How to Declutter When You Don’t Know Where to Begin
Knowing that you need to declutter is one thing, it’s figuring out how to declutter that trips most people up. Just thinking about it gets you in a state of overwhelm.
You’re super clear on your end goal, that’s not the problem. It’s just every time you look at what it’s going to take to get you there, well, you collapse back down on the couch in a funk.
But not before stopping by the kitchen for a jar of peanut butter and a teaspoon. (Or is that just me and Brené Brown?)
The problem is the bigger picture. Everyone says you’ve gotta see the bigger picture, to which I say an emphatic, “Bah humbug!”
That bigger picture is overrated and I’ll prove it with this analogy that I shamelessly
stole borrowed from Mike Dooley.
Your GPS doesn’t need to see the whole route mapped before you leave your driveway, all it needs is the final destination.
It’s the same with any big project or goal that you’re working on. All you need to know is where you want to end up and then take small, baby steps on a regular basis to get there.
How to Outsmart Overwhelm and Get Stuff Done
I’m loathe to use the ‘how do you eat an elephant’ analogy, but since you don’t get vegetables that big I’m going to go with it. The answer is, as you no doubt know, one bite at a time.
Take decluttering as an example. Let’s say your house is full of stuff, as in really full of stuff. You’re going to feel overwhelmed because everywhere you look you see the opposite of your bigger picture goal of a neat, tidy and uncluttered home.
If you allow yourself to see everything: the clutter, the stuff, the mess, whatever, overwhelm is going to kick you to the couch every single time (peanut butter optional, but recommended). The way around this is to trick overwhelm into believing you don’t see the bigger picture.
You’ve got to be all, “Meh, what bigger picture?”
In his book The War of Art, Steven Pressfield talks about Resistance (upper case R is on purpose). When we were preparing for our first half-marathon back in 2008, our coach told us not to listen to Percy aka the conniving shyster whose sole purpose in life was to make sure we didn’t run.
Resistance, Percy, Overwhelm. These are all different names for that part of ourselves who is so afraid of failing we’d rather not try at all. They usually only show themselves when it really matters e.g. you want to write a book, run a half-marathon or figure out how to declutter your house.
This is good thing, because it means they’re serving as unwitting beacons for what to do when life gets complicated. Not sure what to do next? Do the thing you’re resisting the most.
Ha! I smite thee Percy-Resistance-Overwhelm!
Focus on the Small Stuff
Okay back to decluttering. It’s going to be hard, but try not to let the mountain of stuff in your house bother you. Maybe it’s taken over the garage and basement as well (that bad huh?), try not to let that get you down either.
Right now, all you have to do is carve out a block of time for decluttering. An entire morning is too much and anything less than half an hour is too little. Like Goldilocks, what we’re after here is ‘just right’.
My suggestion is an hour, but if your life is ridiculously busy*, then schedule 30 minutes into your calendar. Now that you’ve identified your block of time, step two is to decide on one small area to declutter.
It could be an overflowing junk drawer in the kitchen. Maybe it’s the fruit bowl on the kitchen counter that last saw a banana in 1985 and is now just overflowing with unopened mail. Perhaps it’s your Tupperware cupboard?
*Do yourself a favour and read Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. If it saved Sporty and my workaholic boss from imminent busy-ness demise, it can definitely save you.
Small Wins Lead to Bigger Wins
The reason for blocking off a small amount of time and identifying a relatively easy area to declutter is that it will result in a small win. Unless you’re super disorganised (or lazy, like me), there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to successfully tackle your chosen target.
When you’re finished, make a cup of tea (or pour a glass of champagne) and spend a few moments admiring your handiwork. You’ve earned the right to a mini celebration, so soak it all up.
Once you’re done high-fiving yourself there’s a super important next step that you absolutely have to complete before moving on with your day or evening. Go to your calendar and block off your next hour (let’s go for an hour this time!) and then decide what area you’ll be decluttering next.
Pro Tip: Do. Not. Skip. This. Step.
The reason this step is so crucial is that it’s how you’ll build momentum, and momentum is what you’re after here. Think of the tiny snowball that rolls downhill, becoming bigger and bigger until it’s gargantuan in size.
A similar thing will happen the more you chalk up those small wins on a regular basis. Put another way (for the fitness freaks in the house), those small wins are the equivalent of muscle training. Except the muscle in question is your desire to keep going.
Slowly and Steady Wins the Race
Remember the tortoise and the hare? If you’re consistent and you keep at it you will eventually have decluttered your entire house. One day, a few months from now, you’ll be sitting on your couch marveling at your calm, uncluttered, straight outta Home & Design living-room.
The caveat (there’s always a caveat).
You need to stay hyper-focused on the areas you’ve already decluttered to ensure they don’t fall back into their old cluttery ways. Junk drawers, especially, have a nasty habit of filling themselves up with all sorts of crap.
When I was cleaning out our junk drawer last week, I discovered a couple of lanyards and name cards from an event we attended a little while ago. Egads! And we call ourselves card-carrying minimalists! I’m so embarrassed I’m going to iron my ears. Again.
Avoid Decluttering Groundhog Day
You need to keep a watchful eye on things, because if you don’t you’ll find yourself in a continuous cycle of decluttering and it’ll be downright horrible. Much worse than when you didn’t know how to declutter at all. Make a system for yourself so you don’t let that happen.
Whenever you go to put something in the junk drawer, stop and consider whether you really need to keep it. You’re putting it in the junk drawer after all! A little pro tip here, stop accepting freebies at the store and you won’t have as much to clean out.
There’s nothing wrong with free samples per sé, but you’ve got to at least be circumspect about it. It might not cost you anything in terms of money, but it’s going to cost you down the line when you have to spend time decluttering.
If you still get a lot of paper mail, your first job is to contact whoever is sending it and ask if they’ll email it instead (careful though, digital clutter is a real thing). This is also a good opportunity to identify the mail you don’t actually need (e.g. newsletters, catalogues, etc.) and put a stop to them entirely.
If you’re still getting mail after that, then make a point of dealing with it the same day you take it out your postbox. Open it, pay it (or whatever) and file it. Throw the envelop in recycling. An even better option is to scan the bill and then toss the hard copy.
Bigger Wins Lead to Epic Victories
Once you’ve got a few small wins under your belt it’s time to up the ante a little. Try blocking off a whole morning to finally clean out that hall closet or the garage or your winter wardrobe or whatever has been weighing on you the most in recent months or, erm, years. Really?
This one’s a biggie, so make sure you prepare for it. Once you’ve decided on a time and an area, the next most important thing is to settle on a prize. In our own lives, Sporty and I have found that we operate best when there’s a ‘carrot’ in the offing.
Yes, we’re five and seven respectively, we don’t care. Knowing we have a prize to look forward to always motivates us to not only accomplish our goal, but to do so in the least amount of time (i.e. without procrastinating). For us, the promise of a meal out at our favourite vegan restaurant or a couple date at the movies always does the trick.
To be honest though, the sense of achievement you’ll feel for a job well done should be prize enough. But who am I kidding, right? You still deserve a mega slab of chocolate, magnum of champagne, or whatever works for you, so make sure you do something to treat yourself.
What If You’ve Got a Family?
Right, those of you with spouses,
rugrats kids and pets, listen up. You need to get the whole family involved with Project Declutter from the outset. If you don’t get their buy-in you’re going to find yourself moonlighting as their unpaid live-in declutterer slash cleaner-upper. You don’t want that.
Sporty and I don’t have kids, pets or pot plants and we’ve also been on the same page right from the very beginning of our minimalist journey. Granted, I came up with the idea to sell everything, but Sporty was more than open to persuasion.
As I recall, all it took was two glasses of Shiraz to win her over. Or was it Pinotage, I forget?
My point being that’s it’s a little difficult for us to weigh in on something we don’t have much experience with. We’ll offer our two-cents worth, obviously, but then we’ll also include some books, videos and blogs that you could look to for additional help.
Getting the Kids On-Board
With kids, the first thing that springs to mind is to use minimalism as a way to instill empathy in them. Encourage them to go through their belongings and set aside those things they no longer use or wear to donate to children less fortunate than they are.
But don’t just drop off their stuff at your local Goodwill. Find a school or orphanage and take the kids with when you deliver the donation. That way they’ll get to see and understand firsthand how fortunate they are and how much they have to be thankful for.
The second idea (which could also be used in tandem with the first one) is to use the ‘carrot’ system. A friend of ours is one of those eco-friendly greenie types (sans the Birkenstocks) and she wanted to get her three children on-board with this way of thinking.
Since kids don’t usually care about things like carbon emissions and sustainable living, she came up with a genius plan to get their buy-in. She created a Rewards Chart and gives them a gold star every time they do something ‘green’. When one of them gets ten stars the family does whatever fun activity that kid chooses.
You could try a similar system, where your children get rewarded for decluttering their belongings or helping you clean out the garage. If you give it a try let us know how it turns out!
Getting Your Spouse On-Board
This could prove trickier (unless you’re married to someone who’s motivated by star charts), so your best bet is to have a heart to heart. Take your person out for coffee (or wine, I’ve found that works really well) and tell them how you’re feeling about the clutter.
Talk about how the stuff is overwhelming you and ask them if they’re experiencing it too. Maybe it’s something you’ve both mentioned in passing, but haven’t actually talked through the details of what it would take to fix the problem.
If you both spend a lot time taking care of your stuff (cleaning, fixing, maintaining, etc.), then bring that up. Talk about all the free time you’d have if you didn’t have all those things weighing you down.
Now is also a really excellent time to bring up the subject of finances, because one way or another, decluttering is going to have a positive effect on your bank account. Whether it’s through selling the stuff you don’t use on eBay or canceling the lease on that second car, downsizing will help get you back in the black.
They’re Still Not On-Board. Halp!
If they’re still not won over by the end of your conversation, don’t worry. Just take it slow, sometimes people need to see evidence before they buy into something. Start with your own stuff, say your clothes, and show your partner how much easier life is since you only have the clothes you actually wear in your cupboard.
It’s a slightly lame example, but you get the idea, right? It’s like the old ‘proof is in the pudding’ adage. You can also assure them that you won’t just willy-nilly toss out anything that belongs to them either.
Aside from being a so not cool thing to do, it’s also not the way to instill trust in a relationship. And without trust, there’s no chance in hell of getting them on-board with your downsizing antics.
Decluttering Inspiration to Help You on Your Way
Stuff to Read
- Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston
- Why Kids Need Minimalism by Denaye Barahona
- Simplify: 7 Guiding Principles to Help Anyone Declutter Their Home and Life by Joshua Becker
Stuff to Watch
- 6 Popular Decluttering Methods for Minimalism by Anthony Ongaro
- Marie Kondo Organizes a Bookshelf by Marie Kondo ft. Suzie Shoaf
- Less stuff, more happiness by Graham Hill
Stuff to Do
- 21-Day Daily Decluttering Challenge by Be More With Less
- 30-Day Minimalism Game by The Minimalists
- The Six Week Decluttering Challenge by Clean & Scentsible
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