The most relatable decluttering maven I have come across is Dana K. White, who is, herself, a creative person. She is funny, lucid and very very pedagogical. Her blog, A Slob Comes Clean, or one of her books (my favorite is Decluttering at the Speed of Life), are practical and perfect for people like us.
But regardless of whose method we use to get started, in the immortal words of Amelia Earhart:
The most effective way to do it, is to do it.Amelia Earhart
Do the Easy Stuff First, aka, Pluck the Low-Hanging Fruit
There are layers to decluttering, and recognizing this is the first step to actually doing something about our clutter problem.
Dana K. White recommends putting a timer on for five minutes and seeing how far we can get.
Not to be rebarbative about this, but there are days when I can simply take a black trash bag, à la Dana K. White and, in a five minute sweep of my apartment, fill it with actual trash. Things that actually belong in the garbage. And believe you me, this stuff is real trash. I have little boys, you see. Their job is to produce unrecyclable, unpleasant, messy nasty trash.
Trash is the first, and lowest hanging fruit to pluck. It is easy to identify: the irreparably broken badminton racquet, the huge pile of paper towels they surreptitiously snuck into a corner in the bathroom to pick up where they missed the toilet (hey, they tried to pick it up. This is progress.), the sandwich crust left in the middle of the train tracks. I could go on, but I played this game already yesterday.
Now, it’s great to have a trash bag filled with gross stuff. But the next step is just as important: we need to get it out of the house.
I live on the fourth floor of an medium sized apartment building. Our dumpster is in the garage under the building. If I don’t want this garbage bag to be here staring me in the face for another week, I need to actually deal with my trash, I need to get that trash bag down to the dumpster.
True story: on Friday of last week, I did one of these emergency trash bag sessions in the apartment. I closed up the trash bag good and tight and took it down with me to the garage as I was leaving to pick up the boys. When I got down to the garage, I discovered that the dumpsters had been rolled up to the street for pickup. With nowhere to put the garbage bag, I put it in the car where it stayed for three days. I am disgusting, I know. But if I don’t deal with something right away, I will forget about it.
Recycling Googly Eyes
I’ve already talked about this a dozen times, but it is so easy to forget: recyclable packaging materials are so easy to ignore! It’s like they start to be part of the furnishings after a while.
Case in point, my husband bought a 12-pack of toilet paper rolls, which were, instead of being wrapped in some kind of transparent plastic, were wrapped in a kind of nice-looking white recyclable paper. Someone opened the package and we got it started, never having removed the white paper wrapping.
Now, there might be a reason for this: each of my scalawags have, at some point in their lives, thought it was fun to play with toilet paper, and this has been an irritation for us. They no longer do play with toilet paper, but the trauma of having to reach into the toilet and pull out a previously unused toilet paper roll remains. So maybe we didn’t remove the paper wrapping for that reason, to keep the toilet paper rolls out of sight.
What I can say for sure is that, lo and behold, one day we needed to change the roll of toilet paper, and Lily Fields reached into the white paper wrapping where the toilet paper rolls used to live and discovered that there were no more toilet paper rolls in the opaque white paper wrapping.
Packaging materials are evil. Dealing with them right away is best. Taking five minutes every week or so to just look for them is second best. Empty dish soap bottles, grocery bags, shampoo bottles, paper airplanes. Yes, it sounds ridiculous that anyone should have to write on their calendar “Do a recyclables sweep.” But I have to do it. It literally takes four minutes to complete, but the impact on the apartment is measurable.
Clear off just one surface
With the issues of trash and recycling dealt with, then we can deal with a detail. Just one. Dana K. White recommends doing the dishes. She is not wrong about this: having a cleared out sink is a huge relief. I don’t have a dishwasher, and we only have enough dishes for one meal, so the issue of doing the dishes is kinda baked in. We have built a habit around this: we wash and put away dishes as part of our meals.
So when I need to see some decluttering progress in the apartment, I like to clear off one of two surfaces that collect junk: the shelf in our entryway or the kitchen counter.
The entryway shelf collects acorns and random bolts and mail and buckeyes and backpacks and Sunday School crafts and keys and used facemasks and grocery lists and shopping bags and water bottles a single clean sock. Right at this moment it also has a really big cardboard box from a toy that my youngest was playing with three weeks ago and his subsequently forgotten about.
The kitchen counter collects all of that stuff and everything else, too.
Here is the secret to dealing with all this junk, according to Dana K. White: when we come across something that isn’t where it should be, we should take it to its home right now. That random sock? Go take it to the sock drawer right now. The shopping bags should go to the car right now. The face masks should go to the washing machine right now. Because, as we say in French, “Ce qui est fait n’est plus à faire.” (What is done no longer needs to be done.)
Those are the easy things, because they have a home, right? Then it gets down to the more nitty gritty. What do I do with all these acorns? What about this piece of mail? What does this bolt belong to, anyway? Let’s be honest. The acorns can go. No one will miss them (Oh, heavens, I hope they won’t miss them). The mail usually can go to the recycling. Maybe, of all the stuff on the surface of the entryway shelf, one little bolt and a craft will remain.
And guess what? When I actually do take the five minutes it takes to do this, my indulgent husband will reliably walk in the apartment at the end of the day and say, ‘Wow. It’s so clean here!” Whereas, I may have spent an hour vacuuming and washing the floor and scrubbing the shower and he will never notice that.
This is just one more real-life example of Dana K. White’s method: we should make an effort to clear visible spaces first. They pack more punch than all the organized junk drawers or scrubbed showers.
Tomorrow, we are going to discuss the issue of discarding items once we are determined to get them out of our space, and all the guilt and uncertainty that keeps us from doing it.