Good Riddance: Four Steps to a Clutter-free(ish) Home

Apologies for the month-long posting break. I had the best intentions about coming back from Christmas and immediately wrapping up the Catholic Home series. But first there was some reading I needed to do (for the new book on food and faith I’m writing). And then, this happened.

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Needless to say, I’ve been a bit distracted.

We’ve set the date for July 1—this July 1—five months and four days from today. Not like I’m counting or anything.

This means in the next five months, I have a wedding to plan, a book to write, two ghosting projects to edit, and Guilder to frame for it. So, we’ll see how much blogging gets done. I’ll try, though. I’ll try.

In the meantime, I want to bring my most loved and most hated series of blogs to a quick end. Because I want to take more pictures of food.

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Next week. For now…

As you’ll recall, last time we talked about the importance of assessing why our houses get cluttered in the first place. That’s the really important post. If you can’t figure out why your house is packed to the rafters with clutter, all the organizing tips in the world aren’t going to help you. But, because I promised I would, I’ll share a few practical tips about how I combat the clutter in my own home. Take what works for you; adapt at will; ignore at leisure.

Everyone, of course, has a different idea of how much clutter is too much. One of my sisters and her husband, despite their three small children, live like Trappist monks. Leave so much as a hand on their kitchen countertop, and they just might remove it for you.

I’m not that crazy. I can deal with a pile of papers here or a stack of books there. Just not too many and not for too long. Overstuffed closets and tables covered in papers make me twitchy— partly because I have an easier time letting people into my house on a moment’s notice when it’s reasonably neat. But, more fundamentally, because I have a spiritual allergy to owning more things than I need or have room for. You can’t take it with you and all that.

So, this is how I keep the twitching at bay.

  1. Switch out my closets twice yearly.

For nearly a century, married couples occupied the room that is now mine. And they managed just fine with one 2’x4’ closet.

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That’s right: 2’x4’. That’s tiny. Super-duper-crazy tiny by HGTV standards. But you know what? All those married couples still made it work. Somehow. So, I figure, there’s no reason I shouldn’t be able to do the same.

And yes, right now, it’s just me in my room. But in five months, there will be someone else sharing it with me. I want there to be room for his stuff. And there is. More than half the closet actually.

IMG_0910Sorry about the bad closet shots, but taking a decent picture of an unlit, 2’x4′,  100-year-old closet on a cloudy winter’s day with an iPhone is about what you’d expect it to be: impossible.

Regardless, here’s the other third you can’t see in the photo above, just so you know I’m not joshing you.

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Just as a reminder, I do more than lay around the house in my yoga pants all day…although I do do a fair amount of that. When I’m not holed up, writing in leisure wear, my wardrobe has to get me through speaking gigs, tv appearances, date nights, formal events, meetings with clients, casual nights hosting at home, exercising, gardening, and lots of home repair projects. I also love beautiful clothes, fashion, and shopping. The women at Anthropologie know me by name.

But two seasons worth of my clothing can still fit into half of a four-foot closet (cleverly arranged) and one four-drawer dresser. Which is to say, if I can make it work, so can you.

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Switching out my closets (and a refusal to own more than I need) makes that possible because it forces me to repeatedly reevaluate everything I own and wear.

If, during that evaluation, I discover that something is in poor condition and beyond repair, it gets trashed.

If something is too big or too small (and there’s no reasonable chance I will wear it again before it goes out of fashion), it goes to the local mission. If there’s a chance I might wear it soon because I’m gaining or losing weight, it goes under the bed in a storage container—accessible, but out of the way (which is where maternity and transitional clothes will go if I get pregnant).

If I haven’t worn something the entire season (special occasion clothing excluded), it either goes to the mission, or into a “maybe box.” If I haven’t broken into the “maybe box” by the end of the next year? You guessed it: to the mission.

In addition to the switching out of the closets, I also have a one in, one out policy: if I buy something new to wear (which is not replacing something old), then I have to give something away. This prevents me from buying too much or buying what I don’t need because it makes buying a high cost proposition: I’m not going to buy out of boredom or settle, if it’s going to cost me something I really like. It also keeps the overall quality of what I own fairly high. People end up thinking I have more clothes than I do because what I do have is well made, well cared for, and well suited to me.

  1. Control the paper flow.

I have a lot of papers. A lot. My home is my home and my office. Moreover, the work I do in my office is produce more papers—interview transcripts, article drafts, book manuscripts. There will always be more papers in my house than there should be. But I do what I can.

First, in my living room, right next to the entryway table, is a pretty little trash can. As soon as I bring in the mail, I glance through it, tossing every piece of junk mail into that pretty little trash can straightaway.

 

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The mail I do need to deal with then goes to a bin in my office (admittedly, sometimes after a couple of days of sitting on the entry table). At the end of the week, I sort through the bin, writing checks, making calls, or filing papers as needs be.

I have other bins, both in my office and in my kitchen, to hold the papers pertaining to upcoming projects, receipts, recipes, and household bills. (They would work equally well for kids’ homework and permission slips if I had a family). My papers tend to get lost if I put them in stacks, so keeping them vertical and separated works better for me.

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I also spent about $100 each on two filing cabinets from Target. Marie Kondo may advise against holding on to credit statements and utility bills, but the excuse, “Marie Kondo said I don’t need this” won’t fly with the IRS if my freelancing self ever gets audited. Proper storage doesn’t have to be expensive. It just has to do the job right.

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  1. I organize in 15-20 minute increments.

Life is crazy these days. I don’t have children. But I also don’t have a spouse or roommate to help with the cleaning, the errands, the bills, the laundry, the cooking, and the yard work. Nor do I have a secretary or intern to help with appointments, post office runs, interviews, travel plans, book orders, and scheduling.

I’m a one woman show for now, working 10-12 hour days; driving 90 minutes (minimum), to Pittsburgh and back, multiple times a week to see my fiancée; and trying to keep my house and life in decent enough shape that I can, in good conscience, blog about those things. And now I’m planning a wedding on top of all that.

I am exhausted and overwhelmed. But, having too much crud in my house will only make me more overwhelmed. So, I organize when I can: cleaning out the utility drawer or the cabinet under the sink while water boils; sorting through old DVDs while watching a show; straightening out the bookshelves while I’m on the phone.

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Basically, I just look for little moments where I can do little projects. It may not seem like much, but those little moments and little projects add up. Also, in the midst of the crazy, when so much is not getting done, it helps me feel like I’ve actually accomplished something.

  1. Once a year, I pretend I’m moving.

It never ceases to amaze me how much stuff ends up in my basement utility room: random pieces of string, broken coffee mugs, old appliances, and lots of tiny “treasures” left by tiny guests. It’s just the detritus of life. Married or single, childless or fertile beyond your wildest hopes, crud will accumulate in your house as sure as the sun will rise, and if you don’t stay on top of it, it will take over.

That’s why, once a year, I play the “Let’s pretend I’m moving to a new house” game.

I know. Wild times over here. But it is kinda fun.

What I do is find a weekend where nothing is going on…block it out on the calendar…and go through every closet, cupboard, and corner of my house. As I do, I ask one question: Do I want to move this?

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It’s shocking, given the annual nature of this event, how often the answer is “No.”

What I don’t want to “move” either goes to the trash, the alley (where the neighborhood scavengers quickly grab it), or the mission.

If you’ve never played this game before, it may take you more than a weekend. You might need to do a room a month instead. Also, if you have kids, you probably need to send them to Grandma’s for the day or hire a sitter or play “Frozen” on a loop . But once you start making a habit of it, the process goes much faster. And it really is fun. Promise.

***

So, that’s how I roll when it comes to clutter. I switch out my closets like clockwork. I control and organize the paper flow. I do one or two bite-sized organizational projects every week. And I do one great purge annually.

And the results?

I don’t need to use my attic to store anything (nada, zip, zilch). When we do eventually sell the house, that’s 900 plus square feet of space that I don’t need to worry about packing.

My cabinets and cupboards are all neatly arranged. There’s a space for everything and nothing falls out when I open a door.

The guest room closets and drawers are completely empty (save for extra blankets, pillows, and pack n’plays…because every single gal needs one…or two).

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And the basement utility room shelves are neatly lined with the things I really do need to store: tools, off-season clothes, seasonal décor, the books I sell at conferences, athletic equipment, a FEW boxes of memorabilia, and occasionally used household items.

Yes, if I had more people living in the house, we would need to use more of the space. And yes, if I had little ones under foot,  there would be more clutter to combat. And no, none of this makes me a holier woman closer to the unitive way. But it does make me happier and saner than I would otherwise be.

And frankly, at this point in my life, that’s enough for me.

Addendum

When I first did the Catholic Home piece for OSV, I included a list of questions that can help with decluttering. They’re the questions I ask myself when organizing. Here they are again.

Questions to Ask When Cleaning Out the Closet 

  1. Does it fit?
  2. Do I/my spouse/my child wear it?
  3. Do I/my spouse/my child look good in it?
  4. Is it modest?
  5. Is it age-appropriate?
  6. Is it in good condition?

Questions to Ask When De-Cluttering Bedrooms and Living Spaces

  1. Is it beautiful?
  2. Does it make me happy?
  3. Is it necessary?
  4. Does it reflect my personal tastes and interests?
  5. Do I want to look at this every day?
  6. Does it enhance the space or crowd it?

Questions to Ask When Organizing the Kitchen and Bathroom

  1. Is this useful?
  2. Does it work?
  3. Do I use it often?
  4. Do I have and need more than one of the same item?
  5. Do I have space for it?
  6. Does this belong in this room?

Questions to Ask When Organizing Storage Spaces 

  1. Do I still use this?
  2. Is it in good condition?
  3. If it’s broken or damaged, do have the time or money to fix it?
  4. Do I need it?
  5. Is it truly important to me, for sentimental reasons, to keep this?
  6. If I had to move tomorrow, would I want to move this?

Previous Posts in The Catholic Home series:

 

 

41 thoughts on “Good Riddance: Four Steps to a Clutter-free(ish) Home

  1. Jesska says:

    Congratulations! 🙂

    I’m also impressed by your tidiness / organisation 🙂 So well done for that too.

    But what about stuff for being creative? Sewing/painting/drawing/making? I don’t do any permanently, but when I want to, I want to be able to… And the pictures you don’t have on the walls at the moment but still want to have? And your cooking stuff, and stupid things like ironing boards and washing racks and, ach, everything else that’s useful sometimes but in the way otherwise….. Or is that just in my house?

    Like

    • Janr Kilmartin says:

      Great article, Im in the keep your life uncluttered camp and love your oics, I live in a 1917 tiny house too. I have lived ” with less” most of my life, and yes I have lived in a 5000 sq ft home before. Best line ever to loose stuff is would I move this and Ill add another I live by for closet purposes, ” if something comes in something has to go! Works for me🤗

      Like

  2. Emily says:

    I know, I wish i could have talked about more, but the post was long as it is. In short, I pretty much do the same thing with all that stuff as what I did show. Don’t buy much, organize well, purge regularly. More specifically, knitting and sewing materials are kept in a craft corner in the basement. I store extra stuff in cute boxes that stack and have bags of yarn hanging from an old lamp with multiple arms. I don’t keep many pictures that aren’t on the walls—a few are stacked in the basement utility shelves, but most I give away. If I wanted them on the walls they’d be there. Cooking stuff is in the cabinets. I don’t have lots of gadgets; pots hang from the ceiling; and what won’t fit in the cabinets either goes to the basement or good will. Ironing board is in hanging on the back of the linen closet; wash racks are in the laundry room. I’m a big fan of bins and storage shelves. And really, if I don’t have room for it, I take that as God’s way of telling me to let go, someone else needs it, and trust him to provide when the time comes.

    Like

    • lenetta says:

      > And really, if I don’t have room for it, I take that as God’s way of telling me to let go, someone else needs it, and trust him to provide when the time comes.

      I love that! I did 40 bags in 40 days for Lent several years (and babies) ago and it was awesome! That was the mindset I used, and it felt good to let go of things. I also love the moving game! I used to move about every year, and it was a great way to pare down. (And dust. Yikes.) we’ve now been renting for almost 14 years, never intending for it to go on this long but no end in sight. I would love to do a pretend move purge… perhaps I can farm out my kids this summer and get after it a la nesting.

      Like

  3. Kathleen Ready says:

    Congratulations on the engagement! How exciting!

    Thank you for this series. I find it almost comical that you got a lot of backlash about it; I guess you hit a few when you threw the stone into the pack of dogs! But really, it is a much needed discussion and I appreciate your taking the time to tackle it. You have given me much good food for thought. I really like the idea of pretending to move to help purge.

    Like

  4. Rachel Kitchens says:

    Amazing! I love this so much! Did I see the pillow I made you (wwwaayyyy back) in a photo? I think it’s just my imagination!
    I love you!

    Like

    • Emily says:

      You weren’t seeing things, Rachel. That’s still one of my most treasured possessions and one of the best gifts anyone has ever given me! So glad you saw this so you could see your much loved handiwork!

      Like

  5. Kathleen Ready says:

    Question I thought of, if you don’t mind sharing. How big is your house (square footage and number/kinds of rooms)? I’m trying to put together a picture in my mind from the pictures you’ve shared, and just when I thought I had a good idea of a 1910s Iowa house, we have mention of an attic, a room that looks like a library, a basement/utility/storage room, and suddenly I’m curious. I find it inspiring when people with larger homes manage to keep stuff and clutter to a minimum, and sometimes the numbers help me realize what I can do differently.

    Like

    • Emily says:

      It’s just your basic 1800 square foot four-square, built in 1915. Living room, dining room, teeny half bath, and kitchen on the first floor (no closets or entry hall); a bathroom and four bedrooms (including one small bedroom which I use as an office and another which is smaller than the closets on most HGTV shows) upstairs. There is an attic accessible by a pull down ladder, and the basement is evenly divided into a finished family room and a utility/laundry room. If you ignore the complete lack of closets on one floor, and the tiny ones on the other, the basement and attic storage space is great, especially because the basement storage space is lined with shelves. The lack of storage space in the living quarters, however, is a good motivator to keep possessions to a minimum and find creative storage solutions for what I do have. I think people have a natural tendency to fill the space they have, so I’m always making a very conscious effort to take up less space. Again, too much stuff makes me twitchy and empty closets make me peaceful!

      Like

      • Kathleen Ready says:

        That’s really awesome! Walk-in closets make me raise an eyebrow because it is (to me) so much wasted space, but I’ve often wondered how best to make do with rooms with tiny closes, too, as we have more of the tiny than we do the big. Good to remember that instead of being bummed by small storage I should see it as a challenge to only have what I like. Thanks for answering the question! Your house is inspiring and gorgeous, and in Ohio, I remembered, not Iowa. How fun to live in such an old house!

        Like

  6. Camille Santana says:

    Hello Emily,

    I am an avid viewer of Women of Grace on EWTN and you were one of the guests(together with Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons) awhile back. Was happy to learn that you had put up your own blog featuring many of my favorite topics– food, organization and being catholic. Just wanted to extend a very hearty congratulations on your engagement!

    And thanks for the wonderful articles on decluttering. Looking at the pictures of your beautiful, very organized home spurs me on to tackle our bunch of piles in our little apartment.

    Congratulations once again on your engagement! How did he propose?

    Like

  7. Mary Haseltine says:

    Congratulations!!! So exciting!

    I totally agree with the “pretend you’re moving” game! I always have it in the back of my mind that we will likely move some day or maybe God will ask something unexpected of us that will mean a move and I want to be ready. That idea has made it a whole lot easier to get rid of stuff we don’t really need and forces me to be detached from all the extras.

    Also, playing the “what’s the worst that could happen?” game. If I donate this clothing item or small appliance that I don’t really use, what’s the worst that could happen? I find that I wish I had it someday and either have to make do without or somehow replace it. Big deal. The “but what if I NEEEED this someday???” is not as scary as we somehow make it out to be!

    Like

  8. Ree Laughlin says:

    Congratulations on your engagement and upcoming wedding this summer. He is one lucky guy! You will have to blog how you met and grew into love. Blessings!

    Like

  9. arabbott says:

    CONGRATULATIONS!!!!! -From a fan who is over the moon excited for you!  

    From: The Catholic Table To: anna_dummer@yahoo.com Sent: Wednesday, January 27, 2016 11:34 AM Subject: [New post] Good Riddance: Four Steps to a Clutter-free(ish) Home #yiv8219510116 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv8219510116 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv8219510116 a.yiv8219510116primaryactionlink:link, #yiv8219510116 a.yiv8219510116primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv8219510116 a.yiv8219510116primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv8219510116 a.yiv8219510116primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv8219510116 WordPress.com | Emily posted: “Apologies for the month-long posting break. I had the best intentions about coming back from Christmas and immediately wrapping up the Catholic Home series. But first there was some reading I needed to do (for the new book on food and faith I’m writing). ” | |

    Like

  10. Janelle says:

    Congratulations!!! Many blessings to you and your fiancé! I am a new-ish reader of your blog and have really been enjoying this series. Enjoy your wedding planning!!

    Like

  11. Susan says:

    Enjoy your sparkle, Emily….as a reader of your “survival guide,” I’m happy that you won’t face the future you were so afraid of…– and meanwhile, don’t forget your single sisters…I’m 57, and will likely always be involuntarily single, and I will certainly be forever involuntarily childless…it’s hard for some of us to find reasons to go on every day….please remember us in your prayers as we rejoice with you.

    Like

  12. Ali says:

    Congratulations!
    I hope wedding planning will find its way into the blog. I’m so happy for you both!
    I personally LOVE this series and look forward to implementing it as part of my Lenten practices.

    Like

  13. helens001 says:

    Congratulations on your engagement! May you have many happy and holy years together.

    Thanks for this article. It was very helpful. Perhaps your sister who has three youngsters and lives like a Trappist could write an article and offer some advice as to how on earth she does it!

    Like

    • Emily says:

      Thanks! And as for my sister, I’ll mention it to her. Mostly she just acts like that crazy “I need these pillows poofed!” mom (from the video about getting the house ready) 24/7, and makes us all a nervous wreck when we’re over there. But the house does look awesome!

      Like

  14. Michelle G says:

    Congrats on your engagement! My first step to taming my closet was switching to a capsule wardrobe. Google it. Now I’m more selective and it’s helped with laundry and picking out my clothes.

    Keep the posts coming! 😉

    Like

    • Emily says:

      Thanks! And yes, the capsule wardrobes can be a great idea. They don’t quite work for me (I like patterns and color a little too much), but I naturally have a modified version of the basic idea that I do, depending on the season. Glad it’s helping!

      Like

  15. Claire says:

    Hooray for engagements!! He is one lucky man : )

    The “Pretend You’re Moving” game is brilliant! We halved our living space a couple of years ago for an out-of-state move, and therefore got rid of a lotta stuff — and boy, I miss nothing.

    Also — did you ever notice how you get a barge load of things done the week before you’re going on vacation? It forces prioritizing and focus. Maybe now and then “I’m Going on Vacation” would be a good game too. Hmm, then I’d have to treat myself, ’cause too sad not to have a follow-up vacation . . .

    Like

  16. Margo, Thrift at Home says:

    congratulations! So exciting!

    LOVE this practical post. In the last year, I have been wondering why those adorable 1950s cape cods around here worked just fine for families of 5 or so and now are considered too small for even a retired couple. So I love your closet illustration and sense. My husband and I share quite a tiny closet, too. Now, when you say “switch out your closet” do you mean you only keep one season of clothes in there at a time, or just that you go through it rigorously to ditch unwanted items? We do switch out seasonal clothes, which is a pain, but also allows us to share a closet and gives me an opportunity to scrutinize the clothes.

    Like

    • Emily says:

      Thanks. And agreed! Lots of big families managed to live in houses 1000-2000 square feet, with one bathroom no less, mostly because they just didn’t have so much stuff! And I keep two seasons of clothes in the closet at a time, so I switch out every spring and fall. It is a bit of a pain, but keeping the wardrobe smaller definitely makes it go faster. Bonus!

      Like

  17. Ashley says:

    Congratulations! As crazy as this sounds, I thought this might be coming when I saw the pictures you posted of your Christmas party. 🙂

    That pizza looks amazing! I’ve yet to get my crust to look like that.

    Like

  18. Joni says:

    First of all congratulations!!!! I’m also an involuntarily single Catholic woman in her 60’s w/o children I so longed for. However, I realize I have tons of love in my life and also lots of children to love who aren’t biologically mine. One day in adoration I was asking God about this and I heard Him speak to my heart and tell me this is what He needed me for so I have to trust God’s Plan for my life. One day at a family gathering with lots of children around me a relative said, “You never had any children, but you always are surrounded by them.” So true. Love your blogs. When is your food book coming out or did you mention it and I missed that? You blog about things I love as well: Jesus, being Catholic, having a nice “Catholic” home with pretty things, food, friends, family, and love. I must admit though I’ve been trying to get rid of extras and detach for quite some time. With your blog and God’s Help I just might make it. Please pray for me. Thank you. God Bless you!!!!

    Like

  19. Ang says:

    I had a feeling when the updates slowed & you mentioned Thanksgiving with the fiancee’s family this might have happened. Congratulations! God’s timing is perfect. Your blog is beautiful & your writing is tremendous. God bless you & keep you patient during wedding preparations. -Angela (new-ish reader)

    Like

  20. ljeanig says:

    I haven’t had the privilege of reading you for very long, but I was hoping for a post like this for you soon. May the Lord bring you and your newly budding family richest blessings in the future. ❤ ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Jolie says:

    Congratulations on your wedding and I wish you abundant blessings!

    PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE come back and tell us how you and your HUSBAND came together! As a woman of 35, I’ve been so inspired of stories of how God brought people together. I really hope you will share that with your loyal readers and fellow single sisters to encourage us and give us hope. Blessings!

    Like

    • Emily says:

      Jolie, I’m back! We actually met on Catholic Match years ago. I knew right away…it took him 9 more years. In the meantime, we built a great friendship, casually dated other people, grew closer to God, and so when it finally clicked for him, the whole thing was as easy as could be. So worth the wait! I promise!

      Like

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