The Foolproof Decluttering Strategy That Will Actually Keep Your Home Clean In The Long Run

mbg Contributor By Cary Fortin
mbg Contributor
Cary Fortin co-authored New Minimalism: Declutter and Design for Sustainable, Intentional Living, alongside Kyle Quilici. They also run San Francisco-based decluttering company New Minimalism.

Photo by Sophia Hsin

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Because we are professional declutterers, many of our clients, while discussing their goals for their homes, say, "If I just had a system for ______ (dealing with the kids’ artwork, putting away laundry, storing all my shoes), it would work." These are the people who either have a hard time developing systems in the first place or who are convinced that the "right" system will solve their clutter problems. The latter group loves elaborate color-coded binders filled with alphabetized tabs, complex filing systems, and specialized calendaring techniques for every segment of their lives.

While basic systems are necessary and create order in a chaotic world, it’s those complicated, time-consuming systems that add another layer of to-do's to your already overstrained life. The time required to maintain these systems inevitably proves to be too much. With a considerable upfront investment of time, those well-intended systems are implemented and attended to once or twice, but then they eventually fall into disarray. How do we know this? The proof is in the disorganized pudding. When you look around your home, can you identify some systems that you’ve implemented yet are not being maintained? Those unkept systems are your evidence that they require too much of your time to maintain and are not actually making your life easier.

Follow these guidelines when creating your own systems within the home:

  1. Keep it simple. Any system that requires multiple complicated steps will likely experience a breakdown. We prefer systems that can be maintained with a single hand—like dropping your keys and wallet into a dish right by the door.
  2. Keep like with like. Splicing categories or having multiple homes for the same items quickly snowballs into confusion and chaos. Instead, keep all items related to the same subcategory in the same place. While this may not apply to a subcategory like pens and pencils in a three-story home, it does apply to how you store your camping gear.
  3. Refrain from overcategorizing. For example, don’t worry about wool versus cotton, three-quarter versus full-length sleeves, or V-neck versus scoop neck. Simply group all six of your sweaters in one place.
  4. Be realistic and work with your natural tendencies. If you prefer to cook at home, you probably don’t need a dedicated file for takeout food options.
  5. Acknowledge that a habit shift might actually be all you need. For example, putting your reusable shopping bags back in the car after you unload your groceries.
  6. Take the time to find the systems that work for you, and then stick to them! If you went through the trouble to install hooks in the entryway to hang your jackets, yet the jackets always end up on the couch, what is the problem? Is it that the hooks are always full of bags? Is it that you and your partner haven’t agreed to this new way of doing things? Are the hooks placed too high for your children to easily access them on their own? Or do you need to change your own habits?

While we recommend systems that are easy to maintain and require little effort, it’s important to note that they never require no effort. Sometimes it is helpful to create little reminders or incentives for yourself to ensure that systems are completed.

For instance, Kyle came to utilize what she calls the "jacket rule." When she first comes home, she removes her shoes but keeps her jacket on until she has put away everything that has just entered the house. Only after she has unloaded her groceries, opened and sorted the mail, and removed her notebook and laptop from her bag is she allowed to remove her jacket, signifying that she has finished entering the house. Bonus: Once you have a simpler lifestyle, you’ll notice that you bring fewer and fewer things into your home. Groceries are the only things that enter our households with any regularity.

Of course, implementing systems can get a little trickier when there are multiple people involved. Be it family life or roommate life, the key to any household-wide system is that it needs to be fully agreed upon by all members. When in doubt, overcommunicate to ensure everyone agrees with expectations. For example, if shoes are scattered throughout the house rather than stowed in the front hall, it might not be entirely clear that you are striving for a shoes-free household. Maybe the constant bags in the living room are due to that one roommate who doesn’t know the decree to keep the common spaces clear of personal effects. Whatever the intended system, if you get pushback from others, it’s time to sit down and be solution-oriented. How can you work together to develop a system that works for everyone?

Next up: Here's why decluttering is so damn rewarding and a primer and a room-by-room guide to getting organized for good.

Based on an excerpt from New Minimalism: Decluttering and Design for Sustainable, Intentional Living (2018) by Cary Telander Fortin and Kyle Louise Quilici with permission of Sasquatch Books.

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