The Best Decluttering Advice from Organization Experts
No matter how often I remove stuff from my home, more and more things come in to replace them — and sometimes it feels like I can never get on top of the clutter. When your space feels like it’s closing in on you this way, it can be pretty overwhelming just existing in it. So this spring, I’ve taken on a new project: decluttering my space for good. In order to get started, I interviewed top-notch organizing experts to help me figure out what to do — and of course, I wanted to share their advice with you.
Read next: The Cheap Pantry Ingredient That’s Way Better Than Pricey Store-Bought Cleaners
According to basically every organizer I spoke with, the first step in getting and staying organized is to take stock of what you have and determine what you need to keep. The secret to staying organized is to shop, store, organize intentionally — your living space will be far more livable if you do so. Here are the best tips I’ve learned about decluttering the home:
Let your habits guide your organizational system, instead of the other way around
Don’t try to shoehorn yourself into an organizational system that you think sounds good but won’t actually work for you. Instead, build a system that meets you where you are. “If you think you’re cheating, you might be onto an organizing shortcut,” says Darla DeMorrow, a professional organizer and owner of HeartWork Organizing. “Get dressed and undressed in the laundry room. Only buy white and black socks so there are never any orphans.”
And don’t feel bad about a little restrained excess. If you’re annoyed because the scissors are never where you need them, just buy three pairs and keep them in the spaces where you use them most — one in the home office, one in the kitchen, and one in the garage. Let your system work for you, instead of the other way around.
Gather similar items together
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of stuff in your life, but once you’ve decided to start decluttering, an important step is to put objects into groups. “Don’t try to toss anything out or make any other decision until you have things sorted,” says DeMorrow.
Why? Because when you have to decide about one thing at a time, your brain screams, “But what if I need that? I used to love that! It goes with something else!” or any number of other lies about a useless object you definitely do not need. “When you gather similar items together, you have more information, and it’s easier to make a decision about what to keep and what to let go of to make room,” says DeMorrow.
So don’t try to decide whether a coffee mug should stay or go. Instead, get all of the coffee mugs in one place, then choose your favorites to keep. “Organizing is a much easier process when you can compare the merits of one against another,” says DeMorrow.
Every object needs a home — and that home is probably not your countertop
When it comes to large, horizontal surfaces like kitchen counters, you need to consider them a blank space that has to stay blank. “Treat it as a binary equation: they are either clear or cluttered. Only allow things on the counter that you use every single day. If you don’t touch it, it gets stowed,” says DeMorrow. So if you make a smoothie for breakfast every morning, your blender is allowed to live on the counter. But if you’re a once-in-a-while smoothie person, that blender better find a new home in a cabinet so your countertop stays clean.
Stick hooks to the inside of your kitchen cabinet doors
Measuring spoons, whisks, and pot holders are the types of tools that jam up kitchen drawers. “Instead of cramming them in, hang them on adhesive hooks on the insides of cabinet doors,” says Leslie Corona, Real Simple Senior Home Editor. Just make sure to position the hooks in the spaces between the shelves so the doors can close properly. If cabinet space is scarce, consider using a pot rack, pegboard, or rolling kitchen cart to keep cookware easy to access.
Start at the front door
Feeling unsure of where to start? Walk in your home and take stock of what’s inside the entryway, as if you were a visitor encountering it for the first time. “Pick up one thing at a time and say, ‘This is a (blah, blah, blah) and I need to do (blah, blah, blah) with it,’ then do it,” says DeMorrow. “It doesn’t sound sexy, but you get organized by recycling one thing, putting one thing in a drawer, hanging up one item of clothing, or putting one thing in the car to return to a friend.”
Find a smart system for food-storage wraps
Food storage wraps can jam up your drawers endlessly — or you can store them on removable rods inside a cabinet door. “Punch out the tabs on the ends of each box and slide the whole thing over the rod,” says Corona. And if you have more cabinet space than drawer space, consider stashing wraps in a magazine file box positioned on its spine.
Invest in a good label maker
You can’t stay organized if you don’t know what you’re dealing with. This is true for everything from old paperwork to spice jars. “Labeling will help you keep bulk items organized in your pantry or cupboards and create some pride in your kitchen space,” says Michael Ofei, creator of TheMinimalistVegan.com and the author of The Minimalist Vegan: A Simple Manifesto on Why to Live with Less Stuff and More Compassion.
Find a storage space for everything — and the floor doesn’t count
Nothing should find its home on your floor other than rugs and furniture. Shoes live on a shoe rack or shoe tree. Books belong in a bookcase. Papers go in a file folder. Wine goes in the cabinet or fridge. For unwieldy items, there are big baskets and storage furniture. The floor is never the answer — it just makes a space feel seriously cluttered.
Don’t ask for trouble
We want to use all the cabinet space we have, especially if we don’t have very much of it — but avoid finding a solution that may ultimately lead to a bigger problem, like another mess for you to clean up. As tempting as it is, don’t keep cleaning supplies under the sink — or really, anything at all, if you can help it. “That cabinet is small, dark, and often wet,” says DeMorrow. Leaks are a common problem, and anything that’s actually touching the bottom of that cabinet is extremely likely to get sticky or ruined. Instead, make use of the negative space by getting a door cabinet organizer. It lifts items off the ground so they’re less likely to get wet.
Simplify your food container situation
“Stick to the same brand of food containers to ensure the pieces nest well, and avoid buying the variety pack,” says Corona. The best way to streamline food containers is to only buy the individual sizes you’ll use most often. Otherwise, you’ll just have a bunch unused, odd sizes collecting dust in your cabinets.
Get rid of kitchen items you don’t use
“Kitchen clutter can start to build up if you hold onto things you never use,” says Ofei. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but: it’s time to say goodbye to that random gnocchi board you thought you’d use. Donate it to a secondhand store so it can clutter up someone else’s home. The same is true for pots and pans.
Every couple of months, it’s a good idea to go through your spices and toss any that are so old they’re not pungent enough anymore, or that you never use. “This will help you keep your spice cabinet from becoming cluttered and inefficient,” says Ofei.
Swap circles for squares
Okay, this one requires a little bit of visual thinking, but bear with us: bowls, canisters, and cylindrical food storage containers all have the same problem — they’re round and therefore take up more unused space than square and rectangular versions, assuming your cabinets have edges instead of curves. “Choose rectangular objects to make every cubic inch count,” says Corona.
Dedicate a space for storage
If you like to shop in bulk — and who doesn’t, if the space allows it — you need a dedicated place for the excess. “Get a basket or bin, label it ‘back stock,’ and place it on an out-of-the-way shelf so it doesn’t take up space in your high-traffic area,” says Corona.
Put one thing back every time you go shopping
Maybe the best way to be organized is to prevent clutter rather than declutter, so avoid buying things you don’t need. Coco Chanel said that before you leave the house, you should look in the mirror and take one thing off — in that same vein, DeMorrow says you should look at your cart before checking out and put one thing back (or put it in your ‘save for later’ online shopping cart).” It’s a good habit: less to bring home, less to organize, less to toss… and you save money, too.
Read next: The One Spring Cleaning Chore You Actually Need to Do
Good food brings people together. So do good emails.