When it comes to decluttering, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed before you even start. You’re probably thinking, “my house is so cluttered I don’t know where to start”.
But you know what else is overwhelming?
Having kids. Consistently eating well and exercising. Studying for an exam.
Yet we do these “hard” things all the time. Decluttering doesn’t have to be so difficult. In fact, once you start to see some progress, you’ll be pulled to completion!
This post shares 9 actionable strategies on how to start decluttering when overwhelmed and finally see results. Follow these steps, and you’ll be well on your way to living a clutter-free life.
1. Determine where you’re going to send your unwanted things
One of the leading causes of overwhelm when decluttering is figuring out what to do with something you no longer want. Yet, you rush ahead and start discarding items, only to dump them in the basement, garage, attic or worse, the middle of the room you’re decluttering.
All you’re doing is moving clutter from one area to another and not dealing with it — that’s why storage can be an issue. Conversely, trying to decide one by one where each thing needs to go is mentally exhausting.
The most effective strategy I’ve used to declutter is to plan my destination piles, for example:
- For sale
- To giveaway
- Sentimental (more on this later)
Everything you decide to eliminate flows through to one of these avenues. And each pile has its process.
For instance, once you have a stack of items to sell, you can snap all the photos in one session and post them online or book in a garage sale. Another example is spending an afternoon scanning your paperwork.
You’d be surprised how powerful it is knowing your end-to-end process as you’re decluttering. You have incredible clarity upfront to make decisions which will undoubtedly reduce that overwhelming feeling.
To learn more about destination piles in detail, check out our Minimalist Tips For Delucterring article.
Action: write down a list of potential destinations for your unwanted items. Also, note the system for each avenue, e.g. where and how your trash will be stored and distributed.
2. Get a quick win
It’s human nature to want a quick win. In my experience, that can be helpful when you are decluttering your home because it makes the process more manageable and less overwhelming if you have something to show for your efforts right away.
Focusing on one area at a time, starting with the least cluttered room in your house or workspace, will make you feel good about yourself and give you momentum as you advance.
For example, start by tackling your kitchen countertop clutter which will take up very little time but will have an outsized impact on you psychologically speaking. You’ll feel accomplished from having cleared off your kitchen benchtop before moving on to other areas of your home that need attention.
Other examples of quick-win areas include:
- Shoe rack
- Medicine tray
- Under the kitchen sink
- See our declutter your home checklist for more ideas
Action: pick the least cluttered visible area in your home and declutter the space as quickly as possible.
3. Habit stack your decluttering tasks
When you want to declutter your home, it can be helpful to break the task down into smaller parts that you can do every day. One way to do this is by using the “habit stacking” method. According to best selling author James Clear, this means paring an existing habit with a decluttering task.
For instance, immediately after taking out the trash, declutter one clothing type in your closet, e.g. socks, underwear, scarves, shirts, hats etc.
Another example is cleaning your kitchen before bed each night. While you’re doing this, declutter the countertops and shelves in the kitchen.
The key is to habit stack your decluttering tasks with something you’re already doing regularly. This will help you get into the habit of decluttering every day, making the overall process easier and less stressful for you.
Action: make a list of all of your current habits you could potentially pair with decluttering tasks. Examples include ad breaks on your favourite TV show, loading the dishwasher, making your bed, taking the dog out for a walk, making a meal and so forth. Next, make a list of quick-win decluttering opportunities (see the previous tip) to pair with your habits.
4. Make decluttering a positive experience
Outside of Marie Kondo, who willingly likes to declutter? That’s not a rhetorical question. Let me know if you genuinely look forward to decluttering in the comments. You’re a special kind of person.
The act of decluttering is often seen as a chore, something that we put off because it feels like a lot of work.
But what if we could change the way we think about decluttering? What if we could make it into a fun and positive experience?
Here are a few tips to help you turn decluttering into a joyous event:
- Wear insanely comfortable clothes. Like you have your activewear for working out, have your decluttering uniform ready to go.
- Turn on your favourite tunes and get to work. Think of decluttering as an opportunity to listen to music.
- Indulge a little in your favourite snacks and drinks while decluttering. Or treat them as rewards after your session.
- Burn some calming essential oils.
- Declutter in complete silence and slowly. Make it a meditative experience.
Action: write down a list of things you can do while you’re decluttering to make it more enjoyable and peaceful and try one at a time to see which one resonates the most.
5. Pick a few key things to honour your memories
Our treasured memories in the form of things are one of the greatest human attachments. Your first drawing, swimming medals, vintage computers all represent significant events in your life.
Hanging onto these things go beyond just our own experiences.
Perhaps your grandmother gifted you her unique earrings. Or you’re keeping blankets, clothing, toys of loved ones you’ve lost, both human and non-human.
You want to remember the smell, how they felt—anything to take you back to those memories.
And now you need to decide what to do with these things. Sometimes a decision that isn’t for you to make. Maybe you need to get sign off from siblings, auntie’s uncles etc. An emotional and overwhelming prospect, indeed!
So how do you deal with these sentimental things?
Firstly, don’t feel you have to eliminate all of these items. Instead, think of yourself as a curator. What are the most meaningful things that represent the memory?
For example, when my father passed away, instead of preserving everything he owned, my siblings and I grabbed a few items that had the most significance to us. My dad loved music and tennis, and I have fond memories of him in both of those situations — so I kept his iPod and Tennis rackets. My brother held onto his watches.
The same principle is applied to all of my sentimental items. The first goal was to pair down these things to a large plastic tub. Every few years, I’d review the things and slowly get rid of more; and now, it’s a shoebox.
You might have a houseful of things to deal with. In that situation, your first goal should be to get the items down to a room, then a large box, then a small box. There are no strict timelines on this. Just move as you become more emotionally ready to make those decisions.
Another thing that’s helped reduce sentimental items is to refer to pictures instead. Pictures represent significant events in my life, whether it was getting married, adopting my dog, travelling the world or launching a business. The memories are all there, in Google Photos organised by date, location and individual.
Action: choose a storage limit (box, shelf, closet, etc.) for your sentimental items and leverage digital photos to record significant events.
6. Set a date for completion
When decluttering your home, it’s essential to set a completion date to keep you on track. Having a set goal in mind will help you stay focused and motivated as you work to clear out your space.
Without a date, decluttering may seem like a never-ending task — which can be offputting.
Also, setting the date tells the universe that you’re serious about this change and will create an energy of accountability.
Here are some ideas for decluttering deadlines:
- School break
- A new season
- Before moving
My wife, Maša and I decluttered all of our possessions within 30 days. But for many minimalist families, it can take weeks, months or even years, depending on the workload, support, people involved etc.
It’s worth mentioning that if you feel more anxious, not empowered, by setting a date, don’t do it. Instead, focus on incremental steps using strategies like habit stacking. It comes down to what makes you feel clear and motivated.
Action: pick a date when you want to have fully decluttered your target area. Tell a few close friends and family members of your intention.
7. Make a list of questions to ask if you get stuck
When you’re trying to decide whether to get rid of an item or not, it can be helpful to ask yourself a set of questions. This will help you clarify your thoughts and decide that you’re happy with them.
Some questions you might ask include:
- Have I used this in the last 12 months?
- Do I have something else that could fulfil the role?
- Would I keep this if I had to move overseas tomorrow?
- Is the quote or time required to fix this item worth it? Would I find regular use for it?
- Could I realistically borrow this item from someone I know if I needed it?
If you’re unsure about what to do with something, quickly filter your decisions through these questions to see how it checks out.
Action: write down a list of questions to ask yourself if you get stuck on whether you want to keep an item or discard it.
8. Develop maintenance systems
Time is a valuable resource, and every minute you spend working on your clutter problem is not spent doing something else.
To make the most of your time, you must develop an ongoing system for decluttering so your efforts don’t go to waste.
There are 3 fundamental principles to maintaining a clutter-free environment, including:
- Ensure that every item has a home: if you ensure that all of your things are stored in their designated location, it’ll be difficult to get lost or misplaced within the home.
- One in one out: to maintain a clutter-free environment, ensure that another thing is removed for every item taken into the home.
- Avoid bringing unneeded items into the home: avoid bringing extra stuff into your home unless they’re indispensable. The best way to manage this process is to implement a household wishlist, which will help to slow down your purchasing decisions and bring fewer things into your home.
You can make the most of your time and keep your environment clean and organised by following these rules.
Action: as you declutter an area of your house, ensure that every item has a home. Then create a family wishlist for products and even groceries to ensure everyone is focused on the essentials.
9. Take before and after pictures
What is the best way to know if you’ve successfully decluttered a space? Take a before and after photo. That way, you can see how far you’ve come and be motivated to keep going.
It’s the reason why house makeovers, weight loss transformations, and Queer Eye (love that show!) provide so much visual inspiration for us.
You get to see the difference between where you started and where you ended up, which re-energises you for change and pushes through any walls of anxiety and overwhelm.
An added benefit of taking before and after photos for each space you declutter is you now have a visual reference for what the area should look like if it gets cluttered again.
Action: take a quick snap of each area before you declutter, then another photo after you’ve completed the session. Share your progress in your family group message with a friend or on social media.
How to start decluttering when overwhelmed
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start when it comes to decluttering your home, try implementing some of the tips I’ve shared.
Start small, take things one step at a time, and be patient with yourself. Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day!
And most importantly, have fun with it. Decluttering can be a gratifying experience once you get the hang of it – so good luck and happy tidying!
Do you have any tips to add? Let me know in the comments below.
Thank you for this – perfectly timed as I start to grapple with my clutter problem.
You’re welcome, Kelly. I’m optimistic you’ll get there 🙂
Thank you for the wonderful article. My favorite decluttering tip is to stop the hobby of shopping. I am half way through a three day weekend and have everything I need at home. Fewer items come home = less to declutter in the future. We have a recycle center where cardboard, glass, etc. are dropped off and useful items are placed in a free store. I drop off items regularly and have “scored” a crock pot/slow cooker, electronic juicer, a watering can, ceramic planters and a few other items. When I move, the items will get donated back.
Ah yes, kicking your hobby shopping habit is a great decluttering tip. I also love how you use the recycle centre to rotate items you need at the time. Thanks for sharing, Rhea!