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Decluttering – The Action Plan

Where Do I Even Start?

Ready to Purge? Let’s go!

Before we start excavating the archeological dig of our walk-in closet, we need to come up with a plan or risk the overwhelm will stop us dead in our tracks, before the shovel hits the dirt.

To determine where to begin — and it will be different for everyone — we need to define three things:

  1. The area(s) causing you the most stress.
  2. The smallest aspect of that area.
  3. Areas that trigger strong emotions.

#1  HIGH STRESS: Your Top 3 Personal Pain Points

My good friend, Merriam-Webster, defines a Pain Point as “A persistent or recurring problem (as with a product or service) that frequently inconveniences or annoys customers.” I especially like the words, “Persistent and Recurring.” Like those annoying mosquitos that buzz past your ear at night.

Ask yourself:

Which rooms or areas of my home cause my chest to constrict every time I look at them? Every single day. Can you feel that pain just thinking about it? I can.

These are your hot spots. I’m sure there’s more than one in your home that causes you anxiety.

Grab a pen, pencil, crayon, sidewalk chalk, whatever is handy, walk through your home right now and take notes. As soon as you enter a room, write down your immediate thoughts and impressions. Don’t censor. Write everything that comes to mind… Why does it smell so bad in here? Who put a dirty sock on Alexa? Go ahead, I’ll wait… 

  • How does this room make you feel?

Then ask:

  • How would you like it to feel?

Write it all down.

Look at everything. Don’t forget the garage and outdoor spaces!

Now, go sit down somewhere that doesn’t stress you out. If your whole house annoys you, step outside and breathe fresh air. Go to a park and watch the birds. Seriously.

If that’s not your thing, stop by your favorite coffee shop and smell the buzz brewing. You need to be in a neutral zone to think about the adventure you are about to embark upon. And decluttering is an adventure.

Read through your notes and pick the Top Three Pain Points. Write those down in no particular order.

#2  NICHE DOWN: Get Specific

Once you have listed your top 3 personal pain points, it’s time to niche down. For example…

  • Maybe your kitchen is number one on your list. But that’s too broad. Dig a little deeper.
  • Perhaps it’s the cupboard that stores all your plastic containers. That’s better. Keep going.
  • Hmmm, the water bottles are always mixed up with the bowls, plates and mismatched lids and it drives you crazy. Bingo! Start there.

Niche down. Get very specific. Tackling the smallest pain point possible will make you feel sooo much better and take very little time. I promise.

As you get better at this, you can go broader… but start small.

You should now have defined three very specific areas in three different areas of your home that are your highest, stress-inducing pain points. Some examples…

  • Jewelry drawer in master bedroom closet
  • Toy bin in the living room
  • Bookshelf in son’s room
  • Shoe storage in mudroom
  • Sock & underwear drawer…in everyone’s room! (disaster in our house)

Remember, you should never start with the entire room. Focus on the smallest aspect of that room for the biggest win.

#3  LOW EMOTION: Avoid Memory Lane

Once you define your three, smallest personal pain points. Make sure it is an area that will not cause you to regress into your past. The dangers of choosing to declutter an area that triggers strong emotions as your first project are:

  • Stalling / Procrastination
  • Speedbumps / Getting Stuck
  • Giving up / Throwing in the Towel

Stalling / Procrastination

Emotional triggers cause us to procrastinate because we don’t want to face something.

Oh, I’ll get to it after I clean the bathroom.

Yeah, sure. This never happens to me. (lie). You also run the risk of hanging onto something you really don’t need because it reminds you of your son’s first birthday. Like that balloon that has deflated into what looks like a squishy shriveled walnut. But it’s so small! you claim. Yes, but if you keep that, you’ll keep every other little tchotchke and scrap of paper in the house and soon you’ll have 20 bins of crap you’re storing…for what?  

Speedbumps / Getting Stuck

It’s also very easy to hit a speedbump and get trapped, sitting on the floor of your closet, sifting through sentimental memories…sometimes for hours. Before you know it, the sun is setting, the kids are screaming for food, and you’ve accomplished nothing. It’s like getting sucked into Facebook and realizing you’ve wasted two hours on social media.

Instead of facing that kind of challenge from the get-go, let’s practice with less sentimental or emotionally charged areas of your home.

Once you’ve mastered letting go of unnecessary items, you will have cleared your mind significantly and will be better prepared to tackle the big emotional stuff.

Giving Up / Throwing in the Towel

I have a few bins of “memories” I haven’t sorted through since our last move. They are still sitting behind my desk. A few times, I opened them up but quickly shut the lid. I just don’t know what to do with it all, so I gave up.

I quit before I ever started. I wasn’t emotionally ready to face those bins… and that’s OKAY. I shouldn’t have started there. I’m sure you can relate. Be easy on yourself. This will take time.

With each small success, you’re setting up a pattern of confident decision-making.

Down the road, it will be easier to rationally decide what to do with those memories that you can’t seem to part with.

Please take my advice…don’t start decluttering the baby’s room!

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You Do You, Forget the Rules

There is no guideline or rule to tell you where to start. It all depends on you – how you feel in each room. What annoys the crap out of you may not bother your best friend. One person’s pain point could be the cabinet under the bathroom or kitchen sink. Definitely small. Most likely unemotional. But for me, these areas are not as stressful as our art room.

Why? Because I can close the cabinet doors under the sinks. No one sees anything there but me. It may be small, and the least emotional, but it’s not a strong enough pain point for me.

In comparison, our art & music room is the largest room in our house. Literally, the BIGGEST. So, when it’s messy, and it is ALWAYS messy, it causes me great anxiety.

But wait, didn’t I say, start with the SMALLEST AREA in the house?

You are correct!

Niche Down

We have multiple cubbies in our art room, full of toys, games and general craft clutter. I could pull out all the cubbies, dump them on the floor and dig in. But that will take a LOT of work. Those are like time capsules with little nuggets of memories tucked away that I haven’t seen in months or even years.

I could tackle the overflowing piles of clutter on the art table, or the ping-pong or air hockey tables. I know that would be unemotional. We could certainly use them more effectively during this bizarre time in world history. As I type this, President Trump extended the Social Distancing Guidelines to April 30th and our schools extended their closings to May 15th.

But, there’s an underlying structural problem here. There is no space to put all the papers and supplies piled on top. So we dig deeper…

Imagine a drone flying through my house from room to room, scaring the cats, spying on my family and exposing all my dirty secrets. If it were to zoom in and hover over the smallest area in that room that causes me pain on a daily basis, a safety alarm would blast: LOOK HERE! LOOK HERE!

You would see the two, side-by-side, free-standing shelving units. One for paper and one rolling unit for small art supplies. They are OUT OF CONTROL.

The big reason they bother me? Well, look at them!

Besides the eyesore, the kids can never find the type of paper they want. Printer paper is mixed with colored construction paper. Watercolor paper is mixed with old resume paper. Card stock is mixed with ripped or half-used scrap paper, coloring books, pieces of thin cardboard saved from packaging, sticker books, notebooks, etc. It’s a mess!

The rolling cart is somewhat categorized but not efficient, by any stretch.

My son pulls one paper from the bottom and lets everything fall on the floor. He leaves it there because it’s always messy to him. I guess he thinks that’s the way the art room should look.

If I clear out, minimize and organize these units, there will be a place to put all the random papers all over the house! Genius!

You mean my kids can actually find what they are looking for?? Oh, that’s going to feel sooo good.

Let’s Review:

I have niched down to the SMALLEST HOT SPOT, that is my BIGGEST PERSONAL PAIN POINT, and there is ZERO EMOTION here. I know that I won’t take a trip down memory lane by decluttering paper, pencils, crayons and erasers. So. Many. Erasers. 😳

I can’t promise you won’t find a lost baby sock that will trigger a flood of tears when you start decluttering. Be strong. This is where you allow Miss Priddy to step in. Listen to her. She can be the voice of reason.

Put that baby sock down, out of sight, and tell yourself you’ll deal with that later, but NOT NOW. I promise you…this is the only way to get through this decluttering thing. I know, because it’s where I get hung up every time.

Standby Bin

I like the idea of having a Standby Bin for items you’re not ready to get rid of just yet. You know it’s safe but not taking up space in your home, or underfoot. You could think of this bin as “purgatory” but that just seems too dire…like the bin of stuffed animals I have, awaiting their fate.

The kids say they don’t want them anymore. But I am having a really hard time letting go because each one of those furry things reminds me of my children at different ages. My kids STILL have an obnoxious number of stuffed animals…it’s a serious problem. I was so attached to my stuffies when I was a kid.

Three Items in My Standby Bins:

  1. Stuffed Animals
  2. Kids artwork
  3. Baby / Toddler clothes

For now, that’s what works for me.

Modified Minimalism for Real Life

Traditional minimalists and declutter gurus might frown upon the bins in my garage. But I’m just not ready to let go of that stuff…yet. The key word here is YET. Be gentle with yourself. I’ll get to it, eventually, but I don’t need it piled up in my house. I am striving for a clean, organized home that has about half the stuff we have now. I don’t want to get rid of everything. I just want to be more effective so my kids, my husband and I can enjoy our home and get the best out of what we DO have.

Repeat this mantra: Less stuff means less to pick up and less to clean.

Bonus: If I can slow down the rate at which we contribute plastic to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch swirling in the ocean, even better.

Set a Time Limit

Literally look at your clock, set a time limit, and SET A TIMER. Use your phone, an egg timer or your fancy fitness timer…it doesn’t matter.

Look at the amount of work you have to do. Figure out a realistic goal. I think I can get through my two small shelves in two hours, barring any family disasters.

Turn on the music of your choice and…. Start Excavating!


Before you start pulling things out, make a plan for how to sort. Have bags or boxes labeled with a Sharpie Marker or Post-it Note in 5 Categories:

  1. Keep
  2. Recycle
  3. Trash
  4. Donate
  5. Standby

  • Organize and put everything you are Keeping in its place. Label if necessary.
  • REMOVE everything you want to Recycle or Trash immediately. Get it out of your house.
  • Everything you want to Donate must be put in the garage, your car, or at least by the back door if you don’t have a garage, until you can get out of the house again…i.e., when your state’s Coronavirus lockdowns are lifted. Otherwise, schedule a pickup or drop off. Write it on your calendar.
  • Put your Standby Bin in storage immediately. Out of sight, out of mind. You know it’s safe, no peeking. You can always revisit these items and part with them later if and when you are ready. Remember, you don’t have to get rid of anything. It’s your choice.

Get rid of the trash/recycle/donate items as soon as you can!

My kids have been known to dig through bags and recycle bins and hide treasures in their closets.

As I’ve said, I don’t follow strict minimalist guidelines. I do Modified Minimalism. I don’t have a limit for sentimental items. I have a lot — mostly my kids’ artwork because I cherish it. I refuse to take photos of it and throw it all away. That would break my heart. I’d rather have 10 bins of artwork and baby clothes in the garage than my husband’s tools…but that’s just me.

I had an A-ha! moment, that turned into two.

I realized something big today walking up the stairs. My daughter’s socks are still lying on the bottom step. I felt angry. I’ve asked her three times since yesterday to take them up to the laundry room. This happens all the time.

Then, I noticed the piles of stuff everywhere in that front room. My kids don’t even see the socks lying on the floor because they blend in with the rest of the mess. Sometimes I don’t even notice the clutter, but I know I can feel it.

My 2nd A-ha!:

I am setting the example for my kids. They are simply playing follow the leader.

Our brains fire more effectively if our outer environment is tidy. If my front room was organized, those rainbow-colored, polka-dotted socks would stick out like a white cat in a black box theatre. No one could walk past and not see them lying there.

When a space is clean and clutter-free, it’s easier to see something out of place. More importantly, it makes you want to pick it up and put it away.  

Detailed Plan for My Shelving Units

  • Pull everything out of each cubby and drawer
  • Separate into 5 piles:
    1. Keep
    2. Recycle
    3. Trash
    4. Donate
    5. Standby
  • Set aside broken or items with missing pieces
  • Reorganize the Keep pile
  • Repurpose, Recycle, Donate or Toss the rest

We do a lot of repurposing of crafty things. I need to figure out better storage for those items, i.e., all the broken crayons we can melt in the sun and make crayon art. It’s all about creating!


I think that’s a good start on my Declutter Mission. Drop me a line and let me know what you’ve decided to work on! I’ll share my results in the next declutter post.

Good luck! And Happy Digging! 🌷

The Geek's Wife




  • Dad

    Thank you dear, I’ve been wanting to de-clutter my workshop. This helps!

    • Annette Dariano

      You are very welcome…more to come!

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