Minimalism is having its fifteen minutes of fame this year.
It seems like everywhere we turn, we’re bombarded with messaging about downsizing, ridding our homes of unnecessary items, and adopting a more neutral environment. TV shows about folks building their own tiny homes and design blogs dedicated to sparse, Scandinavian style have certainly made me self-conscious about my level of ‘clutter.’
Maybe stark simplicity isn’t your style. But almost everyone could benefit from a healthy session of decluttering.
We accumulate so much over time – clothes, gifts, makeup bottles, phone chargers… We find ways to keep adding to what we have, even when it’s more than we really want.
This article isn’t a template for becoming a minimalist. This article is your declutter guide to the most important spaces, specifically the areas that impact your productivity and day-to-day life.
How does clutter impact productivity?
Have you ever gone looking for a document, something moderately important that you haven’t seen in months… only to get sucked into your “My Documents” folder on your computer for an hour?
You scroll…and scroll…and scroll some more. Where is that document? Suddenly, enraged by the clutter, you start organizing your documents into folders. More time passes. You may not even find your document, but you do get a little buzz looking at a file folder that is now neatly categorized.
What about when you’re meal prepping on a Sunday night and can’t find a single tupperware lid that matches the container you’ve packed your lunch in? Suddenly you’ve emptied every drawer in your kitchen in search of the lid…that you still haven’t found.
Your time is being wasted by areas of your life that are disorganized. And too often, when you dip into those disorganized areas, you spend time trying to create order on the spur of the moment — forgetting to consider whether you actually need all those items you’re now trying to categorize, label, and fit back in their drawer.
This week, let’s change that. Set aside some time, one to two hours per area, to follow each of the steps in this guide to make a lasting impact on your productivity and your overall enjoyment of your home.
High-impact areas of clutter:
- Desk + Workspace
- Pantry + Dishes
- Beauty + Self-Care Supplies
- Digital Space
The stages of decluttering:
1. Know what you have
This is the stage most people skip. The time comes to clean and we hastily begin re-arranging everything we have into a more aesthetically-pleasing state of excess. Instead of clearing off surfaces, start by bringing everything into view.
Unload your drawers, clear off your desk, remove your cosmetics from the medicine cabinet, pull the boxes from the back of the pantry. In each area you choose to declutter, it’s important to know every item that lives there.
Assemble all of the items in the area you’ve chosen to declutter in an orderly, easy-to-overview assemblage and step back.
At this stage, it can be helpful to group items into categories.
- Daily use: Items you physically use on a daily basis like your Chemex, laptop, paper planner, pen, and phone charger.
- Frequent use: Items you use multiple times per week – or at least once per week. These are things like your office supplies (stapler, printer) and beauty items (curling iron, sheet masks).
- Specialty use: This may include hobby-related items, materials you use for less-frequent activities in your job or business, or items only used on special occasions.
- Infrequent use: Your washi tape collection probably has some infrequently used rolls in it, as might your junk drawer in the kitchen (how many Tide pens do you need?) or your to-go container collection in your pantry.
- Supportive use: While this may seem obscure, items like your pen case for carrying office supplies on the go or your desktop paper organizer are items that support your engagement with other items. You may have amassed a small collection of supportive items: small bags and pouches, eyeglass cases, technology screen cloths, or reusable grocery bags.
If you choose not to group your items into categories, be sure that you have acquainted yourself with your possessions in this area. Pick them up, acknowledge when the last time you used them might have been. Notice where there are duplicates or where items popped up seemingly from the Bermuda triangle.
2. Choose what you need
Trust me when I tell you don’t need everything you have. There’s a possibility that you need most of it, maybe even the majority of it. When choosing what you need, your item should go through a series of checks:
- Do I use this often?
- If I don’t use it often, what is it for?
- If it doesn’t have a clear purpose, does this carry sentimental value?
- Is this item multi-use or single use? [Can this item do the job of other less-necessary items?]
- How old is this item? Does it expire or has it lost its usability?
- Do I have an item that replaces this one?
Take note if you find broken items, pens that don’t work, old products, stained textiles, or bags with holes in them.
If you haven’t already moved items into categories (and even if you have), this is the time to organize. We aren’t putting anything away yet. Start by grouping your items into their next journey.
- Use – Set aside for re-assimilation back into your environment.
- Store – Separate from the “Use” category for storage of items you will use in the future.
- Let go – These are items that won’t be used now or in the near future, may be broken or non-function, or are simply no longer needed.
3. Let go of what you don’t
Getting rid of items can be an emotional process. Depending on how attached you are to your things and how much clutter you’ve amassed to begin with, this stage can vary in difficulty.
A way that I get past the ‘meaning’ behind letting go of an item is to make sure each of the items I’m letting go of are headed to a great new home. You can give usable and useful items to friends and family or to a local organization to rehome for you. This could be in-date pantry items, half-used but still-good cosmetics and beauty products, clothing and linens, office supplies, even to-go ware from your kitchen that no longer fits your style.
With items that are broken beyond repair or you find you’re unwilling to repair them, organizations like Goodwill Industries are large enough that they have resources to practice large-scale textile recycling. Instead of throwing your ripped clothing into a landfill, add it to your Goodwill pile and they will sort what they can use and recycle what they can’t.
You can also give to local food pantries, donate books and supplies to schools, libraries, and daycare organizations, and recycling unusable plastic and paper products at local recycling facilities.
4. Organize what’s left
“If you pick it up, don’t put it down until you’ve found its forever home.”
Wise advice from someone who watched me frantically push items around my room (unsuccessfully “tidying”) in anticipation of hosting a gathering. Reorganizing can seem tedious as you pick up, put down, and rearrange items over and over again. With everything you’ve chosen to keep arranged in plain view, step back and assess the emptiness of the area to be organized.
Our recent post: Is Your Desk Dressed for Success gives an in-depth overview of how to approach organizing your space. An excerpt from the reorganization section:
What is the most efficient place for [the item in question] to go? Consider the flow of your day, what needs to be within arm’s length, and what should be within your line of sight. For example, if you reach for a certain item regularly, don’t put it out of reach in an awkward place. If you notice you’re consistently late to meetings, put a clock in a more prominent place.
Implement organizational tools
A common theme in sparse, minimalistic spaces is the use of organization tools. Once you have pared down your belongings to the things you need and want most, making a space for everything is the next step.
Big-box stores like Target are a treasure trove of organization accessories, but doing a quick search online can turn up lots of trendy and unique alternatives. Try implementing some or all of these tools for more streamlined spaces:
Desk + Workspace:
- Drawer inserts for your desk which different shaped sections for stationary, writing utensils, office supplies, and loose items.
- Multi-section paper filing compartments that stand up or lay down to separate your mail, paperwork for signing and sending, stray notes, and documents which require your attention.
- Desktop pen cup or holder for easy access to the writing tools you use most frequently.
- Wastepaper basket so rubbish doesn’t pile up where it doesn’t belong.
- Hanging or floor-standing shoe organizer.
- Multi-ring scarf organizer to keep long accessories in one place.
- Dual-garment hangers (top half for shirts, bottom rod for pants) on which you place your outfit for the day or for the week.
- Multi-hook wall mount for your daily jacket, purse, and accessories.
- Jewelry box or wall-cabinet organizer with sections for necklaces and bracelets of various size, compartments for earrings and rings, and a small section for your most-worn pieces.
- Rounded-corner drawer or cabinet inserts to keep dishes and to-go containers from tumbling down when you go searching for the piece you need.
- Streamlined set of Pyrex or stainless to-go ware so you can guarantee you have matching parts for each of your dishes.
- Multi-size mason jar set with chalkboard labels to keep your pantry uniform, beautiful, and tidy. Bonus: You can see exactly how much you have of each item, so no over-buying issues! Whenever you get home, simply unload your boxed or bagged pantry items into their respective jars and recycle the packaging! Items stay fresher longer and the pantry aesthetic is seriously elevated.
- Metal scoops or “choosing cloth” strictly for pantry use to reduce mess, crumbs, and over-portioning.
- Track-aligned shelves or categorized baskets for deep-shelf pantries to reduce the need to “dig around” for what you’re pursuing.
Beauty + Self-Care Supplies
- Hanging or resting shower rack with the ability to drain to keep soap and additional shower necessities from getting soapy, ruined, or dropped during bathing.
- Write the date of purchasing on your beauty supplies to ensure they stay current and don’t expire.
- Add a lazy-susan to deeper cabinets to easily access products without having to dig.
- Utilize refillable soap and shampoo bottles to keep your space free of labels and multi-colored clutter. More refillable and reusables to tidy your bathroom: Cotton-ball holders, tissue-box covers, jars for Q-tips (instead of those long cardboard boxes), handkerchiefs, and cosmetic dopp bags.
- If you have the space, a freestanding bath caddy or ladder shelf leaned against a wall can elegantly display linens, refillable containers, and even a sumptuous candle.
Cleaning up your digital life
With so many of us storing items on ‘the cloud’ and keeping more photos on our phones than anywhere else in our lives, the gigabytes can rapidly add up and get out of control. It’s imperative to keep our computers and our phones organized if we want to maximize our productivity. When it comes to organizing the digital space, here are some principles to focus on:
Make the applications you use frequently, a few times monthly or more, easy to access on your home screen or dock. As this applies to our phones as well: You can organize your apps into folders and ‘pages’ on your home screen. Consider keeping the first page of your home screen for applications you open daily, with the following screens dedicated to folders and applications you use less frequently. Some folders may include (examples from my own phone):
- Social media – Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat
- Office supplies – Google Drive, Microsoft Office, Basecamp or Asana
- Entertainment – YouTube, Monument (and other amazing games), Sudoku, Words with Friends
- Shopping – Etsy, Poshmark, eBay
- Travel – Kayak, Uber, Parkmobile, AirBnb
- Activities – Fandango, Groupon, Yelp
- Education – DuoLingo, UkePal (or other music tutoring app), Headspace
- Finance – Bank applications, Mint, VenMo, RobinHood
Organize your files as they happen, and understand that the initial organization is an investment in your future. Last year, I endeavored to organize my photos… over 100,000 of them. This is years of life, travel, work, professional shoots, personal projects, and long-forgotten images saved from random internet searches. Organizing files is best done by considering the way you intend to use the items in the future.
Now, when a new file comes in, it has its forever home right away. Taking 30 minutes each week to sort the photos from your phone into albums or transferring them to a safer space on your computer or cloud drive; to sort documents into their project or subject-related folders; and setting reminders to revisit files that require your attention will ensure that your digital space stops hindering your productivity with disarray.
Once you’ve decluttered, make a tidying a habit
Deep cleaning aside, a quick visual tidy does wonders for the mind.
Each evening before settling into your nightly routine (be that yoga and tea, or Netflix and chill) do a walk-through of your space and put stray items back into their forever home. By making quick daily investments in the health of your space, you reduce the need to spend your precious Sunday hours toiling over piles of paper, a horrendous mountain of scattered to-go ware, or searching through those oddly-named email download files for that important document your boss needs on Monday morning.
Do you struggle staying clutter-free? This could be a perfect opportunity for your next 30-Day Challenge!