How to Get Rid of Clutter: A Five-Step Plan

Clear out your clutter and uncover a more peaceful self

Content Tools

It happens all the time. I’m racing out the door when I remember I have to pay a bill. No problem. I riffle through the latest pile of unread mail, scattering it over the dining room table. Nope, not there. Striding through the house, I scrutinize every paper-strewn surface. Nothing. Five minutes of very bad language later, I find the envelope in my purse, where I put it to remind myself to pay it. The stamps I track down in a folder on my desk tucked behind the file marked "Kitchen remodel." Of course I have pens, but they’re all dry. By the time I leave the house, I pretty much hate everyone, most of all myself.

Like most clutterers, I get fed up periodically and blast through the house tossing out aging mail, broken space heaters, almost-usable answering machines, and perfectly good skirts I haven’t worn since the Reagan administration. "There," I say firmly. "Never again." Within days, the clutter creeps back, oozing across the dining room table, over the guest room floor, and onto the spare bed.

I’m not alone. Many of us are drowning in a sea of junk, as waves of consumer goods and computer-generated paper roll into our homes. Catalogs, exercise bikes, pasta makers, and sweater vests drop in for a visit and never leave. One study showed that junk mail increased 13 times faster than the U.S. population in the 1980s, and it’s getting worse. More than one professional organizer––a field that has grown as fast as junk mail in the past 15 years––says she’s walked into homes so jammed with stuff she’s had to thread her way through stacks of paper to get to the kitchen sink.

Whether you need a complete overhaul of your current organizing system (if you laughed ruefully upon reading "organizing" and/or "system," this probably means you) or just a few spring-cleaning hints, there are methods to end all forms of clutter madness. "It’s not rocket science," says professional organizer Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing from the Inside Out (Owl Books, 1998). And it only takes between one and three working days per room.

Three days? Who wants to spend three days elbow deep in dusty papers and old clothes? We do, Morgenstern says. The rewards are worth it. There’s the considerable time and aggravation you save when you know right where to find what you need and can get to it easily. But most important, eliminating clutter clears a path to the soul by creating a serene space in which to foster your dreams and plans.

Personal coach Cheryl Richardson, author of Take Time for Your Life (Broadway Books, 1998), underscores this concept with her clients, whom she counsels to start the organizing process by hanging up a detailed list of what they want most––love, travel, a different career––in the middle of the house. As you clear your clutter, Richardson says, “little by little, what you want will begin to show up.”

Sounds like magic, but there’s a reason getting organized helps us reach our goals: A tangle of physical clutter creates mental clutter––that constant stream of “Don’t forget to pay that bill, return that book, send those forms” that buzzes through our heads, elbowing out peace, joy, clarity, and long-term plans.

Internal clutter evaporates as we organize our homes, says Michelle Passoff, author of Lighten Up! Free Yourself from Clutter (HarperCollins, 1998). “We’re sorting out our issues as we sort through our stuff,” she says. “We get transformed in the process.”

For the past three weeks, I’ve tested the theory that less clutter equals more peace by house-sitting the apartment of a Buddhist neighbor. I’ve traded my house, home of the junk room and the overflowing closet, for Sue’s carefully planned apartment, with its expanses of clear, peaceful space free of visual noise. Here, every possession, from the four bright yellow dinner plates to the palm-fitting sponge in the sink, seems consciously chosen to give joy or move life forward. I find myself keeping her home clean because the system is set up to make it easy. Dishes get done, life runs smoothly, and I’m happier with myself. Serenity is not my style, but joy creeps in when I open my eyes in the morning to a view of deep green bushes and a small plaster Buddha on the otherwise empty deck. I’m the opposite of Zen––I keep noise in my head to distract me from my thoughts. But this clarity around me seems to bring clarity inside me. Suddenly the dwindling relationship with an erstwhile boyfriend seems like a waste of time. I’m eager to let it go because it doesn’t belong here.

The De-Cluttering Game Plan
When the urge to organize strikes, It’s tempting to start with a bang, running through the house from room to room, tossing things out right and left. But taking an hour or two for a few important preliminary steps will help keep you focused and inspired once you dive in.

Get ready: Follow Richardson’s advice and make a detailed list that includes both your everyday goals and your purpose in life––“I want my business to take off and my self-esteem to bloom” or “I want love and peace and time to eat breakfast.” Post the list in the center of the first room you organize. After three hours of sorting, when you can’t face one more decision, look at the list––it will keep you going and help you decide what to keep and what to toss. Remember, you’re not clearing clutter to impress the neighbors or please your partner; this is for you. “If you’re getting organized because somebody out there thinks you should, it’s just another disgusting homework assignment,” says Regina Leeds, author of The Zen of Organizing (Park Slope Press, 2000). “If you’re doing it to fulfill your higher purpose in life, it’s creative and fun.”

Get set: Pick a time when you have a chunk of four or five hours. In fact, you may need to spread your “one to three working days per room” out over a month or more, Morgenstern says, as you “catch up psychologically” with the change. Don’t get discouraged––that’s normal.

If possible, arrange to have a nonjudgmental friend there to keep you moving. Most clutter-clearing projects sputter to a halt under the weight of the stale energy in all your old stuff. It doesn’t have quite the same weight for someone who’s more objective, so she can resist its siren call and keep you moving forward when you begin to pause just a little too long over old pictures or love letters.

Gather inexpensive supplies: strong trash bags, cartons, banker’s boxes (to hold files upright as you sort), pens and pencils, markers, labels, and Post-it notes. You may be tempted to shop for shiny new plastic boxes on wheels or dandy drawer dividers before you start, but they’ll just mess up your system or sit unused in your garage. Wait to pick out your final storage containers until everything is sorted and you know what size and kind you need.

Set out empty boxes labeled “trash,” “recycle,” “give away,” “sell,” and “transfer” (to another room, but not until the end of the day––if you run from room to room as you work, you’ll get sidetracked).

Finally, be sure you’ve eaten well before you start, and have protein-filled snacks to keep you going––this is work!

Go: Morgenstern uses the acronym SPACE (Sort, Purge, Assign a home, Containerize, and Equalize) for the stages of clearing clutter.

SORT:
Your first job is just to put things into categories following the cardinal rule of organizing: Put like with like––whether it’s CDs, hair-care products, or rubber bands. This is “the primary principle, and it will carry the day, no matter what kind of clutter you have,” Michelle Passoff says. The end goal is to actually store like with like, but at this point you’re simply sorting to get a handle on exactly what your clutter consists of.

Here are a few sorting ground rules to keep in mind:

Start with the category that will clear the biggest space fastest, advises Morgenstern––it’ll motivate you and make the job easier from the outset. When my friend Bobbie and I cleaned up her spare room, we began by folding up the newspapers that lay like a blanket of gray snow over everything. Putting them in one tall stack not only made the room look 100 percent better in 10 easy minutes, it saved time and aggravation because they were blocking the path to everything else.

Sort loose papers into piles and files into boxes, and group clothes by type and color, keeping all the white T-shirts or black shoes together, for instance. You may want to sort files into general categories––personal, professional, health, financial––but don’t get bogged down trying to set up a final filing system until you’ve finished sorting and know what you have.

Resist the urge to deal with paperwork. I know––it’s like telling a woman in labor not to push, but start down that road and you’ll spend an hour filling out forms or reading articles about walking tours of Tuscany and leave the room defeated. At this point, just sort everything into its pile.

Toss no-brainers into the trash, give-away, or recycle box––old insurance-company calendars, owners’ manuals for long-gone machines, clothes you hate, dried-out pens. If you have to stop and think about an item, it’s not a no-brainer; sort it into its pile and keep moving.

Finish one corner of a room before moving to the next, and one whole room before even looking at another. Otherwise, Morgenstern says, you’ll get caught up in “zigzag” organizing, flitting from room to room doing just enough work to tire you out without making a dent in the mess.

PURGE:
All right! You’ve finished sorting and are looking at racks of shirts, piles of magazines, and stacks of bills instead of a tangle of trash. Now you must decide what to keep and what to toss into your give-away or sell boxes. The bottom line: Keep only things that build your energy, nourish your soul, or move your life forward––those that are handy or beautiful or beloved. Keep the perfectly designed carrot peeler that always works. Toss the expensive suit you never wear.

It’s easier to let go of your possessions when you know you’ll get a little money for them, or that they’ll do someone some good. A few suggestions: If “sell” means hours of legwork or phone calls, just give it away––otherwise, it will turn right back into clutter. If you just can’t decide about that suit, try the six-month system. Put it with any other questionable items in a separate box and open the box again only after six months. Anything you didn’t miss, give away.

ASSIGN A HOME AND CONTAINERIZE:
Once you know how many shoes and books and pens you’re keeping, it’s time to make a final decision about where they go and what kind of containers you need to hold them. Try planning your space using what Morgenstern calls the “kindergarten model,” which will help you avoid the most common organizational errors––having no designated place to put various things or a system that doesn’t match the way you actually live.

A kindergarten, on the other hand, is divided into self-contained activity zones––the art corner, the music area––with supplies for each activity stored right where they are used.

Using that model for the living room, you might have a television area with places for the remote, TV guide, and videos within arm’s length of the easy chair or couch. To keep things in their area, Morgenstern recommends creative use of vertical space, building up when you can’t spread out.

Be honest about the way you actually live, and plan accordingly. If there’s a rising tide of magazines and books by your bed, don’t blame yourself for going to sleep before carting them back to their place in the living room; put a magazine rack and bookshelf within arm’s length of your pillow. One of Morgenstern’s clients kept paying her bills in the dining room, where the light and view were beautiful; she finally set up her desk there.

Measure to find out exactly what size containers you need. To make putting things away easy and enticing, find containers that are fun, beautiful, and, above all, handy.

EQUALIZE:
The hard truth is, stuff keeps rolling into the house. Our only hope is to keep it rolling right back out. Two things will help you do that.

One, bring only what you really need or love into the house. “Don’t buy clothes or anything else just because you’re in a good mood or a bad mood, or because it’s on sale,” Passoff says. Buy only what you decided you need before you entered the store. Minimizing mail helps, too. I pull flyers out of bills and drop them, the envelopes, and any brochures or catalogs I don’t want into a recycling bin even before I walk in the front door. Only the meat of the bills and personal mail make it into the house.

The other key clutter-maintenance rule: Create a home office where bills are paid, plans are made, and business is taken care of. Clutter usually represents unmade decisions or undone chores, and we use it as a sort of visible to-do list, keeping piles of forms, books, clothes, and bills gathering dust by the front door or on the kitchen table. Give yourself a desk and a place to keep files, and keep pens, envelopes, paper clips, and stamps nearby. Regina Leeds suggests keeping five red “action files” you use every day (“to do,” “to file,” “to call,” “to pay,” and “to read”) on top of your desk. Yes, we’re all old enough to open a file drawer, but as we’re running out the door or racing to the phone, we’re more likely to drop a paper into a file standing with its mouth open like a baby bird at feeding time than to fuss with a drawer.

To those who suggest that all of this might be a bit much, Morgenstern says, “You really have to raise [being organized] to a much higher level of dignity and recognize that an organizing system represents the inner workings of your life. Give yourself permission to create one that’s appealing, effective, and easy so that you can live your life at a higher level.”

Passoff agrees. Once you’re organized, she says, you can rise above the drudgery of life maintenance and “listen to what life is telling you.”

From New Age (Jan./Feb. 2001). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) from Box 1949, Marion, OH 43305.