Organizing Tip: The Ultimate Guide to Tackling Clutter

posted in: Organizing 5

The Ultimate Guide to Tackling Clutter Is the clutter in your life driving you up a wall?

Wondering how to deal with all that excess “stuff” floating about in your home and office?

Today’s special extended post tackles one of the biggest subjects in organization…clutter!

This post is a tad bit longer than my usual posts, but I think you’ll find the extra information helpful in your quest to tackle clutter.

What is Clutter Anyways?

Clutter is a bit of a riddle: it’s everywhere and yet seemingly nowhere at once.

The dictionary* defines clutter as: “A collection of things lying about in an untidy mass.”

That’s a bit of a generalization really, because depending on your situation, clutter could mean different things.

Clutter could be magazines, paperwork, junk mail, travel souvenirs, clothing, pens, cleaning supplies, collections of seashells and baseball cards, bits of household odds and ends, canned foodstuffs, clothing…truly, everything and anything can be clutter.

The problem with clutter is that it attracts more and more clutter.

What tends to happen whenever you leave a scrap of paper or place a book down briefly on a clean surface?

More and more items appear and soon a tiny pile of stuff turns into a veritable mountain of clotted stuff.

Did you know? Even the word origins of ‘clutter’ trace back to a late Middle English verb meaning ‘to clot.’

This ‘clotting of items’ can quickly become a real problem (and eyesore) at home and at work.

Why Should You Clear Clutter?

There’s no end to the list of reasons on why you should clear clutter. Here’s my top four reasons on why you might want to make a clean sweep and get rid of the clutter in your life:

You’ll clear your mind.

Looking at a cluttered room or area can be exhausting. Having more stuff about forces your eyes to take in a lot of disparate information and make sense of the situation. You might feel more stressed out, uncomfortable and frustrated looking at piles of clutter than an otherwise clear surface. Who wants to look at or be a part of an uncomfortable or distressing scene if they can help it?

Clutter can be a hazard.

Clutter can physically hinder your ability to get things done at home or at work. This is especially true if items are stacked high and deep, and you are unable to access or reach the items you need. Clutter can also be a health hazard to yourself and others when it blocks hallways, entryways, passageways, doors, windows and severely limits the safety of any other ingress or egress areas in a home or office.

Information, time, and money may be lost.

A pile of clutter can innocently house bills, invoices, credit cards, ID cards and passports, medical and insurance records, cash and the like. Problems can quickly arise when you need to find important information quickly or miss paying bills on time because of a lost invoice or billing statement. In addition, a pile of clutter increases your chances of accidentally trashing or recycling an important document or documents.

Clutter is hot.

No, I’m not talking “hot” as in sexy or physically appealing. Clutter can be plain, downright hot. Think back to your school days in Science 101 when you learned about the transfer of energy and heat. Having clutter about means there’s more things to absorb and radiate heat, which can be especially noticeable and uncomfortable in the summertime.

Ok, we’re now ready to get down to the nitty-gritty of clutter-clearing. Ready? Here we go!

Closet Decluttering & Organization Guide

How to Tackle Clutter

There are three keys to tackling the clutter in your home or office:

1. Make a distinction between clutter and non-clutter

2. Set up systems to prevent accumulation of clutter

3. Practice regular maintenance

Let’s now take a look at these three points in detail…

1. Make a distinction between clutter and non-clutter

If you want to de-clutter something, you need to make an explicit distinction between clutter and non-clutter. We often talk about clutter in broad strokes, “Oh, this dining room table is so cluttered”, or perhaps “This room is cluttered with papers.” Go one step further and specifically identify what it is that is cluttering up a specific area or room.

How should you do this? The easiest way is to use the current setup or function of your living and working spaces as a guide; a kitchen is where you store and prepare food, a den is for relaxing, and so on. Traditionally speaking, you wouldn’t store a power drill and drill bits in a kitchen, so it’s safe to say that hardware and power tools do not belong and as such would be counted as clutter.

Taking this a step further, you can also outline what items should go where in a specific room. For example, in your home office you might have a chair, desk, computer, filing cabinet, printer and office supplies.

You know the chair sits underneath the desk, the computer and printer sit on top of the desk, the files go in the filing cabinet and office supplies are stored in your desk’s drawers.

Anything that goes against from this setup will be considered as clutter (in this case it might be a stack of clothes sitting on your desk, grocery coupons in a drawer, and sports equipment sitting beside your chair) and should be taken care of in a timely fashion.

2. Set up systems to prevent accumulation of clutter

Keeping an area clutter-free isn’t just about tidying up the clutter that already exists, it’s about having systems in place to prevent clutter from forming in the first place.

Clutter tends to falls into one of the three categories:

  • Belongings or furnishings in the home or office (what you use on a regular basis at home or at work)
  • Transient items in the home/office (reading materials, bills to pay, or project materials or other items to review/process)
  • Items in temporary transit (books to be dropped off for donation, clothes for the dry cleaner’s, returning an item to a friend)

We’ll now construct systems based on the above categories to prevent clutter from accumulating.

Problem: Belongings or furnishings in the home or office (what you use on a regular basis at home or at work)

Solution: Give items a home.

Items that you use on a regular basis, such as a pair of scissors or your purse, should have a specific location where they are stored when not in use. Take into consideration an item’s usage, function and aesthetics when storing items and make it easy for you to locate items you’ve stored. Keep in mind it may take some time to carve out locations for different items in your home, but it will be well worth it in future when you can easily store and retrieve items when you need them right away.

Problem: Transient items in the home/office (reading materials, bills to pay, or project materials or other items to review/process)

Solution: Designate clutter processing locations.

In every room of your home or office, create a landing spot in which clutter will be processed. You can think of this spot as a temporary 3-D inbox. In the home office example, you might decide this area to be on top of your credenza. Be careful about letting items linger; it’s best to process clutter on a regular basis.

Problem: Items in temporary transit (books to be dropped off for donation, clothes for the dry cleaner’s, returning an item to a friend)

Solution: Create a catch-all place for transient items going outside of your house.

Find a large container and store it in your hallway, mud room or garage. You can easily drop in the clothes you’re going to donate to your favorite charity, or a book you want to lend to your friend. This way, transient items have a specific home and are out of your way and regular routine.

3. Practice regular maintenance

Lastly, here are several tips to help you tackle clutter on a regular basis:

Finished using something? Put it back where it belongs immediately.

This is a simple but oh-so-important step. It only takes a couple of minutes (in some cases seconds) and the same amount of energy to put a piece of paper in a file versus slapping it down on the dining room table and creating a launching pad for an unwanted pile of clutter.

Identify clutter-prone areas in your home and office.

Ask yourself these questions: What areas in your home or office tend to collect clutter like a magnet? What areas always seem to fall into disarray, immediately after you’ve cleaned and/or organized an area? Where it is difficult to do regular tasks and work on a regular basis? Focus your efforts on keeping these areas free-from clutter.

Practice mindfulness when handling items.

Be conscious when you are using, handling or carrying items from one room to another. Ask yourself whether or not an item needs to stay out for use, or should be placed back in it’s storage location. The more mindful you are now, the less clean up you’ll have to do later, if any!

Prevent clutter from entering your home.

  • When out shopping, double-check to see you don’t already own something at home before buying it.
  • Practice a one-in, one-out rule. For example, when it comes to clothes, whenever one new item of clothing comes in, get rid of one existing item in your possession.
  • Break down and dispose/recycle product packing (boxes, excelsior, plastic containers, etc.) as soon as possible.
  • When it comes to holidays and special occasions, ask people not to buy you things as gifts, but experiences you can enjoy outside of the house such as a special spa day, kayaking trip, or a personalized and private museum tour.
  • Unsubscribe from unwanted email and postal mailing lists.
  • Get rid of items you no longer use or have need for; properly dispose of items that are broken or unusable.

Conduct regular clutter-sweeps.

You don’t have a spend a lot of time to keep clutter at bay — simply taking five minutes a day to put items back into their place can prevent an unwanted buildup of clutter. You could also set aside some time to take care of clutter on a weekly, bi-weekly or monthly basis. Whatever time frame you do choose, make sure that you actually take the time to clear out clutter. Do not linger on making decisions when it comes to clutter-sweeping; items should be either properly stored, trashed or recycled.

Make tidying-up a regular habit.

Instead of differentiating separate clean-up time from your regular work habits, incorporate it into your regular routine. Whether you are a painter, stay-at-home parent, office manager, construction worker, computer programmer or chef, there’s something to be said about properly cleaning/stowing/storing/shutting down/wiping down your workstation or work area at the end of the day. Leaving your workstation in a clean and orderly fashion allows you to get to work right away…clutter-free!

Now to you…wow, what did you think of this whopper of a post? Did any of my tips resonate with you? I’d love to hear from you and know your thoughts. Leave a comment below and join in the conversation!

*Note: Dictionary used for definitions and references is The New Oxford American Dictionary, Version 2.2.3 (118.5), Apple Inc., Copyright 2005-2011.

Follow Rashelle:
Rashelle Isip is a New York City-based professional organizer and productivity consultant who helps people get organized so they can stress less, have more fun, and be happier at home. Her work has been featured in Good Housekeeping, Fast Company, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, Business Insider, and The Atlantic. Get access to her free guide, 10 Simple Ways to Make Your To-Do Lists More Effective, by clicking here.
Latest posts from

5 Responses

  1. Rosemary

    What a wonderful, thorough post!

    • Rashelle

      Thanks very much! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I hope the post helps a lot of people tackle their clutter! ~Rashelle

  2. […] Okay, you don’t have to go wild here and thoroughly clean the house from top to bottom, but why not clean out a few clutter-prone areas in your home or office? You’ll be spending a bit more time indoors these winter months, so why not make it a bit more comfortable for yourself? Find some great de-cluttering tips here. […]

  3. […] have in place. For items you are borrowing, like books from the library or a movie from a friend, designate a temporary storage spot – this way they don’t get mixed in with your belongings, but they aren’t a source of […]

  4. […] Need a refresher on the basics of decluttering? Be sure to check out my post: Organizing Tip: The Ultimate Guide to Tackling Clutter. […]