Decluttering your space can be super soothing and totally an advisable antidote to general ennui or stress. Whenever I’m feeling anxious, wondering what the purpose of life really is, or just finding myself staring at a blank Google doc screen praying a good sentence or two will finally materialize, I stop whatever it is I’m trying to accomplish and clean an area of my house. Even if it’s just making sure my bedside table is tidy and neat, or that my office desk isn’t overflowing with random crumpled papers or litter the cat left behind (gross, I know), it almost always helps refresh my headspace.
In a perfect world, I’d dedicated an hour each week to decluttering parts of my house so that by the end of the month, my work (and life) space (which are one and the same now) doesn’t seem so, well, cluttered. But, I have a confession to make: That doesn’t always happen. Even though once I’m in the process of cleaning and organizing, I instantly feel lighter, the thought of the tasks is paralyzing. There’s. Just. So. Much. Stuff.
Here are some decluttering challenges that always seem overwhelming at first – but once they’re finally tackled, it feels like I’ve shed thousands of pounds of panic and worry and am left with a space I truly love and want to live in.
1. Take a coffee mug inventory.
I love coffee mugs. If I could fill my entire kitchen with coffee mugs, I would. But since they pretty much only serve a few specific purposes (holding caffeinated beverages, scoops of ice cream, and sometimes wine if I feel like it), they get one dedicated cabinet. Which means every few years I have to go through my mugs and throw out any with chips or cracks. One day, when I have the money to dedicate several cabinets to mugs, I won’t have to pick and choose. But since today is not that day, I need to refresh my collection and throw out (or donate) the ones I just can’t hold on to anymore. (Mickey Mouse mug with the broken handle I’ve tried unsuccessfully fixing with superglue, I will miss thee.)
2. Do a closet clean-out.
Not that this problem applies now, since we rarely have to assemble real outfits anymore, but in general I know I don’t wear a good 60 percent of the clothes I own, which is kind of shameful, and I’ve been working on being more mindful when I shop for the last couple years. Maybe a silver lining to living through a global pandemic is that I can finally, truly start those good shopping habits (since I don’t shop anymore at all!). At least once a year, I’ll gather all the clothes and shoes and donate what I haven’t worn in over a year, but it’s an emotional process. And who’s to say three months from now I won’t suddenly re-love the My Little Pony blouse I bought when I was 23? Okay, maybe I’ll keep that one.
3. Sort through the pile of mail you’ve been hoarding for four months.
I don’t know why, but I avoid throwing away my mail, even if it’s just a coupon from Bed Bath & Beyond that I know I won’t use. Old bills I’ve already paid, bills I know I already get electronically sent to me, mail that was sent to the person who previously lived at my house, and random promotional material just end up collecting dust in a drawer that eventually gets so clogged with envelopes I’m forced to just deal with it. And that day is a very bad day.
4. Toss out old, expired ingredients.
For some reason, I kept buying bags of shredded coconut when I already had shredded coconut (for Chrissy Teigen’s banana bread recipe, obvs), so now I have three bags of shredded coconut, and I just don’t use coconut that often in my food! It’s tough because a lot of baking ingredients don’t go bad for a long time (like chocolate, cocoa powder, vanilla, etc.) so they keep adding up. I’m still working on a system because I refuse to throw away good food, so please email me if you feel like receiving a few loaves of Chrissy’s banana bread.
5. Finally organize that one spot in your home that you store all your junk.
Since this was my and my husband’s first-ever garage, we went storage-crazy when we first moved in, throwing all of our moving boxes, random pieces of furniture, old bags of clothes we needed to donate to Goodwill — the piles layered like ratatouille of junk. Just looking at all the crap that accumulated gave me heart palpitations, so my husband did us a solid and organized it himself awhile back, and now my garage makes me SO HAPPY.
6. Make a pile of books to donate.
I hate giving up books, but I also don’t have space for another bookshelf, so at least once a year I go through the ones I already read and won’t miss and pack them away for Goodwill. Since I’ve gotten a lot of free books over the years for coverage, new books add up really, really quickly. I actually recently gave in and bought myself a Kindle so that I can start reading digital copies to save room (and money), but if anyone wants to start a book-giving-and-receiving community, let me know. I’m lucky to get advanced copies of new books that I plow through really quickly, but they end up just getting stacked in random places in my house because of a lack of storage for them.
7. Get rid of the old skincare products that are actually probably expired.
Even though my beloved Dior mascara is like two years old, I feel guilty tossing it, since it was expensive, and still probably has a good ten or twelves uses left (even if I end up giving myself an eye infection in the process). Especially since I only wear makeup maybe once a month, I’m finding that my foundations and concealers are starting to smell weird and my lipsticks are drying out. For this, I have no good solution because throwing them away feels like a waste — but keeping them means using valuable real estate. What are y’all doing with your makeup and skincare products now?
8. Organize your important documents.
I can proudly say that just recently I bought some color-coded folders that hold tax documents, freelance and consulting contracts, my marriage license, and important bills I may need to reference at some point. Before that, I just stuffed papers into a drawer and hoped for the best. That did not work, because as soon as you need a document, you will not find it until you empty out your entire drawer and go through each paper and probably sob in the process.
9. Toss your expired medications.
I think I have at least four bottles of Dayquil that have fermented by this point and might get me wasted if I consume it (does cold medicine ferment? Remind me to google that), and several boxes of Gas-X that probably have the potency of a tube of SweetTarts. That’s another task of mine that’s on the to-do list because whenever I do get sick, I always end up going to the pharmacy and buying more meds. And they end up in the same pile as the bad medicine, adding to the never-ending collection.
10. Ruthlessly sort keepsakes versus junk.
I’m a sucker for old photos and trinkets from my old jobs, or weddings I’ve attended. I still have a holiday card the HelloGiggles team sent back when I was just a contributor, and a beer cozy from my best friend’s wedding back in 2015. I won’t give those things up because they’re markers of important times of my life. But just because I don’t want to toss a pile of memories into the trash doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be organized. I recently bought a scrapbook and a couple of bins to store things and tuck them away so that I can go back to them whenever I want (plus, they’re all in one place, so in case of an emergency I can easily go grab them).
As you can see, my journey to decluttering is very much in progress. But the most important step, I would say, is recognizing the problem areas in your home and starting to chip away at them, one by one. But give yourself doable deadlines so that decluttering feels good. Because it really should.
Gina Vaynshteyn is an editor and writer who lives in LA. You can find more of her words on Refinery29, Apartment Therapy, HelloGiggles, Distractify, and others. If you wanna, you can follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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