How To Declutter Your Home (And Declutter Your Mind At the Same Time)
There has never been a harder time to keep our homes tidy, or a time when it’s felt more necessary. Lockdown has seen our worlds, once boundless and expansive, shrink to a handful of rooms, which, in addition to their usual roles, must now play conference room, gym, classroom and safe haven. The living room that might have been tidy a few months ago is now accumulating an unwieldy collection of kettlebells and Lego bricks.
The anxiety of Covid-19 and the strain of sheltering at home can make the accomplishment of a shower feel commendable, so you’ll be excused if your mail is piling up and your sweatpants are draping over an armchair. However, while the bare minimum is permitted, it may not be in your best interest.
“Living and working in an untidy space raises stress levels, even under ordinary circumstances,” says Ms Sharon Lowenheim, a “Certified Professional Organizer” whose academic approach to tidiness is informed by studies in maths and computer science at MIT and an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. “We are in a situation right now where we don’t have a lot of control over many aspects of our lives. Getting organised is one way to regain that feeling of control.” The mental benefits of a clean environment, and the satisfaction of knowing we’ve created it, can give us a morale boost when we’re drained by doom and Zoom.
So if you’re stuck at home anyway, do yourself a favour and cultivate the habits experts say will keep it tidy for good.
01. Start with the room that matters most
A smaller scope can set you up for success. Mses Clea Shearer and Joanna Teplin, co-founders of the organising company The Home Edit, say: “Don’t feel like you need to conquer your entire home at once. Instead, decide what you consider a high priority and go from there.” If you’re spending most of your working hours in a cluttered kitchen, that’s where to start. If you have trouble falling asleep in a messy bedroom – bingo. If it still feels overwhelming, the duo offer this advice: “Start with a drawer. The faster you see your progress and how life-changing it can be, the more motivated you will be to move on to the next project.”
02. Donate what you don’t need
Once you’ve chosen which area to tackle, audit what’s inside. “It’s a lot easier to see the full scale of what you’re working with by removing every item and grouping them into categories on the floor or table in front of you,” say Mses Shearer and Teplin. As for what to let go? Ms Shara Kay, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals, advocates tossing anything you’re keeping just in case. “Trust yourself to be able to replace the items you might need someday,” she says. If you’re stuck on an item, give yourself flexibility. “You can come back to that item in the same edit session, just not at a later date,” Mses Shearer and Teplin add. “It will only be that much harder.”
03. Make a space for everything
Clutter tends to accumulate when it’s got nowhere else to go. Once you’ve thinned out your belongings and grouped those you want to keep, make a space for them. Use existing shelves and drawers or invest in containers that fit the aesthetic of your home so you can keep them in convenient places. “The things you use most often should be most easily accessible,” says Ms Kay. Mses Shearer and Teplin take it a step further by recommending adopting a labelling system. “Labels offer a road map to where items live,” they say. “It’s also a guilt mechanism for when you try to put things where they don’t belong.”
04. Clear horizontal spaces
Instead of treating them as storage areas, designate flat surfaces as working spaces. Ms Kay says keeping desks, counters and tabletops free from clutter doesn’t just make your space appear neater, it can “boost productivity”. To free your surfaces, Ms Lowenheim suggests clearing off “everything that isn’t used on a daily basis”. That means you can keep your favourite pen, “but not the jar of 30 pens”.
05. Keep a to-do list instead of a pile of papers
Ms Lowenheim believes in the following adage coined by organising doyenne Ms Barbara Hemphill: “clutter is postponed decisions”. She says those bills, letters and magazines stack up because we don’t want to deal with them in the moment and leave them out as visual reminders of tasks to return to. Procrastination doesn’t just cause paper pile ups. Digital detritus, such as unread emails, texts and DMs, follow from the same behaviour. A to-do list can help you keep real and virtual clutter at bay. By consolidating your reminders in one place, your tax return documents can go straight from your mailbox to a designated folder without any risk that you’ll forget to file. For paperwork that you need to hold onto, consider digitising them so you don’t have to dedicate space in your home to overflowing cabinets. That can be as simple as snapping pics with your phone and sending delicate docs through a shredder.
06. Follow the 80/20 rule
In any home, items come and go. Keep your organisation system flexible so it goes with the flow. Mses Shearer and Teplin suggest leaving a portion of drawer and cabinet space open so new belongings will have a place to go right away. “If items spill out of your system and don’t have a home, that’s where clutter will build,” they say. They maintain the 80/20 rule: keep your home no more than 80 per cent full, reserving 20 per cent for breathing room. To keep your golden ratio, Kay says to practice “one in, one out”. A designated bin can keep refuse organised till you’re ready to donate it.
07. Create a clean routine
The most essential element to keeping a tidy home, and the one that separates the messy masses from the perennially organised, is a daily cleaning ritual. Chipping away regularly builds a sustainable habit and prevents overwhelming pile up. “Take a few minutes at the end of each day to put away everything that has been taken out during the day,” says Ms Lowenheim. Living in a tidy home is as simple, and as hard, as that.
Illustrations by Mr David Doran