'Clearing our space clears our mind': Top decluttering tips from professional organizers

"The things we don't use really weigh us down."


Think of your coffee mugs. You probably have about a dozen of them, right? And within those dozen, you may have five that you love and consistently use.

"If you're moving the ones you don't like to get to the ones you love, those other mugs are just hurdles for you," says Amy Tokos, president of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals. "They're obstacles for honoring and using the ones that you love."

Now think about how that can apply to your whole house — how much stuff in your closets and kitchen and garage you're forced to work around on a daily basis to get to the things you use and cherish. It can be a daunting thought.

But getting rid of that clutter can be well worth the effort, says Heather Cocozza, a certified professional organizer and president of Cocozza Organizing & Design in Arlington, Virginia. "The things we don't use really weigh us down," she says. "It takes some level of energy to clean them or work around them, to get to the things we need. Clearing our space clears our mind."

With the right strategies, you can get rid of the things that weigh you down, establish habits to keep your place tidy, and even make a little money on the things you don't want. Here's how to do it.

How to start decluttering without getting overwhelmed

The prospect of tidying up your whole house can seem like too much to handle, says Tokos. "There are two different kinds of overwhelmed at play," she says. "You can get overwhelmed with all the stuff, or with the time it's going to take you."

To manage your fears about the amount of stuff involved, break your decluttering goals into small chunks, says Cocozza. "I usually recommend a schedule," she says. "I'm going to declutter one drawer a day, or one closet every weekend."

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Designate a bin in your closet or garage as a landing site for unwanted items. "Whenever you find something to get rid of or try on a shirt that doesn't fit, drop it in the bin," she says. "When it's full, you know it's time for a donation run."

If you're stressed about how long it might take to declutter, Tokos suggests cleaning with a deadline. "The easiest thing to do is set aside 15 minutes a day and set a timer," she says. Without a set time limit, "people think they'll start cleaning, get on a roll, and end up cleaning all night. Then they say, 'I'm going to get sucked in, so I'm not going to do it.' It sets up a cycle of procrastination."

How to establish tidy habits that stick

There's a feeling of tremendous satisfaction that comes when you've finally cleaned out a perpetually messy area. For some people, there may also be a looming sense of dread: How long until this is messy again?

Once you have an area the way you want it, organizing pros recommend establishing habits to keep it free of detritus. Say you have a table that you're constantly throwing stuff on when you come in the door. Now that you've cleaned it, how do you keep yourself from piling mail on it again?

"One strategy is to block it," says Tokos. "If it's the bench by the door that your kids throw their stuff on, maybe you put pillows on the bench. If it's the dining room table, maybe you set the table so it looks pretty. That way, it's not as conducive to you putting things on it."

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If you're liable to just move your place settings or chuck your stuff on the table anyway, try embracing your habits instead. "Think, 'If this is my natural tendency, how do I organize this mail?'' she says. "We could set up an inbox on the table. That way, mail has a place to land, and it's not spreading over the table."

If you want to set up a new habit, such as sorting through mail or tidying up a particular area, tie it into an existing one, says Cocozza. "Every night after dinner, I load my dishwasher. Then I started to hook a new habit onto it — I declutter my email after I load the dishes," she says. "It became very natural, and now it's a daily habit."

Sell, donate, or discard? How to decide

Once you have piles of stuff to part with, the next question becomes, well, how? You have three options: Sell it, donate it, or trash it.

The easy decision: Trash it

When something needs to be thrown out, it's usually obvious, says Cocozza. "If it's ripped, if there are stains, if it's broken, nobody wants it. It needs to be thrown away," she says. "Some of these things are pretty straightforward. Expired coupons, cans of paint that don't match the walls — all things you can be comfortable getting rid of."

Be sure you're observing local laws when it comes to trashing certain items. Old paint, batteries, and chemicals will likely need to go to a hazardous waste facility, while broken electronics should go to e-waste recycling.

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Donate (and get a tax break)

If you're thinking about trashing something that could still potentially have some use, you may be better off donating it. Someone, somewhere can use your old stuff, and if it has any value, many organizations will give you a receipt you can use to claim the value of the item as a charitable donation when you file your taxes.

It's important to be realistic about which items will have resale value. "A lot of donation sites have gotten much stricter about what they're accepting, and there's still very limited at-home pickup," Cocozza says. "The organizations that will come to your home are much more discerning about quality — they don't want anything scratched or stained."

One alternative: junk-hauling services. "A lot of these services have changed their business model," she says. "First they'll try to donate your items, then try to recycle them, and the rest they'll take to the junk haulers. You'll get a receipt for whatever they can donate or resell."

Earn a few bucks from your unwanted stuff

If you think some of your old stuff could still earn you a few bucks, start by forgetting what you paid for it, says Tokos. "A lot of people have an issue with selling because they want a return on things. But no one cares what price you paid 20 years ago. The eye of the beholder means zero."

For big items, such as furniture, Tokos recommends staying local and advertising to neighbors on Nextdoor or Facebook Marketplace. "If you know somebody, it's probably a little safer and easier," she says. "And you don't need to list the stuff on eBay and deal with the whole world."

For high-end jewelry and designer clothes, Tokos recommends using consignment sites such as Poshmark and thredUP. "It's really easy to create an account and upload a picture," she says. "They'll even send you a prepaid shipping label."

When selling "functional, high-quality, working items," Cocozza's clients have had luck with online marketplace OfferUp. And for books, CDs, and DVDs, Cocozza is a fan of the Decluttr app, which allows users to scan the items' bar codes and receive instant valuations for their stuff.

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