How to Declutter (Without Wanting to Burn Your House Down): A Guide For Moms on the Edge

It happens to us all…

Since having children your home has been deluged with toys, baby paraphernalia and hand-me-downs. And ‘declutter’ has been on your to-do list for a long time. A really long time. Like a Game of Thrones Winter kinda long time.

But what can you do about it?

If you’ve got the vague dream of getting your home ‘decluttered’, I hope this post will help turn that dream into blissful reality. Even if you don’t have time, energy or a baby-sitter. 

This post is divided into two parts. Part one is about things to do before you start decluttering. Part two is about how to keep clutter from coming back. 

Don’t worry I’m definitely not going to ask you to get up at 4am or declutter your entire house in one weekend.   

 How to declutter without wanting to burn down your house. A guide for moms on the edge. 

 

Part One: Before you start decluttering

Before you get all gung-ho and declare war on clutter, take a minute to do a bit of planning. I promise you, your efforts will pay off.

1 | How to dispose of clutter

AKA: Where to Bury the Bodies

A common problem is disposal.

We get all excited and toss ‘clutter’ into bags. Then we put those bags in a garage, or hallway, or some other equally inconvenient place, while we figure out what-in-the-name of-Cinderella's-Nun-chucks we should do with it all. Then we spend the next 6 months tripping over that bag of clutter.

Time to stop this cycle.

Take a moment to answer these questions:

  • Do you want to sell or donate your ‘clutter’?
  • Where will you sell things? Ebay? Craigslist? Facebook groups?
  • Do you have the appropriate type of packaging to ship any items you sell on Ebay etc?
  • How will you transport things you wish to donate to the donation center?
  • Is there a charitable association that’s willing to collect your donations?
  • Do you need to keep track of donations for tax purposes? If yes, how are you going to do that?
  • Do you know any youngsters off to college soon who may appreciate unwanted kitchen items?
  • Do you fancy holding a yard sale? Or just putting your items outside with a ‘FREE’ sign on them?
  • What’s your plan for dealing with sentimental items, such as children’s paraphernalia?

Pro Tip: Picking a charity you feel strongly about will help make donating sentimental items easier.  What groups could you cheerfully donate your sentimental items to?

For example, a sick baby unit at your local hospital? Or a group helping women and children fleeing violence (who may have had to leave behind everything)?

2 | Stop the flow (at least temporarily)

This one may be controversial. But it makes sense to stop the influx of things into your home, just while you get decluttered. So I highly encourage you to postpone any shopping trips until you’ve cleared a bit of space. I know this may not always be practical but it’s a good tactic if you can pull it off.

If you’re often getting hand-me-downs and gifts from relatives or friends, you may want to consider asking them to wait until you’ve gotten on top of your decluttering.

3| Get your family involved

AKA The Steve Jobs Conundrum

Another major stumbling block is how to get the family involved. It can sometimes seem impossible. But I have a sneaky Jedi-esque mind trick to help you here that comes from Steve Jobs himself.

You remember when Steve Jobs presented the Ipod to the world, he said, ‘You can have a thousand songs in your pocket’.

And the crowd went wild.

And we begged him to take our money, because who didn’t want a thousand songs in their pocket?

You see, it’s an old copy writers’ trick. Advertisers tell you what their product can do to make your life dreamier. They generally keep the price tag low key.

So, let’s apply this trick to the problem of how to get your family on board with decluttering.

Don’t ask your family: ‘hey guys, want to spend a morning clearing out the over-stuffed, dusty and possibly spider-infested garage?’

 Who would agree to that? Only a masochist.  

Try this instead:

‘Hey guys, fancy turning the garage into a cool workshop*. Then we can finally use those power tools. Oh, and I’m throwing together some snacks and gallons of lemonade.’

*(Obviously adapt it to your circumstances).

Do a ‘Steve’. Show them what they have to gain and they’ll love you for it.

4 | Don't wait

AKA She who hesitates, disintegrates

I know we’ve all done it. We think about decluttering but we put it off by reasoning, ‘Oh, I’ll just wait until dad is looking after the kids. That’ll be easier’. And then the decluttering never happens.

So here’s my tip: Don’t wait.

There’s never going to be a perfect time to declutter.

See if you can find an activity that will keep your little darlings occupied while you get started decluttering. Frankly, I heartily recommend employing the TV as babysitter.

5 | Get your kit ready

I like to keep a decluttering kit prepped and ready to go. When I feel the urge to declutter having my supplies to hand means I can get on with the job and not waste precious time. Here’s what I keep in my declutter kit:

  • Garbage bags and storage boxes;
  • Washi tape and painter's tape (for quick labeling);
  • Toss/Donate/Sell/Repair/Recycle decluttering signs (sticky notes will do);
  • Basket to store items that need to be moved to a different area of the house;
  • Label maker or other labels. 
  • Snacks and water.

Although I rarely get time to tackle a big decluttering project all at once, having this kit together means I can take advantage of 10 minutes here and there to get a bit done. You could get a fancy caddy for all these items or just stick them in a box. Done is better than perfect.

6 | Lower your expectations…

and then lower them again.

When it comes to decluttering I notice that people’s expectations are usually too high.

It’s that New Year’s Resolution curse that hits every January 1st.

I’m no stranger to it myself. Many, many times I’ve declared, ‘I'm never eating sugar again’ only to be elbow deep in doughnuts 2 days later, a pile of new workout clothes collecting dust on the bedroom floor.

But…decluttering is a war not a battle. So pace yourself.

Instead of tackling the whole house in a weekend, lower your expectations. And then lower them again. The way to do this is with a tactic I call ‘zoning’.

Decide what room of the house you’re going to declutter first.

Then split that room into small bite-sized chinks and make a list. For example you might split the kitchen up into zones like the Tupperware cupboard, cutlery drawer, utensil caddy, spice rack etc. Each zone should take you no more than 15 minutes (or the length of your children’s favorite cartoon).

Zoning means that you’re much more likely to stay on track and see results than trying to tackle one entire room at a time.

7 | Make it a date

I highly encourage you not to add ‘declutter’ to your to-do list.

Productivity experts say that scheduling tasks is a much more effective way of getting things done. So make an appointment with yourself. But be specific. Remember those zones we talked about? Pick one zone and decide when you’re going to tackle it and write it in your planner. I even like to set an alarm to remind me to do it.

If you’re going to have children at home when you’re decluttering, have a think about how you’re going to distract them while you work.

8 | Ignore the Bullies

Pinterest is full of helpful decluttering advice but some of it, although well meaning, is not going to work for you. In fact, that well-meaning advice could even be damaging.

 So if someone tells you that you only need 12 items in your kitchen, RUN.

If anyone tells you to declutter 23, or 47, or any other randomly chosen fixed number of things every day, RUN.

If anyone tries to give you a list of things you ‘should’ get rid of (how dare they!) RUN. 

Only get rid of things that YOU want to get rid of. Trust your instinct.

9 | Remember Madame Chanel’s advice

Madame Chanel advised women to look in the mirror before leaving home and take off one more accessory. 

You see, even when you think you have your outfit just right, you could make it even more wonderful by removing a necklace, bracelet or some other bauble.

The same applies to decluttering. Even when you think you’ve purged all that you wish to, it’s often possible that, after a period of reflection, you can cheerfully declutter one more item.

I find this makes decluttering a gentler process. It relieves the pressure to do everything now, now, now.

If you truly struggle to part with things, try this Madame Chanel inspired approach to decluttering:

  • First go to the zone you’ve decided to declutter and get rid of the obvious stuff (take a look at this helpful blog post to give you some ideas).
  • Then take a break.
  • Go back to the zone and see what else you’d like to purge.
  • Take another break.
  • Then go back and make the really hard decisions. Or not, the choice is yours mamma-bear.

Yes, it may take you longer to declutter but there are no medals for finishing first when it comes to decluttering.


Part Two: Stop clutter coming back

After you've decluttered...

There’s no point dieting for one month a year, if you then live on crap for the rest of the year (an unfortunate truth I’ve discovered the hard way).

Ditto for decluttering. Here are some tips, worth their weight in forbidden Nutella, for keeping clutter at bay.

10 | Set up systems

I love systems. It’s pretty much all I write about. But honestly, a good decluttering system is your secret weapon to beating clutter creep.

Ever tried the one-in-one-out rule?

I’m not a fan.

I find it’s too easy to forget to purge one item every time you buy something or get a gift. So I like to schedule regular decluttering sessions. But the secret is to be really specific about what, when and how you’re going to declutter.

If you took a look at my planner, you’d see that tomorrow I’ve got an appointment with myself to go through my son’s books to see if I can donate 5 to the children’s center nearby.

I’m going to do that while he’s watching his favorite cartoon at 3.20pm.

I also know that I’ll donate those books on Monday while we go run some errands.

Yes, it’s a tiny, practically microscopic, goal. Just 5 books out of the gasquillion books he owns. But I’ve learnt the hard way with years of setting huge, humanly-impossible goals, that low expectations are not always a bad thing.

Also, once you actually get started, you may find that you want to keep going.

11 | Brainwash your children

Too much stuff.

When we think about all those in the world that have so little, too much stuff is actually a privilege. Even if it doesn’t feel like it all the time.

So when our children are old enough to understand, it’s a good idea to talk to them about how we can help others by donating things we no longer need. It’s a great habit to get into and a mind-set that could change the world.

But I’d like to draw your attention to point 3 above and ask you to choose your words carefully.

Don’t say: ‘Hey darling, want to chuck away those teddy bears you don’t play with anymore?’

That’s just an invitation to a town called Disappointment, Population: You.

Instead…

Why not involve your children in picking a charity to donate the old toys to? Explain what the charity does to help and who might be the proud new owner of those faithful old teddy bears. As a teacher I saw again and again how generous children’s hearts are when it comes to helping those less fortunate than themselves.


I truly believe that decluttering is harder for moms. Let’s look at the facts *flicks over flip-chart paper*

  • The punishing lack of time and energy.
  • The constant influx of gifts, hand-me-downs, school papers, and all the rest of it.
  • The fact that we’re usually multi-tasking, trying to declutter while making sure big brother doesn’t feed toy soldiers to the baby.
  • The Sophie’s Choice-esque decisions of what sentimental baby items to keep.

 When you look at it like this, it’s a bloody wonder any mamma manages to declutter anything at all.

So you’re not lazy, a terrible home maker, a failure, or any other word you’ve been beating yourself up with (you little masochist, you!)

But there is a way… You just need the right decluttering strategy. Hopefully this post has given you a few ideas.

Take what’s helpful, leave the rest and don’t let anyone bully you into decluttering anything you aren’t ready to declutter. You got this, mamma.