photo of woman standing on sunflower field

How to declutter and organize

The Joyful Method will make decluttering and getting organized less overwhelming so you can deal with the clutter in a way that makes sense for your brain.

infographic of the five steps to declutter and organize
The Joyful Method to declutter and organize

Getting the organized home you deserve

Many of us would like to get organized and know the first step is reducing clutter. Been there, Kondoed that, read the books, magazines and blogs. But still the clutter remains.

There are good reasons to head for a trusted therapist’s office to untangle the threads that are stopping you from letting things go, but all too often, investigating the phenomenon replaces actually getting rid of the clutter.

READ MORE >>> How can therapy help me get organized?

So how do you get started when anxiety and overwhelm have you paralyzed whenever you try to declutter? The single most helpful piece of advice I have for you is this:

Organizing is a process, not an event.

Write it on sticky notes and post them all over the house. Yes, on all the piles of clutter too.

Why would that matter? Because if it’s an event, it’s got to be done all at once, and our imaginations can fill in the rest.

  • Endless hours of toil in a hot and sweaty basement or a garage full of boxes marked miscellaneous.
  • Stabbing shame at all the trash outside for the neighbors to see.
  • Numerous embarrassing and tiring trips to the thrift store to donate.

READ MORE >>> Best places to donate

The sheer size of the task is daunting, whether it’s the room full of old magazines you call your office, or the kitchen table covered with dog toys, or the whole damn house.

But if it’s a process, that’s a whole different kettle of fish/ball of wax/insert your own corny down-home motto.

Processes take time

You don’t send your kids off to their very first piano lesson and then get mad they aren’t playing Beethoven sonatas by the end of the week. That would be silly and unfair. Why do the same to yourself?

Don’t look at that mess all over the house, spreading from the hallway, along the stairs up into every room and down to the basement too and expect to snap your fingers and have it all taken care of right then and there. It’s going to take a while.

And the fact that you’d like it done yesterday doesn’t cancel out the fact that it’s most likely been this way for years already. You can take your time.

Just shifting the view from event (get it done now whatever the cost) to process (beginning, middle, end), can help your brain calm down.

It’s like my son, sitting for an hour on the beach with a handful of breadcrumbs and calmly, patiently waiting for the seagulls to come closer, closer, a little closer, until they were brave enough to finally hop on his hand and take a crumb or two.

young boy on the beach surrounded by seagulls

No sense scaring ourselves about this decluttering thing. We’re just going to get started a little at a time, establish a habit. Coax ourselves into getting started.

Step One: Prepare the space

You don’t need to rush out to The Container Store to get organized. That’s later, when you’ve decluttered and know what supplies you’ll need.

For now, you need:

Bankers boxes are all the same size and they come with lids, so you can stack them in a pile. They’re easy to label and relabel using a thick marker pen.

Start with three boxes. Mark the boxes on all four sides with these labels:

  • Donate
  • Goes elsewhere
  • Tchotchkes

Tchotchkes or knick-knacks are the mementos and sentimental items you get tripped up on. Save these for another day when you’ve built up some decluttering muscle.

READ MORE >>> What’s a sentiment box?

Take out the trash

Professional organizers start with collecting the trash because it’s a great way to see immediate progress. Grab a trash bag, set your timer for 20 minutes and start collecting the obvious trash. Gum wrappers, used food containers, discarded (empty) shopping bags and the like.

And the recycling

If you hesitate to throw anything out because it could be washed out and put in the recycling, then you’ve just found your first decluttering project.

Pick up all the used food containers you’d like to recycle and wash them out. Spend twenty minutes a day doing this until they’re all clean. Put them in the recycling.

Or give yourself some grace to do better later. Throw them in the trash. When you’re all done decluttering and organizing, you can recycle again.


Step Two: Calm your brain

Joyful Surroundings Mom here:

  • Eat first if you haven’t recently. Ideally something with protein, but anything’s better than nothing.
  • Fill your water bottle.
  • Go use the bathroom. Even if you think you don’t need to.

Alright then, let’s get started.

Set your timer for 20 minutes.

Take three breaths just for you. Nice and slowly, just breathing. Start with a long, slow out breath.

Breathe out slowly, breathe in gently.

Breathe out fully again, letting the breath naturally come back in.

One more time. Let the breath out slowly and then allow the new breath to fill your lungs.


Step Three: Sort into broad categories

Pick an area and start sorting. Your goal is to sort the clutter into piles of similar things.

You can make piles by where things go. Home office, kitchen, bedroom.

If you’re sorting a more specific space like your home office, you’ll have more specific categories. Office supplies, paperwork, books.

We’ll drill down later but for now, the broader the category, the better. Otherwise you’ll get bogged down into making 56 different categories for all the types of baking pans, and then the piles will topple over and get mixed up again.

When the timer rings, you’re done for the day

Don’t worry about how it looks. It was messy before, now it’s messy with a purpose. Big difference.

Take a drink of water and smile. Doesn’t matter if you’re faking it, just beam with radiant sunshine. You’re doing this!

Now look at tomorrow’s schedule. What do you have going on? If it’s a busy day, that’s okay, but if you can find a spare 20 minutes, write it down on the calendar. 2 pm: decluttering. Set an alarm on your phone for five minutes before 2 pm, to give yourself time to get ready for your decluttering appointment.

Outside of those 20 minutes, if you come across a spatula on the bookshelf, and it’s easy, you could take it over to the kitchen pile. No big deal, just if you’re passing by.


Step Four: Break the categories down

You’ve got some big piles and you know what type of item each pile contains.

The next step is to sort each pile into the things you love, want and need and those you don’t. Don’t worry, I’m going to show you how to do this.

Take a look at your pile. Let’s say you’ve chosen to sort athletic clothes. It still feels overwhelming, so let’s break it down even further.

pile of sweatshirts white, bottle green, yellow and gray colors on a beige carpet

Start making smaller piles. Maybe your piles include:

  • sweatshirts
  • sweatshirts with hoods
  • lightweight sweatshirts
  • long sleeved shirts
  • short sleeved shirts
  • tank tops
  • shorts
  • sweatpants

Start sorting the big athletic clothes pile into your chosen categories. You’re not making any decisions yet, you’re still just sorting. Keep going until everything in the big pile has been allocated to one of your chosen smaller pile categories.

You can do this sorting gradually, in 20 minute increments. Try to find somewhere to leave the project as a work in progress. Get creative, it could be on a spare bed, on the basement floor, as the top layer of all your stuff in a certain area.

Keep breaking it down as needed

If you’ve narrowed the big pile down to a pile called sweatshirts but that pile still feels too much, it’s time to make even smaller piles. You can sort by condition or by color or by warmth, by whether they have a decal or not. Since the goal is to avoid having each item be its own unique category, try to generalize as much as you can.

Let’s say you started off with 24 sweatshirts. You could divide them into three piles.

  • 12 everyday sweatshirts
  • 3 lightweight sweatshirts
  • 9 sweatshirts that have really seen better days but could be used for gardening or painting or cleaning.

Set up your decluttering rules

Now choose your guidelines.

Perhaps your rules will include:

  • I won’t keep any sweatshirts with rips or holes in them.
  • I can keep a maximum of three gardening/cleaning sweatshirts.
  • All sweatshirts that don’t fit me can go.
  • All sweatshirts that were gifts but never worn can go.
  • I’ll keep no more than three sweatshirts for the memories.
  • I can keep no more than three sweatshirts of the same color.

Your rules are your rules, but promise yourself you’ll stick to them.

READ MORE >>> Tell me your worn stories: sentimental clothes

Decluttering means deciding

Take a look at that first pile of everyday sweatshirts. You have 12 of them, you’d like to have fewer. In the end, how many you hold onto depends on how much space you have for everything.

It also depends how much freedom you want to feel. If you hold onto all 12 because they’re not in utter rags, that’s very different from finding the ones you love, want and need.

So, assess each sweatshirt by asking yourself these three questions:

#1: Do I love this?

Does it make me feel fabulous? If not, only keep it if it’s the only one you have.

#2: Does it fit me?

It’s all very well adoring something but if it doesn’t fit you, question why you’re holding onto it.

#3: How many other sweatshirts exactly like this do I have?

How many would be enough? If you have twelve almost identical sweatshirts, could you make do with eight? With six? With four?

If you have 12 sweatshirts and you absolutely love and cherish each and every one of them, know that some other category will require you to be more ruthless.

Be kind to yourself and move onto a different pile. Ask the same questions to help you uncover the things you love, want and need.

As you declutter, use the bankers boxes to stay focused.

When you come across something that goes elsewhere in your space, toss it in the goes elsewhere box. When you’re done with today’s session, you can put everything in that box away. Don’t waste time running all over the house during the 20 minute decluttering session.

You’ll find things you’re keeping for sentimental reasons. All the band shirts you’ll never wear belong in the Tchotchkes box. They’re sentimental clothes, not everyday clothes.

The Donate box is to gather your donations together in one easy place.

Organize by taming your categories

If the piles seem overwhelming, you might want to start with a smaller category, like your socks. That’s a good idea, but the same pitfalls of making too many categories apply to whatever you decluttering.

Put the winter socks in one drawer and the summer socks in another, the organizers say. You look at your overflowing piles of socks and determinedly start sorting. But you see way more than two categories

READ MORE >>> Organizing rules for recovering perfectionists

socks in a pile
  • socks for work
    • formal dressy socks
    • casual dressy socks
    • fun dressy socks
    • dressy socks that go with that one outfit
  • athletic socks
    • the good socks
    • the ones that have stretched out a bit but are still okay
    • the ones you used to love but can’t find anymore
    • the ones in a color you don’t love
  • winter socks
    • boot socks
    • cozy bed socks
    • thicker dressy socks
    • knee high socks
    • thick heavy hiking socks
  • pretty socks that someone gave you,
  • clever socks with artwork on them,
  • odd socks waiting for the mate to turn up,
  • socks that don’t quite fit but would do in a pinch,
  • perfectly good socks (except for the small holes the puppy chewed.)

And to your mind, each one is a separate category to be stored separately. And so the dresser’s full of hyperorganized socks and the rest of the clothes are all over the floor.

Working with your brain

If your brain loves creating many separate categories for your things, don’t despair.

Pull all your socks out on the bed and sort them the way that makes sense for you.

Now, pretend you’re a reporter and your story assignment is the socks.

A story has a headline, which would be ‘Socks’, and then there are a few sub-headlines throughout the story that help the reader quickly grasp the main details of the story.

Take a look at all your organized piles. Can you see that the sub-headlines would be ‘heavy socks’, ‘light socks’, ‘athletic socks’? Or is it ‘indoor socks’ and ‘outdoor socks’? Whatever strikes you as a good broad category is the sub-headline and each sub-headline gets a drawer.

The trick is not to skip this first step. If you allow your brain to sort the way it wants to sort first, then you’ll be able to take a step back and simplify your categories. If you try to start off with the broad categories, you’ll swiftly get lost in the weeds.

How to decide what to keep

Once you’ve got your socks all heaped in your very specific categories,

  • See if there’s a whole category that you don’t need anymore. Why keep all the dressy socks for work if you retired years ago? Keep one pair and let the rest go.
  • All the mateless socks go in a separate basket and if they haven’t made a match in a month, toss them.
  • All the uncomfortable, scratchy socks go.
  • So can all the gift socks you don’t really care for.
  • Consider texture. Socks that are just too thin can go, as can bunchy bulky socks that make it tough to pull your shoes on.

And when you’ve gone through all your socks, take a hard look at the remainders. If there are still 100 perfectly good pairs of socks but your sock drawer has room for 50, gather up the extra 50 and donate them. You have enough, and winter’s coming.

READ MORE >>> Best places to donate

Be kind to yourself as you do this work

You’re decluttering your kitchen drawers and you realize you have five potato peelers.

They’re small. No big deal if you keep them all, right? But the mountain of clutter is made up of thousands of tiny things that don’t take up much space individually.

If everything’s too small to bother sorting, then the house stays full. So we pick something and assess.

Gather all five potato peelers and set them down next to each other.

What’s running through your mind as you look at them? Are you saying anything to yourself you’d never dream of saying out loud to a friend?

Why on earth do I have five potato peelers?

Ugh, I’m such an idiot, who else keeps five potato peelers?!

Notice that the more you shame yourself, the more your mind comes up with increasingly strong arguments for keeping everything. Not only will you not let go of any of the ones you have, the next time you’re at the kitchen store, you’ll pick up a few more for your collection.

Deciding is much easier when you’re kind to yourself.

Oh, look, I have five potato peelers. That’s just factual, no judgment needed.

Keep asking the questions

#1: How often do you use it?

How often you use a potato peeler? Do you peel vegetables multiple times each day or do you in fact rarely if ever peel a vegetable? If everything you might once have peeled now comes to you prepared and ready-to-cook, is it possible that a potato peeler has become like a butter churn for you? A charming curiosity but not something you need to have in your own kitchen.

Picture five butter churns lined up in your kitchen, ready for you to need them after all. Would you keep even one? You probably could learn to use a butter churn one day and they are awfully picturesque but they take up a ton of space and in your heart you know the odds of you churning butter in this lifetime are slim to none.

#2: Which is your favorite?

If you do still peel things, look at each peeler and remind yourself what you like about it. Does it fit neatly and comfortably in your hand? Is it free of rust and nicks? As you find the good in all these peelers, you’ll be naturally discovering the flaws too. This one gives me a blister if I use it for more than two minutes, this one is rusty and the blade’s wobbly.

#3: Who else could use this?

It might be that you still want to keep all five. Don’t get mad with yourself, but before you shove them back in the drawer, ask yourself if there’s anyone you know who might want or need a peeler. Has anyone you know just moved out on their own? If not, remember that people you don’t know are in that situation right now. If someone buys it from a thrift store, they have need of it. Donate three and keep two. You’ll still have a backup and you’ll help three people.

Just the fact that you’ve looked at all the peelers is going to bring them to the front of your mind. You’ll notice them the next time you’re in the drawer. It may begin to irritate you that you can never find the one you like and use with all these other peelers in the way. Maybe you’ll pull them out and deal with them then. Just by gathering those peelers together and seeing what you have, you’ve set the stage for future decluttering.


Step Five: Organize

Once you’ve decluttered, the organizing part is much easier. Because you’re left with only the things you love, want and need, there’s more room to find the best home for everything.

The goal is to store things where you’ll use them in a way that you can easily get to them.

Choose containers with open tops, like baskets and bins, so you can easily toss things into them when it’s time to clear up.

Put things you rarely use further away from your main living spaces. The Thanksgiving platter you use once a year goes in the basement instead of clogging up half the kitchen counters.

The Holiday china goes in the basement instead of rubbing shoulders with the everyday crockery.

The recipe books go in the kitchen if that’s where you use them, or by your desk if that’s where you plan meals.

If you can’t find a place for something, that means you’re probably not using it. It’s either a sentimental item, or it’s clutter. Come back to the sentimental items after you’ve decluttered your living spaces.

Summary

Decluttering and organizing is easier when your brain isn’t overwhelmed and flooded with anxiety.

Calm it down by taking things slowly.

Sort regularly for twenty minutes at a time. Daily is optimal.

Begin by gathering supplies – trash and recycling cans, bankers boxes – and always set your timer for 20 minutes.

Divide clutter into categories and then break the categories into subcategories.

Ask yourself the key questions outlined in this post to help you decide what to keep.

Organizing means putting the things you love, want and need where you can easily find them and put them away.

Talk to yourself kindly. You can do this. You’ll do it quicker and easier if you’re not beating yourself up for having so much stuff.

The Joyful Method

by Lucy Kelly

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47 comments

  1. Excellent advice here! I would even say organizing is more than a process, but a lifestyle. Once you’ve got things to a certain point, you can keep it that way in just 20 minutes a day, except when a crisis hits. And it will be much easier to restore order even when that happens.

  2. If I had five butter churns in my kitchen, I’d wonder how somehow schlepping so many butter churns managed to break into my home without me hearing them! I’m better at making decisions now because, when I catch myself saying the same things I’ve heard my clients say, “But it was expensive” or “I might use it someday” or “It was a gift,” I immediately repeat the sections from my speaking engagements that cover these topics, OUT LOUD and TO MYSELF. And then I laugh at myself.

    I’m better at giving up, throwing out, or donating useful items. It’s “information” and memorabilia that’s still tough. But I’ve learned that every difficult decision means asking myself the same hard questions I ask my clients. “Seriously, you’ve never used it in the 35 years you’ve had it, but you’re going to? When? Let’s get it set up. No?” By the time I weary of the conversation, the decision is made.

  3. A couple of years ago, both my kids gave me tea mugs with a strainer for Christmas (I think they need to talk more!). I already had one, so I donated it and kept both of the new ones because that seemed like the “right” thing to do. My old tea strainer was better quality, so I wish now that I’d kept it. I had the option of exchanging one of the gifts, but I declined, because I was happy to receive them, but now I find I use one almost exclusively, so I wish I’d exchanged the other one.

    My short answer is that I do not have a good strategy for making these decisions.

  4. The art of decision-making! And it is an art, or at least it takes practice. To make a good decision, we need a certain amount of information. So the idea that you gather like with like and THEN decide makes so much sense. I appreciate how you encourage the matter of fact decision-making strategy too. Leave shame out of it. That’s not helpful when choosing. I engaged in a small edit the other day. I have a cup of special pens that sit on the return of my desk. I bought a few new ones. So before adding them to the cup, I reviewed the older pens, tested to make sure they were inky and working, editing several “out,” and added the new ones. Maybe I had a moment of, “Why do you have non-working pens in that cup, Linda?” but I let that thought go, tossed the old ones out, and turned the cup into a group of working-only pens.

  5. I am a true believer in getting them all together. Not only does that help us see when we have too many (which we often are blind to!), but it helps us make a quick decision on which one is the best shape and worth keeping. This works with children’s artwork as well. Maybe your child drew rainbows all year long… just keep the best one!

  6. The worst are those favorite, versatile, comfortable socks where you only have one and you are _sure_ the mate will turn up. My husband and sons are in a much better position — they buy their socks in bulk so if they lose one it hardly matters, they have 7 more of the same. Women’s socks, even when sold in four-packs, tend to be different colors.

  7. Thank you, I try to make it an event each summer and ‘fail’. I’m a counselor and smart and I could just not figure out why I kept failing at it. this makes so much sense. I always set such huge goals and then am paralyzed with fear and don’t reach them .. or don’t even start. I like your approach and will put it to use. Thank you for your compassion to those of us who haven’t figured out this part yet.

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