12 Ideas For Taming Clutter

“Don’t own so much clutter that you will be relieved to see your house catch fire.”

Wendell Berry, Farming: a hand book
taming clutter

You’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: your willpower functions much like a muscle. Certain activities can tire it out or use it up, just as your muscles get tired from extended use. In the same manner, willpower can be replenished and even strengthened through use, just as exercising a muscle makes it stronger.

Interestingly, removing clutter from one’s environment has been shown to boost willpower. In one study, two groups of subjects were given a set of questions to answer. One group sat in a neat, orderly laboratory. The second group set in a room so messy, it would give a teenager nightmares. Later, the group who sat in the untidy room scored lower on self-control tasks, such as taking a smaller sum of money immediately rather than waiting a week for a larger amount. And when the two groups were offered snacks, the people who sat in the neat lab more frequently selected fruit and milk, while their counterparts from the messy room took candy and sodas. [Baumeister]

In a similar experiment, two groups answered a series of questions online. One group worked from a tidy web site that was neatly arranged, with everything properly placed and correctly spelled. Another group worked at a messy web site that was cluttered and had misspellings and other problems. Again, the group that worked on the neat web site scored higher in several tests of self-control. [Baumeister]

Getting organized and uncluttered is a popular New Year’s resolution but as we approach the last 100 days of the year, it is a good end-of-year goal as well. If it is yours, the good news is that reducing clutter makes it more likely you’ll maintain the willpower to complete other goals you may have.

Here are 12 ideas to get your de-cluttering underway while strengthening your willpower at the same time.

  • Sort through the clothes in your closets. Make a pile to keep, a pile for things that need to be cleaned or mended, and a pile to give away. Put the items to give away in a bag and get them out of the house. Put them in your car, to be dropped at the Goodwill or Salvation Army. (Don’t forget to get a receipt for tax purposes.) For the remaining clothes, turn the clothes hangers around backward in your closet. When you wear a garment, re-hang it with the hanger facing the right way. After 1 year, remove and give away any garments on hangers that are still hanging backward.
  • Weed your files. Don’t keep a separate file folder for each recurring monthly bill. Instead, have 12 folders, labeled with each month. Then keep all of January’s papers in the January folder, February’s in the February folder, etc. Next January, empty the January folder of papers from this year and store the items for the new January.
  • Clear out the medicine cabinet. Go through your old prescriptions and over-the-counter medications. Toss out everything that is past the expiration date. Throw away any unused prescription medication that you no longer take. Note: Don’t flush medications down the toilet; they can end up contaminating the water supply. Many communities have a program where you can turn in your unused medications for proper disposal.
  • Clean up your e-mail inbox. Delete any obvious junk mail or newsletters that you aren’t interested in. (Unsubscribe from newsletters that you no longer read. Hopefully, this doesn’t include The Excelerated Life!) Set up e-mail folders for storing messages that you need to act on and move messages out of the inbox to the appropriate folder. I use daily folders, named 01_Monday, 02_Tuesday, 03_Wednesday, etc. to store items that must be done on a specific day. I have three action folders: _To Do As Soon As Possible, _To Do As Time Allows, _To Read. (Putting a special character, such as the underscore “_” or at sign ” @ “, at the beginning of the folder name brings it to the top of the list of folders.)
  • Paper is a major source of clutter so get it under control. Create a mail center for incoming mail and other papers. You can use a small vertical file or wire rack as temporary storage for keeping bills to be paid and receipts to be filed. Keep a recycle bin and paper shredder near this area and make judicious use of both tools. Unwanted paper and junk mail dealt with at the outset keeps it from becoming clutter to begin with. Open your mail over the recycle bin or trash can. Immediately toss any junk mail, flyers, or catalogs you aren’t interested in. (Shred any unwanted papers with potentially sensitive information.) Don’t let unopened mail pile up. Commit to going through your mail every 2 or 3 days. Throw away newspapers over 3 days old and magazines over 3 months old. If there is an article you want to keep or re-read, tear it out and file it.
  • Clear the mental clutter. Get your “to do” list out of your head and on to paper. Make a list of the things you are tolerating and begin cleaning up those items. (For more on this strategy, please see The Zen of Productivity e-book.) If you have goals or projects that are more than 1 year old (and that you aren’t actively pursuing), let them go.

Before you begin organizing a room, take time to plan the space. Remember how you had “centers” in kindergarten and grade school? There was probably an Art center, a Reading center, a Block center, and so forth. Each activity was conducted in a specified location and all the materials and tools you needed for the activity were stored in the Centers. Think of the different activities you do in the room or space you are organizing and set up “centers” for the activities. Keep the supplies and equipment you’ll need for the activity stored in the appropriate Center. The purpose for organizing is to give space to the objects you use most and to clear out the clutter. Without a plan, you’ll end up merely re-arranging the clutter.

  • Some folks simply stash things wherever they can fit them and think they have gotten rid of the clutter. (But be careful when you open that closet door!) However, if you use this method, you’ll find it difficult to retrieve some things because you won’t remember where you stuck them. Giving everything a home is essential for getting and staying organized. Keep like items together and store them near where you use them. Before you bring home something new, consider where you will keep it. Give places names (the sock drawer, the cereal shelf, etc.) and share the names with family members (or label the shelf, drawer, bin, etc.) so everyone knows where a particular item lives.
  • Over-stuffed files, drawers crammed full, and storage boxes stuffed with material may be considered by some people to be maximizing storage space. In reality, having containers, drawers, files, or any storage container stuffed to the limit is detrimental to good organizing. Storage areas packed too tightly make it difficult to locate and retrieve your stuff. When a collection outgrows its container, weed the collection – don’t get another container. When a storage area or file folder gets full, weed it right away. Let go of the things that no longer have value to you and share them with people who do value them.
  • On the other hand, a storage space can be so big or open that it becomes impractical. Dumping everything into a huge closet or cabinet does not mean that it is organized. Divide large spaces into smaller workable areas using shelves, containers or dividers. Remember the “Centers” and keep like things together. If you don’t divide up a larger storage area, your stuff will start mixing together and you’ll end up with a big, amorphous mess which will make it extremely difficult to find that one specific important thing that you need right away.
  • If there are things you haven’t used but can’t bring yourself to give away just yet, put them in a container and put them away. After 6 months, if you haven’t opened the container, give it away. (Don’t even open it to see what’s in there.)
  • Plan time for clean-up after you finish a project or activity. Cleaning up immediately after you finish is much easier. The longer you leave a mess to clean up, the more daunting it becomes and the harder the job becomes in your mind.

Most of us wash dishes after we finish the meal. We don’t wait until we are completely out of clean dishes before we tackle the job. If you do, you find the simple chore when done at regular intervals has become an overwhelming job that can take an hour or longer to complete. Dealing with clutter is a lot like washing dishes. Done periodically, it’s a small chore that takes a minimal amount of time. Get in the habit of regularly weeding files, getting rid of clothes and other items you no longer want or use, putting things back in their homes when you’ve finished using them, and preventing clutter in the first place by planning ahead when you bring a new item into the house. By doing this, you simplify your life, you become well-enough organized, and you may even strengthen your willpower to tackle other goals. And that is Excelerating!

Being clutter-free and well-enough organized — able to find what you need when you need it — is one step in creating your Excelerated Life™, a life of well-being, meaning, and purpose.

Read more about the Excelerated Life™.


Baumeister, Roy F. and John Tierney. Willpower – Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011.

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