Decluttering—even just the thought of it— can be overwhelming; the actual process can also be tedious. Michael Tompkins, PhD, offers these tips but acknowledges that there are no hard rules that work for everyone. Rather, it’s a matter of trial and error to find your decluttering sweet spot.
- Before you begin: Think about where you will move things when you begin decluttering. For example, if you have a lot of papers you want to keep, getting a filing cabinet and folders can help you organize them. And if you take things out later, you will have a place to put them back; otherwise they will end up cluttering your space again.
- Use three broad sorting categories: keep, discard, and maybe. Then, repeat the process with the “maybe” stuff, as many times as needed. If you feel overwhelmed and anxious about decision-making, this can be a good first step.
- Start with small tasks, in one small spot, such as your desktop, so that you can quickly see what you’ve accomplished, which can be motivating. If you’re all over the place in decluttering—trying to tackle the desk, the kitchen table, and your closet all at once—you may step back after spending some time and not notice any progress you’ve made.
- Break the work into small chunks of time. Spend just 30 minutes, for instance, on a specific decluttering task. If you get overwhelmed or exhausted by working too long, you may find it hard to get back to the task, or to start another one, at a later time.
- Manage distractions to help you stay focused. For example, if you’re working on part of your desk, cover the rest with a towel, so that something there doesn’t catch your eye and lead you in a different direction.
Another trick is to use a timer to prompt yourself to do a self-check every 5 or 10 minutes to make sure you’re still on task. When the timer goes off, ask yourself if you are still doing what you planned to do when you set it. If you use a timer consistently, you can actually train your brain to stay on task a little better, according to Dr. Tompkins. For some people, having the TV or radio on or listening to music can counter the boredom that can lead to distraction; for others, however, that can end up being the distraction.
A final note: All that “clutter” has to go somewhere. And as you clear out, you might as well help out—by donating clothing, electronics, books, furniture, dishes, and other items in good shape to charities such as the Salvation Army, Goodwill, Dress for Success, Room to Grow, and Habitat for Humanity, as well as local thrift stores. Many offer free pick-ups of large items.
This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.
With reporting by Larry Lindner.