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How to Prevent Clutter: 8 Tips From the Experts

Feel like clutter is taking over your home? Reframe how you think about stuff

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The mental health struggles from isolation during the pandemic manifested in Dorri Olds as clutter. It wasn’t so much about dirt as it was stuff, says the 62-year-old native New Yorker. Clothes were thrown “wherever,” towers of books lay around rooms and papers covered her desk.

At a certain point Olds, a writer and graphic designer, knew something needed to change. ​“I grew up around hoarders, and I didn’t want to be one,” she says. She started to find the motivation to clear it out and, more importantly, not let it get that bad again by adopting new habits. 

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​“Organization really does come from our habits,” Paula Ripple, a certified professional organizer based in Chicago, says. “And that’s especially good news for those of us who might not have the time or the physical resources to do a big declutter.”

​Here are tips from experts on how to reframe your clutter-making brain. ​

Make sure everything has a home 

​Mindfully creating a home for all of your belongings will help you avoid clutter and find that item when you need it, says certified professional organizer Sharon Lowenheim, 65. Working with clients in New York City, where apartments are small and the rent is anything but, she has special expertise in how to keep small spaces tidy. 

​And there’s no need to overthink when coming up with homes for your things. Just find a place for each object that works for you – even if it’s an “unorthodox” spot. 

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​“When I moved into my apartment 22 years ago, I opened all my boxes in the front hall, and so that’s where my box cutter lives,” says Lowenheim “So it doesn’t have to be like, ‘Oh, this is a box cutter, it has to go in the toolbox.’ ” 

​Psychologist Michael A. Tompkins agrees, and says it’s all about establishing new patterns in your daily routines.  

​But building a habit can take a while – the average time is about 60 to 70 days – so it is important to be consistent while you retrain your brain, says Tompkins, the author of Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring

​​​“If I come in the house and put my keys down on the dining table as opposed to hanging them on the key hook in the kitchen [their home], I might forget they’re there and then run around in the morning trying to find my car keys,” he says.

​It “takes a long time” to build a habit, so try to be consistent with putting things back where they belong.​

Follow the “one in, one out” rule

​If you bring something into your home, try to take something out of it. 

​“We’re not meant to just keep stuffing things in until you have 5 pounds of stuff in a 3-pound bag,” Lowenheim says.

​A helpful way of reframing the “one in, one out” rule, according to Ripple, is by thinking of it as “upgrading should trigger outgoing.”

​“When you upgrade something, you buy a new phone or you buy a new kitchen appliance … recognize that you’re going to need to put into place a physical action of taking something out,” Ripple explains. “So, when we’re upgrading our phone, let’s turn in or recycle our old phone and its charging cords, if the charging cords have changed. 

​“If you buy a new Cuisinart mixer and it replaces something that’s older and less effective, let that go. … The one-out part of the action is just one of the most powerful clutter-reducing strategies.”​

Create “keep and discard rules” for yourself

​Tompkins says every person should come up with rules to meet their individual needs. One example he gave was his rule for paper bags: Only keep enough paper bags to fill a single bag. Discard any additional bags acquired, and only add a bag to that storage if you use and discard one.

​“Having these kinds of keep-and-discard rules are helpful ways to keep the number of things in your living environment down,” Tompkins says.

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​Pro Tip: If you’re in the middle of a decluttering session, tape a physical list of your keep-and-discard rules to a surface near you to help with decision making.​

Stop paper pileup in its tracks

​Ripple says there’s been an “enormous increase” in the amount of paper in adults’ homes – especially when compared to the homes of her parents and grandparents. And this can be a huge problem because all this paper requires extensive organizing efforts and storage. In other words, “paper is work.”

​“One of the things I work on with clients is how to stop paper before it ever actually comes,” she says. “Because once it’s in your home, now it’s costing you because you’re going to have to maintain it – declutter it, recycle it, shred it, whatever the right solution is.”

​To help lower the burden of paper in your home, Ripple recommends declining receipts at stores, immediately scanning and tossing receipts you need to keep a copy of, limiting your printing and turning off paper statements for utilities and financial accounts.

​She also recommends giving certain pieces of paper “expiration dates” to help you decide if they’re really worth your storage efforts.

​“Sometimes I have clients who like to print out articles that they’re going to read or recipes that they’re going to prepare or craft [instructions], and I suggest that you write an expiration date at the top of that article on that physical piece of paper,” Ripple explains. 

​If that designated “expiration date” has passed and you still haven’t read the pop star’s tell-all or baked the fancy chocolate cake or crocheted the miniature frog, then it’s probably time to recycle that paper. ​

Resist the freebies … yes, even the hotel freebies

​We all know how tempting freebies can be. But next time you’re excited to leave with all the mini toiletries from the hotel, Lowenheim wants you to remember any object coming into your home means more work for you.

​“People have to get out of the mentality that if something is free, it’s not going to become clutter,” she says. “If people hand you a piece of paper in the street, don’t say ‘I’ll bring it home and read it.’ Just say no … I’m drawing the line here, and nothing more can come into my house unless I went out with the specific goal of bringing it in.

​“The more that you prevent things from coming in, the less clutter you will have to deal with.”​

Examine your shopping habits

​A key way to prevent clutter is to be aware of all the things you’re bringing into your home and make sure you’re not buying things you don’t really need – especially in this day and age when it’s so easy to add things to your virtual “cart.”

​“We’ve all been in the grocery store when we bought that thing ‘just in case we didn’t already have it at home,’ ” Ripple says. “And you know, it’s just too easy to drop in the cart, whether it’s a physical cart at the grocery store or your virtual cart.

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​“One of the questions I advise clients to ask themselves is, ‘what’s the worst-case scenario if I get home and I don’t have this?’ And if the scenario is not tragic … then maybe don’t do the ‘just in case’ buy.”

​Pro tip: Now that the holidays are behind us, Ripple says it can be helpful for clutter and our finances to try to implement “no buy” weeks or even a month: “Consider buying only what is absolutely necessary, like the staples, then get creative with what you already own. You know, if you feel that urge to go to a craft store, look at what you already have in your house. … Eat the food that you already have in your pantry and in your freezer and use the toiletries that you’ve been saving for special occasions.”​

Leave it better than you found it each night … for a sparkly clean morning

​If you’ve ever been to a National Park, chances are you’ve heard the phrase “leave it better than you found it.” While this sentiment normally only refers to respecting nature’s beauty and cleaning up our beloved parks, Lowenheim has found a way to apply that saying to your own home. 

​“Think of your home as a national park,” she says. “Make sure everything’s put in its place at the end of the day, and then you just start tomorrow fresh.”

​For Lowenheim, that can look like making sure the dish rack is empty, the bedroom floor is clear of any clothes, the cereal box isn’t left on the counter and the boots are back in the closet. It’s all about being in the habit of noticing what’s out of place and taking the steps to put things back where they belong.​

Don’t forget to give yourself some grace

​No matter what your living situation looks like, know that having clutter does not make you a bad person – and is not always a problem. In fact, Tompkins says “clutter is kind of a normal part of life” and it’s “unrealistic to expect” a clutter-free home.

​The key is to be able to identify if your level of clutter negatively affects your life on a day-to-day basis.

​“What is or isn’t clutter is in the eye of the beholder,” Tompkins explains. “If your living environment is not as tidy as perhaps someone else’s, but you can find your keys, you can find your wallet, you don’t lose the bills before you pay them and you function just fine in life, then clutter isn’t a problem.”

​But, he adds, if you have trouble doing those things, or are embarrassed to bring people to your home, then clutter is likely an issue. 

​If your level of clutter has become a problem, know you’re not alone. Even professionals like Ripple have gone through stages of life where clutter seemed inescapable. 

​“The first time in my life struggling with organization, I’d also been diagnosed with stage 1 breast cancer while having young kids,” she shares. “It was a very overwhelming time.”

​That’s why she always brings empathy to her work. Sometimes, life just happens, and it’s hard to keep up. Luckily, we have each other to lean on.

​“[A lot of my clients] are people who have gone through major life transitions,” she says. “They have been ill or they’re a caretaker …  they’ve lost their parents, they’ve lost a job or a marriage has ended.”

​“It feels so good when I can lighten their physical load in their homes because I can see that lightness go all through them.”

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