​Controlling the Clutter: Part 3 - The Living Space

Feb 22nd 2022

In our third and final installment of tips and tricks to Control the Clutter in your house, we are focusing on the main living space of the house. For most of us that includes the kitchen, family room, office space, entry way, and dining room. Before doing so, let’s review some of the basics.

What is Clutter?

As we’ve mentioned before, clutter can mean different things to different people, but generally most of us would agree that clutter is extra—extra stuff, or too much stuff, or unnecessary stuff, or unused stuff. In the living spaces, as with excess toys and clothes, clutter seems to collect and multiply and surround us without us really realizing it.

Peter Walsh, an organizational expert, divides clutter into two categories: “Memory” Clutter (items that remind us of important events, loved ones, or special moments) and “Someday” Clutter (items that we feel we might use someday). We can probably relate all too well to both these types of clutter, especially in our living space. About clutter control, Walsh says, “It’s about balance. If you have so much stuff it drags you into the past or pulls you into the future, you can’t live in the present.”

Why Bother?

To Walsh’s point, there are benefits to protecting our “present” in a way that makes it enjoyable to live in. There’s no doubt that tackling clutter is difficult, and frankly it can feel easier to just avoid the task altogether. But there are some definite benefits to clearing the clutter out of your life:

  • Less to clean. Cleaning is already a chore, but having to clean around trinkets or stacked papers or piles of stuff creates an even bigger hassle...especially if you can’t even find your cleaning supplies.
  • Less stress. Feeling frazzled and frantic is often a result of disorder and clutter in your life. There is a relief that comes from being organized, from being able to find things.
  • Less waste. Have you ever found yourself buying something you thought you ran out of, only to find the same product buried in the back of your pantry or at the bottom of that stack of items in your bathroom? Controlling clutter means you will spend less money on things you didn’t really need.
  • More time. It goes hand-in-hand that having less stuff means it’s easier to find the stuff you need, so you’re not wasting your time finding it. You’re also saving time in your day-to-day tasks because you’re not moving around things that are in the way.
  • Better health. Less stress generally means better health, but organizational experts have also found that people who get control of the clutter in their homes are able to “get their act together” in other aspects of their personal lives as well, such as their eating habits, quality of sleep, time with friends and family, etc.

Start Small

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and your house will not be decluttered in a day either. We’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Start Small. Don’t tackle an entire room in one sitting. Set a timer for 15-20 minutes and declutter one small area. Pick one half of a kitchen drawer. Pick one corner of a cabinet. Pick one shelf on the bookcase. Selecting small tasks to accomplish makes the process simpler. Instead of dumping out a whole drawer, simply go through and pick out the things that are broken or otherwise disposable. Next time, find things that can be donated. The following time, find things that belong elsewhere. And so on. As you do so, remember to be kind to yourself. Getting rid of clutter is meant to better your life, not add stress!

These small steps may seem insignificant, and the amount of clutter left may seem insurmountable, but neither is true! These little “pockets of order,” as Cindy Glovinsky, a psychotherapist and professional organizer calls them, are evidence of progress. Over time these small steps will make a big difference.

Removing Kitchen Clutter

We’ll be focusing most of our time on the kitchen, as it is Grand Central Station for most families. Organizing and simplifying the kitchen has a way of making other things in our life feel more organized and simplified as well.

Start with the kitchen drawers. If you find your utensil drawers jamming, or your favorite spatula always missing, or your junk drawer pens multiplying, you’re not alone. Usually if we can stuff something in a drawer, we just tuck it there without thinking. Problem is, we can never find it when we need it! But freedom from that type of situation is easier than you may think.

Start with one small drawer, or one section of a larger one. Take out its contents. What do you never use anymore? Donate it. What’s broken? Toss it. Do you have six wooden spoons, but you only use three of them? Donate or toss the other three. Does anyone really need two garlic presses? Keep your favorite. Do you have baby utensils in your drawers even though your youngest is in elementary school now? Take those out of your drawer and pass them along to another family who needs them. Corn holders, mini butter knives, cheese platter utensils, apple corers, trivets, washcloths, kitchen towels, and so on—allow yourself to let go of the items you rarely or never use, or the things you simply have too much of.

How about the dreaded junk drawer? Ugh. It’s hard to think about what you might find in the back of that drawer…. Start small. Test your pens and markers in one session and toss those that are low on ink. Look at the pencils. If the eraser is gone, the wood is mauled, or the length is diminished, toss it. In another sitting, tackle the junk drawer trash: those condiment packets you never use, the old toothpicks that are stuck in the corners, the rubber bands that have lost their stretch, twist ties and plastic bag tabs, rusty tacks, random screws, old receipts, dead batteries, etc. Allow yourself to let these types of “Someday” Clutter go.

A close second to the junk drawer is the Tupperware cabinet. Take a deep breath and dive in. Start simple. Take out all the bottoms and all the tops. Match them up. Any leftovers? Recycle them. Next, focus in on quality. Old butter and cool whip containers aren’t exactly ideal forms of food storage. Containers that are stained from red sauces, cracked on the sides, or warped need to retire. Let them go. Containers that can’t stack well with anything else might be better off gone. Put the remaining items back in an orderly way.

Now that we’re into the cabinets, we might want to talk about small appliances. Niche items like quesadilla makers or waffle makers with five shape options may have seemed fun to have originally, but ask yourself seriously about how often you use them. Again, this “Someday” Clutter is just taking up space. If you haven’t used something in a year or more (or didn’t even remember you had it!) it’s time to pass it along.

Similar paring down can be done to mugs, glasses, plastic cups, water bottles, shaker containers, plates, bowls, and serving platters. One shelf at a time, one 15-20 minute sitting at a time. Keep only the sports water bottles or shaker cups with working, matching lids. Have the kids outgrown those sippy cups? Let them go. If you were gifted a serving platter five years ago but have yet to use it, pass it on.

Setting a number of items to keep and sticking to it is also a good strategy for reducing clutter. How many mugs do you need in your cabinet? If ten is enough, keep only ten. Whatever doesn’t make the cut gets donated. This same strategy works for other common kitchen items as well: grocery bags, paper bags, tote bags, lunch boxes, mason jars, post-it note pads. Save a set number of these items and toss or recycle any extras that come in the house.

What about the pantry and spice cabinet? Again, start small. Simply look for expired items and get rid of them. That’s easy. Next, move to items you’ve had for ages, thinking you’d use them, but you never have. Do you somehow have four cans of creamed corn? Do you even like creamed corn? Perhaps you bought a granola bar flavor that no one liked and the half empty box has been sitting on the shelf for months. Perhaps you made lasagna last May and still have those remaining two noodle sheets in the box. Perhaps you thought you’d cook your own popcorn from scratch but that bag of unpopped kernels has been relegated to the far reaches of your cabinet because you always opt for the microwavable bags instead. Let it all go. Unopened non-perishables can go to a food bank. Opened items need to go in the trash. That’s hard to do. It feels wasteful. But regularly seeing that stuff in your pantry is just a reminder of waste anyways. Let it go.

Sentimental Attachments

Once you get in a rhythm of paring down excess items you really don’t need, it becomes pretty routine to eliminate the “Someday” clutter that often overtakes the kitchen space. But it is “Memory” clutter that tends to inhabit the rest of our living space, and that can be much harder to part with. Perhaps you don’t need, use, or even like an item, but there are sentiments and memories attached to it so you can’t seem to let it go. But remember Walsh’s advice—it’s all about balance. Instead of bringing us joy in our present, too many knick knacks or heirlooms can be an anchor to the past. When trying to reduce “Memory” clutter, it's important to remember that the memories we have are not in the object, so we won’t lose a relationship or forget a special moment simply because we don’t have the thing attached to that part of our life.

There are a few things you can do to help tackle the “Memory” clutter that takes up residence in your living space:

  • Ask questions. When determining what items to keep, it’s helpful to run through a list of questions. Why am I keeping this? Am I sick of dusting or cleaning it? Do I like looking at it when I enter the room? Would someone else get more use out of this than I am?
  • Release the Guilt. It’s common to hold onto things because we feel guilty if we don’t. This is especially true of gifts or items that have been inherited or passed down from family members. We worry about how people would feel if we got rid of the item, even if they’re no longer around. But if you don’t love something and it doesn’t bring joy into your space, it’s okay to let it go. When choosing to declutter inherited items, consider checking with other immediate and extended family members to see if anyone else would like them. Additionally, you can inquire with a local archive or museum if you think the item might have historical value.
  • Pare Down. Many of us can relate to the following situation—at one point you mentioned that you thought owls were really cute. Fifteen years later, your shelves are packed with owls of all shapes and sizes that have come from gifts or personal purchases. Or perhaps your Aunt Sarah was the collector of the owls and now you have them… Either way, if you have multiples of an item and you don’t want to completely part with them, choose one or two to keep and donate the rest. By doing so, you allow yourself to enjoy your favorites of the group without the added weight of excess clutter.
  • Take Photos. Most of us have seen posts on the internet with images of toys or lunchboxes or outfits from the past, accompanied by a question like, “Who had one of these growing up?” Looking at those images brings a smile to our faces as we reminisce about the past. But we aren’t then led to search out that item and keep it. Similarly, we can release some items we have, taking a photograph of them as a keepsake. This is a great way to allow yourself to part with items while still valuing them. Afterwards you can create a digital photo album that allows you to keep the memory of the items without having the clutter go with it.

Other Living Spaces

At this point the basic approach for decluttering should be set in motion. You can use the same principles in the other living spaces of your home to help declutter them as well:

  • Go through cleaning supplies and toss old or unused items.
  • Collect all the magazines and newspapers lying on tables or tucked into baskets. Blow off the dust and recycle or donate anything over two months old.
  • Take a look at your tablecloths and keep only those you love and use (and ones that actually fit your current table). Same goes for cloth napkins. Toss ones that are badly stained or no longer fit your style or decor.
  • Look at your fridge and remove excess magnets, old messages, past school work, etc.
  • Sort the stack of paperwork or mail on your office desk into items to be filed, tossed, or shredded. (And then create a plan for tackling mail the second it comes into the house—recycle what you don’t need and have a set place to put the stuff that needs to be tended to.)
  • Dump out the basket of throw blankets and only keep the ones that are in good shape. If you have twice the amount of throw pillows than you need on your couch, pare them down.
  • Sort through kids’ school papers and only keep what you truly want to hold onto. (See some helpful tips for this in the “Kids’ Stuff” Clutter Blog)

Everything in its Place

“A place for everything, and everything in its place.” This adage may seem cliche, but its basis still rings true. Once you’ve reduced your clutter-load, you can see what you have left and start organizing it in a way that makes sense for you and your lifestyle. As you declutter, be mindful of the place your things need to go. If you use something every day, it should be easily accessible. If you use it once a month or less, it can be stored in a less “reachable” place. Things that don’t have a place get left sitting around. On the other hand, things that have a set place are more likely to get put back there. With everything in its place, your home and life will feel cleaner, better organized, and more manageable. That’s definitely a way to love yourself this year!

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