A cup of coffee on a table, with Napkin and Pen

How to Beat Clutter and Improve Your Life

Getting organized is like dieting. Everyone knows how to do it, The problem is getting around to it—to clearing out clutter, cleverly organizing what remains, and then maintaining the results.

A cup of coffee on a table, with Napkin and Pen

We know how to clear out the clutter … actually doing it is the challenge

A few years ago, when we remodeled our kitchen I emptied every cupboard and drawer. I carefully labeled every box and bin with its contents. That process alone ran a few red flags up the pole. I found things I’d forgotten completely. When it was time to put everything back, I decided to put things away as I actually used them—not with the mindset that I might need them someday.

I quickly realized why it was such a problem to keep the kitchen neat and tidy. It is impossible to organize chaos. I needed to clear out everything first. Funny how that cleared my mind as well.

Getting rid of the unused which obviously had become unnecessary created space to organize the essentials.

Too. Much. Stuff.

Face it. If you don’t have enough closet, drawer, and storage space to comfortably handle your possessions, you probably own too many things. Give away, pare down. Let your rooms, closets, and drawers appear serene and controlled—kept.

There’s no single “right” way to organize your possessions and home. Organization must fit your style, your energy, and schedule. Find a system that functions best for you and your family.

Eliminate, concentrate

No matter the way you do it, let this be your mantra: Eliminate and concentrate. Say it over and over. Then say it some more. 


I will admit to this being very difficult for me. I have this thing in my head that says someday I’ll need it. It’s worth a lot. It has value. After all the power grid might go down any second, and these candle stubs could save the day. Just articulating those words makes me laugh and prompts me to do the right thing: eliminate in any way I can.


It’s ridiculous how the things we really do need get scattered all over the house in random drawers and cupboards. Getting everything of like-kind into one place is also a shocking experience. Yes, we need that thing whatever it might be. But do we really need 18 of them?!

Brown bag method

Getting rid of the clutter is a good place to start. Personally I’m fond of the Brown Bag Method for instant results–something that works wonders especially when you are at your wit’s end over clutter and chaos.

Take one (more as necessary) large brown paper grocery bag, bin or box and fill it with all of the stacks of extraneous papers, magazines, mail—your basic clutter. The purpose here is not to throw anything away, just to get it out of visual range until you have time to go through and separate, sort and file. At least that’s what you tell yourself.

Stand back and enjoy that completely clear counter, desktop, table, or another flat surface. Amazing, isn’t it?

If within 48 hours or so, no one in the family has mentioned missing something of importance, it is probably safe to throw the whole thing out. While this may be a method of last resort, I guarantee it works.

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Salami method

A more preferred way to get organized may be the Salami Method. You wouldn’t think of eating an entire salami at one sitting. You’d eat it in slices over a period of time. Think of your project as one big salami. Start with one thing, one room, one closet—one drawer? Then tomorrow is another day; another drawer, another attic. Soon you’ll be in control.

I’ve learned that gaining control over the stuff in my life has an effect on my attitude. When everything is in its place I’m less stressed, more able to think clearly and basically, a happier person. Order brings calm, clutter results in chaos.

Severe messies

I have found some kind of comfort in knowing that I’m not the only organizationally challenged person out there. Just the other day, I was reading that the ratio of naturally-born neatniks to messies is about one to a million. 

Not everyone has a severe case of the messies, but if you think you might you need to read Sink Reflections, a book by Marla Cilley.

Cilley, aka “The FlyLady” to the thousands who log onto her website Flylady.net, kindly and with great empathy reaches into every person’s home to help make housecleaning more fun and life more organized.

Beginning with “Shiny Sink 101,” Cilley explains how a spotless kitchen sink can direct even the most discouraged housekeeper onto the path of well-ordered domesticity. And who couldn’t love that?


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12 replies
  1. RDHmom says:

    Love, love, love your columns and you have enhanced my life and the lives of my family—thank you!
    Along these lines lines of decluttering, I also follow Joshua Becker, Becoming Minimalist, for great tips and encouragement.

  2. Tracy Smith says:

    But I CAN use it later! lol My problem is that I usually do need something random when it comes time for vacation bible school or youth group or grandkids! But I am getting better thanks to you, Mary!

  3. Luisa says:

    Mary, thanks for a good post. It was fun to see you refer to FlyLady, as you and she have both been positive influences for me, though I found your site a few years before hers. I’ve always been grateful that you both share your wisdom with us. I have learned a lot from you, and I recommend your blog and your books to friends and sometimes even strangers.

  4. Deb R. says:

    My problem is that it isn’t “my” clutter, it belongs to us, therefore I can’t touch it. The hardest to deal with is all the stuff we brought home from my husband’s parents’ home after they passed. If my mother-in-law could hold onto that map her little boy drew in third grade, who am I to throw it away now? Sadly, I know the day will come all too soon that we will face the same thing with my parents.

  5. Vic says:

    The thing that weighs me down is the dailiness of it all. For example, recently I deep cleaned, sorted and organized my small utility room. And it has been a constant battle ever since to keep it that way. It’s as though the cosmos is determined to undo my work.

  6. Birgit Nicolaisen says:

    FLYlady is the best. It was through her I found Debt Proof Living. Between Marla and Mary, my life is so much better.

  7. Jo says:

    I find the most difficult items to focus/eliminate are the ones with an emotional connection-Grandma’s dishes, my fine china, etc. Taking a photo for posterity doesn’t cut it at this point.

    • Bronson says:

      Hi Jo –
      I empathize with you. After the death of my older brother, I was left with our grandmother’s china. He had inherited it after her death. He always wanted it, and he boxed it up, and it never saw the light of day again until I got it. It was from Japan right around the time of WW2…I am thinking it’s just before or after the war based on the research I did. Anyway, we had a ton of it, but it didn’t match what my wife and I had by any means. And she already had HER grandmother’s china.

      I then realized that I had never recalled my grandmother actually using this. She might have let the adults use it, and maybe that’s why I never saw it. My kids have zero interest in it, so I finally decided to sell it. I thought Replacements might want it. THEY had no interest it either. I ended up selling the entire set on eBay for $100…before shipping, so I think I netted $40 after fees.

      But the burden is gone. I thought about saving a place setting, but I am glad I didn’t. I don’t need the stuff in my house. I have a couple of small items that remind me of my grandmother, and that will do. And when I go, I am sure my kids will toss those things while exclaiming, “Why does dad have this milk glass dish???”

      • Mary Hunt says:

        Great story, Bronson. I laughed about the milk glass. I know that feeling of “lifted burden,” and it feels great. Freeing. Relief!

    • Mary Hunt says:

      I’m sure I’m not the only one who can identify with you on that, Jo. For me getting rid of sentimental items feels like I’m throwing away my memories and love for that person in almost a disrespectful way. But there has to be a way to deal with material things like you mention without setting ourselves up for depression, anxiety, and emotional conflict now and future guilt for leaving behind all of those things plus all of our things for our kids to deal with.

    • Barbara Mattson says:

      Every time our power goes out, I’m glad for my candles! I even take some with me on vacation – and I’ve used them several times in a glass jar when power went out in the hotel or cabin. And yet….


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