How to Declutter Your House

Excess clutter can drive people crazy, but it can be difficult to control.
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"Simplify, simplify," urged nineteenth-century philosopher Henry David Thoreau. "I say, let your affairs be as two or three, not a hundred or a thousand" [source: Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods]. If you regularly plow through piles of clutter in your home, looking for the one thing you need and can't find, you may tell yourself the same thing.

You're not alone. In a 2008 survey, two-thirds of all respondents said their homes were at least somewhat disorganized, and 70 percent said that being better organized would improve their lives. Almost everyone agreed they could save time, up to one hour a day, by improved home organization [source: National Association of Professional Organizers].


How does clutter grow to become a home's decorating theme? Some people have trouble making decisions about when to get rid of something, fearing they'll need it later (inevitably, it seems, just after they've thrown it out). Others surround themselves with backup goods and gadgets in case the first one fails -- or gets lost. Likewise, some people hang on to every token or souvenir with the slightest sentimental value.

Whatever the cause, this article will try to help you put Thoreau's advice into practice. It explains general methods of managing space effectively. It recommends tools and techniques for applying these ideas. You'll also read tips for home cleaning and for maintaining an orderly state of affairs.

Decluttering your house might seem daunting, but it's doable. Compare it to going on a diet. You're not likely to vanquish clutter in one house-cleaning marathon any more than you should plan to lose 20 pounds in time for a high school reunion next weekend. Instead, aim at replacing clutter-causing habits with home-organizing skills. Develop a plan for reorganizing and stick to it. Room-by-room works well for some people. Alternately, you might decide to focus on one particular problem at a time -- the clothing clog in your closets, say, and then the writing implements that overrun your office.

At the same time, know that a certain amount of clutter isn't "bad for you," just as the occasional triple-chocolate brownie won't blow your diet. Just don't indulge to the point that it harms your health or your quality of life.

In that spirit, start to reclaim your house from clutter. Begin by taking a look at some basic strategies.


Methods for Decluttering Your House

Knowing what to keep, what to store away and what to throw away can reduce a lot of unnecessary clutter.
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Not everything that "clutters up the place" is clutter. Much of it is useful stuff that's just looking for its place in your house. The methods of organizing your home described below will help you find those places.

  • Keep items where they're used -- This logical method of storage is also a time saver. Plus, it saves the frustration and risk of resorting to items that aren't suited for a job. If something is needed in two or more places, get duplicates. Remember: It isn't clutter if it isn't in the way.
  • Keep the most-used items most accessible and visible -- This rule is especially valuable for smaller items that are easily misplaced or covered up, like keys and cell phones. By the same token, store out-of-season items in an out-of-the-way spot.
  • Use space creatively -- Walls and ceilings aren't only structural features; they can also be storage space, and attractive storage at that. Meanwhile, obscure nooks and crannies can hide less sightly items. Items can be reconfigured to better fit their designated areas -- rolled towels might fit more snugly than a stack, for example -- or given new ones. A collection of photos competing for space on an office desk might fill bare spots on the walls.
  • Discard expired items -- Some foods and medicines are time sensitive. Vitamins lose their potency and milk can be most unpleasant if kept much past their "use by" dates. For things that don't have expiration dates, invent one. Weekly magazines may "go bad" after a month, for instance.

Keep in mind that these are only guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. At times, they may contradict each other. Choose the one that makes most sense and work best for you. Oven mitts hanging on the kitchen wall may add to the d├ęcor, but are they within easy reach for rescuing a roast that's burning in the oven? Also, different people can have different, but equally useful, systems of organization. Exercise a reasonable degree of give-and-take.


That point leads to the next section: what to do if your existing space or home design doesn't lend itself to storing things efficiently. On the next page, we look at tools and aids for making space work for you.


Tools for Decluttering Your House

Setting up closets in a functional way can make the process of decluttering much easier.
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Making space "clutter preventive" doesn't always mean huge outlays of time or money. A few small accessories can make a big difference.

Consider unused space in cabinets. You can install racks below shelves for flat items and stack larger ones in clear, nesting containers. Inside the door, hooks and pegs will hold keys or bracelets. Racks can contain soap or spices.


In a bedroom closet, install an adjustable clothes rod below the permanent one for skirts, shorts and scarves. Hanging mesh bags conform to sports gear and other oddly shaped items. Cardboard boxes slide under the bed to relieve clothing congestion.

A lazy susan puts items in reach on a desktop or counter. Small boxes, zippered pouches or freezer bags help organize the drawers below.

A label maker is especially useful in homes with young children. Make labels to tell what's inside a certain box or where snow boots should be left to dry.

On the other hand, larger items create longer-lasting solutions. You might replace single-purpose furniture with multi-taskers -- an end table with a trunk, for instance, or a table-lamp-magazine rack combination. Individual wall shelves might use space better than one freestanding shelving unit.

If a piece isn't multifunctional by nature, improve it. Add a towel holder to the side of a microwave cart or bathroom cabinet. Attach casters to a child's toy box to roll it into a closet.

Papers are a common source of clutter. A useful filing system for organizing them might range from folders in a drawer to a small cabinet. To really maximize space, convert papers to digital files using a scanner. You can store the hard copy in some safe, remote location inside or outside the home. For unwanted documents, a small shredder makes short work of those with personal information that might be used for identity theft.

Finally, for those things you don't need or can't use, set up three bins: one for recyclables, one for donations or garage sale goods, and one for plain old trash. Look at each item objectively to decide its destination. Ask yourself: How easily could I replace it if needed? How much does it improve the quality of life? Do I use it when the occasion arises? Fine china, for example, may be used only a few times a year, but you may really value it at those times.

So once you tackle the problem, how can you maintain a house free of clutter?


Maintaining a Clutter-free House

Setting reasonable rules for tidiness can get family members a little more on track for a less cluttered existence.
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Methods and tools are good only to the extent you use them. Getting into that habit may take time and practice. The guidelines below can help.

  • Allow time for organized living -- Clutter sometimes accumulates when you don't have -- or make -- the time to keep things organized. Remind yourself that it takes less time to put something where it belongs than to hunt around for it later.
  • Set rules that enforce tidiness -- For example: Clean up a mess before leaving the room. For every new toy you buy, an older one must go (apply that one to adults as well as kid).
  • Use a shopping list -- Know what you need to buy before you go shopping. You'll not only reduce food waste, but you may get useful insights into your eating habits and expenses.
  • Schedule regular cleanings -- You might do a certain room on a certain day, or the entire home on one day, but clean as often as needed.
  • Practice mindful consumption -- When tempted by a new coat or magazine subscription or gourmet goat cheese, ask whether you really need or want it. How badly? What other item will you give up? Resist the urge at least once. If it lingers, then the buy might be worthwhile.
  • Cut down on mail -- Sign up for automatic bill payment, if offered, for utilities and cable service. Registering with the Direct Marketing Association gives you more control over which mass mailings you receive.
  • Find new uses for older items -- Some people call this "repurposing." Old mugs are reborn as pencil holders and pots for growing herbs. Cereal boxes, cut diagonally just off center, become file holders.
  • Take advantage of recycling programs -- If recycling isn't included in your community waste management service, take plastic, metals, glass, cardboard -- whatever material is accepted -- to a recycling center.
  • Donate or sell usable items -- Consignment shops let you turn some unwanted goods into pocket money. Social service groups take donations of clothing, furniture and other items.

As you can see, decluttering your home is an ongoing effort, not a one-time event. Is it worth the time and energy? Read the next section and decide for yourself.


Benefits of Decluttering Your House

Clutter is almost always a part of everyone's life -- how you manage it will affect your overall health.
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Some of the benefits of decluttering your home are obvious and immediate. Chief among them are saving time and avoiding the stress of hunting for misplaced items. Others may be less noticeable, but are equally valuable.

First, your home is probably safer and healthier. Besides eliminating tripping and falling risks, a clean, clutter-free environment helps in managing allergies and asthma [source: Lucille Packard Children's Hospital].


Organizing your home can also save money. You'll be less likely to buy replacements for misplaced items. At the same time, you can identify items you do need and plan purchases when they best fit your budget. You can avoid paying late fees on lost bills that resurface a week past due.

Decluttering can be environmentally friendly. For instance, junk mail takes the lives of 100 million trees a year, not to mention the other resources used to create and deliver it [source: Erie County Department of Environment and Planning]. Reducing food waste can have a similar effect all along the chain, from farmer to table [source: ScienceDaily]. Items that don't enter your house in the first place won't wind up in a landfill as their last place.

Decluttering your home can provide goods to people in need. Your unwanted clothes can warm people in cold weather. Extra appliances can help a family that has lost everything in a house fire. Social service agencies can sell less practical items to fund their programs.

Finally, there's the pride and satisfaction of taking control of at least one corner of your life. Instead of taking security in how many things you have, you feel self-assurance in knowing how few things you really need.

As long as you have stuff, you'll have to contend with the forces of clutter. With time and commitment, you can arm yourself with the confidence and skills to keep clutter in its place.


Tips for Easier Cleaning

Assigning tasks to family members, like cleaning certain areas of the house, can make decluttering more efficient.
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Cleanliness and clutter simply cannot coexist. Like organizing, cleaning can be a challenge or a chore. Efficiency and a positive attitude make the difference. These tips can help:

  • Assemble a basic but adequate assortment of cleaning supplies -- Brooms -- large and small -- a dustpan, a mop, sponges, rags, glass cleaner and furniture polish will go a long way in cleaning up debris and repairing damage left by clutter.
  • Use the simplest products possible -- Compared to commercial preparations, low-tech products are usually less expensive and often friendlier to the environment inside and outside the home. Using something already on hand also reduces future clutter. For instance, ordinary toothpaste, applied with a soft rag, can remove water stains from the finish of wooden tabletops [source: Dahl].
  • Avoid making extra work -- Save steps by carrying smaller supplies like glass cleaner, sponges and rubber gloves in a plastic tote or rubber bucket. Clean rooms from the top down to avoid dirtying surfaces you've already dusted or vacuumed.
  • Make cleaning fun, or at least less tedious -- Listen to your favorite tunes. Choreograph your movements to the music. Energetic house cleaning can be good physical exercise [source: Donohue].
  • Use teamwork -- If you share your home, assign jobs based on each person's abilities and schedules. Also taking "ownership" adds a sense of pride and responsibility in doing a job or keeping an area in order.
  • Rotate tasks -- Rotating responsibilities means no one in the home feels burdened with the most unpleasant jobs -- or gets away with the easiest ones. Learning to do different jobs can also be practically and personally rewarding.

For lots more information on taking care of clutter, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Dahl, Timothy. "How to Remove Water Stain Circles from Wood Furniture." (Feb. 25, 2010)
  • Donohue, Paul. "Get a Workout -- Cleaning the House." Dec. 19, 2009. (Feb. 25, 2010)
  • Erie County Department of Environment and Planning. "Solid Waste Reduction in Central New York." (Feb. 23, 2010)
  • Lucille Packard Children's Hospital. "Avoiding Asthma Triggers." (Mar. 1, 2010)
  • National Association of Professional Organizers. Residential Time Management Statistics." (Feb. 23, 2010)
  • ScienceDaily. "America's Increasing Food Waste Is Laying Waste to the Environment. (Mar. 1, 2010)
  • Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods. "Quotations Page." (Feb. 16, 2010)