10 Tips to Beat Clutter…in Less Than 5 Minutes

Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

It’s a Secret of Adulthood: for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm. I agree, in the context of a happy life, a crowded coat closet or a messy desk shouldn’t much matter. Nevertheless, I’ve found that getting control of clutter gives me a disproportionate boost in happiness, and other people seem to feel the same way.

Having a clutter-filled home makes me feel overwhelmed. Everywhere I look, I see little chores that should be done. No one task is particularly difficult, but together, they add up to a big headache and a big jumble. Pretty soon, it’s easier just to add to the piles than to try to attack the problem. That’s another Secret of Adulthood: tidy areas tend to stay tidy, and messy areas tend to get messier.

Here are ten easy, quick tips that, if followed regularly, will help keep your clutter under control. And none of them takes more than five minutes. I mostly follow these, and I’m a lot happier when I do.

1. Make your bed.

2. Get rid of the newspaper each night, even if you haven’t read it yet. Or am I the only one still reading a paper newspaper?

3. Follow the “one-minute rule” – push yourself to do any chore that takes less than one minute. Throw away the junk mail, put the peanut-butter jar back in the cabinet, close the cabinet door, put your dirty socks in the hamper, hang up your wet towel.

4. Identify a place or person to whom you can give things you no longer need – it’s much easier to get rid of unneeded stuff if you can envision someone else getting good use from them. Also, figure out a place to store those things until you hand them over. We have a special shelf for books that we’re taking to the Housing Works thrift store.

5. Be very cautious about letting yourself “store” something. Storing something means you don’t intend to use it much. Other than holiday decorations and seasonal clothes, you should strive to “store” as little as possible.

6. Beware of freebies. Never accept anything free, unless you’re thrilled with it. A mug, a tote bag, a hand-me-down toy, the lamp from your mother-in-law — if you don’t need it, don’t take it.

7. Get rid of things if they break. When I went through our apartment, I was astonished by how many things I’d kept even though they didn’t work.

8. Don’t keep any piece of paper unless you know that you actually need it. I have a friend who, for years, carefully filed away the stubs when she paid her gas bill. “Why?” I asked, mystified. “I have no idea,” she said. Along the same lines, don’t keep anything that would quickly become dated — like travel information. Remember the internet! If you can easily find information online, you don’t need to keep a hard copy.

9. Hang up your coat. I have a lot of trouble with this one, so now I use a hook instead of a hanger.

10. Before you go to bed, take five minutes to do an “evening tidy-up.” Don’t tackle anything ambitious, but just stack up the magazines, put your shoes away, shove the chairs into place, etc. Just a few minutes of tidying can make your house look a lot better, and it’s a calming thing to do before going to sleep. Plus it makes the morning nicer.

What are some other quick, easy tricks you’ve found to make your life more clutter-free? Again, I realize that this issue seems fairly trivial, but it does seem to be a source of low-grade irritation for a lot of people.

Editor’s Note: Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project.  Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

12 comments so far.

  1. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    My father was career military. We had to clear quarters and our base housing had to pass an inspection when we moved. Clutter or mess wasn’t tolerated. As a civilian adult I am more lax. My husband is a saver there are times when I have to appeal to him to organize.

  2. avatar cheresad says:

    OHIO: Only Handle It Once. This is definitely true for junk mail. If, after sorting, there’s a pile that’s intended for the trash (coupons) and/or the shredder (credit card offers), I throw it away or shred it immediately. Doing so doesn’t let it pile grow into a monstrous task later. Also, my 4-year-old son loves the paper shredder, so this is his task. Our model has the safety built in so I don’t have to worry about him shredding his fingers, and he has fun, and it clears mail clutter. It can’t get much better than that – except not having junk mail at all! The obvious solution, of course, is to take our names off the junk mail lists. I’ve tried to do that. Twice. It doesn’t work. If anyone has had any success that way, please tell me how you did it!

  3. avatar Angela M. says:

    Don’t get married.
    All kidding aside, I can’t believe how much stuff my husband has accumulated.  It was crazy when he moved in after the wedding!  It’s been almost a year (this weekend!) and there are still boxes of stuff everywhere.  Old underwear that’s too small, boxes and boxes of VHS tapes (we have a VCR but it’s not hooked up to the TV), etc.  I’d dearly love for him to declutter, but I haven’t been able to convince him to do so yet.  Any suggestions for how to motivate him to clean out the two rooms full of his stuff (the guest room and what should be an extra room but is now a “junk” room) would be greatly appreciated!

    • avatar Deeliteful says:

      Angela, you must get a grip on this now or you’ll be on Hoarders in a few years!

      Both of my ex’s kept EVEYRTHiNG!  I could get rid of a few of 1st ex’s things a bit at a time without him noticing.  #2 noticed if I threw away one piece of paper.  Divorced them both and that put an end of other people’s crap in my life.

      All kidding aside, your husband probably has control issues and it will only get worse.  See if he will set aside 15 mins. and let you help him discard a few things.  If he cannot do so, I would suggest he see a therapist.  If he doesn’t you might want to see one to help you cope with his problem.

  4. avatar Grace OMalley says:

    It seems like my kitchen is always the room in the house that is the most cluttered.  I have a little game I play called “10 Things” where I go through my kitchen and find 10 things that are out on the countertop that don’t need to be, ie: the dirty teaspoon, a piece of mail, a condiment, a dish, etc.  I am amazed how quickly I reach my ten items and then some.  I guess it sounds silly, but you did ask!

  5. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    Very good ideas.  But especially before the holidays, I think we need to have the catalogs, the things to do like the boxes of Christmas cards visible.  You would be amazed at my list — and my list is out in the open, begging me to get going.

    So what I suggest is to have those big store paper shopping bags — the already emptied ones — stacked in the front closet.  Find out someone or more than one is going to drop in in just a few minutes — or even in an hour???  Out comes the bags.  I open the one for catalogs only.  I open the one for the presents gotten but not wrapped, and in a flash they are in the bag for them and stashed back in the closet — or behind the bed if the closet is already full. 

    To me, it is a safety net — giving me the look of a clean house for guests.  But it also lets me keep things where I can see them — for now — when we are alone.  They serve as constant reminder of just where I am on this next holiday or the next birthday — which seem to cluster in January — and it is an idea highly recommended.  Joan

  6. avatar Johnette Helms-Mirzaian says:

    I’ve wondered where it all comes from, but I like these suggestions and had already come to some of them myself. They work! Thanks for the additional nudge to get rid of the extra “stuff” I don’t intend to ever use again!

  7. avatar Baby Snooks says:

    I always keep the living room “pristine” as they say. You proceed elsewhere at your own risk. Liz Smith ran a photo of her office once. I of course realized we are kindred spirits at least in terms of “the stacks” and of course no doubt she knows just exactly where something is in which stack on which table in which corner. I also have a “Fibber’s Closet” and “Fibber’s File Cabinet” to go with it. I always lie to the movers about the file cabinet. “Oh, it’s just a four drawer vertical file cabinet.” The drawers do come out which helps. Just takes four men to carry them. 

    There is method to the madness as they say. Despite appearances to the contrary. 

  8. avatar T. BYNUM says:

    Great ideas, and especially the 10 item kithen one…I have piled so much it is overwhelming and I think a lit match might do the trick (LOL) I hang on to mail, I do not know why.   I will implement some of these ideas and hopefully have a lot less clutter.

  9. avatar spinneo says:

    It is so true that people of all ages respond positively to serene surroundings.  Even toddlers, who strew messes in their wakes, are giddy at the appearance of a suddenly clean playroom floor.
    Everyone feels better when they can see the floor and the walls.

  10. avatar sueb1997 says:

    My best declutter strategy is this:  every time I walk from one room to another in my house, I try to bring with me something that was elsewhere in the house but belongs where I’m headed. Then do the same when coming back the other way.  If I get really into it, I’ll spend 5 or 10 minutes just walking back and forth putting things away — but even without that extra time, just doing it when I’m going to another room anyway, it really makes a huge difference!

  11. avatar brad berger says:

    I wish my daughters would read this article!