10 Decluttering Principles to Help Anyone Clear the Clutter

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Colleen Madsen of 365 Less Things.


“Declutter. Organize. Live.”

I have never considered myself a natural organizer. But in 2007, my family moved to Australia from the USA. Because we were moving into a smaller home, I found myself needing to declutter a large number of items. Fortunately, we were able to accomplish the task…but mostly, because I had no other choice.

Shortly after the move, a new stage of life surfaced. My husband was about to begin semi-retirement. And to prepare for our new life together, I set a personal goal to again reduce our possessions. Coincidentally, on January 3rd, a segment aired on morning television about people abandoning their New Year resolutions. Turns out, on average, most people only stick to their resolution for three days. Even though I had never been one to take on resolutions, I found great motivation in beating those narrow odds… in fact, the challenge was nearly irresistible to me

I decided at that moment to set a new resolution to minimize our possessions. I determined to remove one item each day for the next 365 days. I started with three items to make up for the missed days, and promptly began decluttering one thing a day for the rest of the year. I am happy to say I not only completed my resolution successfully but it was so simple and satisfying that I continued decluttering in my slow and steady pace (an average of five items per week) for an additional two years!

Over these last three years of decluttering, I have removed over a thousand things from our home. Also, through the process and through my writing, I have had opportunity to help many people realize their own decluttering goals as well. These conversations have sharpened my desire for simplicity and taught me important insight about clearing clutter. I have learned that understanding just a few key principles can help anyone clear their clutter.

The 10 Most Important Decluttering Principles I Have Learned to Help Anyone Clear The Clutter:

1. Stop the Flow of Stuff Coming In. Decluttering is a waste of time if you simply replace the old stuff with new. You’ll need to begin by slowing the flow of things entering your home. Determine today to buy less. Trust me, you won’t regret it. The freedom from desire to acquire is a beautiful thing.

2. Declutter at Least One Item a Day. Decluttering does not have to be a mad frenzy that disrupts your entire household. Over the years, my home has become quite minimalist by simply choosing one item a day to declutter. This gradual process began to change the way I think about stuff. Eventually, it became a way of life rather than just a crash diet of stuff.

3. Declutter the Easy Stuff First. There is no need to make things difficult by trying to declutter the hardest things first. Most likely, it will simply deter you from the task altogether. Instead, start with the easy stuff and then as you strengthen your will to reduce, the harder decisions will become easier.

4. Put a Disposal Plan in Place. Before you begin, investigate selling, recycling, donating and give away options for the items you choose to declutter. The more prepared you are for the task, the simpler it will be… and the more likely you will be to follow through. Ebay, Freecycle, and our local thrift store became my favorite disposal options. However there are endless others to explore.

5. Decide to Not Keep Things out of Guilt or Obligation. Your home should only contain the things you love or use. Don’t let incorrect thinking or other people dictate what you should keep or give away. Remember, if the items are yours, it is your choice to decide what to do with them.

6. Do Not Be Afraid to Let Go. The urge to hold on to items you think you might need someday can be eliminated simply by being realistic about what need really is. Many items in our homes may be useful, but they are not particularly necessary to our happiness, well-being, or the functionality of our homes. Seek to understand the difference.

7. Gifts Do Not Have to be Material. There are so many ways to honor loved ones without giving gifts that end up as clutter. Encourage people to follow this concept when buying gifts for you. Some alternative gifts are gifts of experience or adventure, a gift of time spent together, even cash gifts are appropriate in some instances. I have two clutter-free gift guides at my blog if you are looking for ideas.

8. Do Not Over-Equip Your Home. A home does not need enough linen, crockery, cutlery, or pantry supplies to serve as a hotel. Be realistic about your true needs. In the rare event an unusually large number of guests arrive on your doorstep, you can always borrow from friends, family or neighbors.

9. Do Not Declutter Things that are not Yours Without the Owner’s Permission. Everyone should have a choice about their own belongings, even small children. Honor them by allowing them to choose. You can encourage hoarding tendencies in others by ripping things away from them before they are ready to let go.

10. Do Not Waste Your Life on Clutter. Every item you own takes time out of your life: time to manage it, clean it, repair it, and maintain it; time to choose between objects of a similar category; time spent shopping for it… and that doesn’t even mention the time spent earning the money to pay for it in the first space. Decide to sacrifice less of your precious life on the pursuit and ownership of stuff.

These ten principles have kept me resolute for the past three years. I had no idea when I began this mission how much stuff I would relinquish over the next three years. What I originally thought was going to be an arduous task quickly became a way of life… so much so, we have just put a deposit on a beautiful, even smaller, apartment with fabulous views of our coastal city, a swimming pool, and gym all within walking distance of everything we want. Semi-retirement is becoming a beautiful thing. Decluttering made it possible.


Colleen Madsen blogs regularly at 365 Less Things where she inspires others to reduce their stuff one day at a time. You can find her on Twitter.

Image: Yorick…

Joshua Becker

About Joshua Becker

Writer. Inspiring others to live more by owning less.
Bestselling author of Simplify & Clutterfree with Kids.

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  1. nan says

    Just returned from overseas 2 days ago.
    Have spent 5 wks with my sister to “de-personalize” my childhood home, BEFORE all the “keen helpers” are able to come in to shift furniture etc… after my mom’s death recently. (She has lived in the same house for 60 yrs.)
    People offering to help are great,….but dear mom lived through the depression after the war, and as a result was a saver and collector, (you never know when something might come in handy…) like her mother before her! …. so we as her daughters, needed to do one room at a time and methodically sort through. Personal and private things, the sort of thing other people can not really help with.
    We were shocked how few people, and institutions, schools and libraries were interested in having donated any books, whether encyclopedias, good fiction, non-fiction, travel and reference books, etc etc…..
    My parents had a huge library,and hundreds of excellent hard cover books on history, countries around the world, many subjects, as well as atlases etc ….
    We have donated a lot to Thrift Shops, and charity places, but so many good magazines, ie National Geographic, etc…just went to recycling…. The libraries are not interested in anything older than 5 yrs! (When we were all at school, we never had to go to a library, all projects and assignments were able to be done from home! much to the envy of our classmates!)
    So we DID appreciate their library….but today, everything is ONLINE, and so eliminates the need people seem to have for books. :(
    As a result we have vowed to “de-clutter” our own houses after this! My sister forwarded me this link….which is excellent, and which enforces our vow to commit to this!
    Starting the “de-clutter” this week! Thanks for the encouragement and comments of others as they have travelled this journey!

  2. Conni Haynes says

    I really need and want to do this. I am a senior citizen and I want to make things easier for my children when I pass away Any pointers would be very much appreciated. I have read your notes and they are awesome. THANK YOU VERY MUCH

    • Carol Woodson says

      Hi Conni, My mother passed away last September. (My dad had died a few years previous.) Things were way easier than I would have imagined. She gave things to each of her six children well before hear death. We delayed taking possession of most of the items until after her memorial service. No squabbles. :) We just haven’t gone through the photos yet, but duplicating and scanning old photos is so much easier with today’s high technology. I suggest you start asking your family and friends in a nice and appropriate way which items are meaningful to them and/or which things they would like to have. You may want to delay any giving commitments until you’ve considered the responses from several people. Then you can start giving to them well before you have even an inkling of passing away. Peace to you, Carol

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  4. Glenn D. Hudson says

    In the process. My friend and I are doing the “date” declutter. Sept 1-1 thing, Sept 2 -2 things and so on. If we make it to the end of the month more than 500 items will be out of the house. Sept 1 was 1 bag of trash, Sept 2 was 2 bags of stuff. Toss, give away, donate, recycle, sell. Committed to finding homes for 90% of the stuff. Our local town has Facebook pages for finding home for good stuff and curbside treasures. Next is the 40 hanger closet.

  5. Deb says

    ok, so how do you deal with stuff that is not yours but is still in your space, the owner does not want to part with it, but does not have room to store it?

    • says

      I would tell them what you are doing and offer a deadline to re-home it. They can find someone else to store it or rent a storage unit. You can be super nice about it.

      • Kelly says

        Super nice – but FIRM. This person is already taking advantage of your kindness by burdening you with their precious possessions. Time to take control of the situation.

  6. says

    These are very useful examples of proper decluttering principles. Whether you can optimise them in a quick emergency clutte clean-up it’d be even better because it may’ve happen to anyone – an unexpected visitor with little notification makes you sweat about whether your home is in at least an avarage condition. In the link in my name you will find my latest post about clutter clearance tips before a guest arrives.

  7. Tami Kenward says

    What to do with purposeful items? Contact local mental health and community service organizations who often assist individuals with “setting up a home.” Household items in good condition are a blessing to many individuals who most likely live on a very limited income. Ask for the housing program staff to get your items in the right hands. As for books, magazines, craft supplies, fabrics, etc., most of these organizations have day treatment programs for all ages that would welcome free resources. And, there’s always teachers who could use “free” anything. Many spend their own money on items produced in the de-clutter process and I’m sure they would greatly appreciate your items…or know someone who would. Think outside the box and network through friends, churches, non-profits, local support groups. You’ll be amazed at where and how you can help others.

  8. says

    We recently lost our son (35 years old) to leukemia (AML) . Things I could have let go of before his death seem impossible to part with now. He worked for FEMA, traveled to all disasters, and in the process has lots of things from everywhere. We have loads of his kid stuff stored in the attic, basement and barn loft. Don’t say pick out your favorite 10-20-30 things and get rid of the rest. It’s just not that simple now. How do I even start removing his things?

    • says

      I am so sorry for your loss, and I can empathize with your dilemma. We also lost our son, two years ago, although he was an infant. I don’t think I’ve thrown away a single thing. We bought, painted, and stenciled his name on a cedar chest for gifts given to him, medical records, hospital blankets, etc. It is a beautiful piece of furniture that houses precious memories. If your son’s belongings are truly too numerous to fit in your home, give yourself plenty of time to go through them. It was months before we could even clear our dining room table of our son’s things, and we had to eat on it! I hope you can find peace and comfort.

      • Nancy Wright says

        Give yourself time! We lost two teenaged children in a car accident 9 years ago. We have slowly but surely pared down the things we kept. Work at it when you feel up to it. Also, we took pictures of things that could be of use to someone – saved the picture and donated the goods!
        I still smile at the picture of our daughter’s full sized bed covered in her shoes!

    • almost minimal says

      After recent loss in my family and prior loss,I have read a lot to this subject.
      Much of the literature suggests not getting rid of anything that you are unsure of for at least a year. There maybe a few special items that you know without doubt that you will want to keep forever and ever, you might choose to display those items or put them in a drawer where you can easily access them. Pack as many other items away into storage as you can. A year later you may start your process with going through just 1 or 2 boxes. Try the de-clutter method of making piles to keep, donate, relocate, or throw away. Set a timer for an amount of time that feels safe to you for the process of going through the box (ex:an hour, a weekend,etc., but no more than a week), at the end of that time put it away. A few months later try another box. This is a delicate process, take your time, and be gentle to yourself, but don’t let possessions take over your life.
      See if you can find other ways to honor your loved ones memory such as planting a garden and having a stone with their name or an angel that symbolizes them. As you heal, letting go of anything related to them will still be intense as it might feel like some of your memory of that person is slipping away.
      Eventually the deep love you feel in your heart and the smile or tears that come with thoughts of that person will be enough if you are willing to let it be. Be patient with yourself and know that every day is different and we work towards healing every single day, it is not something that we acquire and then we are done. Everyday brings new battles related and unrelated to our loss. I am convinced that this life is not about attaining a constant state of happiness but, about deeply connecting, sharing and appreciating our lives while we still have them.

  9. serenda jordan says

    Since my husband died 2 years ago. I have declutered several things but thanks to you maybe it won’t be so hard now.I feel a lot of guilt hitting did of some of this. I don’t want someone thinking I’m giving up on life .just want some space and peace

  10. Nacnud Nosmoht says

    Number 9 is a tough one for me. Would appreciate some advice for those of us that are uncomfortable around clutter, but live with someone who loves to acquire and keep lots of stuff. It’s a serious problem that I’m sure a lot of couples and families suffer from. When I start feeling totally overwhelmed with the clutter I’m tempted to just bring in a big trash can and sweep it all away. Needless to say, that doesn’t result in a good outcome… But what can I do, other than break up?

  11. Catherine Blumberg says

    What do you do with old encyclopedias? After I finally made the decision to remove them from my bookshelves, nobody seemed to want them. Now they sit in my garage.

    • Jessica says

      I am a mother of small children who are beginning to read and would love a set of encyclopedias for them, but can’t afford a brand new one. There may be someone in your area who is in the same situation.

    • Liza says

      This is a great question. My husband will eventually become keeper of his dad’s family archives (200 years of maps, images, diaries…about a closet’s worth) and other fascinating, valued family things including monogrammed silverware and artwork designed and created by great-grandma. NO idea how we will deal with the volume of stuff, nor the responsibility, and would love to hear how others have handled it.

      • Wayne says

        Yes, an absolutely wonderful observation. I thought about the same thing. Logically, would go to my youngest brother, but he likes a clean, uncluttered home. Will definitely need to think more about this issue.

  12. says

    After 32 years in our family home we had to rent the house out and move to a flat. We donated a lot of furniture to the local hospice and a friend of ours advised to not throw metal away or drop off at the local dump but take it to a scrap yard. Amongst the lead and aluminium was copper piping and an old copper 200litre hot water cylinder. We cashed in at a scrap yard and were delighted to receive a considerable amount for our ‘junk’.

  13. Ellen Scott Grable says

    I really prefer the rainy day method of clearing entire rooms at a go. Getting rid of an item a day drags out a process which you be done over days not a year i have better things to do so getting clutter free means moving on.

    • Angela says

      I prefer getting a lot out at once too, however doing it that way, I tend to then take a long break and not get the rest out for much longer than if I did just one area (shelf, cabinet, under a bed) a day. So I’m trying to learn to find a middle ground. I guess we still have too much stuff. It should be done by now! :)

  14. Sherrilleee says

    I realized this acquisition & not letting go started when I lost my brother, a dear friend, then my mother & aunt & cheating husband! I have to

  15. Kathryn says

    Excellent article and I found it helpful to take photos of things you are sentimental about. I had my children do that when getting rid of their stuffed animals. By the way I called the American Rescue Workers so often they recognized my phone number. There is something so freeing about getting rid of stuff!

  16. Alan Brown says

    Also very useful to clean one small area completely and then look at it with satisfaction. Then maintain and enlarge the area of order.

  17. Kem Carney says

    i have been cleaning out my moms house. It is hard to get rid of a lot of the stuff but I do have a lot for a yard sale. I am trying to do my house so my kids don’t have to go through all this. My problem, what to do with paperwork. Father day cards, mother day cards, anniversary and a lot of paperwork that I am not quite ready to toss. My question is where do I put this paperwork? Leaving them in boxes is not the answer, because then where do I put the boxes. Please help.

    • Dee Clutter says

      Line up the cards and keep only the MOST meaningful. Limit yourself to one box. Toss cards that are signed only–you know they love you. Review the box every year. Better to have one box that you review than 10 boxes that are untouched for decades and forgotten.

      • Pat Greenhough says

        I found the best way to remove items that are very personal, then photograph them, you’ll always have the photograph to view and remember, then when de-cluttering it’s not quite so painful.

  18. Mad Mindy says

    I have been suffering from excess clutter for a while now. Then recently I devised what I call the secret drawer system. Firstly, imagine every area you wish to declutter is a drawer in a chest. When I say every area I suggest you divide each room into very small areas e.g a mantlepiece, a shelf etc. You should actually plan it on a piece of paper and have a chest for each room with numbers on each drawer (you can save time by reprinting the same basic chest over and over and then have a list showing what each number relates to) . Then SECRET = S elect(a drawer i:e area) E mpty (completely) C lean (whole area) R elocate(all items into 5 boxes /keep here/keep somewhere else/recycle/donate/bin E mpty (ALL items from boxes and put them in their new homes) T ick (drawer as done) . It has changed my life within days of thinking it up. Just remember the 2nd empty is REALLY important. Please try it. I would love to think I have helped others too! With Love x

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