How to De-clutter - Start : Sort : Solve : System

Does any of the following story sound familiar...

You decide the book shelf needs to be de-cluttered.

You grab every book of the shelf, stack them by theme, put aside some you don't want in a pile in the corner, decide the book shelf needs a thorough clean because of the dust, get a bowl of soapy water and a cloth, wash it down, then realise it needs to dry before you can put the books back.  You put the bowl aside  and skim through one of the books to decide if you really want to keep it.

The door bell rings, and as you jump up to answer it you knock over the bowl of soapy water.

A friend has dropped in unexpectedly with her kids. While you wipe up the water and rush the bowl off to the kitchen, the kids proceed to spread the books around the room, mixing them back in with the one's you've just sorted to get rid of.

You try to have a relaxed cup of coffee with your friend while surrounded by a denuded bookshelf, and piles of books, some of them soggy.  This attempt is a dismal failure.

Your friend leaves (the relationship is now slightly strained because you've yelled at her kids for messing up the books).  You collapse on the sofa vowing never to touch the bookshelf again. Three days later the books are still spread through the living room. The wet ones are now going mouldy.


I think we can all relate to at least some part of this story.


Lets try that again, only with a Less IS More approach.  Yes, really, you need to do less to achieve more here.

You decide to cut down on some of the books on your shelf.  Because you have been using a 1 in 1 out rule, the clutter isn't too bad, but you think it could be better.


You START  by gathering the equipment you need, and making sure you have a spare 15 minutes to work with. Getting this time may mean distracting kids with a snack and a toy in a different room, locking the dog in the back yard, or sneaking the time before anyone else wakes up. I find when I'm cooling down between a run and a shower a great time - it means by the time I've hit the shower I've cooled down, and the shower washes off the accumulated dust.


a timer - any sort of kitchen timer, watch or phone clock will do, as long as you can easily set it to count off 5 minutes.

a permanent marker (with a thick tip so it doesn't rip holes in plastic bags)

rubbish bag

a recycling bag

a re-homing bag (for things that belong elsewhere in the house),

a donation box, and

a return box  (for borrowed items like library books or friend's DVDs).

Each box is lined with a shopping bag or bin liner (unless you have a huge supply of boxes).

I think I hear you objecting that this will take longer than actually doing de-cluttering. Bear with me here. Once you START by preparing properly, not only will you make amazing progress, but you will FINISH in a good state. I promise.

Now that you have STARTED (after the first attempt you will be able to do this in 2-3 minutes) you can now SORT.

And hey presto, how to SORT it is already decided for you because you STARTED well - everything goes into rubbish , recycle, re-home (to where they belong in the house), donate or return. Oh, and of course, you can keep some of it if you want to.

Set the timer for 10 minutes. I know this doesn't sound like a lot, but you will be amazed what you can achieve now that you are organized.

Now, really quickly, go through the bookshelf (in this example).  Grab all the rubbish and recycling first. Any cluttered spot will have its share of bags, scraps of paper, and other obvious junk. Once it is gone you will be able to see the rest more clearly.

Now grab anything else you know belongs somewhere else in the house and put it in the re-homing box.

Now go through quickly (there are no agonizing decisions here after all) and pick out anything that needs to be returned to the library, DVD shop, friends, family etc.

Now you have a clear field - all that is left is a decision to keep it or donate it.

Do you use it? Does it make you happy?  Could you do without it?   What is the worst thing that would happen if you got rid of it?    Answering those questions will quickly tell you whether it stays on the shelf (notice that we haven't pulled everything out) or goes in the donate box.

When the timer goes off you are going to SOLVE the problem, all the way to the end.

Put the timer  back where it lives - I keep mine stuck to the fridge.

Put the sharpie back where it lives.

Put the contents of the rubbish bag in the rubbish bin.  Take the recycling bag to the recycling bin.

Take the donation bag out to the car (or put it by the door if you don't drive).

Run through the house (well, as fast as you can without threat to life or limb) and put the re-homing items away.  If the same items keep needing to be re-homed, think about changing their home to the place where they end up (e.g. put a shoe cupboard near the front door rather than in the bedroom).

The return box  takes a little creative thinking. If you will drive to your sisters, put things for her in the car. If you walk past the DVD rental place on your way to the gym, put the DVDs in your gym bag.

Now, put the boxes away. My donation hamper lives on the floor of the wardrobe so I can put donations in there whenever I find them. The returns hamper lives on a shelf in the kids room, because borrowed  items usually live in there (hand-me-down clothes, books, DVDs).  The re-homing hamper sits in the living room - I throw the kids stuff in it when I fall over it, then send it with them into their room to be put away when it is full.

Rubbish and Recycling are just the house rubbish and recycling bins so go back to the kitchen.

What sort of boxes bags or hampers you use for de-cluttering is up to you. Garbage bags work, although it is easier if you have something upright that you can toss items into from a distance. Nappy boxes are a great size as you can still lift them even if full of things like books.  I like to use collapsible hampers (here is a link to a starter pack ) that perfectly fit a small garbage bag. If I run out of space while I'm working all I have to do is lift out the bag, tie it off, make sure it is labeled, label a new one, re-line the hamper and keep going.

Presto - you now have a de-cluttered book shelf (or most of one - remember you only spent as much time as you had), no (extra) mess, and your sanity and enthusiasm still intact.

So far we've covered START : SORT: SOLVE. Now we come to SYSTEM.

How do we put a SYSTEM in place to stop the clutter coming back?

There are a number of techniques, but the most important thing to understand is WHY something gets cluttered in the first place.

Did you:

think you'd want to read that book again?  Do you ever do that? If so, looking at all the books you've got, which ones did you ever read again. Maybe you only re-read Non-Fiction, or Science-Fiction, or maybe you've just realised that you never do re-read any of your books. Take that new knowledge on board, and in future put unlikely candidates straight in the donation box as soon as you've finished them.

Want to keep it for reference?   Did you ever refer to it? The internet has replaced most reference books - they go out of date so quickly. Which ones did you actually refer to? What rule of thumb separates them from the others?  Keep that rule in mind when you've finished reading those books in future.

Think you partner would read it? One possible system is that you write your name in pencil in the front of it when you've read it then leave it on your partner's bedside table. If they don't want to read it they put it straight in the donation box. If they do they can put it on the bookshelf. Once they've read it too they put it in the donation box.

Read it then put it on the bookshelf because that is where books go after you've read them? It is an unspoken assumption that we keep things we own just because we own them. In a world of finite resources we need to change our thinking to being temporary users of resources, rather than keepers.  Next time you go to put something on the bookshelf, challenge yourself to why you are putting it there, and where it should really go.   Or if you feel a need to keep it for a bit, use a 'one in, one out' system. This technique is a great de-cluttering technique for all areas. If you got to put anything new away, ask yourself what it is replacing. New shirt? Donate an old one.  New book? Donate one from the bookshelf.

You kept it for your sister but never get around to passing it on to her.  Once again some creative thinking is need to make sure things get passed on or returned (if you will, otherwise just accept reality and put them straight in the donation box).  If you will see your sister next at a family picnic, put the book in the picnic basket.

Now ignore everything I've just said, buy an eBook reader (Kindle, Kobo etc) and get rid of the entire book shelf.



START  - by getting boxes, pen and timer. DON'T pull everything out, just do an item at a time.

SORT  - Set a timer for 10 minutes. Ask yourself: Do I use it? Does it make me happy?  Could I do without it?

SOLVE - Empty all the boxes and put your equipment away.

SYSTEM - What system can I put in place to stop this clutter coming back and to make these things that I have kept more useable?

You can download a printable reminder for this technique here. Stick it to your fridge and get de-cluttering!