Feeling overwhelmed by clutter? Here are practical tips to help you stop hoarding

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

Shelves piled with stuff you never use.

Drawers you’re scared to open because they’re so full you might never get them closed again. Stacks of old papers lying on top of the fridge. You’ve tried to sort it all out but somewhere along the line you always give up because the job is just too big and daunting . . .

American lifestyle guru Gretchen Rubin has an interesting theory about why many people fail in their tidying efforts: it’s down to personality type. In an inspiring new book, Outer Order, Inner Calm, she shares useful advice to help you get rid of your junk once and for all – and then keep your home clutter-free. 

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Know yourself 

Before you get started, take some time for a bit of self-reflection. How do you manage expectations? For instance, if your boss has set a deadline or a friend has asked you to help with something, do you plunge right in and sort it out or do you tend to procrastinate? Or if you set yourself a goal of getting fit or sticking to a New Year’s resolution, do you generally tend to follow through?

The first is an example of an outer expectation and the second is an inner  expectation. Rubin has devised a framework that distinguishes between people based on how they respond to these two types of expectations. Check which category you fall into and see which techniques you can use to inspire yourself so you finish your decluttering job. 

Upholders :

Respond readily to outer and inner  expectations. Best approach Upholders gravitate toward to-do lists, schedules and planning. So if you want to tackle a messy room first slot that task into your calendar a few weeks in advance, setting reminders. When the day rolls around you’ll be raring to go.


Question all expectations. They’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense – essentially, they make all expectations into inner expectations. Best approach This type often raises questions such as, “Why tidy a room if we’ll just mess it up again?” Remind yourself repeatedly of the time, space and serenity you’ll gain by clearing clutter.


Meet outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. Best approach To meet inner expectations obligers need outer accountability, so to clear clutter, create accountability. Invite a friend to keep you company, promise someone you’ll deliver your hand-me-downs or invite someone to stay for the weekend.


Resist all expectations, outer and inner. Best approach Rebels do what they want. Remind yourself that clearing clutter isn’t something you should do or that you must do or what others expect from you – it’s what you want. These people also tend to like a challenge. “My partner thinks I can’t clear these storage shelves in one afternoon. Watch me.”

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

Getting started

Be a tourist in your own home

Visit every room. See what’s inside every cabinet, drawer and closet. Don’t feel pressure to deal with it, just look.

Use a photo to evaluate

Taking a picture helps you see a space with fresh eyes and gives a measure of detachment that can help you decide what items should stay and what needs to go. Then once you’ve cleared the space, refer back to this before image. It’s a big morale booster to see visual proof of what you’ve accomplished.

What are your biggest peeves?

Clutter comes in many forms. Clothes, toys, paper, kitchen and so on. Make the biggest effort to deal with the kind of clutter that bothers you most.

Tips for instant results 

Often people put off tidying because the idea of doing their whole house in one go is too overwhelming. But you don’t have to do it all in one go. Even just making a few small changes can produce noticeable results.

Go shelf by shelf

Whenever you have a few minutes to spare, clear a small area. Admit it, there’s no reason to keep that hairbrush with the broken handle. That cellphone charger belongs in its drawer.

In active areas keep surfaces bare

Put away kitchen appliances you don’t use every day; don’t cram stuff onto every inch of your desk – rather put it away in drawers.

Everything looks better arranged on a tray

Even when things are in the right place, they might look messy and scattered until they’re contained in some way. A tray (or a basket, bowl or plate) pulls individual items such as perfume bottles, spice bottles or coffee-making materials into a pleasing collection.  

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Handy hacks 

Bag of tricks 

Gather all the tech items you often use – chargers, wall adapters, headphones, USB  cables, memory sticks – and keep them together in a bag you can store in a drawer or throw into your briefcase, backpack, handbag  or luggage.

Save some wardrobe space

Turn shoes on their sides and store them heel to toe in a yin-yang position – they’ll take up  a lot less space.

Mystery box

We all accumulate stuff we never use but are scared to throw away: orphaned cables, random remote-control devices, important-looking screws that appeared on the floor one day, obscure vacuum-cleaner attachments. Collect them all and put them in a box. Put  a date on the box and if you haven’t opened it in a year, throw it away.

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

How to keep it neat

Follow the ‘one-minute rule’

Do any task that can be finished in less than one minute without delay. Hang up a coat, read a letter and toss it, put a document in a file, throw away a pen that doesn’t work.

Don’t put things down; put things away

If you hear yourself saying, “I’ll put this here and deal with it later”, beware!

Take one item with you

Whenever you walk from one room to another, take one thing with you. Little by little things will begin to move into place.

Clean as you go

Clean as you cook, hang up your clothes right after you put on your pyjamas, put files back in the filing cabinet as soon as you’ve retrieved what you need. If you clean up after yourself along the way, clutter stays far more manageable.

Holding bins

Consider creating holding bins for all the random stuff your kids leave lying around. Keep these bins somewhere inconspicuous yet convenient, and when you want to create more order, put their out-of-place items in their bins. It’s a lot quicker and easier than putting things away in their proper places – especially if you don’t know where those things belong.

Create a waiting room

We all have items that are waiting to go someplace else: packages to be mailed, books to be returned to the library, shoes that need fixing. Often we just leave such things out on some table or counter with the intention of attending to them but this can go on for months. To address this mess, create a “waiting room” – a shelf in a cupboard, a corner of the garage – where such things can be properly stored as you prepare to deal with them