Most of us have it, but none of us want it. Clutter can overwhelm our lives if we let it — even our wallets can take a hit. According to the National Organization of Professional Organizers, unnecessary spending related to disorganization eats up as much as 20% of our annual budgets. Excess stuff, no matter what form it takes, can really take a mental toll, even making you less productive and more irritable.
The good news? Kicking off a full-on clean sweep isn’t as hard as you think. If you ask professional organizer Maria Gracia, founder of Get Organized Now!, spring is the perfect time to tackle clutter once and for all. “I prefer spring cleaning to involve the purging of anything that’s weighing heavy on you, whether it’s a cluttered garage, an overclogged to-do list, a bursting email inbox, or an ongoing argument with a loved one,” she says.
Are you ready to declutter your home? Follow these time-tested tips from organization experts.
- Follow the one-in, three-out rule. To declutter like a pro, first you have to think like one. That means throwing out the old “one in, one out” system, which “doesn’t do a thing to declutter your home — it basically just evens things out!” says Gracia. She instead sticks to a “one in, three out” policy: When you bring in anything new, three items in the same category (clothes, jewelry, toys, etc.) must be donated, recycled, or trashed.
- Don’t store beyond your space. A good rule of thumb to ward off clutter from the get-go is to purge all items you don’t reasonably have room to store. “If you own a house with wall-to-wall shelving in the den, you’ll have a lot of space for books,” says Jodie Watson, founder of Supreme Organization. “But try to keep a library’s worth of books in a studio apartment, and you’ll run into clutter issues pretty quickly.” The same idea applies to kitchen appliances, dishes, shoes, you name it — keep this in mind especially if you’re moving to a studio apartment for rent in Austin, TX, and closet space is limited.
- Color-code your closets. While you’re in the closet, arrange garments by color. “This will help you see if you have been accumulating black T-shirts over time or have an excessive amount of pink tanks,” says Ashley Murphy, co-founder of Neat Method. “You really won’t know until they’re all grouped together, and it makes the purging process much easier.”
- Sort the fridge. Similarly, Murphy suggests grouping like foods — such as sweet treats, salty snacks, and fresh fruits — in baskets in your fridge or pantry. That way, you can see exactly what you have. “It forces you to not overbuy. If it doesn’t fit in the designated basket, you don’t need it,” she says.
- Put hard-to-reach storage to work. Murphy advises clients to commit all of the out-of-reach spaces in a closet (the highest shelf, back corners, etc.) to special-occasion pieces. For example, you might stash dress shoes if you do most of your day-to-day work in a casual setting, or swimsuits if you live in a climate that’s typically cold. Then keep the heavy-rotation wardrobe items within easy reach.
- “File” everyday shoes. Closet on the small side? Consider loading flats, flip-flops, and sneakers vertically in a basket. “It takes up such a small amount of space but holds a ton of shoes,” says Murphy.
- Ditch packaging ASAP. As soon as you bring a product home (or as soon as something comes in the mail), take everything out and recycle the box or package immediately — and instantly reclaim that space. “Unless you plan on returning the item soon, there’s no reason to hold on to it,” says Julie Naylon of No Wire Hangers. “If something goes wrong, most companies won’t require the original packaging anyway.”
- Opt for paperless manuals. Yep, go ahead and recycle that product manual too. Steal this trick from Naylon before the paper piles up: “Whenever I buy a new product, I go online, type the model number into Google, and download a PDF of the manual onto my computer.”
- Organize first, then declutter. To make organizing and tossing easier, Watson suggests separating paperwork into categories first. “It’s much easier to address a smaller stack that’s either medical, financial, or home-related than to mentally jump back and forth and make decisions on each document pulled from a random pile,” she says.
- Toss excess office supplies. “There’s not one house I’ve been in that didn’t have an overflow of office supplies,” says Naylon. “If you can’t part with of some of your pens or paper clips, pack them up and keep them in back stock. You don’t need every pen you own cluttering up drawers.” This goes double for any freebie promotional pens that you rarely use.
- Purge idle projects. We all bite off more than we can chew at different times in our lives. If neglected projects (a half-knit sweater, a travel scrapbook you never got around to putting together) have been sucking up visible space around the house, it’s time to move on. “Be realistic about the projects you’ve been planning to do. Decide not to do two or three of them and let go of any items you’ve been keeping around ‘just in case,’” says Watson.
- Make things visible. “If kids can’t see what’s in a storage bin, they’ll never put things away properly,” says Murphy, who recommends see-through or mesh bins for toys and other kids’ stuff. Her pick: colorful locker bins from The Land of Nod, because they look great and “let little ones see that games go in one, dolls in another, and so on.”
- Use the right-sized containers. An overstuffed bin isn’t useful to anyone — you’ll never want to dig through it to get what you need. “If an entire group of items can’t fit inside one container, find a bigger one or break it up into two,” says Watson. On the flip side, don’t keep too few items in a larger container. That just wastes precious space.
- Conquer your inbox. Digital clutter weighs just as heavily as the tangible kind. To keep it from spiraling out of control, Gracia suggests making a standing daily date to deal with it. “Give yourself a set amount of time, like 15 minutes, to delete or respond at the same time every day. Set a timer and keep going until it sounds,” she says. On lighter days, take a few minutes to unsubscribe from newsletters and companies you’re no longer interested in, set spam filters, or sign up for a service like unroll.me. If things have gotten really dire, consider deleting all of it. Highlight everything and press “Delete” or change email services. “Then contact those in your address book, asking anyone awaiting a response to resend their question,” says Gracia.
- Use the rule of four. There’s nothing more intimidating than an overloaded to-do list. That’s where Gracia’s “rule of four” hack comes in: “Keep two lists: one master list for everything, and one called ‘To Do Today.’ Move only four items from the master list to the ‘today’ list, and only focus on those four until they’re done. At that point, you can move four more over. Every time you complete a set, reward yourself!”