How to Start Decluttering: Physical Clutter

Clutter on the outside may be associated with clutter on the inside. Whether to reduce stress, save money, or help the environment, many people are starting to declutter their lives. Here are easy tips to get started or refreshed.

This is the first of three in a series about decluttering. In this post, we talk about physical clutter. Next, we will talk about decluttering pantries and fridges. Finally, we will tackle the subject of mental clutter.


While I am always looking for new ways to save money, I actually came across minimalism when I was seeking new ways to manage stress.

As a psychologist who has taught stress-management classes for years, I thought I knew all the skills. Then I found minimalism.

Minimalism is not about getting rid of all your possessions or having bare walls. Minimalism can be different for everyone. The commonality is the focus on removing what’s not important or distracts you so that you can devote your time and energy to things that move you closer to your values.

It turns out that minimalism is also consistent with my values of frugality and reducing waste.

Inspiring blogs that helped me declutter and overcome my attachment to stuff include Becoming Minimalist, The Minimalists, Mnmlst, and Zen Habits.

Decluttering Does Not Mean Throwing Away

Part of the decluttering process is learning that we’re responsible to properly dispose of the things we allow into our lives and our homes.

Using, repurposing, swapping with a friend, or donating should be exhausted before recycling any items. Throwing things away should be considered a last resort.

I was surprised to find how many things I forgot that I owned. It was only after I started decluttering that I found them and decided to start using them.

Techniques for Getting Started

Of all the tips I learned, here are my favorites for getting started:

30 Day challenge

As a way to get started or as a refresher, I do the 30 challenge – backward. On day one, I declutter 30 items. On day two I declutter 29 items, and so on until day 30 when I declutter 1 last item. I learned this tip by reading The MinimalistsThis can be turned into a fun game that can get the entire family involved. By the end of 30 days, you will have removed a total of 465 items.

The 20/20 Rule

When trying to decide whether to keep something, I use this tip I learned from The Minimalists. If it were gone and you should come to need it, can you replace it within 20 minutes and for $20 or less?

The One Minute Rule

To help maintain your clutter-free space (and trust that removing clutter will be an ongoing project), I practice the One Minute Rule made famous by Gretchen Rubin. If something can be done in one minute or less, I do it right away. This helps keep my physical clutter and to-do-list down to a minimum.

Photo by Pawel Czerwinski on Unsplash


Tips for Removing Physical Clutter

When most people think of clutter, they think of the physical kind: stuff. Here are some general tips for decluttering your physical space.


Part ways with anything you’ve out-grown. You may have outgrown it in size such that it doesn’t fit. Or, maybe you’ve outgrown the lifestyle, such as your old pageant dresses and baseball uniforms. One can also outgrow something by age, for example I decided I’m past the point of tops that show mid-drift.

Repair or repurpose things that are ripped, stained, or worn out. Make a pile of items that need to be fixed and either do it yourself or find someone who can fix them. Donate, swap with friends, or upcycle (e.g., turning into napkins or handkerchiefs or rags) things that cannot be fixed.

Photo by Onur Bahcivancilar on Unsplash

Keep an eye-out for single-task or single-use items. These can be found anywhere in the house, but I find them particularly prominent throughout the kitchen.

Single-task refers to an item that can only do one thing. Imagine a kitchen full of counter-top appliances rather than one appliance that does multiple things. Replace single-task items that are cluttering up your kitchen with items that serve multiple functions.

Single-use items refer to things that are used once than thrown away. This includes paper-towels, individually wrapped items, and single-serving packages. This can also include those packets of condiments and stacks of napkins that have stacked up. Use these.

Clear off counters. Again, this can be done throughout the house, but can make a particular impact in the kitchen. At my house, the coffee maker and a live plant are the only things on my kitchen counters. It makes the surfaces easy to clean, provides plenty of workspace, and makes everything easy to find.

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Bathrooms often contain partially-used containers. Travel sizes, trial sizes, hair products, make-up, brushes and combs, his and hers, sensitive and regular strength – do we really need all these? No!

Use up items that you want to use or try. Upcycle, donate, or give to friends or family if possible. Then, consider ways to simplify.

My husband and I share shampoo, soap, and toothpaste.

We each have only one type of hair product (his gel and my spray).

Neither of us wears cologne.

Unless we’re traveling soon, if we have a trial size or travel size of something we use it before replacing our store-bought versions.

Photo by Michael Pepper on Unsplash

The stuff you want kept easily on hand is often mixed with the stuff you don’t know what to do with. This is maddening! All drawers likely could use some culling, but then there’s always “the junk drawer.” Decide what you want this drawer’s purpose to be and set it up in a way consistent with that. Anything that does  not belong in that drawer should be found a new home or let go. (Tip: Regularly following the one minute rule will help you stay clutter-free.)

Papers are another common source of clutter that lurk in drawers. We all know to create a system to take action, file, scan, recycle or shred. (Tip: When I’m doing my 30 day challenge, I count each sheet of paper and each envelope that I removed from my life.)

Duplicate items may also be found in drawers. While somethings need a back-up, learning to live with one of something can help your life remain clutter-free. If you have more than one, give away the extra. (Tip: When I find myself struggling with letting go, I think back to the 20/20 rule.)

No need to buy drawer organizers. I love using plastic food storage containers that are either disposable or have no lid or have outlived their life as drawer organizers. (Tip: this also helps with kitchen declutter).

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Benefits of Decluttering

Removing physical clutter made it easier to find things and easier to clean. It also removes distractions to allow for a calmer environment. Importantly, it helps save me money by wanting less and when I do need something I think first about ways I can repurpose what I already have. When you can find what you have, you also don’t waste money buying something you already own.

Decluttering helps me feel more organized and less stressed. I hope some of these tips that worked for me are helpful for you.

Next in this series, we’ll talk about decluttering the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry. Finally, we’ll discuss mental clutter.


What can you do today to start to declutter?


For more in this series:

How to Start Decluttering: Pantry Clutter

How to Start Decluttering: Mental Clutter

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