If you could really use some decluttering tips, welcome to the club. Thanks to online shopping and targeted ads on social media, it doesn’t take many of us too long to accumulate stuff. Suddenly you might look around and wonder where it all came from. For me that day came about two months into the pandemic, when the first words out of my toddler’s mouth when she woke up were, “What’s coming in the mail today?” We haven’t been buying that much, I thought. Then I looked around.
Research has found that shopping activates the “pleasure centers” of the brain—and I definitely was using shopping as a way to self-soothe in the era of COVID-19. What started as getting that toy we used to play with at the library or picking up some new pairs of sweatpants turned into daily deliveries.
What I didn’t consider when hitting Buy Now was what I was going to do once all of that stuff took up space in my house. I was in need of actually useful decluttering tips that could take me through the process step-by-step so I knew what I wanted to keep and what was no longer useful. If that’s exactly what you’re looking for, keep reading to learn how to make decluttering as painless as possible—especially when you’re already overwhelmed.
1. Understand that decluttering isn’t just physical—it’s emotional too.
Our homes are part of a growing category in environmental psychology aiming to look at our relationship to our living spaces, both in terms of what we choose to fill that space with and how it makes us feel. Not only do we fill our homes with items that are a reflection of ourselves and our interests, but we may also use those items as a way to feel connected to the outside world. (Through souvenirs, for example.) There is a fine line, however, between feeling like you have control of your possessions and feeling like your possessions have control of you. That is where we get clutter.
Researchers define clutter as “a belief that living spaces have too much stuff,” and if that sounds subjective, it is. “The problem in life isn’t that we shouldn’t own things—of course we should—the problem is we have been sold a bill of goods that our identity, who we are and what makes us a good person, only depends on how much we own,” Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., a Vincent dePaul distinguished professor and social-community psychologist at DePaul University in Chicago, who coauthored that definition of clutter, tells SELF.
The fact that our identities are so closely tied to our things is just one part of what makes it so hard to declutter. Ferrari adds that the things we own can evoke strong emotional responses: emotional attachment (“Somebody gave this to me”), fear (“I don’t know if I’m going to need this, but I might need it someday”), and hope (“I don’t wear this now, but I will when the world opens back up”). To further complicate the process, research has found that clutter can lead to procrastination—both in terms of putting off everyday tasks and actually clearing out one’s home—so the odds of decluttering being an easy process really are stacked against us.
However, all hope is not lost. Understanding that decluttering is probably going to be hard is the first step, so congratulations. You’re already on your way. Once you realize you’re going to have to sift through a range of emotions throughout the process, the physical act of decluttering can begin.
2. Don’t confuse decluttering with organizing.
Decluttering involves being intentional, not only when deciding what you actually need in your home, but also with the process itself. It is easy to think that when you’re done decluttering, everything will have a home in a clear bin that is labeled and color-coordinated, but that isn’t the case. Decluttering is one phase of the organizing process, but they are actually two separate things.
“Even though we tie them together, they are distinct skill sets,” Cindy Sullivan, a certified professional organizer and president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD), tells SELF. “Decluttering is involved in organizing, but not all organizing projects involve decluttering; it could just be, ‘I need all the things I have, and I just need them in a more functional layout.’ Decluttering is a piece that I like to put first so we aren’t expending energy or space on things that ultimately don’t need to be there.”
Sullivan urges clients to avoid rushing out to the store to buy bins or other tools before decluttering. Doing so can actually be harmful in two ways: Either you will get the wrong tools for your space and feel frustrated or like you failed—which can hinder the process—or you will end up boxing up your belongings without actually getting rid of what you don’t need. By treating decluttering and organizing as two distinct processes, you are able to be more mindful about what you have in your home.
“[We are] super-adaptive creatures,” Lindsay T. Graham, Ph.D., a research specialist at the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the significance between the home and the mind, tells SELF. “Bringing awareness to why your space is laid out the way it is or why you have the things you do and then taking stock of what is working for you—making really small changes—can actually make a really big difference in your day-to-day life, patterns, and well-being.”
3. Start small, and set realistic expectations for what you’ll accomplish.
Treating decluttering as making small changes is vital to the process. You have to start small. Whether you choose to do this by decluttering for a small amount of time or in a small space, you are giving yourself the ability to make decisions efficiently, which is something some people struggle with.
“Starting small is always the best remedy,” Ellen Delap, a certified professional organizer and past president of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO), tells SELF. “That way you don’t feel overwhelmed; you feel that this is something that is manageable and you can be successful at it.”
The other piece of the puzzle is realizing there is no one way to declutter. It’s about finding what works for you. If that means you set a timer for 15 minutes once a week, great. If that means you get rid of some things in your dresser one morning when looking for a specific shirt to wear, that’s great too. It’s easy to get discouraged if you don’t feel you are doing something the right way, so try a few different methods and see what works best for you.
“We all have different styles,” Sullivan says.
One thing that may be helpful for everyone, though, is coming up with a plan for what you’re going to do with things you don’t need before you begin decluttering. That way you can avoid winding up with a pile of things you’re ready to part with but aren’t sure how to handle—especially when you may already be tired from the decluttering itself. If you already know you’re going to donate your unused clothes or pack unnecessary items away into storage, you can choose the best receptacles for the job before you even start decluttering.
4. Treat decluttering like an appointment.
Many of us hold off on decluttering because we’re crunched for time. It might seem like it should be easier to declutter now that we’re in our homes more due to the pandemic, but for many of us, our homes have also become our offices and our children’s schools. We’re all coping with the many ways this pandemic has upended our lives. It’s not as easy as just finding the time. Delap actually thinks this is the biggest misconception about decluttering. Even when we have the time, it’s often the emotional and financial attachment we have to our things that make decluttering tough.
With that said, when it comes to finding the time—since that really can be hard, after all—Delap encourages clients to block out time for decluttering on the calendar as a recurring appointment. “Then it has more impact and you are much more intentional about doing the work,” she says. “Keep it just as if it is an appointment you would have with another person, so that way you are committed to getting started on your decluttering.”
5. Recruit a loved one to help you declutter, even virtually.
Having someone on hand to help helps you treat decluttering even more like an appointment. Also, the decision-making process might go much more smoothly with someone else helping you along the way, depending on whom you choose. Your family and friends may not have the exact same emotional attachment to items that you have, so they can help you see things in your home from a different perspective—“I haven’t ever seen you wear that, do you really need it?”—and having their company can make it more enjoyable, even if it has to be virtual due to the pandemic.
“I like to find out how I can turn this into a game,” shares Sullivan. “If it were fun to do, it would have happened by now—unless there is a time crunch. How can you get the kids involved? Maybe let the kids set the timer and cheer you on. What if we decided to make this something we laugh about at the end of the day?”
Whether you choose to have someone in-person or virtually, letting them help take on some of the decision-making can make the process much less daunting. If you still feel stuck, hiring a professional organizer to become a virtual accountability partner is another option (though it’s not financially feasible for everyone). Whether you have people close to you or not, you don’t have to be alone in the process. “The biggest bonus of having someone with you in your space is having a second set of hands,” says Delap, but having someone coach you virtually can be a motivating way to push through your decluttering blocks.
6. Accept that the decluttering process will be ongoing—and that’s okay.
The truth is this: We’re never done decluttering. When you first start decluttering, you should expect reaching even your small goals to potentially take a few tries. After that, you’ll still have work to do down the line as you acquire more things and the way you use what you already have changes. That may sound overwhelming, but it actually could be a source of relief, depending on how you view it. Thinking that decluttering is a one-and-done scenario can lead to hopelessness in the process. Even if you spend eight hours decluttering your home, that doesn’t mean you’ll never have to do it again.
“Like us, our spaces are always evolving,” shares Graham. “Because we are always evolving and [so are] our activities and schedules and the people we are interacting with, I don’t believe in the idea that you can get your space perfect. It is always going to be a work in progress. Being gentle with yourself—especially during times like now—to try to mitigate that is just as important as going through the emotions to think about what you [do and don’t] want in your space.”
Our needs change as we grow—as we settle down with a partner, or become a parent, or move into a new home—and you don’t have to hold onto things that aren’t growing with you. Decluttering can improve our mental well-being and change the way we live in our homes; all you need to do is start small and allow yourself some compassion.