When you first start decluttering, what’s the first thing you should do?
You’re standing at the bottom of a mountain of stuff, and you know things have to change. You can feel the fire in your heart for a cleaner, clearer path forward. But you’re worried. Because the job just seems enormous.
How can you start, and make your start a success? So that several hours later you aren’t sitting in an explosion of your own things, conflicted over how many pencil sharpeners you need to keep, while on the floor around you is a flood of stuff that you can’t seem to find a home for?
False starts are so common. Our enthusiasm exceeds our ability and we end up either unsatisfied with how little progress we manage to make (and then we give up), or worse, in a bigger mess than before we started.
Here is a guide to getting started.
1. Decluttering by keeping like with like
This is a GREAT first step, and something that is so much easier to tackle than making decisions about getting rid of things. In fact, you can turn this into a project all of its own. This is the method that I used which finally made a significant difference.
Don’t start by getting rid of things, start by sorting things out. This might mean that you have to box things up and put them away, or pile them up in rooms – you won’t be creating space initially. However, keeping all things together not only allows you to see more clearly what you own, it makes it easier to decide what you might be able to live without, and it also goes a long, long way to completely banishing “lost item” syndrome, where things end up incomplete, with missing parts, or with vanishing accessories.
Use this in combination with sorting out specific areas – and when you find things that don’t belong, put them where they do belong.
Keep like with like.
2. Decluttering by getting rid of the crap first
You know what I mean. Sometimes it seems easier to overlook the easy-wins because it doesn’t feel like real “decluttering”. However, the amount of junk that can go really can make a difference if you are a bit of hoarder. These are the things you should do first:
- Recycle the glass jar collection
- Chuck out all the broken flower pots
- Recycle the plastic bag collection
- Throw out broken umbrellas, mugs with chips or cracks, chipped or broken ornaments, scratched CDs and DVDs, novelty gifts you are never going to use
- Recycle used envelopes, directories, catalogues, magazines, junk mail, old manuals and newspapers
- WEEE recycle (or trade in) broken cables, old mobile phones and chargers, old memory sticks and broken appliances
- Textile recycle threadbare socks and clothes
- Donate books you know you are never going to read.
This list is not exhaustive!
Low hanging fruit
If you have to think about something, leave it for now. Really just go for all the low hanging fruit. Don’t concentrate on one area – wander around the whole house picking things out. Don’t pull everything out of a drawer or cupboard and tip it all over the floor.
You are looking for all the easy stuff, and you don’t want to make more mess, right?
- If you genuinely intend to get something fixed, make a point of getting it fixed now.
- Beware of throwing away things with missing bits (odd socks, boardgames, etc.). There is a good chance that if you can keep working on your environment, and you keep like with like, they will turn up. I designated a corner for “lost and found” and I still use it today (it’s now in a drawer). Very useful for kids toys and games.
- If you plan to sell things at any point, it may also be worth keeping empty boxes and padded envelopes to use as packaging. For a long time I had a cupboard full of these while I sold things on eBay. However, it’s also worth evaluating the time cost of selling. Read about my experience and why I eventually started giving things away (like a laptop!).
3. Decluttering by returning things that don’t belong to you
Decluttering sometimes means sorting out other people’s things.
Depending on how much of a borrower/helper you are, this might be a lot, or a little.
If you are storing anything for anyone else, call time and explain that they need to take it back. Have you been lent books, DVDs, or CDs? Ask yourself how long you’ve had them and have you used them yet? If it’s more than a week and you haven’t touched them, the chances are they will still be sat on your shelf in 6 months time.
You know this is true.
Don’t take on what you don’t have space to handle. If you can’t even read all your own books and watch all your own films, why are you borrowing someone elses?
And if your answer is that the ones that you borrow are more compelling than the ones that you own, doesn’t that say something about what you own?
Be discerning about what you spend your time on. Don’t watch or read things because they “pass the time”. Do it because they are fantastic. And as I said above (I’ll say it again because it’s worth repeating):
Don’t take on what you don’t have the space (or time) to handle.
4. Going forward
Once you’ve started moving things around (so you’re keeping things together that should be kept together), and you’ve purged the real crap, and you’ve given back all the stuff that doesn’t belong to you, you’re onto Level 2.
This is where things take a bit more thought. But know that you’ve laid a great foundation with what you’ve done already. The one thing to be careful of at this point, is buying to fill the void.
After a good sort out, it can seem like you really need to go out and buy some decent storage/new work skirts/better toys for the kids/new mugs.
This is first and foremost a reaction to the space you have generated. Secondly it’s a misconception, fuelled by years of advertising, that buying things will lead to happiness.
What you have gotten rid of does not need to be replaced. It can take a long time to settle into a feeling of space where once there was stuff. Try to sit with it and just be. You don’t have to fill the void you have created. As you travel along your own path you will realise that you can do other things to deal with this discomfort (and deep down, that’s exactly what it is).
Help! I still want to buy something!
If you feel that urge to buy really strongly after sorting and clearing out, try this:
- Allow yourself to buy something, but keep it small and inexpensive. Don’t attempt to overhaul your wardrobe or redecorate the bedroom.
- Fill the void with doing not having. Read a book (maybe one from your shelf you’ve been meaning to read for the last three years?). Make a point of setting aside that time, and really getting into it. Go for a coffee with a friend. Go the the cinema with your partner. Pay for a pedicure. Do something. It will satisfy the feeling of needing to have something in a way that won’t undo your good work.
If you’ve completed the steps above and you are just starting out with decluttering, this should have made a big difference for you. If it helped, please let me know – I love to hear from my readers. It’s where I started, and like many people my house was a mess in the beginning.
That’s it for this post – I hope it helps to gets you off the ground. From this point onwards it’s all about tackling specific areas and understanding what you really need in your life. For more reading, try the following: