brown and black turtle on green grass

Slow and steady wins the decluttering and organizing race

The exact decluttering principles I use with my organizing clients to help them successfully clear their messy homes.

What is slow and steady decluttering?

Slow and steady decluttering is the practice of tackling the clutter in your messy home gradually. It’s the antithesis of the rapid, traumatic clear-out. No dumpsters are involved, no teams of Tyvek-clad workers swarming through your home.

Instead, it’s the idea that when your brain gets used to decluttering at a manageable pace, it calms down enough to allow you to make some decisions about your stuff.

If you’re working with an organizer, sessions will be a few hours (I recommend no more than three hours), but working by yourself, measure decluttering sessions in minutes. Twenty, to be precise.

Set your timer for 20 minutes, chip away at the clutter, stop when the timer rings. Come back tomorrow and do it again.

The downside of slow and steady

Slow and steady means your house is going to keep looking like this for a while. To the untrained eye, it’ll seem as if you’re not really doing much.

No dramatic reveals.

If you tell others, which is natural because you’d like their support and encouragement, you’re going to feel like you have to justify what you’re doing because they won’t be able to immediately see it.

The upside of slow and steady

The work will get done and you’ll be able to maintain it. You’ll take ownership of the process instead of letting it happen to you. You’ll know that your clutter no longer rules the roost.

Rules of the road

If this time is going to be different than all the times you’ve tried to deal with your messy house in the past, you’ll want to try something different.

Use these five strategies to stay the course

Even when we think we’re decluttering at a realistic pace, the pressure from everyone (people, media, the voices of everyone who’s ever criticized us for a messy home) has lodged itself firmly in the back of our heads.

Slow and steady – look, I let five bags of garbage go! – slowly, steadily – why couldn’t I find three more bags to let go of? – c’mon self, slow and steady already – SLOW and STEADY!!

The internal monologue hounds us, driving us to try and get as much cleared in 20 minutes as we can.

Whether you’re aware those voices don’t belong to you or whether you have other people in your life telling you to work faster, the result is the same.

The more hurried you feel, the less gets done.

There’s a happy balance between dawdling and hounding, a place where you take the time to make a considered choice about what to do with each item.

These strategies lead to success

To truly clear out your home, to deal with the mess at last, these five principles need to be taken on board:

  1. Allow yourself to be an imperfect recycler.
  2. Trust thrift stores to get your donations where they’ll do the most good.
  3. Let the timer be your friend, not a hostile nag.
  4. Use photos to keep yourself on track.
  5. Stay in the same place.

1. Recycling: Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good

Recycling can be a time-consuming project for many people. They agonize about whether this paper is too shiny to be recycled, or if that plastic can go in the weekly can or needs to go to CHaRM (Center for Hard-To-Recycle Materials). It gets overwhelming.

Trying to recycle perfectly becomes a massive distraction, helping you avoid making decisions about your stuff for another day, or week, or year.

If recycling is important to you, give yourself permission to stick everything you would consider recyclable in your recycling bin while you’re clearing your house, and go back to the detailed management of plastic once your house is decluttered.

2. Donating: Avoid material scrupulosity

Material scrupulosity, being so attached to everything you own that you have to control where it goes after you’re done with it, is why your house is full.

Fires recently swept through two neighboring towns. A thousand homes burned to the ground. My organizing clients were anxious to help.

“I have three coats that I want to donate to someone with teenagers who lost their home.”

“I want to give these baby clothes to a family whose home is gone.”

“These plates need to go to someone who had these same plates before the fires. They’ll get a little piece of their home back.”

Wonderful, heart-warming desires to help, tripped up by the need to control where their donations went.

As a community, we were soon told the most important donation was money, and that we should donate items to our local thrift shops.

Clients were outraged. I heard once again how many people believe no one in need gets anything out of a thrift store: “Thrifters” take anything they can resell, and the remaining dregs get tossed in the trash or sent overseas.

Have you ever been to a thrift store?

Sure, there are always a couple of regulars, collecting tchotchkes. Students from the theater club swooning loudly over their “perfect” costume finds.

But most people who shop at thrift stores are there because they can’t afford to buy what they want and need at regular prices.

By refusing to donate your “good” stuff to the thrift stores, you’re penalizing those people for being poor. I guess poor people don’t deserve to have nice coats or baby clothes or plates.

If you can free yourself of the need to know the specific name, rank and serial number of everyone who gets your donations, decluttering is going to become a whole lot easier and less stressful for you.

READ MORE >>> Best places to donate

3. Once cleared, a space is off-limits for clutter

That means there’s no setting anything down “just for now”. If a square foot of tile has been uncovered in the mudroom, that area is now sacred ground. Anything you store there will be put there intentionally.

Keeping things clear behind you like this means you can maintain your space.

Eventually, the whole floor will be clear, and you’ll be tempted to drop your muddy boots there, along with your purse and a couple of newspapers you found in the driveway under your car. Just for now.

But you’ve cleared this floor, so that’s not an option. Instead, it’s time to make decisions about what you’re going to do with muddy boots, where your purse belongs so you always know where it is, and what your policy is on old newspapers.

4. Take photos

At the beginning of each decluttering session, take a photo of the area you’re working on. When the timer rings, take a second photograph. Before and after, just for you.

When you come back the next day, compare your before photo to yesterday’s after photo. Did you maintain your progress or have you undone it by letting some more clutter creep in?

Use your photos to create accountability. In the end, you’ll have created an awesome collage which shows all the progress you’ve made. Show it to everyone who told you slow and steady couldn’t possibly make a difference in your cluttered home.

5. Stay in the same space

Creating that record of your progress can’t happen if you flit around. Pick one area of one room and work steadily (and slowly, using your timer) to declutter each day until that area is clear.

READ MORE >>> How to declutter and organize

Are you ready to try decluttering the slow and steady way? I have a free weekly decluttering challenge that will help you.

by Lucy Kelly


DON’T MISS OUT >>> Send It Away Saturday is my email list reserved strictly for people who want to get organized without getting overwhelmed.

14 comments

  1. I loved every bit of this post (though I tell clients to limit themselves to 25 minutes — a Pomodoro — for solo work, but that’s close enough to 20). My favorite part of the post was your focus on “material scrupulosity.” I talk about that concept as one of the obstacles to letting go of things, but always reference it in terms of fear: “But what if it doesn’t go to the right home?” I love that you’ve given me a fancy-pants term for it!

  2. I’m with the others: slow and steady is the way to go. I recommend working for 2 hours at a time. I know that my clients make good and thoughtful decisions when they are working for 2 hours. Much more than that and the decisions can become hasty.
    I’m also with you about donating to thrift stores. I sympathize with those who want to get their donations to someone who truly needs them but those are exactly the people who frequent thrift stores.
    Great post, Lucy!

    1. I hear you about two hours, Diane. Although I do work in three-hour sessions, I also make sure we have brain breaks every 90 minutes and bathroom breaks, let’s take a minute breaks, and where possible, let’s step outside and get some fresh air for a minute breaks as needed.

  3. Particularly loving the wisdom of your second point. I never thought about the fact that by avoiding taking nice things to thrift shops, you end up “punishing” those who are poor. My sister-in-law lies where the fires were, and her home was only BARELY spared, so I understand the urge to help. If you can easily get an item to recipient, go for it. But if it is a vague desire, better to trust charities to get the items into the right hands. Excellent!

  4. I love that you mentioned 20 minute organizing! It is my favorite way to organize a space, especially small things. I also recommend 3 – 4 hours organizing session. I even have an issue going any longer and I have been organizing for over 20 years.

  5. While I understand that in emergency situations a “quick” clear out might be necessary, I’m in complete agreement with you about the value of slow and steady for getting organized and decluttering. The idea is to build habits into your life. Which for most of us means we can’t stop what we’re doing to JUST organize. We are decluttering along with all of the other obligations, commitments, and priorities of life. Your reframe is wonderful because it gives us a way to feel good about being more relaxed about the process. It’s not any less intentional, but it adds kindness and realism into the mix.

  6. I love the idea of slow and steady. When talking with my clients I compare this decluttering/organizing technique to losing weight. If you make slow and steady progress you will maintain it.

  7. Your 20-minute limit is the best thing about decluttering. The most detestable task is suddenly something I look forward to, and feel happy about. So thank you and wish you a happy 2022!

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