10 Ways to Reduce Clutter

Clutter comes at a cost.  A room with a lot of clutter takes longer to clean.  A cluttered closet can make it nearly impossible to find what you are looking for. If you are looking for the clear tape in a few very cluttered drawers, it might even be faster to drive to the store and buy a new roll instead of trying to find the one you own.

In this post we are going to look at 10 ways you can help keep clutter to a minimum.  These aren’t hard and fast rules–take what is useful to you personally and ignore what isn’t.  A few brief decisions acting as a de-cluttering superhero can reap long term rewards–particularly when you start fighting clutter at its source before it even makes it into your house.

De-clutter Superhero!

1. Rent instead of buy

Renting things that you only need once per year can be a good deal.  Often it isn’t the cheapest option when you just consider the money–it only takes renting 5 or 10 times to pay for the item.  Still, when you rent something you don’t have to deal with the maintenance,  storage, repair, etc. For example, every year I rent a lawn aerator. It costs me $55 for a day and I use it on my yard and my parent’s yard.  Buying a similar unit would probably cost $300 to $700. However since I only use it once per year, I’m not dealing with storing it the other 364 days.

2. Get off mailing lists

How much of your clutter comes in the mail?  If you can get your name taken off of mailing lists and unsubscribe from magazines you don’t read, you can significantly cut down on the amount of stuff in your house.

3. Buy simple things

Sometimes products are designed with all kinds of options to make them appear more attractive.  That vacuum cleaner that comes with a huge box of add ones like a shampoo unit, ceiling fan brush, balloon inflator add on etc. may look very attractive, but how often are you going to use those options? Simple things are often more reliable so you may actually get more use out of the item with fewer options.

Obviously there is a balance here.  You don’t want to buy things that are so limited that they aren’t useful, but there is a cost of complexity and clutter that comes with having a device that can supposedly do everything.

4. Approach Christmas & birthdays with care.

Christmas and birthdays are wonderful, but it is easy to acquire a lot of stuff that just turns into clutter.  Here are some tips for dealing with these events.

  • Single gifts – It takes some planning, but families can pool their money to get each person a single very special gift instead of multiple ones.  The idea is quality over quantity.
  • Donation to a cause – Some families keep Christmas gifts to a minimum and instead donate money to a good cause that they all agree on.  The family takes time together to pick out exactly what everyone feels would be the best organization to donate to.  Some non-profits make it more interesting by allowing you to purchase specific things–for example you can buy a cow and three chickens to be given to a farmer in Africa.
  • Consumables – When someone asks me what I want for Christmas, I always ask for AA batteries.  I know I’ll use them, they last for a long time and they require minimal storage space.
  • Gift cards – Some families just revert to giving gift cards to each other. I think this can kind of miss the point, but it is very clutter free.

5. One in–one out

Which closet is easiest to keep organized–one with 50 items or one with 500? The one in one out rule says that when you bring in something new, something old has to go.  This is particularly good for dealing with clothing and toys.  When you decide that something is important enough to purchase it forces you to decide what is the least important so it can be removed.

6. Only one

How many scissors do you have in your house? How many ink pens?  Often we have multiple items that do the exact same thing simply because we didn’t know where something was when we needed it.  I’m not saying you can only have one ink pen in your house, but proper organization can help minimize the number of things you have. When possible, put your effort into finding the item instead of driving to the store to get another one.  If you find you have a bunch of the same thing, it might be a good indication that you need to change your organization.  For example, if you have a screw driver in the kitchen drawer, one in you desk, one in the garage and one in the pantry, it might be an indication that you just need a good tool box so you can always find the screw driver in the same place.

7. Single box of memories

Most of us have boxes in storage of memorabilia from the past.  These are important treasures, but if left unmanaged they can grow into huge storage problems.  A single large plastic box for memories is a reasonable goal.  Fortunately modern technology makes it easy to keep the memories of things without requiring the physical storage.  Here are some ideas:

  • Scan photographs and throw out the originals or give them to family members who would appreciate them. In some cases you may be able to donate them to your alma mater or a museum.
  • Take pictures of trophies and awards and physically keep only the ones that have the most meaning to you.
  • Scan or photograph artwork from your childhood.  If you have a lot you can even have them printed and bound in a book from Lulu.

8. Reduce software storage

Most people have boxes of software that are outdated and irrelevant.  You probably don’t need a copy Microsoft Money 99 any more and what are the chances you’ll ever need to reinstall Windows 98?  Even the software you need to keep is probably taking up a lot of extra space.  Fortunately the actual CDroms and DVDs are very thin.  Get a zip up CD folder and transfer all your software to that.

Just make sure you keep the keycodes necessary to reinstall.  I like to keep the keycode paper in the sleeve and also write it on the outside of the CD. If you just write it on the outside of the CD, you can’t read it while you are re-installing because it will be inside your computer.

Another more tech heavy option is to burn all of your CDs/DVDs to ISO image files and store them on an external hard drive. I tried this for awhile, but i prefer the convenience of the original media and a few CD cases don’t take up that much room

If you find a CD case you like, you might consider buying a couple extra.  Companies are constantly creating new models and styles and if you want them to  look the same you can’t count on being able to the same style again 9 months down the road.  Plus it may be easier to organize your discs if you separate them into multiple cases instead of simply filling one case before overflowing to the next one.

9. Movies and music

Even though the size of a jewel case is much smaller than most software boxes, music and movies can take up quite a bit of storage space.  You can reduce them to CD storage cases if you like.  However, if you ever think you’ll want to sel or give away some of your CDs or DVDs it is probably a good idea to keep the original cases.  Movies and music tend to keep their value a bit longer than software–a good CD from 10 years ago is still worth listening to, but most people aren’t going to ever install Windows 98 again.

A good compromise is to burn your music off to your computer and put all the CDs in a box out of the way.  This helps keep them from cluttering up your house without loosing access to your music.  Of course this only works if you computer is setup where you will actually listen to music from it.

You can do the same thing with movies although DVDs tend to be encrypted so it can be a bit more difficult to turn the physical copy into a digital version.  I’m not sure of all the legal ramifications, but generally you are allowed to make a backup copy of a movie that you own–as long as you continue to own the original media and don’t try to sell it or give it away. On OS X and Linux, Handbrake make it pretty easy to copy a DVD into an MP4 file. Of course if this limits you to only watching movies on your laptop instead of using your big expensive TV it isn’t very useful.  I’ve tried a bunch of different ways of getting movies from my computer to show on my TV.  DLNA is good in theory and TVs that can play MP4s directly sound like a good idea, but in actual practice the only thing that has been reliable is an Apple TV unit.  My movies go in iTunes with my music and they show up on the Apple TV menu. At only $100, it was well worth the time it saved me of fiddling with all the other ways of doing things.

10. Things you might use

Things you might use can be one of the biggest sources of clutter.  That piece of exercise equipment that you never use, or the board games you never play.  It isn’t bad to keep some stuff, but you need to be honest about whether you are really going to use things in the future.  If there is a very high probability that you won’t use it again, do an analysis of how  much it would cost to replace if it turns out you do want it later.  Also consider how its value will depreciate over time.  For example, if you have an unused computer that is worth $500 today, it will probably be worth only $250 or less in 18 months.  If you aren’t going to use it for two years it is much better financially to sell it today and simply buy a new or used computer when you do eventually need it.


  1. says

    I’ve managed to declutter my life almost to the point where everything I own could be packed in a few square metres.

    The problem is the other people in my family are all hoarders. Short of divorce or murder, are there any suggestions for dealing with people who have zero interest in decluttering?

    • says

      There are books and books written on living with people whose tolerance for clutter is markedly different from ones own. ahem. It can be a very taxing existence. Can you figure out if they are really hoarding (statistically unlikely) or do they need a little training, some consequences and maybe even some professional help?
      When a space or item has many users, I have found labels work for many households. A clearly written label that says stapler or car keys or extra paper towels will at least let everyone know what should be there.
      A serious talk about scarcity and the fear of scarcity may help.
      In the mean time, keep living by example. Keep up the fight, my friend!
      Check in your area for professional organizers. But, only call one if your spouse agrees to that. It’s like therapy in that, we can only help clients who want to be helped.
      Good luck!

      Nonnahs Driskill, professional organizer in NE Los Angeles

  2. says

    I especially like #1 and #4. I had not thought of suggesting to my clients to rent rarely used items. But I can see how they would protest that they could get it at Costco really cheap. But pointing out the storage and maintenance costs of anything usually persuades my clients that they would rather not have an item.

    Christmas and birthday gifts are such a source of clutter for some. People invite 20 kids to the birthday party and get 20+ gifts, and that’s not including family gifts! I had one parent respond to my post about this topic who asked each kid to bring a wrapped book, and nothing else, to the birthday party. At the end of the party, each kid got to pick a book. That was the only gift exchange or goody bag item for the whole party. Love it!

  3. says

    Nice post.

    Number 7 is always the type of directive I have
    trouble with as I am inherently such a “pack rat”
    of memorabilia by nature. Its very easy for me
    to forget the ally I have in modern technology.

    Thanks for the reminder.

    Grace and peace to you.

  4. dajolt says

    regarding #8 I think it’s better to write the keycode on the medium – otherwise there’s a big chance that it gets lost.

    Then if you ever need to install the software type the code into notepad before inserting the CD or take a photo of the CD with your mobile phone before you start installing. No problem there.

  5. says

    About Rule#5, I use the guidelines of 1 in and 2 or more out. When its 1 to 1 you’re simply replacing. I’m in a downsizing mode making an earnest effort to get rid of “stuff” that I really don’t need. So far I’m not surprised I haven’t missed anything I’ve gotten rid of.

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