7 Low-Stress Ways to Start Decluttering

7 Low-Stress Ways to Start Decluttering

None of the tidying clichés ever really clicked with KC Davis, a therapist in Houston and mom to two young kids. “I’ve always been a messy person,” she says. “I’ve never been able to ‘clean as I go.’” Davis knew there were plenty of people just like her: those who wanted a serene space but lacked the time and energy to get started. After finding bite-size strategies that worked for her, Davis wrote How to Keep House While Drowning: A Gentle Approach to Cleaning and Organizing.

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A messy house can feel overwhelming to tackle, and progress may seem incremental at first. But there’s good reason to work on building a healthier relationship with your home. Research suggests that clutter increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and that cleanliness is associated with better self-rated health. Other studies have found that being surrounded by lots of excess stuff contributes to procrastination, diminishes focus, and leads to decreased life satisfaction.

We asked Davis and other experts to share their favorite strategies to kickstart a realistic decluttering routine.

Tackle one category at a time.

One day, Davis looked at her messy room and realized that every item could be sorted into one of five categories: trash, dishes, laundry, items that have a place (like books that belong on the shelf), and odds and ends that don’t. She started cleaning up by category (and then found a home for her random objects). “I would get a trash bag and pick up all my trash, and then I’d get my laundry basket and pick up all my laundry,” she says. “It provided a really simple roadmap for my brain.”

Edit your wardrobe automatically.

Every New Year’s Eve, Matt Paxton turns all the hangers in his closet around so they’re hanging backward on the rod. “When you wear the item, you turn the hanger the other way,” says the host of the PBS show Legacy List with Matt Paxton—which helps people unearth hidden treasures in their homes—and author of Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff. The hanger trick gives Paxton visual proof of what he actually wore that year and which clothes languished in the closet. “You can’t argue with it,” he says, even if he did love that pink shirt he never got around to wearing. Anything he didn’t wear, he donates. If a year feels too long, test out the exercise for three or six months, and then make a trip to the donation center or consignment shop.

Another way to thin out your wardrobe, Paxton suggests, is to host a fashion show—wearing whatever your kids or grandkids select from your closet. “If you can’t put it on or if it doesn’t fit, there’s your answer,” he says. “Everyone will laugh.”

Change your environment.

Instead of dwelling on how to fix your own messy habits, consider adjusting your environment. Davis isn’t good about taking the trash out every day, so she got a bigger trash can that takes longer to fill up. She even wheels it from room to room when she cleans up. To address another pain point—piles of dirty clothes—she put a laundry basket in every room. “I want to be able to put away trash and laundry with four steps no matter where I am in my house,” she says. “That cut down a lot on how messy I was.”

Scan your stuff.

One of the most frequent questions people ask Paxton is what to do with all their old photos. First, he advises, get rid of the negatives, any duplicates, generic landscape shots, and pictures of people you don’t know or don’t like. Then, digitize the remaining, more manageable pile by scanning copies with your computer or phone. The free app Google PhotoScan, for example, allows users to scan photos with their smartphone, saving them in their cloud-based photo library.

Another app, Artifcts, help preserve memories through a combination of images, audio, video, and text. If your grandmother has a lot of vintage jewelry, you could take a picture of each ring or necklace and record her telling a story about its significance. “Now you’ve got her words, her voice, her story, and it’s forever,” he says—yet the objects cluttering up the closet can go.

Paxton also uses Artifcts to digitize his seven kids’ artwork. Every Friday before dinner, he spends five minutes taking a photo of their latest creation and then records them talking about their work. Each kid chooses one piece of art to keep per year, and the rest live on in digital form.

Make donating part of your routine.

When Paxton starts helping a new family clean their house, he asks where they want to donate belongings they no longer need that might be valuable to someone else. There are lots of options, depending where you live and what causes you support: Dress for Success provides used professional attire to low-income women; One Warm Coat provides free coats to people in need; and Soles4Souls distributes footwear to people with limited resources, for example.

If you’re donating to a local thrift store, like Goodwill or the Salvation Army, get in the habit of keeping a donation box in the trunk of your car. Otherwise, the pile might sit in your house for weeks. Then, once a week, swing by the donation center. Doing so “has become a normal Saturday for me,” Paxton says.

Gamify the purge.

It can be hard to get the kids to pitch in as good citizens of the house. That’s why Deborah Gilman, a psychologist based in Pittsburgh, coaches her clients on ways to make cleaning up fun. You could play what she calls the “20-things game”—setting a timer for 20 minutes and challenging each member of the family to find 20 items to donate, sell, or throw away. “I tell people to do this a couple times a year, like when the seasons are changing,” she says. Make it a race to see who collects their items first; the prize could be choosing what movie to watch together that night.

Another idea, she says, is to launch a room redesign challenge. Each family member gets to choose one room or area they want to revamp—but first, everyone spends time decluttering the space together. “It gets everybody involved and excited to clear out unnecessary items to make way for the new,” she says.

Look for the stories.

Many people struggle to declutter because they don’t want to part with items that remind them of someone or something they love, Paxton says. A simple mindset shift can make a big difference: Think of getting rid of stuff as a way of unearthing your family’s history. Ask each person to choose five items from your house that mean a lot to them—maybe a set of dishes from their wedding, a 50-year-old ball gown, or an antique typewriter. Then, have them tell a story explaining why they treasure each one so much. Record it, if you can, as a way of preserving their past for the future. The exercise usually proves liberating, Paxton says. “If you tell the stories, then you can let go of the items.”

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