How To Permanently Kick Your Clutter Habit

Perhaps you have a few boxes lying around. Perhaps you can’t open your garage door for fear of drowning in junk. Either way, clutter is bad for the mind and bad for your wallet. But we have good news: you can get rid of it without driving yourself crazy. Here’s how

Picture by Michael Dolan

We’re not angling for everything-I-own-fits-in-a-backpack minimalism here: our goal is to give you the tools required to get rid of items that do nothing but take up space in your lives. Whether you’ve been forced to downsize or you’re just looking to trim down the physical crap in your life, this post will help you make the tough calls, so you can get back to enjoying the things you love.

Work In Reverse

Ask yourself: “If my home burned down and I lost everything, what would I replace as soon as my insurance payout came in?” During my last move, I went from a large apartment in the suburbs to a smaller apartment in the city. I knew I was in for some tough choices, so I needed a way to think about my possessions that went beyond the traditional “keep/toss/donate” method, and this mindset worked wonders. We’ve discussed how making a home inventory can help you declutter, and the tactic is useful here. Picture by Sam Greenhalgh

The key is to do this from another location — a cafe, a library, somewhere quiet with a laptop where you can really think about what you require. Don’t do this at home; you need to be somewhere you can’t just look around and make a list. Don’t get caught up in model numbers or specific product; simply jot down everything you can think of that you would actually go out and spend money on a second time.

Declutter In Small Bursts

You’re not going to clean up your entire home in a day, or pack your entire apartment in a weekend, so don’t try. It took time to get all that stuff; it will take some time to let it all go. Set yourself up for success by making a plan and targeting specific areas you’re going to declutter over a prolonged period of time.

Consider decluttering one room at a time, in 30 minute bursts. Set aside a few hours on a Saturday afternoon to tackle your home office, work for 30 minutes, take a half-hour break, then work for another 30. The goal here is to avoid the frustration and high-running emotions that come with deciding to keep, donate or throw away the things that you own. Set a timer and stick to it, rewarding yourself when you get to natural break points. If you’re a fan of the Pomodoro productivity technique, now the time to use it.

Consider Utility Before Sentiment

It’s easy to get attached to objects because you’ve had them for a long time, they have some special meaning to you, or because you spent a lot of money on them. That’s completely normal, but when you’re looking to downsize and declutter, you have to try and separate yourself from those feelings. Here’s how:

  • Ask yourself “What does this item do for me that nothing else does?” Start by thinking about the utility of the item you’re looking at. What makes it unique among your possessions? What does it do? Does it do multiple things, or is it a single-purpose item?
  • Next, ask “Do I have anything else that does this better, or at least does something else as well? This is where you choose between your can opener and the other can opener with a bottle opener on the top. Pick the items that add more value to your life.
  • Finally, ask “Does this have sentimental meaning to me?” If you’re looking at a box of photos, utility doesn’t come into it. Sentimental value is important in a lot of things, so don’t overlook it, but try not to get bogged down in how an item makes you feel versus what it does for you and how much space it takes.

Apply these three questions to everything you own. If you’re moving, you have a natural incentive to evaluate everything you possess. If you’re decluttering to clean and organise, make sure to give yourself time to review everything, instead of just deciding that specific drawer or box is fine the way it is. Don’t leave those stones unturned — open up that box and look inside.

Use The Four-Box Method

The four-box method is a modified version of the familiar keep/donate/toss approach. Instead of using three boxes, you’ll make four: Keep, Sell/Donate, Store and Trash. Picture by z287marc

  • Keep is for items you need or use regularly, and which you have space for.
  • Sell/Donate will either be sold on eBay/Gumtree/your next garage sale, or sent to your charity of choice.
  • Trash is junk: papers to be shredded, broken things that you know you’ll never repair, items you can’t sell or give away.
  • Store is for items you don’t want to dispose of but don’t use daily. This presupposes you have space to keep this, whether that’s a rented storage area or a cupboard in your garage.

Find New Ways To Keep The Things You Love

With your boxes and piles at the ready, pour yourself a drink and go through your rooms, drawers, and closets one by one, and group everything into one of those four categories. While you go through each area, think about some of these ways you can have your cake and eat it too — that is, keep the item without keeping the clutter:

  • Digitise photos and documents. We’ve discussed how to digitise your life in detail before, and there’s no better time to do it than when you’re trying to declutter. Photos? Scan them, organise them, and upload them to the cloud so they’re backed up. Do the same with semi-important documents, then shred the originals if you don’t need them.
  • Digitise movies and music. Sticking with the digital theme, don’t leave your CDs in towers and your old DVDs and game boxes in the bookshelf. Rip those CDs and movies that you really enjoy and know you’ll watch again. Store the originals just in case, and donate or sell the crap in your collection.
  • Take a picture of precious items, then let them go. If you’re hanging on to an item purely because of personal associations, take a photo of it and keep that instead. You may not have that poorly-fitting sweater your mother knitted anymore, but you can always look at it and remember how it made you feel.
  • Think about the money you’ll make when you sell that junk. Who doesn’t love some extra money in their wallet? Let cash be your motivaton to clean up: the more you sell, the more you’ll make. The sooner you sell it, the sooner you’ll have it.

Don’t Be Seduced By Containers

After you’ve decluttered, you’ll want to organise what you have. I love Howard’s Storage World and IKEA, but there’s something counter-productive about buying more stuff to keep your stuff in. If you can, limit your purchasing to things that actually improve your situation, such as wall-mounted storage to get things off the floor and filing cabinets for paper you need to keep. Picture by David Friedel

Change Your Habits

A 1TB hard drive can store a lot of old photos and CDs, and stackable clear containers are better than cardboard boxes all over your office, but organising your stuff should come after you’ve decided what to keep and what to get rid of. Organising products don’t work by themselves; you have to change your habits too. Hooks won’t work if you don’t hang things on them, and boxes won’t keep your office clean if you don’t put papers in them. Start thinking about ways you can prevent this kind of clutter from happening again.

Challenge yourself to answer those critical questions above before you bring anything new into your home. Before you buy something new, figure out where you’ll put it. Ask yourself what you’ll get rid of to make room for it. Decide whether there’s something else you can get that does the same thing and replaces something you already have, and make sure the thing you’re buying actually means something to you. If you try to be mindful before you bring something new into your life, you’ll make sure the only things you add are things you really want, love, and need, versus things that just take up space.

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