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Declutter Your Home in 8 Easy Steps

Organizing doesn't have to be overwhelming if you start small


spinner image woman sitting on the floor, decluttering her closet
Jakovo / Getty Images

We love to think about decluttering and organizing, but we don’t always love to do it.​

People watch The Home Edit on Netflix to see pantries and bookshelves organized in a rainbow of colors and messy garages and bedrooms transformed. They look to Marie Kondo to organize their closets and drawers by tossing items that don’t spark joy.

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Decluttering in real life , however, often feels overwhelming - like there’s no time to go through the mugs, memorabilia , furniture , books, papers and accessories that find a way to pile up in our homes.

But the reality is that a few small steps can help jump-start the effort and make it feel more manageable - and the end result may even improve your mental health just as much as your home.

Simple Ways to Declutter Your Spaces

  1. Start by removing trash.​
  2. Begin by choosing one small area to organize — like a drawer.​
  3. Sort items into three piles: Keep, donate and toss.​
  4. Find a specific home for everything you intend to keep — for example, a hook for your keys.​
  5. Group similar items together, instead of storing them in multiple places, so you always know where to find them.​
  6. If you buy something new, pledge to get rid of something else to limit items in your home.​
  7. If you’re holding on to items to pass to the next generation, ask your heirs if they want the items. Be prepared for them to say no, and be gracious.​
  8. Don’t try to do everything all at once. Schedule limited amounts of time to work on decluttering and organizing on a regular basis.

Start small and make piles

“I always suggest starting with removing the trash first,” says Nikki Bell, a professional organizer in Houston. “Grab a trash bag and just walk through the space throwing away anything broken, damaged or actual trash.”​

Cardboard boxes can take up a lot of space, so removing them changes the way you view a room, Bell says. After that, pick one small area to tackle, like a drawer, in order to ease yourself into the work.​

To start her decluttering project, Sabrina Hamilton, 55, of Colorado, picks one room, assesses the clutter, and starts sorting, using a system many professional organizers follow.​

“I create three piles: what I’ll keep, what I’ll donate and what I’ll throw away,” she says. “With each item I’m considering, I decide if it’s meaningful, useful or useless.” Meaningful items get to stay, useful items that she no longer wants are passed along, and useless stuff goes in the trash.​

From there, Andrew Mellen, a professional organizer in New York City, encourages people to start organizing. He suggests following what he calls his “organizational triangle” — “one home for everything; like with like; and something in, something out.”​

That means:​

  • Everything has a spot where it lives. For example, “your keys have a home and they’re either in their home or they’re in your hand unlocking something,” Mellen says.​
  • Like with like involves organizing your belongings so that “all like objects live together — not most of them,” Mellen says. That means storing all tools in a toolbox and not leaving a stray screwdriver in a junk drawer.​
  • Something in, something out helps manage the number of items in a home. If you buy something new, something has to be donated, given away or trashed.​

Have conversations about meaningful objects

Of course, parting with possessions can be emotionally difficult for some people. That’s because the objects may be imbued with good memories, believed to be valuable or seem worthy of passing on to the next generation. That’s when it’s time for a talk.​

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“I am a firm believer in frank conversations,” Mellen says. For people holding on to items to pass to the next generation, Mellen recommends asking the intended recipients if they actually want that wedding china, family silver or antique painting.​

“When it comes to things that don’t have an inherent monetary value, you have to have a willingness to be vulnerable and have the conversation: ‘I love you, I’d like you to have this, do you want it?’ ” he says, adding that you have to “be OK with them saying no.”​

But all that work can get exhausting very quickly. That’s why Bell recommends breaking up your decluttering work.​ ​“The clutter didn’t arrive in a day, so don’t expect it to vacate in a day,” she says. “Schedule time to work on your home, set a timer, and applaud yourself at the end of each session. You may not be finished, but you have started. Keep going!”​

If it's too much, don't go it alone

If all else fails, hire a professional organizer. “Once you’ve reached a point where you no longer are able to meet your goals, it’s time to call in the big guns to get you back on track,” Bell says. “A fresh set of eyes on your space can do wonders.”​

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Editor's note: This article was originally published on January 15, 2021. It has been updated to reflect new information.

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