Shawndra Holmberg, CPO-CD
10 Steps to Clearing the Clutter
You may have a room or an area filled with delayed decisions (aka clutter). If you are feeling overwhelmed and don't know where to start, start here.
Limit your area of focus
Start with a drawer, a shelf, a box, the table, half the table, or a corner of the room.
In this case, we are focusing only on the area in front of the fireplace. We'll leave the stacks of items on the left for another day.
Assess what might be there
Before you start work, assess what might be in the piles, boxes, or bags. Are there items to go to charity, to be recycled or put in the trash? Any unfinished projects or memorabilia? Will you need to make decisions on emotional attachments, previous commitments, or incomplete goals?
Of course, you will find unexpected items, but having an idea what you're up against will help you prepare. If you'll be sorting through memories, it will take you longer than you expect. If it's mostly items to give away, set aside some time to get them to your favorite charity or friend.
Step 3: How long will it take?
Estimate how long you think it will take to clear the area. Include clean up time and the time it will take to get the items to charity, recycle, or where it really belongs. This step is important because the first time you estimate, you will underestimate how long it takes. You think organizing a room should only take a few hours but then when it's not done by the end of the day, you get frustrated and lose your motivation.
Building your Estimation Muscle
A good rule of thumb to help you establish a more realistic estimation for how long it will take you to do a task is to triple your initial estimate if you've never done it before (you think it will take 1 hour — make it 3 hours); double it if you've done the task but didn't time yourself (you think it will take 1 hour — make it 2); and add half again as much if you've timed it before (you think it will take you an hour — make it an hour and a half).
Remember to time your tasks so you can build your estimation muscle!
Sorting, organizing and maintaining your home takes more time than you wish but less time than you think. That's why learning how to more accurately estimate how long a task takes helps you get real and keep going.
For more on getting real, check out my article, It's Time to Get Real(istic) and my Time & Task Management tool, Getting Real about Time.
Break the area into smaller parts
Focus on an even smaller area — one box instead of the stack.
Do you have that much time today? If not, break the area into even smaller parts. Choose a drawer or a shelf; choose the top of a table; or choose one box.
Estimate the space you can clear in the amount of time you have available. Now cut that space by half. You can always do the other half if time permits.
Step 5: Set up boxes and bags for the following categories:
Stay Here (box) For items that belong in the room or area you are currently working on. You will put them in the box until you've cleared the area or room.
Somewhere Else (box) You still want to keep the item but it doesn't belong here. You don't want to waste valuable time walking it back to its home while you're clearing the area in front of you. You'll place those items in this box and relocate them when you're done as part of Step 9.
TBR — To Be Revisited or Not Sure (box) Yes, you get to have a box you can put all the "maybes" and "not sures" in. When you're on the sorting step, I want you to keep sorting not wasting time trying to decide. We will look in this box later.
Give Away (box or bag) For items that are in good condition and usable but you no longer use them, want them, or need them. Someone else could really use it. Use a box or a black trash bag for these. Once the items go in, you don't want to catch a glimpse of a decision and then change your mind. Use something you can't see in once you've closed the bag or box.
Recycle (bag or box) For plastics, paper, glass, etc. Again anything that goes in, stays in.
Trash (bag) Don't use bags that are too big or too thin. Those huge contractor bags are sturdy but if you can't lift the bag when it's full you are less likely to get it out of the house quickly. If you're sorting in small blocks of time, you'll want to take the trash out after every session. You will want the bags to be sturdy. Don't go cheap on these. These bags need to stand up to miscellaneous sticks, pointy things, sharp items and heavy stuff. You don't want the bag to rip.
Gather your supplies and tools
Get ready by gathering the rest of your supplies and tools.
Things you'll want handy:
black magic marker to label boxes and items
extra-sticky sticky notes (or paper & tape) to write notes or labels
cleaning cloths or rags
your favorite beverage to keep you hydrated and enjoy when you need a mini-break
If you're decluttering a basement, garage, attic or a place that has a lot of dust, bugs or mold, you may also want:
dust mask (or an N95 respirator mask from your local hardware store)
sanitizer wipes to wipe your face and hands before drinking or eating and when you're finished (or you can leave the space and wash up).
Before you tackle a space that has mold, rodents, or other hazard check out:
Tips on Cleaning Mold After a Flood
Set your timer
Set the timer on your phone, use your egg timer, or set your clock alarm. If you've estimated that sorting will take you two hours then set a reminder for 30 minutes. This will help you assess your progress. Are you a quarter of the way through the area when timer chimes the first time? After the second reminder, are you half way through?
If you know you have a tendency to get distracted by reading the magazines instead of sorting them, or if you have a habit of taking a walk down memory lane when you're sorting pictures, then set the timer for a 15-minute reminder instead. When the timer goes off, refocus on sorting your items. Don't stress or feel guilty about wandering off task; that's why you set the timer. It's part of the plan.
Sort your items into one of the six categories you prepared for in Step 5:
Stay Here (box)
Somewhere Else (box)
TBR — To Be Revisited or Not Sure (box)
Give Away (box or bag)
Additional Dhuck resources to check out:
The Cost of Clutter in Your Closet
Keep or Let Go — Questions to Ask Yourself
Paper Progress: Questions to Ask Yourself
Sorting your items into categories is important but there's one more step you need to plan for. Finishing up.
Close up the bag(s) of trash and take it out. The recycle needs to go also. Get it out of your working area and out of your home as soon as possible If you have to take the recycle yourself, plan to take it this week so you have space for the next round of clutter clearing.
Schedule your next clutter clearing session. If you've cleared the area you were working on, you can now put back the items you designated as Stay Here. You're not focusing on organizing yet, but if you've cleared 80% of the stuff, the remaining 20% will be easier to arrange and access. For some tips on organizing the area, check out Organizing Zones for Paper.
If you still have more to clear, it's okay to keep the Stay Here box in the area. You'll add more items next time. Close it up. Be sure to mark what's in the box in case you need something before you get back to organizing it.
So...when is your next clutter clearing session?
The items you designated as belonging Somewhere Else can now be put away. "But," you say, "I haven't organized that area yet" or "I don't know where it goes." In that case, close it up, mark what's in the box and save it for later.
When is your next clutter clearing session?
Tie off the bag(s) of items to be given away. Tape them closed. Make it as close to impossible as you can to get back into the bags to change your mind. Get them out of the house as soon as possible, today would be great, but plan on definitely dropping them off this week. When can you swing by the charity shop or your friend's house to drop it off? You want the space available for your next clutter clearing session and you don't want to be tempted to pull it out.
Have you scheduled your next clutter clearing session?
The box containing the TBR items is easy. Close it up, seal it up, put a date on the box and move it to the back of the room you're working in, or move it to another area which you'll work on later. For now, you're not sure about these items, but as you continue to clear your clutter you will strengthen your decision muscle, clarify your goals and live your life in the present. The decision to let go or keep will be easier the next time you pull the items out of the box.
Take the time to dust the space you've cleared and vacuum or sweep the floor. You may have more to go, but show off your progress and...
Enjoy. Celebrate. Congratulate. Acknowledge. Learn. Renew.
You've finished your designated area. You've worked on clearing your clutter for the time you had available. Now take a look. Enjoy the space.
If it's clear, congratulate yourself.
If you see progress, congratulate yourself.
If it looks worse, but you know you've taken out bags of trash, recycle and give away, congratulate yourself.
If you doubt you've made progress, point out what you were able to do and congratulate yourself for doing it.
In other words, acknowledge the fact that you were sorting; you were making decisions; you were clearing the clutter. Give yourself credit for what you did do.
Now is the time to access what went right, what worked, what helped and what were the detours and stumbling blocks. Do not expect this session to be miraculously easy and successful. If it was, you'd have been clearing the clutter all along. Gather information and ideas for the next time.
Establish when your next clearing session will be. Decide now so you can continue your progress. Then take a break. Relax. Renew your energy. And I'll see you back here next time.
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