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AARP Smart Guide: Declutter Your Home

Professional organizers share 27 simple strategies for decluttering without despairing

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Most of us find it rewarding to tidy up. It can feel freeing and even energizing to see organized shelves, clutter-free closets and clean counter tops. But sometimes, despite our best efforts, it’s easy to fill those spaces up again. And with more of us staying home because of the pandemic, we suddenly find ourselves face-to-face with all of our stuff.

So what can we do to make decluttering stick? And how can we say no to the urge to accumulate unnecessary stuff?  Organizing experts say it’s all in how you approach the task. Think of decluttering like going on a diet with things. A diet takes time and effort. So does achieving a decluttered lifestyle. Like losing those first five pounds, it can feel relatively easy to pare down the T-shirt drawer or clear out no-longer-used holiday decor, but if you don’t change how you think about possessions, those piles — like weight — can build back up.

 

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WHERE TO BEGIN

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Start With 10 Minutes a Day

If you make a habit of decluttering at least 10 minutes a day, the results will add up. Making the commitment to declutter daily will help you maintain order — and avoid the temptation to refill a space after you’ve purged and tidied it. Decide on a small, manageable space, like a junk drawer, a single kitchen cabinet, the unopened mail pile or even your car glove compartment.

“I say, ‘When you hear Final Jeopardy come on, start cleaning.’ That means it’s 7:50. And when whatever show you like is on at 8, you’re good,” advises Matt Paxton, a downsizing and decluttering expert featured on Hoarders who hosts the new series Legacy List with Matt Paxton on public television. When you make decluttering a habit, it’s easier to stay on top of things. “It’s easy to make excuses,” Paxton says. “We say we’re busy. No one’s too busy for 10 minutes. Everybody has time for that.”

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Let Go of the Extras

As you declutter your way through your spaces, ask yourself questions like: How many coffee mugs do I really need? Will I ever really need eight pairs of black pants? Is it even physically possible to use this many pens?

When you start to change how you think about “what is enough,” you’ll be a step ahead in avoiding the temptation to keep collecting more of the same items after you declutter. The tricky part here is, the answer may not be the same for everyone. Leslie Hatch Gail, owner of Declare Order Professional Organizing in the Chicago area, made a TikTok video about mugs that went viral. She’s decided that keeping just one coffee cup is plenty, for her.

“I’m very much into asking people about their daily routine,” Hatch Gail says, noting that while she rinses out her single mug after each use, for others keeping four or more might make sense. “I don’t feel like there is a single ‘best answer’ for everyone,” she says. The point is to be intentional about how many of the same items you’re keeping — and why.

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Give Everything a Home

When items don’t have a designated spot of their own, it can be easy to leave them on a rarely used dining room table or in the corner of a closet. But cluttered spaces invite more clutter. By working systematically through your house — closet by closet, room by room — to reduce and organize until every item has its own “home,” you’ll give yourself a leg up on keeping organization intact. When you make it easy to put something away properly, you’ll be less likely to create messy “drop zones.” When your keys or your phone or the dog’s leash have a designated spot, you’ll always know where to find them.

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Learn to be Selfish

Be honest with yourself about your needs in this moment. Say goodbye to clothes that are no longer the right size or style. Put exercise or hobby equipment you once loved but haven’t touched in years in the “donate” pile. Let go of societal expectations about what you should possess — the type that make you feel like you’ll never be a good host if you don’t hang on to that punch bowl, even though you never go to the trouble of digging it out. Instead, ask yourself which items are truly meaningful to you at this point in your life? 

“Decluttering is really a selfish act, because you’re learning about yourself: What do I love? What do I need? What do I use?,” says Jessica Malone, creator of the decluttering platform Nacho Average Fro and the digital course Clutter to Clarity. While Malone was once guilty of collecting clothes that were not the right size for her body, hoping to one day fit into them, her quest for minimalism forced her to keep just the clothes she actually wore. Through the process, she learned she tends to wear only colorful, comfortable clothing. That self-knowledge has helped her pass on impulse buys, such as a cute black dress on sale, because she knows it’s not really her style. If you haven’t worn an item in the past year, let it go, Malone suggests.


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SHIFT YOUR MINDSET

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Make a Deal with Yourself

If you buy or bring home something new, something old has to go. It’s this sort of mental bargain that can help you prioritize purchases and keep overaccumulation at bay. “Your house doesn’t expand because something is on sale,” Paxton says. “Equal in, equal out.” In other words: If you’re bringing something new to your kitchen pantry, master closet or linen storage cabinet, an existing item of the same size needs to be donated, sold or given away. Promising yourself that you will keep only as much as you can store in a tidy, organized fashion is key to breaking the “reclutter” cycle.

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Pause Before Purchasing

Before you buy something new, do some self-reflection to determine whether it’s something you truly need. When you’re shopping and an item catches your attention, Hatch Gail suggests you stop and consider: “Would I still want this if I had to wait until tomorrow? Where will I put it when I get home? And where will it be a year from now?” If you’re in a physical store — and COVID-19 safety protocols allow it — remove the item from its intentionally alluring display and view it on a shelf somewhere else. Without the marketing messages surrounding it, does it still appeal to you?

“Put it in your cart and take it back out again over by the cereal. Put it on a shelf by itself, and look at it realistically, away from its well-curated display,” Hatch Gail suggests.

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Think About Your Budget Differently

When you start to think about the ways you can use your money other than simply buying more possessions, your priorities shift. Set a goal of saving for a bucket-list family vacation or making progress toward your retirement nest egg. Allocate a monthly budget for starting a new hobby or donating to worthwhile charities. When you begin to see the value of your money beyond “What new thing can I buy today?” you can quiet that societal urge to “keep up with the Joneses” and accumulate more and more things.

“The more people embrace gratitude and generosity, the less they are inclined to buy,” says Joshua Becker, founder and editor of Becoming Minimalist and author of The Minimalist Home. “Your money is only as valuable as what you choose to spend it on.”

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Know What Is Enough for You

Be skeptical of current fads. Let someone else be first to line up for that hot new gadget. Advertising messages of newer, better, faster are meant to make you want to buy, buy, buy. But do you really need the latest smart watch when yours is working just fine? Sure, that underwater camera seems like fun, but how often will you really use it? Ask yourself, honestly, how much is enough? Becker started his path toward minimalism 12 years ago, after a neighbor commented offhandedly on the array of items in his garage. It was an “aha” moment for him, when he realized, perhaps, he didn’t need all those things after all.

“Since then, I spend less money, time and energy pursuing and accumulating physical possessions. And I spend more time and energy focused on things that matter in the long run,” Becker says.

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Brainstorm Alternatives

Just as important as knowing your shopping triggers is having alternative pastimes at the ready. Rather than using shopping as a coping mechanism, try reading a book, taking a soothing bath, going on a walk, listening to music or calling a friend. Financial therapist and compulsive shopping coach Carrie Rattle, CEO and founder of Behavioral Cents, encourages her clients to keep a list of relaxing activities on hand, so they don’t resort to shopping as an emotional crutch, purely out of habit.

 


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NOW YOU'RE GETTING THE HANG OF IT

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Pay Some Forward

Free yourself from societal notions about what deserves to be kept sentimentally. Even when it comes to family “treasures,” passing items on to people who can actually use them now may feel like a better tribute than keeping them in storage just to hang on to them. Ask yourself, “Can someone use this more than me?” And if the answer is yes, consider letting go.

Recently, when his family was preparing to move, Paxton was able donate elegant bookcases that had belonged to his late father through the Buy Nothing Project — a national network of local groups connecting community members with free items. As a busy father with young children and limited space, Paxton had no use for the bookcases. They had been in his attic for years; he had been keeping them only in memory of his father. But through the social media group, Paxton found a lawyer who needed them for his new office. When the grateful recipient arrived to load them up, Paxton was able to “share the story of my dad, which was the whole point,” he says.

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Declutter, Then Organize

It’s easy to spend time buying fancy organizing bins and labels — without doing the hard work of decluttering and organizing first. But if you don’t take an inventory of what you own before buying cute trays and drawer inserts, your organizing system is likely to fail.  

“All you’ve done is brought more stuff home,” says Hatch Gail. Go through your items and reduce what you can. Make piles to keep, donate or discard. Naeemah Ford Goldson, a certified professional organizer and founding member of the National Association for Black Professional Organizers (NABPO), owner of Restore Order Professional Organizing in Atlanta, and host of the Organize Me! radio podcast, swears by the Sort, Store, Style approach — tackling organizing in that specific order. After sorting, be sure to remove your donate and discard piles “right away, at least within 48 hours, so you’re not tempted to pull something back out that you’d decided to part with,” Ford Goldson notes. Then, and only then — when you’re left with what you want to keep — do you get to do the fun part: storing and organizing everything so it’s aesthetically pleasing.

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Rethink the Precious

Start using that beloved china now, not just once or year or on very special occasions. You’ll turn an ordinary Wednesday night dinner into something far fancier. Break out the silver more often and put your heirlooms on display. You’ll either find joy in using them or find that they aren’t as beloved as you initially thought.

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Have the Conversations

You can’t take it with you, and neither can your heirs. Talk to your children, family and friends to learn what will happen with your furniture, jewelry, art and everything else. Tape notes to the backs or create a file that designates who gets what. For the items not claimed that you think have value, find someone who will appreciate them.

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Hide Items — on Purpose

If you struggle with regret after getting rid of things, use black garbage bags or boxes to collect your donation piles and put them somewhere out of sight. Set a calendar reminder for three or six months. If during that time you find yourself missing something specific you’ve put away, it might indicate that you’re getting rid of too much, too fast. If at the end of that time you haven’t once looked for a “to be donated” item, it will feel safer to let those things go permanently. Remember to cut yourself some slack — you didn’t bring all the clutter in at once and it will be difficult to get rid of things in that same manner. Just remember: It’s a process, and any progress is progress to be proud of.

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Become Accountable to a Friend

If you’re truly struggling to keep your accumulation in check — and your once-decluttered spaces routinely become overstuffed again with new purchases — it may be time to get a shopping buddy. Teaming up with a friend or partner can help keep you both accountable to your own purchasing goals and limits. Having an accountability partner can “make all the difference in the world,” Rattle says, “because they’re going to talk you through the logic or the emotional state you’re in and help you realize what you’re doing” — before you make a purchase you may later regret.


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WHEN YOU NEED A LITTLE HELP ...

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Be Honest With Yourself

Some people enjoy the act of organizing more than others. If you’ve tried to set up an organizing system on your own and can’t seem to make it stick, don’t be embarrassed to ask for help. “It’s fine to know you need someone to come in and help you, instead of letting your space get out of hand,” says Ford Goldson.

Understand that every organization system needs maintenance to work. Reevaluate the effectiveness of your current system quarterly or twice a year. Make it part of the process when you switch your seasonal wardrobe — or when you do your spring and fall cleaning. If something’s not working for you, don’t be afraid to make a change. Be honest: if it’s been weeks since you actually folded your jeans to fit in that top drawer you’d set aside for them, you may need to allocate a space in your closet to hang them instead.

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Lean on Expiration Dates

When you’ve hit decluttering fatigue, it’s time to look at expiration dates. It will help you cruise through your refrigerator, pantry and spice drawer with abandon. That dill from 1997 might still seem fine, but it’s going to ruin any dish it touches. Get rid of it and treat yourself with a new jar. Expiration dates should also be followed for skin care products and cosmetics, too. These have an expiration date or a small period-after-opening (PAO) symbol, which tells you how long a product is safe to use after it’s been opened. Mascara is good for about three months, powdered eye shadow about a year, and pencil eyeliners between six months and a year. Old cosmetics can lead to infections, and dried-out products won’t sit as well on your skin. Check yours at checkcosmetic.net  or, if you know that ingredients will help you make a decision, check out the Environmental Working Group (EWG) product checker. And when buying from third party stores,  check expiration dates — that eye cream might be several years old.

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Digitize, Then Ditch

There’s nothing like watching old home movies but most VHS or analog videos have a shelf life of no more than 10 to 30 years, depending on how well they have been stored. Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to digitize your cherished old home movies. Stores such as Costco, Walmart and Walgreens  offer services for transferring film and VHS tapes to DVD, Blu-ray and digital video files. Often you can simply place your order on the store’s website, drop off the videotapes and then pick up the DVDs when ready. Websites such as Legacy Republic also will make DVDs for you. Legacybox digitizes everything neatly into a thumb drive (tiny!), DVD or the cloud. This way, you can also reach out to relatives and combine memories for sharing. If you’d rather do it yourself, you can purchase a VHS-DVD combo player or an analog-to-digital video converter for your Mac or PC. According to CNET, a technology news and review site, there are several options to choose from — either online or at an electronics store — at various prices.

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Take Advantage of Tax Write-Offs

This should help encourage some decluttering: Whenever you donate to a qualified charitable organization, be sure to keep track of it for taxes so you can write them off for that year. The Salvation Army has an online Donation Value Guide that lists the low and high value for clothing, appliances, cars, household goods, furniture and miscellaneous items, making it a cinch to devote a monetary amount. (Note: You don’t need to donate to the Salvation Army to claim this value; use it as a general guide.)


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TACKLE THE TOUGH DECISIONS

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Separate Sentimentality From Monetary Value

Recognize that sometimes it’s the items you least expect — or that are even monetarily worth little — that are actually the most sentimentally valuable and worthy of keeping. For Paxton’s family, the most prized heirloom was his father’s golf putter, not the family china. For a client he worked with, the coveted family keepsake was a $5 Lake George magnet that reminded them of family vacations together. What we choose to keep or part with shouldn’t necessarily be linked to an item’s potential dollar value. In the same way, sometimes we feel pressured to hang onto things we’ve bought or were given — that popular air fryer or that fancy drone — because they were expensive. But if you know you’re never going to use an item again, let it go. Pass it on to someone who can really use it, and free your space to keep items that matter to you.

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Curate Mementos ...

Clinging to too many keepsakes can begin to feel burdensome. Kids’ artwork, travel souvenirs, boxes of old college memorabilia — it adds up. In the book Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter and Organize to Make More Room for Happiness, author Gretchen Rubin suggests working to choose and keep only a few of your most favorite mementos, ones that can represent and encapsulate the memories you hold dear, and letting the rest go.

“Choose a few items that are truly exceptional, and clear out everything else,” she writes. 

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... And Curb the Collections

It probably started innocently with one Hummel, or maybe you casually mentioned to a friend while shopping you liked a particular cow motif, but either way it’s now become a “collection.” One way to pare down is to choose only the pieces you really love and ditch the rest. Alison Lush, a professional organizer based in Canada, uses TikTok to share her tips on decluttering. One of her favorite ways is what she calls “sampling” — taking a small number of items from a larger collection and turning it into art. For her, this was her daughter’s treasured Playmobil figures. “We had boxes and boxes of it and we didn’t feel comfortable letting it all go. I took a sampling of it and put them in a shadow box,” she says, gesturing in the video to a large shallow square frame filled with the colorful toys. “I hung it on the wall so we see this every single day and it warms our hearts. It’s really a lovely way to honor something important in your life and let go of the great big volume.”

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Discover Your Shopping Triggers  

Many people use shopping to celebrate something positive, or, alternatively, to cope with stress or sadness. To become a more conscious consumer, ask yourself how you’re truly feeling as you browse retail sites online or walk through the aisles of a department store. Are you bored? Stressed? Looking to feel validated by scoring a bargain? Everyone’s shopping triggers and emotional shopping patterns are unique. To find yours, consider journaling, suggests Rattle. “Identifying those patterns is the beginning of conquering anything, when it comes to over-shopping,” she says.


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SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS

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Remove the Advertising Temptation

Does your closet tend to stay clutter-free only until the next 50-percent-off sale at your favorite store? If so, then over-shopping may be the root of your clutter reaccumulation problem. One of the best ways to kick the consumption habit is to limit your exposure to advertising. Unsubscribe to retailer emails, stop social media scrolling, cancel your department store credit cards (and their accompanying coupons and mailers), watch less TV and limit your trips to the mall, advises Becker. “People don’t realize how much of an impact commercials and advertisements have on them until you step outside of it,” he says.

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Recognize the Benefits of Owning Less

Once you’ve downsized your possessions to those you truly value and need — and your organizational systems are in place — sit in the space and revel in its decluttered glory. Too often, people don’t take the time to reflect on the value of a decluttered space, Becker says. And without that step, it’s easier to let clutter creep back in. But when you take the time to notice how nice it is to live without messy piles — rooms are easier to clean, it’s easy to find things, and there’s a projection of calm and order throughout the house — you’ll start to crave that peacefulness and work to keep it. “When you see how much you like owning less, then you’re less inclined to want to over-accumulate,” explains Becker.

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Find the Resources That Work for You

There may be just as many self-help and decluttering experts as there are socks without a mate. The key is that while many have the same end result, the path there is very different and what works for your friend might not work for you. Find inspiration that can be applied to you by looking up different methods of cleaning and decluttering.

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Give Yourself Time

Finally, remember that most homes are filled with items collected over decades. You can’t expect yourself to be ready to purge everything in a day or a weekend. Learning to live with less takes time. Decluttering takes time. Changing your shopping habits takes time. And most people slip up here and there. The key to achieving decluttering success is not giving up. “It’s about showing up every day and doing that work, and building that habit,” Paxton says.

  

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