a miniature gold elephant

Decluttering: The Beginner’s Helpful Guide

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Aahh, decluttering. Just the word can incite a whole range of emotions. For many, it is stress-inducing, but for others, it brings excitement. Whatever you feel at the thought of decluttering, the truth is at some point, it’s unavoidable. 

Decluttering for Beginners
Photo by Luca Laurence on Unsplash

I will be perfectly honest and admit I’m one of those weird people. Decluttering is something I enjoy. I am no expert, but there is something in me that loves to purge, to clear space, and to wipe the slate clean. I don’t necessarily fall into the minimalist category, but decluttering is something that makes me happy. 

However, that being said, I grew up in the home of someone who did not enjoy decluttering. My mom and I are opposite personalities, so through the years, I learned how she’s wired and why it can sometimes be hard for her to part with some things. We are all made differently, and there’s no right or wrong, but when it comes to decluttering, I love helping those for whom decluttering can seem hard or overwhelming. It’s a big part of why I created this blog.  

What is Decluttering? 

Put simply, decluttering is getting rid of stuff. In this case, we’re talking specifically about material things in your home. Warning: it can be easy to confuse decluttering with organizing. These two things are not the same, and trying to do them both at once, or worse, trying to organize without decluttering, will leave you feeling overwhelmed and defeated. 

How to Get Started with Decluttering 

This is THE biggest sticking point for people on their decluttering journey. Where to start? When you look around your home, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed. My suggestion is simple: start with a small area in a major clutter “hotspot” of your home. 

What do I mean? Say the kitchen is a major clutter collection point for you, as it is for many families. Don’t dive in on day one saying “I’m going to declutter the kitchen!” Several hours in, you’ll likely have to stop before you’ve completed the project and you’ll still be surrounded by pots, pans, old sippee cups and the contents of your junk drawer. 

Instead, start with tackling the junk drawer only (or the pots and pans cupboard only, or the tupperware cupboard only, etc. You get the idea.). Start with one small area and do that from start to finish in one session. Then on the next day, tackle another small area. This is the only way to eat an elephant, right?

You may feel like the effect won’t be dramatic enough to keep you motivated or you’ll lose momentum before you finish decluttering the whole kitchen, but trust me, this is where the snowball effect begins to happen. 

As you continue to declutter and more and more space in your kitchen becomes clutter free, you’ll begin to get more and more motivated to keep decluttering. When you feel the positive effects on your life of decluttering a highly-utilized area of your home, you’ll want to keep going!

Tips for Success in Decluttering 

#1 Set a Timer

If you’re going to organize your junk drawer, set a timer for 20 minutes and do nothing but work on the junk drawer for the next 20 minutes. In this age of fractured attention spans, we often dismiss the power of focused effort, but if you get after something exclusively for 20 minutes, you’d be amazed what you can accomplish. 

It’s often easy to think we don’t have time to declutter, but this method blows that excuse to pieces. Anyone–even us busy moms–can find 20 minutes in a day. Setting a timer also gives a nice end point to our work session so we don’t feel like we’re just working towards some vague finish line. 

#2 Keep a Donation Box on Hand 

I always have a donation box open and ready in the back of my van. If I’m decluttering a small area of my home, the things I’m parting with go right into that box. No second guessing, no leaving things in a bag by the back door. They go out of the house, into the van, and the next time I’m out and about, I can simply swing through the donation drive-thru and part with them for good.

This method works well for me. I can’t remember the last time I set out “keep” “toss” and “give away” bins when I was decluttering. I only have small windows of time with caring for my kiddos, so stuff goes in the garbage or in the back of the van to go to the donation center (I will also stage things in the back of the van that I’m giving to friends or family, but the same rule applies: it goes out of our house immediately and into our vehicle.). 

#3 Store Before You Throw 

The hardest thing about decluttering? The decision-making. You’re holding a zester in your hand. When did I last use this? Uh, never (sorry to all you foodie types out there). But I might use it. The person I imagine myself to be wants to use it. Maybe I’ll just hang onto it a little longer and see. 

And so it goes. I’m going to suggest a solution I first heard from the Minimal Mom. If there’s stuff you’re really struggling to get rid of, put it in a box and put it out in the garage (or a closet, or your basement, etc.). Live without it for the next three to six months.

Did you miss it? Did you need that stuff? If so, you can always get into the box and get something out, but if you didn’t, then toss it, baby! Pass it on to the thrift store, where a foodie cook will pick it up and be thrilled they found a zester that’s practically brand new! 

#4 Stay Focused 

You will want to start organizing. Don’t give in to the temptation. Do not even think of arranging, sorting, stacking, buying bins or baskets or any type of containers whatsoever until the decluttering is done. Otherwise, you will inevitably end up shuffling junk around and getting overwhelmed again. And above all, you want to avoid overwhelm and keep the momentum going!

But does that mean you just leave stuff in drawers and cupboards unorganized? Yes. When you have less stuff, it’s easier to find things, even without nifty organizational systems or containers. Besides, it’s only for a brief amount of time.

The organization phase is coming, and as soon as you’re done decluttering a room, I’d suggest you do move on to organizing that room with all the goodies and trimmings mentioned above…but NOT until you’ve fully decluttered!  

Common Questions about Decluttering

Where do I start decluttering?

See above. The important thing is to start small, but even more important is to just start. Set the timer, roll up your sleeves and just tackle that one drawer, that one cupboard or that one shelf. That’s it. Check it off for that day and move on. Then come back the next day and do another one. Do you see where I’m going here? It’s not always big weekend declutter binges with dramatic transformations. It’s little steps day-by-day that turn into big, sustainable changes in your home long-term.   

What if I have trouble parting with things?

You are not alone here. The longer we’re on this earth, the more things we get attached to, and the more guilt and angst we can feel over parting with something given to us by someone we love. The thing to ask yourself is whether you’d rather have those blue and yellow duck dishes you never use taking up precious real estate in your cupboards, or whether you’d rather have that space for things you actually use regularly.

Maybe the duck dishes were an impulse buy you now hate and feel guilty about. Or maybe they were a gift from your mother-in-law and you’re worried she’ll notice if they’re missing. Neither of those are a big enough reason to keep those darn duck dishes around. It is your home. Make it the space you want to live in, filled with the things you need and want to have around you. 

What if my spouse isn’t on board with decluttering?

Also a common issue. It is extremely rare to have two partners who declutter and organize in the same way. You have different interests. One is a spender, the other is a saver. One hoards bent nails to straighten them out and reuse, and the other empties the bookshelves at the local donation center because they’ve suddenly decided it’s time to go paperless.

At our house, our rule of thumb is: don’t declutter stuff that doesn’t belong to you, keep your own stuff in your own space, and everything else is communication and negotiation. I’ll do a full post on this later, but suffice it to say it’s not easy, it’s not black and white, but there is usually a way to work with each other’s tendencies and still come out with a workable situation for everyone.

What if I might need something again?

If you are a frugal person, this can be an especially hard question. The thought of re-buying something would frustrate you and perhaps make you feel like you’re being wasteful. This is totally understandable. Similar to the other question above, I always recommend putting something away for three months and seeing if you use it again (the exception would be seasonal items like gardening supplies, which may need to be kept a little longer to see if they get used).

However, you may even be able to bypass the “storage test” if you just ask yourself a few questions: How much would I be willing to spend to replace something ($5? $20?) if I did end up needing it again? Is this something I could easily borrow from someone else? Depending on how you answer these, you could have an easier time parting with something, knowing you have an option to replace or borrow. 

Why should I declutter? The house just clutters right up again!

I assume if you’re reading this far into the post, you’re convinced of the value in decluttering. However, a house filling up again with stuff after being decluttered is a real issue, and it’s not a unique one. Many people deal with this problem. This is something I’ll get into more in my upcoming post on organizing, but I’ll say for now that two things help in keeping the clutter at bay: good organization systems, and regular “mini-decluttering” sessions in the course of day-to-day life.

Just like maintaining successful weight loss, you don’t stay a healthy weight by chowing down on pizza and ice cream as soon as you’ve reached your goal weight. You loosen up a little, of course, but you have healthy eating boundaries in place so you don’t destroy all your hard work. 

The Last Thing You Need to Know about Decluttering

Number one, successful decluttering doesn’t happen overnight. You will build lasting change in your home by eating the elephant one bite at a time, and the more decluttering you do, the more motivated you will be to keep doing it. 

Number two, no matter how you are wired, you CAN successfully declutter your home and keep it decluttered. It is not easy, but the guidelines are actually fairly simple, and the reward of a decluttered home is well worth the effort. 

I’ve got more posts coming on the nitty-gritty of decluttering and also the ins and outs of good organizing systems, but until then, I hope this has been helpful. If you’re a mom of young kiddos, also check out my FREE giveaway, “Small Space Living with Small Kids,” perfect for the mom who is overwhelmed with toys and kids and trying to keep life organized in a small home. You can download yours FREE today! 

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