Declutter 101: Strategies To Cut Clutter

Taking aim on the household clutter problem, you've resolved to work slowly and steadily, and you've carved out blocks of time to declutter.

Now what? And how?

Time to consider weigh in with specific methods and strategies for decluttering.

These tried-and-tested methods bring different strengths to the fight against clutter. Choose the one that's right for you and your family.

Forcing Decisions: The Four-Box Method

Clutter is evidence of many things: poor habits, lack of organization, sentimental attachment, too much stuff. But, at bottom, each item of clutter is a decision delayed.

The mail arrives, replete with circulars and junk mail and catalogs. "Oh, I'll go through that later!" whispers the clutter monster, deferring the simple decision to cull and toss the unwanted paper.

The Four-Box method forces a decision, item by item. To apply it, gather three boxes and a large trash can. Label the boxes, "Put Away", "Give Away/Sell" and "Storage." Items to be thrown away belong in the trash can.

Take the four boxes to the declutter area. One at a time, pick up each piece of clutter. Ask yourself, "Do I want to put this away in another place, donate it (or sell it at a yard sale), store it, or throw it away?" You may not release your grip on the item until you have made a decision.

At the end of the decluttering session, reserve 10 to 15 minutes to empty the boxes. Put Away items are put in more appropriate places. Give Away/Sell items should be stored outside the house, in a garage, or in the trunk of the car for drop-off at a charity donation center. As each Storage box fills, make a brief inventory of the contents and put the box into the storage area. Finally, empty the trash can quickly to prevent second thoughts!

The Four Box method will work for anyone, in any declutter mode. Use it to clear a shelf or drawer each day, or apply it as part of a whole-house weekend assault on clutter. By forcing a decision, it will serve you well as you cull clutter from the home.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Box and Banish

Box and Banish is an alternative to the Four Box method. Where the Four Box method nibbles away at clutter bit-by-bit, Box and Banish is a drastic, clear-it-out effort that transports clutter away from living areas, to be dealt with later.

Box and Banish is simple. Gather all clutter from counters, drawers, chairs, tables, floors, ovens, and bathtubs. Place the clutter into boxes or bags, and stack it somewhere outside the living area. Work until all surfaces are clear and clutter free.

Next step: open each box or bag of clutter, one at a time. As with the Four Box method, decide whether each item inside should be thrown away, put away, given away or sold, or stored. In extreme cases, declutterers have been known to throw away Box and Banish boxes, sight unseen!

Box and Banish has one big advantage and two big disadvantages as a declutter method.

On the plus side, Box and Banish creates instant results. Often, impending guests or other emergencies force a version of Box and Banish upon the cluttered household. Clearing clutter quickly sparks enthusiasm and motivation.

On the minus side, energies often flag before the Box and Banish declutterer reaches the end of the boxed clutter. The effort stalls, the clutter remains, aging gently in the bags and boxes as it becomes surrounded by new layers of clutter.

In a worst-case scenario, the need for some Boxed-and-Banished item can trigger formation of Mt. Cluttermore, as the frantic searcher upends each carefully boxed hillock of clutter, looking for the single missing item. Result: you're worse off than when you began!

The second disadvantage? While Box and Banish can create an instant absence of apparent clutter, the method does nothing to change the underlying problem. More gradual decluttering methods go hand-in-hand with other components of getting organized: building new habits, organizing stored items, creating new household routines. Box and Banish, for many, is a mere cosmetic quick-fix--and it won't lead to the permanent changes you need to banish clutter for good.

Still, if you're fiercely motivated and determined to complete the declutter process, Box and Banish is an option that jumpstarts organization efforts with fast results.

Ellen's Penicillin Method

Often, decluttering efforts chase their tails in an endless loop. The home manager declutters the small table in the hallway and moves on. By the following week, a whole new species of clutter has returned to the cleared area.

The Penicillin method, devised by online declutterer Ellen in MN, uses a Petri dish metaphor to get a grip on clutter. Imagine a Petri dish full of fuzzy brown mold spores. A researcher begins to apply small drops of penicillin to the dish. Each little drop clears a small circular area; soon, drop upon drop, the entire dish is cleared of the distasteful intruder.

So, too, with the Penicillin method of decluttering. Today, the declutterer clears the kitchen table. From this point, no matter how bad the clutter becomes elsewhere, the kitchen table is inoculated with Penicillin. Daily clutter checks make sure no clutter is permitted to return.

Next declutter session, the declutterer attacks the top of the buffet. Thinking "Penicillin!", that clear space joins the kitchen table. Soon, the cleared areas link up, banishing clutter from the entire house.

By devoting declutter energies to retaining the Penicillin effect of each declutter session, the Penicillin method focuses the declutterer on prevention. The method is useful, creative, and works well to bring an entire house under control.

Closet-Go-Round: Whole House Declutter

Sometimes, you simply have to re-invent the wheel. Perhaps you realize, three years into a new house, that household storage needs a complete overhaul. Remodeling, a child's departure for college, or birth of a new baby can all signal a need for a whole-house declutter.

Call it the Closet-Go-Round. It's a two-part process of identifying and assigning storage, while at the same time decluttering and revamping existing areas in the home.

Like a merry-go-round, the Closet-Go-Round turns out, sorts out and relocates all the storage functions of the home. In the initial stage, you'll identify storage needs and match them to available storage areas, regardless of what's being stored where at the moment.

Once you know what should go where, the active phase begins. You will need boxes, lots of them, and time--quite a bit of time. Starting at the front door, move from room to room placing boxes in front of each storage area: cabinets, drawers, closets, and shelves.

Then begin at the beginning once more. Start, for example, at the table in the hall. Remove any and all items from the table that are not assigned there: gloves, mail, keys, change, handbags. Place them in your box.

When the table is empty, except for the vase of flowers that belongs there, circle the house with your catch. Gloves are placed in the box before the coat closet where they are supposed to live. Mail is dumped into the box in front of the desk area. Handbags and change are delivered to the owner's launch pad area. Items to be thrown away are delivered to the garbage can.

When the box is empty, move on to the next storage area in the hall: the coat closet. Empty the coat closet of all unassigned items, while adding the gloves to their assigned area. Again, circle the house with your coat closet box, delivering items to the new storage area where each belongs.

As you work, you're sorting and decluttering in two directions. You're removing clutter and improperly-stored items, while collecting and replacing the things which belong in any given area.

A Closet-Go-Round is a big undertaking, and it doesn't work well if performed in fits and starts. Choose this method if you have a block of two or three days to devote to a major declutter. While you'll work hard during that time, a Closet-Go-Round can take giant strides toward a more efficient, easy-to-manage home.