navigation menu icon
For Sale By Onwer Logo

Stage One: Declutter!

ForSaleByOwner August 24, 2023

The average American has a lot of stuff and most of us just keep accumulating more.

It was art critic John Ruskin who noted, “Every new possession loads us with new weariness,” and to survey the boxes and papers being piled high in attics and the heaps of plastic toys, electronic gear, clothing and stuff spilling out of every closet and corner, you can’t help feeling he was right.

Under the circumstances, what better New Year’s resolution than “Out with the old,” a room-by-room regimen that promises to free up closet space and put the house (and its occupants) in a new world of order? Yes, you clutter nuts and pack rats, you savers and storage foragers, you over-scheduled somebodies who think you’ll get to it someday – it’s time to ask yourselves: Do I need five sets of china? Will I fit into a Size 6 again? Are the barbells heavier than the dust gathered on them? Let the January fever for the new year fire up your resolve. Pitch, toss and donate in 2023, and you’re guaranteed to feel the freedom of less.

“It’s a great thing to welcome in the new year feeling in control of your possessions and free from the burden of excess,” says Alicia Kennedy, a personal organizing coach whose Fairfield business is called The Home Organizer and Graceful Moves. “Getting organized is such an energizing thing for people. I have wit-nessed the feeling of a weight being lifted off someone. It’s incredibly transformational.”

With help from Kennedy and Regina Leeds, internationally known organizer, speaker and author of “The Zen of Organizing” (Alpha, $14.95) and the new “One Year to an Organized Life” (Perseus, $16.95), here are tips for organizing your possessions – and your life – in the coming year.


“The first step with any project is setting a clear goal in mind,” says Kennedy. That goal could be a magazine photo. “Many of my clients are able to say, ‘I want my house to look like the rooms in Real Simple magazine.’ ” Kennedy also recommends that people ask themselves a few key questions: What do you want your space to look like? How should your space function for you? What kind of feeling do you want your space to have? If you could have success in any way, what would that be? “Answer those questions, write them down, outline a goal or vision. That should be how you base all your decisions going forward.”

Leeds suggests spending 10 minutes surveying each room. “The first thing I would do is to sit quietly for a few minutes in each room and take stock of what I see. Make a list of what I like in that room – what works for you, what doesn’t work. Once you’ve gone through the whole house, put all the rooms in priority order.”

Both Leeds and Kennedy advocate starting in the space “that has the least emotional charge,” as Leeds puts it.

“Start with an area like the sock drawer, a small space you use daily that gets to you,” Kennedy says.

Set aside the time.

“Most likely your home didn’t get the way it is overnight,” Kennedy says. “You have to recognize that cleaning it up is going to take some time, too.”
She recommends that clients “take one hour a day to work on a drawer, a shelf or part of a closet.”

Leeds suggests blocks of time from 15 minutes to 5 hours with the work focused on a single room until it’s finished. Attempting longer stretches invites burnout.

Both experts recommend eliminating all distractions first.
“I would not answer the phone during this process,” Leeds says. “You have to do this with respect.”

Leeds and Kennedy break down the job into three stages, which Leeds terms “elimination, categorization and organization.”


The biggest part of any organization job is elimination. Start by making three piles – Keep, Toss and Do-nate – says Kennedy. “You’ll make a decision about every one of the possessions as you go through them.”

It’s important that articles selected for tossing or donating be disposed of immediately.
“Make sure the stuff is really out,” says Leeds. “If it’s going to charity, box it up and take it to the car. Don’t park it in the hall and let it become a new decorative item.”

Kennedy suggests getting children involved in making donations. “Select a local charity and take your kids along. It can make them feel good about making the decision to give up a toy.”

Elimination has its perils. Sifting through things means memory and emotion are bound to surface.

“If you’re getting stuck, then stop and take 10 minutes,” Leeds says. “Sit and ask yourself some ques-tions: ‘Why am I stuck? What is it that’s holding me to these items?’ Very often it’s the stuff that belonged to somebody who died. You feel disloyal if you get rid of it. But the person who died is never, ever coming back to thank you for saving all their stuff. So save one thing. If you have 10 of your mother’s dresses, keep one. If you have a photograph of your mother in a dress, keep a swatch of that dress, and frame the picture and the swatch in a shadowbox. Find a way to honor the person without dishonoring yourself.”

Elimination also gets complicated by issues of shared space. Your partner or your children might not share your zeal for the great 2023 clean-out. When children (over age 5) are involved, “make it fun,” Kennedy suggests. “It doesn’t have to be drudg-ery. Give everyone in the family a laundry basket, set a timer and see who can fill it up with the most stuff. Make it a game. Another idea is to make it worthwhile” by scheduling a special activity or outing when the cleaning is done,” Kennedy says.. “Monetary rewards can also work. My son earns $5 for every large bag of donations he rounds up.”

If a partner signs off on the cleaning and organizing, it is essential to respect his or her belongings. Set aside a pile and ask before you toss.
“You want everyone in the house to know you’re de-cluttering and you’re not violating them,” Leeds says. “That’s how people feel when those decisions are made for them.”


Once the elimination process is complete, both experts recommend categorizing what is kept. Group to-gether like items such as DVDs, sporting gear and documents. Each should have a dedicated place.

The final step is to organize the categorized goods.

“Inevitably every client’s first question is, ‘What kind of bins do I need to buy to do this?’ I say, ‘Let’s first take a look at the space, see what’s working,’ ” says Kennedy.

Bins and other organizational apparatus can create their own problems.

“There are so many organizational products, it’s a new form of clutter,” Leeds says. “I open people’s closets and they’re full of that stuff. Look at your categories and see. Do you need all new hangers? What are you going to do with the DVDs? Keep them in a tower? Is that something you need to buy, or do you pre-fer drawers with inserts?”

Kennedy has often found that clients have organizational systems working in one room of the house that can be applied elsewhere.

“I had one client who loved binders. The kitchen was a problem, so we converted everything to binders.”

The goal is to get organized and stay organized.

“I have clients who tell me, ‘Well, I got organized, Regina, I threw everything away.’ I tell them, ‘You ti-died up. You didn’t get organized.’ Organized means you have a system,” says Leeds.

Systems should not be imposed on the household but introduced gently.

“Be quiet about it and begin slowly,” Leeds says. “Good habits are magical. You have to choose an ac-tion and repeat it for 21 days consecutively. Psychologists have found it takes that long to turn something into a habit.”

How do you introduce good habits?

“Here are my favorite things to do,” says Leeds. “Always make your bed before you leave the house. Never leave dirty dishes in the sink. Take out the garbage every day. Put your keys in the same place the minute you walk in the door. These little things shift the energy in the home. If you have a good family dy-namic, everybody wants to get in on a good thing.”

With children, especially, good organizational habits should be cultivated.

“Some day they’re going to leave home. How are they going to know how to organize their spaces if they don’t learn from their parents? Chores should be doled out and rotated. Some parents think that’s a punish-ment, or they think they do it better. It doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to make military corners [on the bed]. Organization is meant to free them so they can do whatever work they were called to do in life. It’s not meant to be a weapon.”

The result of organizing the home is relief, what Leeds calls “outer order for inner peace.” It’s freedom from clutter and the time-wasting inconveniences of missing keys and crammed closets. It’s the payoff that comes from lightening the load of stuff that weighs on us both physically and psychologically.

“We all have too much stuff,” Kennedy says. “By releasing it, we instantly feel better.”

via Hartford Courant
Syndicated with permission.

This article from Tribune Company news outlets has been republished for additional  education purposes.  Please note that this editorial content was produced by Tribune news staff who are not employed by or  by Tribune Digital Marketplaces.  This article is not affiliated with any links or products that appear on the on the same pages.  Read more about our editorial policy.