How to Declutter Your Home (Even if You Hate Tidying)

Your phone dings. 

It’s a text from your house-proud friend. She’s coming round in an hour.

 You start to panic. The place is such a mess

You shove all the accumulated clutter into any available space, so there’s at least a semblance of order. 

But your cupboard doors won’t shut, your drawers are so full you doubt you’ll ever be able to open them again, and the mess underneath your bed just doesn’t bear thinking about. And when she arrives, you’re a sweaty, flustered mess.

Why do you live in such chaos? 

You know the answer. You hate tidying, and you hate tidying because you have nowhere to put anything. All your available storage space is already full of things you don’t need. 

In short, you know you need to declutter. But you have absolutely no idea where to start. 

Sound familiar? Read on (but make sure you read through to the end for truly life-changing advice).

Why Should You Declutter?

It’s tempting to stumble along through life, telling yourself that you’re a disorganised person. So what? That’s how you are; it’s no big deal. But the benefits of having an uncluttered home can be so life-changing that it really is a big deal. 

There’s strong evidence to show that clutter has a negative impact on your mental health

It makes you feel more stressed, leads to procrastination in all areas of your life, and generally makes household tasks more difficult. 

When your home is full of clutter, you can’t find things when you need them, and you’re constantly moving things around. You might avoid inviting people over because you’re embarrassed about the mess. And as you acquire clutter, the more the task of decluttering seems insurmountable. 

So decluttering relieves stress, makes household tasks easier, and gives you a greater sense of control and accomplishment. Ultimately, it’s a form of self-care that changes how you feel about yourself.

Where to start?

Firstly, if you’re serious about getting this done, you have to make a commitment and allocate time for decluttering. Be honest about the amount of time you’re willing to put in, and book an appointment with yourself in your diary. 

Remind yourself that this isn’t going to happen in a day. And forget those articles that tell you you can do it in an hour. Unless your home is already very orderly, it’s going to take you much longer than that. What’s the rush anyway? Think of this as an ongoing process rather than an ultimate goal. 

On your first appointment, make a plan. In your plan you should:

  • Decide whether you’ll declutter by category or by area. Most people opt to declutter by area, for instance, a room, a zone of a room, or even something small like a drawer. On the other hand, decluttering guru Marie Kondo recommends decluttering by category. For instance, you might like to start with books, clothes, or shoes. You don’t need to stick with one method though. You might decide that there’s a category that needs tackling before you move on to decluttering by area. 
  • Write down the order in which you’ll tackle each area or category. If you start with the messiest, you’ll see noticeable results more quickly.
  • On the other hand, if you think this will be difficult for you, it’s better to choose an easy space first. Don’t set yourself up for failure; set yourself up for success. As you progress, it’ll all start to get much easier, and then you can tackle the more difficult areas.
  • Decide on a completion date for each area or category. Challenge yourself to finish on time, but keep goals realistic.
  • Set longer chunks of time aside to tackle challenging areas.
  • Plan smaller projects for days when you have less time.

How to Proceed

Now you have your plan, it’s time to put it into action. 

Grab yourself a set of six large containers. They could be baskets, boxes or bags. Now label each container:

  • Put away
  • Mend
  • Recycle
  • Trash
  • Donate
  • Seasonal (items that need storing for a few months)

You might want to make it simpler by using fewer categories, such as ‘put away’, ‘recycle’ and ‘trash’. This is fine, just as long as you have a sorting system that works for you.

Now empty all the items from the space you’re decluttering onto the floor or a table top. Or if you’re doing this by category, gather together all your items that fall within this category. 

This is going to make a mess, so make sure you’re not being too ambitious. You don’t want to end up feeling overwhelmed.

If you think you might not have enough time to sort through it all, have another container labelled ‘unsorted’. Then you can put all the remaining items into this container and come back to it later.

Next, start sorting.

How to decide what to let go

Ask yourself some of these questions if you don’t know whether to let go:

  • Do I love it?
  • Do I use it?
  • Do I own something similar which does the same thing?
  • Is it fit for purpose?
  • Could someone else make better use of it?
  • Does it still work?
  • When was the last time I needed it?
  • Is it the best one I have?
  • Is it useful to me at this time of my life?
  • Is it beautiful?
  • Would I buy it now?

How to make it easier to let go

Shop for others

Look through your pile of stuff as if you were looking through items on sale at a second-hand store. Pick out the things someone you know might appreciate.

Pretend you’re moving

Pretend you’re moving to somewhere smaller, and the more stuff you have, the more it’s going to cost to move it all, and the greater the headache when you get to your new home.

Forget about how much it cost

Don’t dwell on the cost of the item when you originally bought it. It makes no difference to you now. Sell it if you want to, but be honest about whether you’ll really get around to doing that. 

Remember why you’re doing this

Keep in mind your vision of living in an uncluttered home, and the feeling of pleasure, satisfaction and calmness this will give. 

Remind yourself that the value of a gift is the feeling that came with it

If you don’t like or use something that was a gift, it’s perfectly fine to let it go. The purpose of the gift was for someone to let you know that they valued you, and the pleasure that intention gave you.

Realize that even if you’ve had something for a long time you can still let it go

If you love something you’ve had for a long time, then, of course, keep it. But if you don’t really like it or use it, then let it go. Time doesn’t give it extra value. 

Remember, keeping things has a consequence

Keeping something you don’t need takes up a little more room in your home, makes things a little more cluttered, and keeps you a little further away from having an uncluttered home. Lots of little things like that add up to something big. 

Give yourself permission to buy again

If you’re undecided whether to let go of something because you might need it in the future, remind yourself that you could buy it again. And that’s OK. 

Where to dispose of clutter

So now you have all this unwanted stuff, and you’re not quite sure what to do with it. Some of it is easy. It goes in the trash. But what about all the other stuff?

  • Donate items that are still in good condition. Make sure they’re clean and usable. The Association of Professional Declutterers and Organizers have some great ideas for donating. 
  • Recycle everything you can; it’s more beneficial to the environment than putting everything in the trash. Read more about recycling at the Environmental Protection Agency. 
  • If you have a lot of stuff that isn’t suitable for donating or recycling, take it to the tip or rent a dumpster.
  • Have a garage sale or sell online, but be honest about whether you’re really willing to put in the time this takes.

Putting stuff away

“A place for everything, and everything in its place” 

That’s a great quote, but no one seems entirely sure who first said it. Most seem to agree that it’s old, possibly going back to the 17th century.

 There’s a reason it’s stood the test of time, and that’s because it’s just as relevant now as it ever has been. It’s the cornerstone of keeping a tidy home (or office, or any other space you live or work in).

If you don’t have any free space to make a designated place for everything, that’s going to cause a problem. Which is why decluttering is your first priority. But once you’ve cleared some space, you then need to think about what’s going to go where. 

Don’t just shove everything in the first place you think of. 

Really think this through and write a plan. 

Make space for the things you use most in convenient places, close to where you’re going to use them. If something isn’t going to be used for a few months, like festive decorations, or seasonal clothes, then you can put them in a space that’s less accessible. 

Use labels to indicate where things go if you or your family need reminders.

If, when you’ve finished decluttering, you still find you’re struggling to find free space to put things, dig even deeper. Go through your stuff again and be more ruthless. 

Then and only then if you still don’t have enough space to put everything away, buy some new storage items. There’s a wealth of beautiful and useful storage solutions available for every kind of storage need. But remember: 

Buying and filling more storage is not the same as decluttering.

Tips to make decluttering pain-free

  • When you have less time or motivation, declutter something small, like a drawer, a desk or a shelf. As long as you do something, you’re moving things forward.
  • Predetermine a set length of time for decluttering. Make it short if you haven’t much time or energy. Make it longer if you’re feeling super-motivated.
  • Save big projects for the weekend or when you know you’ll have the time to really get stuck in.
  • Set decluttering goals, such as finishing the bathroom by the end of the day. Or sorting and decluttering your clothes by the end of the month.
  • Record your goals and achievements in a decluttering journal.
  • Buy some attractive storage baskets to use for unsorted items. Then even if you don’t finish that day, the room will still look tidy. 
  • Don’t expect this process to be quick. Decluttering takes time if it’s done properly.
  • Take before and after photos.
  • Start a room, a zone, or a category and only move on when you’ve completed it.
  • If you find it difficult to let go of stuff, have a ‘maybe’ container, then sleep on it before you make a final decision. Set a time limit on your ‘maybe’ category so that it doesn’t become a permanent fixture.
  • Keep a box in your closet. Place unwanted clothing in there whenever you come across it.
  • Practice one in, one out. Every time a new item enters your home, an old one must leave.
  • Practice touch it once. This is a technique for keeping on top of paperwork. As soon as you receive bills, reminders or correspondence, deal with it appropriately. No shuffling it about on your desk.
  • Set up regular reminders to do a mini declutter, for instance once a day or once a week.
  • Listen to, or read inspiring books by decluttering experts such as Marie Kondo, watch decluttering shows on TV, or follow decluttering influencers on Instagram.
  • Remind yourself that although it might be overwhelming now, the more you do this the easier it will be.

Make decluttering a habit

This is where we start to get down to the really important stuff. Your first declutter is a great start, but your home will soon revert back to how it was before unless you make decluttering and tidying a habit. 

Decluttering is an ongoing task which you need to do regularly.

We’re much more inclined to take up positive habits such as decluttering if we create an environment in which those habits are as easy as possible. So you need to design an environment and a system which makes remaining clutter-free a cinch. 

Throw stuff out regularly. Decluttering should be a daily, or weekly routine. Every item that comes into your home needs a designated place, and you need to make sure there’s always enough storage space in which to put them. 

Try to get every adult in your household to help where they can, or at least not work directly against you. 

We’re more likely to take up habits when we associate them with positive feelings. If you do something you enjoy at the same time as you carry out a difficult habit, you’ll have more positive feelings about it. Then you’ll be far more likely to adopt it as a regular habit. 

For instance, whilst you’re doing your decluttering, make a habit of listening to your favourite music, or an audiobook. Immediately after you finish, make some time to put your feet up with a cup of really good coffee, or take a hot bath. Try to do this consistently, so that you strongly associate the habit of decluttering with those pleasurable activities. 

We’re more likely to repeat a behaviour if the experience is satisfying, and we respond far more easily to immediate rewards than to delayed rewards. So to get a habit to stick you need to feel immediately successful, even if it’s in a small way. 

This is why working on small decluttering projects and seeing them through to the end is a good idea. 

It’ll give you an immediate feeling of satisfaction, which will strengthen your desire to do it again. 

Taking before and after photos is a great idea which will help consolidate this feeling of satisfaction. 

Habit tracking is another useful tool devised by James Clear which can help you establish new habits. In its most basic form, a habit tracker is a calendar with a tick box for each date. When you’ve completed whichever habit you’re tracking, you place a tick in the box for that date. 

Try using a habit tracker to track your decluttering and tidying habits. For instance, you could set yourself a challenge to do a twenty-minute tidy every day, and a decluttering project once a week, for one whole month. It can be really satisfying and motivating to see an unbroken run of ticks.

Turn yourself into an organized person

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, says that the most effective way to change your habits is to focus not on what you want to achieve, but on who you wish to become. 

Right now, you have a belief that you’re a disorganized person who hates tidying. This is a belief that you learned earlier in life and have reinforced ever since. The truth is, If you continue with this belief you’re never going to keep your home uncluttered.

Clear says that the deepest behaviour change comes about through identity change. You can start a new habit through willpower and motivation, but you’ll only stick with it if it becomes a deeply held belief about yourself.

Changing your self-identity is a simple two-step process: 

  • Decide the type of person you want to be. 
  • Prove it to yourself with lots of small successes.

For instance, instead of focusing solely on the practical aspects of having a tidy, uncluttered home, place even more importance on adopting a strong belief that you’re a tidy and organised person. Make it part of your identity. 

The way to do this is to prove it to yourself by adopting the habits of a tidy person. Throughout your day, ask yourself what a tidy person would do. Would a tidy person make their bed or leave it until just before they got back in? Would a tidy person hang their coat up or leave it over the back of a chair? Start acting in alignment with your new identity (the tidy person). 

Every time you do this, you strengthen your new beliefs about yourself and begin to create a new identity. The more you repeat the behaviours of a tidy person, the stronger your new ‘tidy person’ identity becomes. The stronger your ‘tidy person’ identity becomes, the more likely you are to act that way. 

The habits you practice regularly will reform you into the person you want to be. 

Isn’t that amazing?

It’s Time to Start Your Decluttering Journey

Imagine for a moment, that in 6 months’ time, your house-proud friend unexpectedly texts to tell you she’s on her way. 

This time, you look around and there’s really not much to do. You take your coffee cup through to the kitchen, plump the cushions a little and light a scented candle. 

You’re really looking forward to her visit. You can sit, relax, and enjoy her company.

Doesn’t that sound better?

Well, now you have all the information you could possibly need to make this a reality. You can find your way out of your disorganization and clutter for ever.

So make a commitment.

Write that appointment in your diary and begin your decluttering journey today.