It’s hard to argue that most of us have a little too much stuff lying around, but getting rid of your stuff can be difficult. Maybe you’ve formed a personal attachment to certain items or you truly believe you’ll have a practical use for it someday. Most of the time, though, “personal value” means “guilt” and “someday” never comes.
We’re not talking about going ultra-minimalist here, but rather making an effort to only keep the things in your life that you use and actually matter to you. To do it, you’ll need to know how to identify the crap in your home, how to get rid of it (so you’re not just sending it to a landfill), and, most importantly, how to keep unwanted crap from coming back.
Step 1: Identify the trash
Some crap is actually just trash, like a corporate T-shirt from five jobs ago or a birthday card from 1994 you’re afraid your grandmother will ask about at her next visit. If you still have any of this kind of stuff, stop reading this post and dispose of it immediately: Recycle the cards (or file them away for safekeeping), tear the shirts up for rags, and generally do what you need to do to get the trash taken care of first.
Now that you’ve gotten rid of your easily identifiable crap, we can start working on the rest — deciding what can stay and what can go.
Step 2: Cut down on excess
First, narrow your focus by sorting your clutter into categories. These categories should include things like books, clothing, cables, and gadgets, as well as any hobby-specific clutter you might have a lot of. With each category, sort every item into one of three piles: Stuff to keep, stuff to toss, and undecided. Be ruthless: When’s the last time you used that bulky electric juicer? Will you actually start using it in the future? If the answer is “probably not,” you should probably get rid of it.
When you’re done sorting, go through the pile of items you’re not sure about and get rid of as much as you can. If you have duplicates (or triplicates), choose the thing you like best and get rid of the rest.
Step 3: Put it all back
Now that you’ve made a mess of your home by tossing your stuff into piles on the floor, it’s time to put it all away. To start, put the stuff you’re getting rid of in a cardboard box, trash bag, or whatever you prefer — so long as it’s clearly moving on to its next life. Next, put all the stuff you’re keeping back where it belongs (and admire all the storage space you’ve created). Last, grab the things you’re not sure about and put them somewhere separate, like one side of your closet or a separate drawer. Over the next month, keep track of how often you use the “undecided” stuff: If you barely touch it, it’s time to let it go.
Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3
No, not right away — you’ve just had to part with a bunch of things you care about, so you may not be emotionally ready for another breakup with your possessions. Wait 30 days, then repeat the process. After a month, when things have settled, you’ll find it much easier to let go of even more things you don’t need. You might even like it.
Step 5: Tackle the one-offs
By now, you’ve probably gotten rid of most of your unnecessary crap, leaving behind things you don’t have a lot of but still take up unnecessary space in your home. Do you have an electric guitar you never play, or an elliptical machine that you mostly use as a clothes rack? They’ve got to go.
Step 6: Get unwanted stuff out of your house
When the time comes to actually get rid of all that crap, you’ve got three basic options: Donate, sell, or trade. (Technically, “the dump” is the fourth option, but hopefully you’ve gotten rid of your literal trash by now.)
Always make sure any potential donations are clean and in good working order before you try to get rid of them. Goodwill and the Salvation Army are fine, but your old stuff is way more likely to get used if you keep it local. Many homeless shelters and other outreach organisations list their most-needed donations on their website; check to see if any of your stuff qualifies, then bring it over. Your local Buy Nothing group on Facebook and the Craigslist free section will take care of almost everything else.
Selling or trading higher-ticket items via Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, or and/or eBay can help you make some money back, but it takes some work — so save it for stuff that’s worth the effort. If you have outdated electronics that aren’t selling, check to see if the manufacturer or retailer has a trade-in or recycling program. Amazon, Samsung, and Apple all do, to name a few.
Step 7: Digitize, if possible
You can also clear up some space by streamlining your physical records. Paper files, photographs, bills, bank statements, and other documents can take up a lot of room; digitize what you can, back it all up, and toss any physical copies that aren’t special or valuable to you. Going paperless is a bit of a process, but it’s more than worth the effort.
Step 8: Keep it up
De-crapifying your entire home is an enormous effort, but all that effort is wasted if you can’t maintain it. For that, you need some rules, policies, and tricks to ward off the excess stuff that once plagued your life.
You may have heard that you should toss it if you haven’t used it in the last year. This works great — for people who don’t have a tendency to hang on to stuff they don’t need. If you have that tendency, your guidelines should be a little stricter:
- Institute a one-in, one-out policy: If you want something new, you have to get rid of something old. It doesn’t have to be the same type of item, but it should take up approximately the same amount of space (or more).
- Set expiration dates for rarely-used stuff: Give yourself a certain amount of time to use an item, then set a calendar reminder. If the date comes and goes and you haven’t touched it, say goodbye.
- Sleep on it — twice: Don’t buy new stuff until you’ve considered it for 48 hours (or more). If you still think it’s a good purchase, go for it.
- Put your stuff where you can see it: The “FIFO” principle isn’t just for kitchens. Organising your belongings so you can see what you have will help you actually use them.
The decluttering process isn’t exactly fun, but chances are that you’ll come to love the extra space way more than whatever was there before. Hopefully this guide will help you get your crap under control and out of your home.
This article was originally published in May 2011 and was updated on May 18, 2021 with new information and to meet Lifehacker style guidelines.