Unsticking Clutter Zones

Start small for big changes

Do you have so much stuff that your home makes you feel claustrophobic? Is every horizontal surface overflowing? Do you have possessions with no permanent place to call home? If so, it's not surprising that finding what you want when you need it is almost impossible.

Sometimes, especially in a small or older home, there really isn't enough storage. More often though, we've become the consumers extraordinaire that marketing gurus have commanded us to be. There's the bread-making machine you never use, your daughter's doll collection, and half of your spouse's 2656 books that won't fit in the bookcase. Seasons change and the kids grow so we have multiple sizes of clothing in closets and dressers. Often, we just want to throw a match into the whole lot and be done with it.

Feng shui experts tell us that clutter is bad—it causes our chi (life energy) to swirl and eddy around us in unproductive, stagnant pools. Organizing virtuosos sing the praises of labeling and storing items logically where they can be found at a moment's notice. Our mothers just call us slobs and lament the fact that they raised us to know better. So what's a packrat to do?

Fortunately, there are multiple ways to skin that cat.

Start with one small project

Don't worry about the whole elephant. It's too much and will only make you crazy. Start with the one thing that bothers you the most.

Is it hard getting ready in the morning? Is your bedroom closet a mess? Is it hard for the kids to find matching socks? Maybe it's the piles of papers on your desk that you've postponed sorting and filing.

Whatever your peeve, start there. If a thing is neither beautiful nor useful, then it should go. Because that's easier said than done, starting with a small project is likely to be more successful. The reward is almost instant gratification and that can encourage you to tackle the next piece of the elephant.

Set a timer

Consider setting a timer. Set it for only 15 minutes to a half hour. Start anywhere. Pick up an item. Is it useful? Does it have a home? Is it beautiful? Does it still add value to your life? If it's damaged and beyond repair, toss it. If it has no permanent storage location, but you use it regularly, make one now. No home? It's gotta go. Put it away now, toss it in the garbage, or put in the recycle/give away box. Pick up the next item. Do this until the timer goes off, then quit. You can easily make this a fifteen minute ritual once a day to clear out your life painlessly of extraneous debris.

Clean it up

Don't focus on decluttering. Concentrate on cleaning instead and arranging a functional, aesthetic space. Take the laundry area for example. Some of us have a whole room with a sink and plenty of storage, others have just a hall closet. Your washer and dryer may be in the basement or in the garage. The key is to make the space work well and be pleasing regardless of its location or amenities. Start by cleaning. Wash the appliances so they are fresh and clean. Patch walls and repaint, if necessary. Make space to store the iron and board as well as use them. Create storage for laundry and clothing care supplies. Remove anything that detracts from the space or doesn't fit; disharmony compounds itself and your goal is to get rid of anything that bugs you.

Empty the room and start over

Don't panic, but consider this: Often, a room—be it kitchen, bathroom, or other living spaces—will get on your last nerve after a while because it just feels wrong, cumbersome, and inconvenient. This is particularly true of kitchens. Because they are the center of so much activity, they tend to accumulate all kinds of stuff.

To restore your kitchen's appeal and functionality, go a step farther than just cleaning. Empty the entire room. Empty the cupboards, drawers, and pantry. Eat out of the fridge and pantry and postpone shopping except for necessities.

This is a wonderful exercise in the spring because you can do a thorough cleaning at the same time. Wash ceilings, walls, and scrub appliances until they sparkle. Take down curtains and blinds, then launder or clean. Get into nooks and crannies with a toothbrush, skewer, or knife and eradicate every bit of dirt and grime. Paint now if needed. Put in new drawer liners and shelf paper. Just having a room empty and clean is cause for much rejoicing.

Once you get to this point, use the 50% rule to fill it up again. Put back only what you need and leave lots of empty space. Allocate only one shelf or drawer for items you absolutely love but use rarely. Sort everything else for disposal or liberation.

Getting stuff out of your life for good

You can declutter, clean, and organize all day, but ultimately, you have to dispose of the stuff that has been gumming up your life. All of the following are useful ways to get rid of almost anything:

Discipline yourself

Buy from a list. You know what you need, so shopping from a list, though it sounds boringly anal retentive, is actually an effective way to place an obstacle in the way of the quintessentially American desire to accumulate. Make a distinction between what is nice to have and what is genuinely necessary.

Sleep on it. If an item is large, expensive, or a sales person is pressuring you for a commitment, just smile. There is virtually nothing you need so bad that you can't let it go over night. Half the time, you won't even think about it the following day.

Get in the habit of letting something go if you buy something new. Really, how many pairs of shoes do you need. If you have storage space allocated for 10 pair of shoes, then one pair needs to be cycled out the door if you buy a new pair. This keeps clutter under control, at least to some extent.

Enlist your family. Breaking acquisitive habits and reinforcing good ones is a family activity, so engage everyone who is upright, mobile, or has an opinion. If you can learn to embrace the idea that liberating stuff to new homes opens you and your environment to new possibilities, then you'll be well on your way to a more manageable life.


Once you've decluttered, you'll be able to see what type of built-ins can help you organize what you have. Find a professional carpenter through ContractorNexus .

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