Ten Tips for Clearing Out Clutter: Start small, think outside the box, and get it done!

Ten Tips for Clearing Out Clutter: Start small, think outside the box, and get it done!

by Heidi Smith Luedtke, Ph.D.


Fall and winter encourage us to collect more stuff. We stock up on canned goods and firewood. We give and get mountains of holiday goodies and gifts. By the time spring arrives, we’re eager to feel a sense of openness and light in our homes once again.

You don’t need an expensive whole-house makeover to refresh your emotional energy. Clearing out clutter offers a quick and inexpensive mood boost. Here’s how to do it.

Start small. If just the thought of sorting and organizing leaves you dizzy and short of breath, take baby steps. Tackle one drawer, corner, or closet at a time. You’ll gain momentum as your space opens up.

 Sort smart. Put like items together in one location so that you can see how many you have. If you buy in bulk or hang on to practical items (like half-full bottles of shampoo), you probably have two, three, or more of the same thing. Get rid of worn-out items and duplicates. Use up or consolidate. If your most-loved objects are not the most-often-used, they should be. Toss threadbare towels and use the plush, luxury linens. Life is short.

Let go of guilt. Do you keep items only because you’d feel guilty if you got rid of them? I’m talking about your great-aunt’s Hummel figurine collection and the bridesmaid dress you wore to your sister’s wedding in 1998. Your loved ones wouldn’t want you to feel obligated to keep items that overcrowd your closets and stress you out. Give yourself permission to let go.

 Test date. Even if you have only one bread machine or tennis racquet, it may be time to give it up. Discard or donate items you haven’t used in more than a year. Next time you need a specialized gadget or one-time-only outfit, borrow or rent instead of buying. You’ll save money and avoid storing things you rarely use.

 Sell out. If you don’t mind haggling, have a yard sale. Set reasonable prices and give discounts to customers who buy several items. Your goal is to get rid of things, not to get rich. Sell specialized, more expensive items online through Craigslist or eBay. Collectors and niche consumers spend more than yard-sale scavengers.

 Donate discards. List unwanted items at Freecycle.org or take them to a local thrift shop. Many charities will pick up heavy items, such as furniture, for free. Even obsolete electronics can be recycled. Go to Earth911.org to find recycling sites by zip code.

Pitch paper. Paper clutter can be overwhelming, especially if it represents decisions and actions you’ve delayed. Finish any unfinished business. Store phone numbers in your address book, pay bills, and file tax documents. Then get shredding. If you have too much to shred on your own, find a local document-destruction company. Most offer by-the-box or per-pound rates, and they are bonded and insured, so you don’t have to worry about identity theft.

 Think outside the box. Determine what storage containers you need only after you’ve whittled down your belongings. Check your closets, cupboards and garage for bags, bins and boxes. Re-use old containers or raid the cardboard recycling bin behind the neighborhood strip mall. You don’t have to spend a fortune on decorative hatboxes to corral clutter.

 Label well. The time you take to clearly label boxes and bins will pay off later. Color code and write big so that it’s easy to identify contents at a glance. You should be able to find last year’s tax records without sifting through school supplies, family photos, and take-out menus. Bonus: If you label things right, other family members will be able to find what they need without your assistance.

 Scrap it. Don’t throw out the memories with the mess. Take pictures of kids’ artwork and store them electronically. Put small mementos—like your tickets to The Lion King on Broadway or the program from your son’s sixth-grade graduation—in a scrapbook or memory box. Happy memories are the best treasures.

Heidi Smith Luedtke is a personality psychologist and reformed pack rat. She is the author of Detachment Parenting.

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