I Live In A 56-Square-Foot Tiny House. Here Are My Top Tips For Decluttering

Written by Dee Williams

Photo by Tammy Strobel

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Do one thing today.

This was my mantra 12 years ago, when I started downsizing from my 1,500-square-foot house into the 84-square-foot home I'd designed and built myself.

The new house, slightly larger than an area rug, had one closet, a "great room," and a sleeping loft I climbed into via ladder.

The stuff I had accumulated in 1,500 square feet just wasn't going to fit into 1/17th of the space, so I had to decide what to keep and what to let go of. Every day, I would try to tackle one drawer, one closet, the attic, the garage, the pantry ...

You learn a thing or two about decluttering and keeping possessions in check when you live in a tiny house.

Now I'm moving again, for the first time in 12 years.

This time, I'm downsizing to a 56-square-foot space—one that's 30 percent tinier than my already tiny home. I've just moved in, but my possessions are still strewn between my car and a backyard sauna I sometimes use as overnight guest accommodations. Recently, I found myself standing in the doorway to the sauna staring at the hovel of books, socks, files, and the like, and I couldn't fathom where to begin.

But then my old technique came back to me: start with one thing.

You learn a thing or two about decluttering and keeping possessions in check when you live in a tiny house. I mean, you have no choice. Here is my advice for tackling some of the trickiest categories of home clutter:

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1. Books

I love books, not only for the innate way some authors can articulate the landscape of life but for the way texts can pinpoint unique times in my life. Just looking at a book can remind me of when I was in love, when I was struggling with grief, or when I was infatuated with architecture, climbing, wilderness survival, or edible landscapes.

Years ago, my brother gave me Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. I highlighted portions of it and scribbled in the margins. It became an annotation of what I was experiencing as a twentysomething and of what I thought about as I hiked and camped in the Cascade Mountains. It also became a chronicle of my puppy's early chewing phase, as she essentially devoured the cover of it and a copy of my book, The Big Tiny. As Sir Francis Bacon said, "Some books should be tasted, some devoured, but only a few should be chewed and digested thoroughly."

I've held onto that chewed-up copy of Walt's work and a few other select books over the years, but now I turn to the library to get my literary fix.

The best way to minimize book clutter is to assume that books are meant to move through your life, but it's your memories of them that will stay with you for the long haul. If you want to do one thing to declutter your book collection, pick out the books that are truly sentimental, or that you can keep growing with for years to come, and donate the rest to your local library or free store, where others can come love them too.

Outside my previous tiny home

Photo by Dee Williams

2. Clothing

I've talked with a lot of other people about their clothes and how fashion defines them. These conversations usually lead to a discussion of how trends change over time and how we wish we hadn't cut our bangs with a pocketknife even though it seemed like a great idea at the time.

I'm gifted with a limited number of excuses to dress up and with a job that doesn't require me to wear anything special. I don't own pantyhose or nice shoes with a bit of a heel. I have no idea what I'll wear to my niece's wedding in August or to my friend's funeral in September. Perhaps at each event, I'll be the nutty lady in the back of the room wearing flip-flops and jeans, and people will be kind to me in spite of my fashion sense because I'll be crying my eyes out and handing tissues to everyone around me.

The thing is, it doesn't really matter what I wear to a funeral or a wedding because those events aren't about what I look like. They're about coming together around the people we've lost and the relationships we're celebrating.

If you want to do one thing to declutter your clothes, give your shoes to someone else. Give the shirt off your back to someone else. Recognize that it doesn't really matter. Be the nutty lady in flip-flops with me. We'll have fun even when things aren't fun, and we'll connect with people even if our colors aren't in season.

Inside my previous tiny home

Photo by Dee Williams

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3. Decorations

I don't have any artwork up on the walls of my new, tinier house yet. I will at some point, but today the only artwork I've installed is a Valentine note from my 7-year-old friend, Harlan. Obviously, I'm highly selective about quality.

It's hard to pick and choose artwork and decoration. You have to be stealthy and curate only the most exquisite pieces. I have a small window elf that a friend's daughter made. I have a small vase that holds some wheat pulled from a field near my family's farm, and I have a small clay dish that holds a buffalo nickel and silver dollar that were gifts in exchange for a pry bar and box of nails.

If you want to do one thing to declutter your art and décor, pick the things that bring you joy and beauty, and make space for them by letting go of others. Choose one object that reminds you of how well you've been loved or have loved another that you definitely want to keep. Choose one object that has served you well and that you can now pass on, perhaps to someone else who needs it more.

One thing at a time, and it will eventually be done.

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