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Decluttering: How to not get immediately overwhelmed

Last time: The missing manual

Sitting around the kitchen table for tea with a friend is one of life’s dearest pleasures. The kettle sings as you rummage around to find a piece of cake or a pack of cookies to share. That comforting feeling of sitting across the table with someone who loves you is hard to give up. But as your home gets more and more cluttered, it gets harder to invite friends over.

You watch them try not to look dismayed at the state of things. Their puzzled smiles and reassurance that their home is twice as bad don’t fool you for a moment. Their place is not twice as bad, in fact it’s darn near perfect. How do they do it? God knows you can’t.

When we say ‘decluttering’, what are we talking about? In the kitchen, it means having the ‘Goldilocks’ just-right amount of equipment to prepare, serve, and store food. Figuring out what’s ‘just right’ for you is a process of trial and error. It involves thinking about questions like:

  • Do I use this now?
  • Is this the best one I have?
  • How many is enough?

As we go along, I’ll talk you through how to answer those questions for your specific circumstances. Forget about, ‘Does it spark joy?’ because, as anyone who grew up like we did knows, that question isn’t always useful. Everything sparked joy for our parents. Whether something gives you pleasure is a valid question but it can’t be the only one that matters.

To begin decluttering, you’ll need a flat surface to sort on and a timer. Use your phone if you don’t have a timer. To clear the flat surface, grab a couple of those empty bankers boxes we talked about last time. Label the boxes, From The Kitchen Table.

Pick one cabinet and take everything out of just that one cabinet. Wipe down the empty cupboard shelves. We’re going to sort each cabinets one as a time, so this doesn’t get overwhelming. I know you want to get cracking, but slow and steady finishes this project. Do not under — any circumstances — take everything out of every cupboard right now. I keep saying it because it’s so easy to get overwhelmed if you do that. Pick one category to start with. As you finish a category, put those dishes back in the next empty cupboard. Then you can move another category. Move slowly so you never get stuck with a bigger mess than you start with.

Looking at what you took out of this in this one cabinet, is there anything in there you know can go straight into the trash or the recycling? Maybe some old bread ties stuck to the bottom of the cabinet, or a random ball of crumpled foil in one of the mugs. Maybe some paper plates with weird grease stains. Put all that in the garbage can.

Grab a couple of the empty bankers boxes. Put in anything from that cabinet that you know doesn’t go in the kitchen. Label the boxes From The Kitchen. There’ll be some grey areas. Vitamins and supplements aren’t food, but that’s how you think of them, so yes, keep them in the kitchen. But what are those photo albums doing in there? How about the bag of beads?

Now all you have on the kitchen table are kitchen items from that one drawer you emptied, ready to sort one shelf at a time.


You have one empty cupboard and too many things to comfortable put in it. Many clients get trips up now, because they make start making complicated categories. To start with, you want to be as non-specific as possible. Do that by create broad categories.

When you took out the things that don’t belong in the kitchen out, you were dividing things into two categories. Belongs in the Kitchen, and Doesn’t Belong in the Kitchen. Those were great categories to start with off with.

Let’s drill down a little further into:

  • Dinner Plates
  • Salad Plates
  • Bowls
  • Mugs
  • Glassware

If you decide to start with the dinner plates, pick out all the dinner plates. Make a stack of dinner plates on the table. You’re still not quite ready to sort the plates, you’re just collecting all the big dinner plates together. If it’s a big plate, pull it out, if it’s not, leave it where it is.

Now put all the cake plates together. They’re the ones smaller than the dinner plates, just the right size to hold a slice of cake or a handful of strawberries. You might think of them as the salad plates. Wherever you find a small plate, stack it with its pals on the table.

Next up, everyday bowls. Cereal bowls, soup bowls, that size of bowl. Don’t get too detailed about the size, it’s a bowl that’s not big enough to be a serving bowl. Collect the bowls in stacks on the table.

Now you have some piles — big plates, small plates and bowls — on your kitchen table.

The next step is to think about what plates and bowls work for your life as it is now. Look at the stacks of big plates and notice how many are ‘too good’ for you to use.

Start using the good china every day. Whenever you want a dinner plate, pull whichever one is closest out of the cupboard.

Let the chips — and the cracks — fall where they may. You love this china, so make use of it. Yes, it’ll get chipped and cups will break, but you’ll have the pleasure of using it every day instead of twice a year.

If that doesn’t sit right, move the fancy china out of the kitchen. Box it up and store it in the attic, the basement or the garage. It’ll be easier to unload the dishwasher now because there’ll be space to put things away.

Before you haul it all into storage, take a minute to address why you have all this good china you don’t want to use.

Whose plates, gravy dishes and soup tureens were those? If you’re keeping your mom’s collection of teacups, pick your favorites and let the rest go. You have no obligation to maintain someone else’s collection.

Let everything in your home be there because you want it to be, not because you feel like you ought to keep it. A whole chain of ancestors are hoping you’re going to be the one to break the cycle and stop keeping the Thing Museum.

Whether you decide to donate your fancy china or move it to the basement, box it up right now.

Making sure it’s clearly labeled. China Set for Weddings. Great Aunt Bett’s Tea Service. Handwash China I Will Never Use Again.

If you make a mental note to do this but don’t follow through, you run the risk of forgetting and then all your decisions were for nothing. The dishes will migrate back to the cupboards, ready to inconvenience and annoy you once more.

Your brain is going to tell you that you haven’t used that china, but you might one day. Remind yourself of the endless shelves of china sets at the local thrift store. When you decide it’s time to have a dinner party, you’ll be able to have your choice of fine china. 

Box it all up and take it to the thrift store or call your mom and tell her to come pick it up on Thursday if she wants it. This might distress her. She avoided making a decision about that china by giving it to you, but a gift with strings is no gift at all.

It’s not your job to fix her issues with things. If you think jettisoning the china will cause harm and distress to your mom, give the china back to your mom. It’s time for mom to deal with having it in her space again. Your home isn’t an extension of hers, you don’t operate a remote storage unit. Your home isn’t the island of unmade decisions for somebody else.

Bring your focus back to what you can control: Your space.

Come back to the kitchen table and look at the stack of big dinner plates. Big plates you use to catch the water under a plant go in the garage or the shed. Plates you spread paint or glitter on for craft projects will go with the craft supplies. I know you don’t have all the areas of your house sorted out yet, but you will. Take those plates you use for plants or painting but never for eating off and put them in your Goes Elsewhere box.

Now it’s time to assess your stock of big kitchen plates, and decide what to keep and what to let go.

Count the number of big plates you have left on the kitchen table. Do you have three or thirty or seventeen?

There’s no right number. It’ll depend on your current circumstances.

  • How many people eat in your house?
  • Are you on your own, or do you have a bustling household?
  • How many people used a big plate this past week?

You might could do things Elizabethan-style. Everybody gets one plate, one mug, one fork, one spoon and one knife. If they use them, they need to wash them. But they still won’t do the dishes without nagging.

Imagine 18 plates will fit in the cupboards. You’re comfortable with twelve but you have 34 dinner plates. How do you decide which plates to keep?

It’s at this point that you might start to get overwhelmed — What are the rules? Your parents kept all the plates but that didn’t work out so well for them.

The easiest way to decide what to keep is to play a sorting game that’ll help you decide about anything you want to sort. It’s called Friends, Acquaintances and Strangers. Props to organizer Judith Kolberg for this organizing classic.

The rules are simple. You divide whatever it is you’re trying to declutter into three groups:

  • Friends,
  • Acquaintances,
  • Strangers.

Friends are the people you welcome into your home. Acquaintances are the people you know but wouldn’t have over. Strangers are the people you don’t know and don’t care to know, the people you wouldn’t let in your house.

With these dinner plates, it breaks down like this:

Friends are the plates you love and use daily. If there’s a plate that makes you smile every time you use it, that’s a friend.

Strangers are the chipped, broken, scratched and dingy plates you avoid using.

Acquaintances are what’s left.

Try it out. Here are three plates, all blue and white. When you pay attention to how you feel when you see them, and pick them up, you’ll know which pile they go in.

You always smile when you see the blue and white plate you got from the thrift store so it goes in the Friends pile.

Here’s a generic blue and white plate. You’d use it in a pinch, but nothing about this plate attracts you. It’s an Acquaintance.

And here’s a blue and white plate you never use. The china’s too thick, it’s chipped. It’s a Stranger.

Let your instincts guide you as you sort all 34 plates into the right pile.

Now you have three piles on your sorting table, you’re going to feel your parents frowning. These plates could be useful one day!

So much of the clutter we grew up with was saved for future projects that never happened. If you’re convinced you’ll make those mosaics, take the useful plates to the craft area. If you don’t have a craft area yet, start another box that says Craft Supplies. They don’t go in the kitchen.

If you can’t decide whether you’ll make mosaics, take them to the craft area. Put a sticky note on them dated one year from now. If that day comes and goes and there’s still a pile of plates waiting to be crafter, give yourself permission to let them go. You gave it a try, it didn’t happen, and that’s okay.

Come back to the kitchen and the big plates. You’ve narrowed it down to Friends and Acquaintances. Keep the absolute favorites, let the least favorites go and choose from the ones in the middle. Keep playing until you have 18 dinner plates left and put that stack in the cupboard we emptied. The rest can leave. Let someone else enjoy their gorgeousness.

If you can’t bear the thought of having fewer than 34 plates, put them all back in the cupboard. Know you’ll have to let more of something else go to create space for the extra dinner plates.

Now for the smaller plates. Think about what they get used for and how often that happens. Spread them all out and stand back for a moment. Which ones are your eyes drawn to? If you were buying cake plates right now, which four would you spend good money on? They don’t have to match, unless that’s important to you.

Imagine all the cake plates spiffed up and behind the glass at a high-end department store. They cost $38 each. Which ones would you find the money to buy anyway? Play Friends, Acquaintances and Strangers until you have enough cake plates. The goal is to be able to grab a cake plate.

What about the bowls? They come in many different sizes, which makes it tempting to make too many categories. Start off by dividing them into two categories:

  • Everyday bowls.
  • Serving bowls.

How many everyday bowls feels like enough? Play Friends, Strangers and Acquaintances. Remember, the cupboards are for all the dishes.

Decluttering glassware is the next step. So when you’re ready, gather them all together and set them out on the kitchen table.

Looks like there are quite a few cute glasses with the Disney princesses on them. Do you use them daily or are they decorations? Priority has to go to the crockery and glassware that you use daily.

If you have a display cabinet for treasures, that’s a good place to keep the Disney glassware. You’ll see them and you’ll never have to wash or dust them again.

What can you repurpose a few of them for?

Would it be lovely to use one of them to stick your toothbrush in?

Could you collect pens in your extra drinking glasses? Is there a shelf you could display them on and are you willing to dust and wash them all?

Play Friends, Acquaintances and Strangers. with your glassware until you have what feels like enough. It’s all about keeping a reasonable number of supplies for the way you live now.

You don’t have to keep different kinds of glasses for different kinds of drinks unless you want to. If it gives you pleasure to use a specific glass for a specific drink, have at it. If you think you should, think again.

They look good but have you got the space for them? Are they there to say something about you that’s not the reality?

If you’ve never had a dinner party in your life and most likely never will, understand that you’re holding onto the props for a fantasy life. Either schedule the dinner party or think about whether you’d rather keep the pint glasses. There’s an authenticity that comes from setting the stage — your home — for the life that’s there.

When you’re ready, you can round out your kitchen decluttering with a look at the knives and forks. Knives, forks, spoons, teaspoons and steak knives are all most of us will ever use.

If you want to use Grandma’s silverware, empty it out on the kitchen table. Ask yourself if you enjoy hand-washing cutlery and then polishing it? Is that a chore you’ll take on so you can enjoy using the family silverware? Or is that box of silverware collecting dust in the garage?

Begin by discarding the obvious strangers. Forks with bent tines, and teeny tiny spoons you never use. Still holding onto those funny-shaped toddler spoons your babies had? You may have firm plans to use these with future grandchildren, but they don’t need to be in the kitchen drawer.

Put them in a Future Grandchildren box, along with your son’s favorite stuffed toy and Goodnight Moon. Store this box far away from everyday living spaces, writing down where you put it in case you forget.

What else is in the kitchen drawers? Are they full of small kitchen gadgets and tools? Garlic presses, pastry brushes, potato peelers? Sharp knives and measuring spoons too?

Take them out and spread them on the kitchen table. Began by sorting things out so it’s not all a jumble. All the peelers together, all the measuring cups together, all the wooden spoons together. That way you can assess how many of each category you have and what you use them — I’m looking at you, mini-zester.

Five potato peelers might feel like no big deal. But if you apply that logic to every little thing, finding anything becomes an exercise in frustration.

For each category, find the Friends, ditch the Strangers and assess the Acquaintances. Keep what feels like enough, and let the rest go.

Organize the drawers by use as you put things back. All the tools for peeling and chopping could go together in one drawer, all the sharp knives in another.

Large serving bowls go with the Holiday plates and glasses out of the kitchen. Big serving bowls you use all the time can stay.

You can look at any category in your kitchen (and anywhere else in your house) this same way. Gather all of one thing together, discard the unusable and then find the favorites.

Don’t hurl everything from the kitchen into the basement. All that does is move the problem from one area of your house to another. Our parents’ basements were testament to that.

You may have grown up thinking that the function of the basement is to store all the crap you didn’t want. That was overwhelming. To break it down, think of the basement as your on-site seasonal store.

Browse the aisles of your shelves, and grab what you need when a big holiday comes, then put it all back in the basement.

Organize your basement like the specialty store it is. Stack all the big platters together, the soup tureens together, the roasting pans.

How many roasting pans didn’t make the cut upstairs but are sitting around in the basement? When you stack them together, it becomes clear that you have a lot of roasting pans.

If you’re keeping one or two because they’re family items but you never use them, now’s a good time to put them in the donate pile. Someone somewhere would love to use them. What if you took all your extra crockery and cutlery to the nearest thrift store? Pictured each piece going to a different loving home. See your dishes expanding with happiness. Send them off with a smile and a wave, knowing that these lovely dishes are still being used.

We’ve looked at the things in your kitchen and assessed them by creating broad categories. What you use and what you don’t. The next step is to deal with the donations. What’s going to happen to all the things you’ve decided don’t belong in your space?

The next chapter explores what comes up when we declutter and try to let the clutter leave.


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