5 Small Ways to Unclutter Every Day
Guest post by Matt Madeiro
You know, if I could meet those nameless villains who robbed my home about six months back, I’d probably say this: “Thanks for robbing me. Jerks.”
In all seriousness, though, I’m not so sad that they did. I’m not looking for an encore, sure, but I can’t deny the surprise benefits of coming home one day and finding my house in shambles. I lost some pretty expensive toys, but less than 24 hours without them drove home a pretty incredible point: I didn’t need them anyway. I didn’t need any of that stuff suffocating my floor, the clutter in every corner that demanded valuable time to organize and keep tidy. So I dumped the stuff bit by bit and haven’t looked back since. And you know what? I’ve never been happier to be living a simpler, cleaner life.
Sounds pretty wonderful, right? Here are a few steps to get you started.
1. Keep track of what you use (and what you don’t!)[tweetmeme]Easy, breezy, and the most important step of all: make a list of what you use. Break out the pen and paper at the start of the day and keep it close as you go about your daily routine. Every time you use something in your home, make note of it, and continue this process for the rest of the week.
Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? But there’s a method to the madness, one made apparent when you make the official tally at the end. Those items near the top of the list? You can keep those. Everything else needs to go. The hardest part of decluttering is admitting what can be tossed, especially when our inner voice likes to sabotage the process. It’s human nature to think “I’ll use this someday,” but let’s be honest here: you probably won’t. You’re going to shove that item in a drawer and probably never see it again.
Cut everything you can. Refer to the list when necessary and don’t let that little voice change your mind.
2. Don’t get so sentimental!
Keepsakes, those lovely little icons of bygone years, don’t like your list. They especially don’t like any threats to their survival, and will invoke all sorts of fuzzy feelings should you consider dumping them. That’s the natural reaction, unfortunately, which might explain why the keepsakes stuck around longest whenever I was tearing through my room.
Here’s the thing: the best memories are those that linger even without an accompany object. The memories that flood in every time you start digging through dusty boxes are precious too, but not at the expense of the clutter they bring to your home. Those big stacks of boxes are easily the worst offenders, a constant clutter that travels with you from home to home and expands as the years go by.
Dump the keepsakes. But don’t fret! You don’t have to be completely heartless when you do it. Grab your digital camera, crack open those boxes of memories, and let’s get to work. Take a picture of each item that you still feel tempted to keep – one photo a day. That’d be a lot of photography all together, and emptying out those boxes in the attic will take far more time – and willpower – than you’d probably expect. Transfer those keepsake photos to your computer, rename each photo after its respective item, and open up a new text document in that same folder. For every picture, write down that exact memory you associate with it in as much detail as you can. Problem solved!
Let’s be honest: you don’t need the physical keepsake itself. The real value is in the memory attached to it, so a good photo of that object will give you best of both worlds. And, should your head ever get fuzzy, that text document will be ready to remind you of why you were so determined to keep the keepsake in the first place.
3. Recycle, Freecycle, and make the world a happier place
I should be clearer: dump the stuff in an eco-friendly way. Don’t immediately send your clutter to the trash, as that benefits no one and is like making a rude gesture at mother Earth. If you’re determined to sell your stuff, the usual suspects apply: EBay, Craigslist, garage sale etc. If you’re just looking to get rid of it, however, a plethora of options await.
Recycling is self-explanatory, but also unfortunately very dependent on your area. Recycle everything you can, but don’t just trash everything else. There’s a nifty site called Freecycle where you can just give your clutter away for free. I used it pretty religiously in the first few weeks after the robbery, as it’s an amazing resource for that exact stuff you thought nobody would ever want to own. Losing a computer monitor and being left with just a big bag of computer cords? Not awesome. Posting that big bag of stuff up on Freecycle and having someone offer to grab it within a week? Awesome.
Why not sign up today? Joining is free, naturally, and the process of offering up your stuff is as easy as can be. If you’re intent on using it, try and offer up something today – something you’re convinced no one will want, something you’re convinced that you’ll just have to trash. I can’t guarantee someone will take it, but I can promise you’ll feel a lot better trying to let someone else claim it before the trash can does.
4. Embrace technology…sometimes.
As much as I love a good piece of technology, digital entertainment can get pretty exhausting. How many CDs do you own? Better yet, how many DVDs are stacked high beside your TV? Digital clutter can be some of the hardest to downsize, especially when you remember how many coins those tiny little discs cost in the first place. Movies are expensive, but still we snatch them up, watch them once, and then rush on to the next release.
Think about it. How many times have you sat down and pulled a DVD from your collection? I’m more likely to skip through television channels than ever sit down for a full film, which made my huge collection of DVDs just a teensy bit pointless. So what to do with those discs? Technology, for all of its faults, can also prove pretty useful. The ability to rip music from CDs and store it on your computer is readily available, and the software to rip the movie off a DVD is a viable option for someone looking to sell the disc. Media stored this way occupies space on your computer but nowhere else, letting you downsize your digital collection with a smile.
That big stack of CDs on your desk? Yeah. I have one too. Starting today, take the top three discs and start moving the files to your hard drive. The entire stack will take time, but a day-by-day approach is a guaranteed way to win.
5. Rethink the when and why of what you buy!
Eliminating the clutter from your life is a massive task, so don’t stress yourself – take it slow, steady, one day at a time. If that’s not enough progress for you, there’s another change you can incorporate from the start: change your perspective on purchases. Easier said than done, right? Modern society stresses buy, buy, buy, but breaking out of that consumerist mindset is hands-down one of the most important things you can do.
Want to keep your home as simple and clean as they day you finally clean it out? Stop buying. Modern marketing is clever enough to convince you that you need that new thing right this instant, but resist temptation with a strong smile. Buy what you need when you need it, but realize that you don’t need much in the first place. You need food, family, shelter and friends, only one of which can be found at the market. That’s lofty and philosophical, sure, but you can still implement this policy in your day-to-day activities.
Rent movies. Buy music online. Admit that you really don’t need new clothes. Decluttering your life and home doesn’t require giving up your favorite toys, but it does encourage you to spend your hard-earned cash on people, memories, and experiences – the best parts of life, all of which aren’t so easily stolen.
I learned that the hard way. Follow any of these steps, though, and you’re already ahead of the game!
Matt Madeiro is a writer, traveler, and absolutely terrible at describing himself. When not writing about self-improvement at his regular home, Three New Leaves, he likes to lurk on Twitter, engaging in passionate discussions with the few people who actually read these bio things and click the pretty links.[tweetmeme]
Thank you so much for the guest post Matt. I think number 5’s the most important one. If only we could stop buying all this stuff we don’t need we wouldn’t have to spend so much time decluttering! One tip I have is to steer clear of advertising on TV and in magazines or newspapers. It makes us want more stuff we don’t need.
Right, off to clear out that laundry cupboard now – it’s a health hazard – every time I open it stuff falls out on top of me:)
Thanks so much for having me, Annabel! I love your site and everything you’re doing here, so please keep kicking ass in the blogosphere. :)
Number five is definitely the most important, but also probably the hardest. Changing the way we interact with a society so hell-bent on buy, buy, buy is never easy, but an oh-so valuable adventure all the same.
Good tip about advertising! The sheer quantity of products thrown at us every time we turn on the TV is pretty remarkable in itself.
Thanks again! :)
Love the idea about taking photos of memorobilia and then writing about it and THEN throwing it out. Genius!
Glad you like it! Getting rid of keepsakes is one of the hardest parts of downsizing, but it helps to take a step back and consider why you wanted to keep that stuff in the first place: the memory.
Do whatever you need to preserve that memory, and suddenly the keepsake itself is kinda useless. :)
Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
Hi Heather, I thought that was interesting too. It seems like having a little ritual to acknowledge how much we once valued things would be good – just before we freecylcle them!
Some great, no-nonsense tips on decluttering our lives here.
The idea of changing the approach to how we purchase in the first place is especially helpful. That’s the first stage at when most ‘clutter stuff’ comes into our lives – and the starting point for filtering out.
Applying some clear criteria to the stuff we buy helps cut down on unnecessary purchases, reduces unwanted items… and saves money!
Declutter your lifestyle, Clutter your wallet ;-)
Hehe, nice headline there Scott, I like your thinking:)
I like that headline too! :)
Thanks for reading and commenting, Scott. Step five is definitely an important one – we could avoid clutter in the first place if we never bought anything, but that’s far easier said than done. :) I think your idea is the best approach: place clear limitations on what and when you buy so that you can focus on the essential. That’s hard to do, but definitely a worthy task.
Slow and steady is such a smart approach to lasting change! Excellent points on decluttering. Thank you.
Privately, ;) I do like it when people buy lots of things they don’t need in the sense that it stimulates the economy. :) Zen simplicity seems anathema to a capitalist growth economy. There’s probably a sensible balance point somewhere.
Helping you succeed in business (yes, the commercial guy!!) :)
Thanks for reading and commenting, Robin!
You raise a good point. But maybe we can hit that sensible balance when people buy a lot of only what they need (I’m thinking delicious food!)? I don’t pretend to be well-versed in economics, but that seems like a pretty healthy compromise.
Hi Robin, you have a good point. I’m no economist but on the other side of the equation I’m more into not buying so much so I can work less. I hate seeing people work their butts off so they can buy all the flash new thingies we don’t really need:)
Great tips on decluttering. I love simplistic living. I am sooo not a hoarder and have a good clean out about once every three months. Anything I haven’t used in the past few months, is broken, old, or just plain in the way goes either to charity or the tip. I feel so good after a good clean out.
I particularly like point 4 – am saving towards decluttering this area and also simplifying and reducing remote controls!
The cleaning is so satisfying, isn’t it? :)
And not just throwing things in the garbage can, of course – sitting down and taking stock of what you own, focusing on the essential and sending everything else off to greener pastures. Knowing that what remains is what you genuinely need is a great feeling indeed.
Number four is usually my weakness. I love my tech toys!
Thanks for reading and commenting, Jodi! :)
ah, yes, #5. That’s been a BIG one for me.
Initially it was a lack of money that started me think “do I really need this?” but now I find that if I sleep on the decision to buy, I often discover I’ve already got something that does that job, or it isn’t actually that important to have. Not only has it saved me money, but there is now less ‘clutter’ and it is much easer to focus.
Thanks for the other points as well. Good fodder for thought.
Thanks for reading and commenting, Ben!
Sleeping on a potential purchase is usually what keeps me from buying it. :) There’s the popular option, too, of the two-month mind trial: if you still want the object two months after you first encountered it, then you can buy it. At that point, it’s either something you need or are willing to work hard to purchase.
I have a terrible love for technology, so the two-month trial is vital to keep me from running off and buying every shiny new thing in sight. :)
Matt you are a man after my own heart.
Yes I try to encourage my friends/colleagues/clients to do all of the things you suggest – in particular taking a photo of the stuff you feel sentimentally attached to then ditching it.
Hallelujah and lovely to connect.
Glad to connect too! Thanks for reading and commenting, Helen. :)
Keep fighting the good fight! Friends and family (my own, at least!) are always a little resistant to change, but the massive garage sale that happened at my home recently suggests the message makes it through eventually. :)
Hi Helen, ah, interesting that you recommend that one too:) Yes, it’s lovely to connect here. I love it!
Excellent advice! I always feel so much lighter psychologically when I go through a purging spurt. I try to do it twice a year, but better to make it a habit. The tip on photographing memoribilia is genius!
I’ve RT’d already!
Thanks for the RTs Barbara! You’re a star. And I see you have your camera all ready there:)
Thanks for the RT, Barbara!
I love that mental feeling of lightness whenever I successfully donate/sell/wish away my big bags of stuff. I can normally get by with twice a year or so too, but it can get pretty disheartening to see how much stuff we collect in six months’ time. It might just be safer to work on it week by week and never let the tower fo crap start to build in the first place. :)
And thanks so much for reading and commenting!
Recently, we moved, and my fiance kept saying, “Let’s just throw everything out!” He’s very much about this kind of mindset. Me, not so much. I have a box of old letters that I can’t ever throw out, and other things that remind me of my childhood. I think the advice gets a little problematic when you’re dealing with stuff that you made, or that other people put a lot of effort into making for you, rather than just objects that you bought along the way. Some of my old paintings are terrible, but I like being able to watch myself develop through them.
Hi Kate, I know, it’s so hard. I still have all my old story books from when I was a kid! Definitely things with sentimental value are good to hang on to and I have a few items of clothing I wish I’d still got for fancy dress parties!
That’s a good point, Kate. I’m in a similar boat with a lot of the things I’ve written in the past, especially when I like to look back on them and see how far I’ve come. I’m lucky, though, in that I have a lot of those old stories typed up somewhere, so I can keep them neatly on my computer.
Paintings, however, are a different story. I’d say you could photograph them and still be able to live without them, but that’s a pretty bold assumption. :) At the end of the day, though, part of simplistic living involves determining what’s essential to you. If your paintings fall into that category, then I’d say they’re worth keeping around!
Thanks for reading and commenting, Kate!
The heaviest one on this list is probably the “sentimental value”. Most people feel connected to the past through the tangible things they associate with that past. It is natural for us to cling to our things specially if they’ve been part of a special memory. So, I think, or I feel, that “don’t get so sentimental” is easier said than done. ;-)
Hi Marlon, oh it is! My mother is a terrible hoarder. She has this plait of hair that was cut off my granny’s head when she was a kid. So wierd but hard to throw away! I’m the same with my kid’s baby teeth. Eeek.
Oh, it definitely is. :) The stronger the memory, the stronger the pull to keep that object around, so even a high-quality photo might not suffice.
That’s the beauty of simplistic living/minimalism, however. Your goal is to focus on the essential and eliminate everything else. Certain keepsakes, if they invoke incredible memories, might very well fall into the essential category. If thats the case, keep ’em around! But I’m sure there are a ton of other sentimental items up in the attic that don’t have quite the same pull, so decluttering is still an option.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting!
What a w0nderful post, although I’m the sentimental type, those items really have to be special to keep around or out they go to charity.
I always feel so much “lighter” and my house much cleaner after I clear it -I also just love the act of decluttering!
~ Lee :)
Hi Lee, definitley love the light feeling you get when you chuck the junk that never gets used. I have a few friends who use cleaning to destress. Sadly, I’m not one of them! Nothing is more satisfying than carrying a bin bag full of rubbish to the bin or off to the charity shop. Especially if it’s full of kid’s toys!
Declutterinng is awesome. :) It’s such a wonderful feeling to look back at a formerly messy room and see all the progress you’ve made, isn’t it? And that’s why I’m okay with the fact that decluttering, for me, will be a life-long process. Realistically speaking, I’m not going to be able to avoid clutter every single time, but I can take some comfort too in how satisfying and enjoyable the declutterinng process is. :)
Thanksk for reading and commenting, Lee!
This is a subject I have given a lot of thought to. I thought I was always pretty good at getting rid of clutter and had a organized house, until I was forced to get down to the nitty gitty of if when moving to another country. I had a lot more stuff to get rid of than I realized and deciding what to purge and what to keep was very difficult. I’m sure I still have things in storage that I will wonder why I kept them when I get to unpack someday? Now I have lived without that stuff for 7 months and I’m kind of wondering what is in storage? I have been living with very little. I am missing some objects that I do use but I have kind of forgot what is there. I think we will have to go through it all again before we would want to pay for shipping the stuff. One suggestion I would make for people in my situation would be to write down everything in every box and number the boxes. That way customs will know what is in each box but also equally important is that if you have to bother writing down what is in the box you had better want it pretty badly. It is hard to know what to keep when you don’t know what the future holds, but we had 4 garage sales before we left and it felt pretty good. My two oldest kids were grown before the move and my youngest is out of the toy stage so that added to the mass.
Also I have known some a couple of people who live in clutter…..I’m talking piles of it around them everyday. My mother is one of them and when her house was flooded and most stuff had to be thrown out…….. it was a blessing in disguise. I think people who grew up during the depression have some other deep seeded issues but sometimes “holding on to objects” is connected with depression so this issues can go very deep for some people. My Mom used to complain about not having the energy to deal with it all…….I would tell her to go through one drawer, one pile, or one cupboard a day, but yet she never could for some reason.
I have one more thing to add. It seems one man’s clutter is another man’s treasure. Our DVD collection seems to be the pride and joy of my husband and son. They like touching them and cataloging them all and do watch movies almost every day. We don’t like what is on TV most of the time and would rather watch a good movie, so each person has to decide what is important to them. I’m sure someday soon DVD;s will be replaced in technology though and they will have to move on to the next phase where you just download movies instead of buying them on disk, but for now they at least store them in books instead of the original cases.
Also, I like to have a home with a great atmosphere and that is important to me, so having decorations around makes me feel good. We also love books and even though we got rid of tons of outdated ones for this move, we kept a lot too. So even though I agree that we can live with so much less……I also think it is important to keep the things that truely do enrich our lives. And thoughs things will stand out more if we get rid of the clutter.
Thanks for the wonderful comment, Brenda. :) I can see you’ve given all of this a lot of thought!
I know what you mean about the moving process. I gave myself a week to pack everything up before moving after college wrapped up, and – looking back on it now – that might have been one of the worst weeks of my life. Just seeing the gargantuan amount of crap I’d collected was disheartening from the start, but the process of making it all fit into my car just stressed me out even further. :) That’s a brilliant idea about marking the boxes, though. Labeling a box really forces you to consider what’s in it, especially when you look back and think “oh, wow. I have six different kitchen boxes?” and can try and downsize from there.
You might be right about the depression-era mentality. I have several older relatives who hoard things like nobody’s business, and like your mother they seem daunted at times by the enormity of what they’ve collected. Slow and steady usually does the trick, but even that can be exhausting when you don’t see the stacks of stuff move as quickly as you like. Have tried tackling the mess with her? Maybe the two of you working in tandem could speed up the decluttering just enough to show her how viable it is in the first place.
Home decorations are an interesting subject. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ll ever understand something like throw pillows, but I know too that there’s nothing “homey” about bare white walls and non-existent furniture. Part of minimalism, for me, is determing what is essential to you at your own part of life, so don’t let decluttering equal a destruction of the home environment. If the decorations and books enrichen your life, like you said, then I see no problem in keeping them. They turn too easily into clutter, admittedly, but knowing what you yourself need is a big step in the downsizing process. :)
Thanks for reading and commenting!
I completely agree with #3. In addition to recycling and freecycling, we also reuse a lot of things (the back of paper, jars, cans, etc.), which saves us a lot of money in the long run. If someone doesn’t claim your stuff on Craigslist, take it to the local Goodwill or donate it to an organization that has a need for it. Old cell phones, blankets, musical instruments, broken crayons … they can all find a second life.
Exactly! It can be tempting to dump stuff in the trash can just to get rid of it, but that just seems incredibly wasteful in the long run. There’s always going to be someone who could use whatever you’re trying to get rid of, and while it’s extra effort on your part to seek them out, you’ll feel a lot better if you do.
And keeping the planet happy is pretty important too. :)
Thanks for reading and commenting, JoAnna!
Matt, I really appreciate your emphasize on de-cluttering in an ecological aware way. Thanks these 5 to the heart of the matter tips. Like you, I got a declutter kick in the butt. Best thing to every happen.
Thanks for reading and commenting, Sandra!
Hopefully your kick in the butt wasn’t quite as dramatic. :) But hey – it worked for both of us, and I daresy we’re happier as a result!
A great post. Coincidentally, I only just found out about ‘freecycle’ the other day – such a great idea and something I am definitely going to use next time we do a de-clutter.
I have moved around a lot so far, never more than 3-4 years in the one house and the benefit of this has been that I have not built up the clutter that I see some friends/family having who have been in the same house for years. So my tip number 6 would be – move house regularly… because you won’t want to pack and unpack heaps of boxes of things that you do not even use. LOL. Perhaps too drastic a step just to declutter? :)
Moving is such a pain. :) But I really have to agree with your sixth step – it seems like people who settle down in one place for too long keep accumulating crap all the while, so maybe a new home every few years is just the ticket for avoiding the clutter monster.
That sounds a little expensive, admittedly, but hey! Maybe all the money people would save following step #5 would leave them with plenty of cash in pocket to faciliate the moving process. :)
Thanks for reading and commenting!
This post is obviously right down my street because decluttering and simplifying is large part of what I write about. The path to So Much More Life includes living simply and more deliberately.
Great job, Matt. It’s nice to discover you.
Great to discover you too, Gip! I’ll have to check your site. I love finding simple-living bloggers, so I can’t wait to see what you’ve been writing about!
And thanks for reading and commenting!
Hi Annabel, loving your blog!
Thanks Matt for some great info! I spent many years collecting stuff and now my hubby and I are looking at intentional vagabonding in a few years so I am starting to pare down!
Just a comment or 2! Taking a picture of your childens artwork is the next best thing to keeping it! If it is good enough to frame and hang on the wall, then do so, otherwise, take a picture and throw it away when they are not around!
One thing I have found that helps me when I want to “have” something is to ask myself “do I really have to own it?” Is there some other way I can use or have the benefit? I try not to buy many books (I used to have 100s!) but get from the library or at least buy used and sell after done with.
Great stuff! http://bernicewood.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/plug-your-energy-drains/
I’d like to ask if over-organization can be a disease, right, Annabel? ;)!
I think I suffer from it – I LOVE to organize, declutter, give away, donate, sell or trash or recycle what I don’t use and question a hundred times before I buy new. I have to admit, the clarity of mind and peace of mind that comes from having a space that is organized with everything in its place and nothing extra in the way – that alone oughta motivate all of us to get ourselves in excellent organized shape. Thank you for a fantastic post Annabel!!!!
It’s tough to figure out what you really need and what you really want, especially when you look at this thing or that thing.
When you lose people in your life, it’s a quick reminder that things are things, and people are irreplaceable.
It seems like limits and constraints are the best way to get perspective on what really matters. When I travel in my RV, I can only fit so much — so I have to be very selective about what I bring with me. I learned I really don’t need much.
FRACKING good post! We recently moved to a smaller house, and even though I tried getting rid of a lot of stuff before we moved, I still find myself completely irritated at all the JUNK we have. I keep telling my husband we have so much stuff we don’t need, and he looks at me, perplexed, and asks, “Really? What?” All I can do is wave my arms around.
I LOVE your idea of taking pictures of keepsakes and then writing a short aritcle on the memory. That’s much better than the keepsake itself, since it no longer requires you to remember the circumstances and can be collated with other memories much easier. Easier to share and pass down the generations too!
Consider me a fan!
Gotta say that your more than correct about many of your points here. So easily we seem to reach a point of attachment to those objects that are mostly causing us more work, than the benefits that they are providing in some cases. I think that this was a great post of points. Have a great week Annabel
Oh lordy..so needed this post. lol… I’ve definitely been trying to declutter, but I KNOW I can do so much better if I just make up my mind to get ruthless and do it. And you’re right… a digital photo of keepsakes would likely do the trick just as well.. although I’d be tempted to store everything on more than one separate harddrive, lol “just in case”. :-/
Anyway excellent ideas overall and some I am going to begin implementing right away.. starting with my desk and then my closet! :D
I try to keep things like this in mind especially when organizing my desk space (which is just about a once-a-day activity for me). Too much clutter leaves me feeling overwhelmed and unproductive so I think it’s important to tidy up if even just a little bit.
So timely, I’m starting a declutter project and will document my progress on my blog, if you are interested in joining (the support can help!)
I will definitely try the digital keepsake idea and report back on how it all worked out. Thanks so much for the great tips :)
Just want to say THANK YOU I have been trawling the web for de-cluttering, and you said it all! and love the donation part, good luck to you, mary