Got the Urge to Do Some Spring-Cleaning? Avoid These 5 Classic Mistakes.

It’s spring! (In my part of the world, at least.) And with spring comes the urge to do some spring-cleaning. The warmer weather and the fresh breezes make me want my home to feel orderly, spacious, and clean.

So far, I’ve tackled three kitchen cabinets, a closet, and my pile of white t-shirts. It feels great.

One of the things about happiness that continually surprises me is the degree to which, for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm, and inner self-command. I write about this connection in Better Than Before, in The Happiness Project, and in Happier at Home. (All New York Times bestsellers, I can’t resist adding).

This connection fascinates me; in the context of a happy life, a crowded coat closet or an overflowing in-box is trivial, and yet such things weigh us down more than they should. And clearing clutter is so energizing and cheering!

I’ve learned the hard way, however, to avoid these classic mistakes during spring-cleaning, or clutter-clearing generally:

1. Don’t get organized.

When you’re facing a desk swamped in papers, or a closet bursting with clothes, or counter-tops littered with piles of random objects, don’t say to yourself, “I need to get organized.” No!

Your first instinct should be to get rid of stuff. If you don’t keep it, you don’t have to organize it. My sister wanted me to help her organize her papers, and after we threw away the papers she didn’t need to keep, there was nothing left to organize. Excellent.

2. Don’t buy fancy storage gizmos.

Ironically, it’s often the people with the worst clutter problems who have the instinct to run to a store and buy complicated hangers, drawer compartments, etc.  Don’t let yourself buy an item until it’s absolutely clear that it will help you organize objects that are truly necessary—rather than act as a crutch to move clutter around or to jam more clutter into place.

3. Don’t save things for the hazy future.

Some things are  worth keeping — but not most things. I was once helping a friend clear her clutter, and when I gently suggested that she might give away that pantsuit that she wore to work eight years earlier, she said, “Oh, but my daughter might want to wear those one day.” Really? I don’t think so. If you get a new dog, you’ll probably want a fresh dog bed, and if you lose a bunch of weight, you’ll probably decide to buy a new pair of jeans.

4. Don’t “store” things.

It makes sense to store holiday decorations, seasonal clothes, baby things you intend to use again, and anything else that’s useful for a particular time. But often, when we “store” something, it’s because we know we don’t really need it, or use it, or care about it much, but we just want to get it out of the way. Usually, it’s easier to throw something in the basement, attic, or garage than it is to figure out what to do with it. But in the long run, it’s better not to “store” that stuff but to give it away, recycle it, or toss it right away — without an intervening period in storage.

5. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.

Things often get messier before they get tidier. If you dump out every drawer in that big chest, you may run out of energy and time before you’re finished sorting through all of it. Take one drawer at a time. Of course, sometimes it’s necessary — and even fun — to spend a whole day or weekend clearing clutter, but often, it’s more realistic to tackle smaller aims.

Remember, we often over-estimate what we can do in a short time (one afternoon) and under-estimate what we can do over a long period, a little at a time (spending thirty minutes a day clearing clutter, for a month). Keep the process manageable.

What are your tips for clearing clutter? What mistakes have you made, in the past?

  • Great tips, thank you. Last spring I read Mari Kondo and I found it quite life changing. My house it much tidier. But the kitchen cupboards didn’t last, so need to find a solution for those.

  • Gillian

    Interesting that your advice under point 5 is completely contrary to the advice of Marie Kondo. She recommends doing it all at once. Empty the contents of all dresser drawers onto the floor and go through it all in one fell swoop. Another case of know thyself – what works for one person won’t work for another.

    (btw – a little typo, Gretchen – point 1 – “through away” should be “threw away”. Oops!)

    • gretchenrubin

      I agree with her that it’s good to take everything out at once – but I’d do it drawer by drawer, not the whole chest at once! I think for many people, it’s just too overwhelming.

  • ChrisD

    I think clearing out everything at once, is great if you have know about ‘only keep what sparks joy’. But you still have to have the time.
    When I read her book and started on clothes, some stuff I could chuck immediately, and I pulled all my clothes into piles on my floor immediately, but it did take a few days to finish the task because I didn’t have much time (not because I had so many clothes, 🙂 ). 15 minutes would be long enough for tops, then socks, bathroom stuff, then electrical stuff etc.

  • Mimi Gregor

    I work my way around each room, from the back of the house to the front, removing things, cleaning thoroughly, putting back and organizing — and yes, sometimes discarding things. I usually only have one or two days a week when I have a free couple hours to tackle spring cleaning. If it’s a small room, like the bathroom or mudroom, I can do it in one session. But a large room like the livingroom or computer room generally takes a few sessions. I usually start this process in March, and it takes until June to finish because I do a little at a time.

  • Priscilla Martinez

    Great Tips!! I love your work.

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks for the kind words!

  • RachelB

    I also read Marie Kondo’s book but ended up with a huge pile of clothes in the basement for a while before I got around to cleaning it up (by which I don’t mean finishing the decluttering) and never moved past the 1st step, which was the clothing.

    I was more successful with Courtney Carver’s Project333 course. It still involved getting all my clothes out and the concept of what to keep was sort of similar, but it was done with a specific goal in mind and there were tasks to do daily with inspiration to keep me on track. It was a huge success for me and once I did the major declutter of my closet, I actually started making progress on the rest of the clutter.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, I love books like that but I think we always need to keep in mind what works for US. What is exciting and productive for one person can feel overwhelming for someone else.

      • Mimi Gregor

        One of the things I must disagree with Marie Kondo about is her advice to keep all your clothes in one closet — summer and winter. No matter how much a restaurant may be blasting the air conditioning, wearing a cashmere turtleneck in the summer is obviously not the answer. It would look out of place in the summer, and I would cringe every time I opened my closet and saw it there. And yes — that turtleneck is in the closet — not folded in a drawer. That would so not work for me; out of sight, out of mind.

        • Gillian

          The beauty of Kondo’s way of folding items in a drawer is that nothing is out of sight. There are no piles, only rows of items folded into neat rectangles. You can see everything at a glance because there is only one layer. And in some cases, I found there was a big chunk of empty space left in the drawer. I actually moved a few things off hangers into drawers, freeing up some hanging space. Relating back to a discussion here a few weeks ago about what to do with items already worn but not ready for the laundry, there are now big empty spaces in the drawers where I can loosely fold already-worn clothes so I can easily see what has been worn and what is freshly washed.

          I was skeptical about her method of folding items in drawers but thought it was worth a try and am delighted with the results. I do the same with dish cloths & tea towels in my kitchen drawers and it works there too. The only downside is that it takes quite a bit longer to fold and put away the laundry but it is worth it. And I often do the folding while watching TV so it’s not a big deal.

          • Mimi Gregor

            I have so few clothing items, since I subscribe to the concept of a capsule wardrobe, that space in my closet is NOT an issue. You can hear crickets in my closet. To think, when I went to Catholic school as a child, I HATED wearing the same thing every day. And now, I do it by choice.

          • Gillian

            I envy your success! I am working towards a similar situation. I have fewer clothes than many people but more than I want. I am gradually wearing things out and donate items that I will truly never wear again. I buy something new only when absolutely necessary. However, I’m reluctant to dispose of good wearable clothes because I hate shopping and seldom find what I want. Recently, I’ve been shopping in my closet and trying to wear some of the things that have fallen by the wayside. I retired 6 years ago and don’t have a hugely active social life so don’t need many clothes. Most of the clothes I wear when I go out are still from when I was working. Many gradually get demoted to “wear around the house” and then to “wear in the garden” before being thrown out.

  • HEHink

    So timely. I’m heading into two months of summer vacation, that I know from experience will go all too fast with trips and other activities. And there are cleaning/organizing projects I want to complete at my house, too. I’m including organizing because once I decide what to keep out of my stacks and piles, I will definitely need to develop some structure and systems for keeping and using it.

    A mistake I’ve made in the past is to try to designate a day or series of entire days to complete one project, whether actually cleaning, clutter-clearing, or both in the same room. That may work for some, but after one day in the kitchen, I’m tired of it and want to move somewhere else. (Usually because I have indeed overestimated what I can do in one afternoon.) Or I keep wanting to be doing a different project, which saps my motivation for the task I’m doing. And other tasks needing attention get neglected, because I’m trying to focus on finishing one big project.

    This summer, because there are several areas in my home that need work, I am going to try the strategy of scheduling – designating specific times each day for each area or type of task (i.e. 9:00-10:00 for a cleaning task, 10:00-noon for office tasks, because my office area needs a total overhaul, etc.)- and continue daily until each is finished. I may not see a lot of progress the first few days, but I’m hoping the cumulative effect of one or two hours, or even 30 minutes, a day, in each space will be visible by the end of the summer.

  • Rachel Tompkins

    Great post 🙂 I’m on the other side of the world (New Zealand) so won’t be ‘spring’ cleaning. But I’ve got a young baby who I’m sure is only a few months away from crawling so clutter clearing is high on my agenda!! WI’ll take your advice on board 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Good luck! Any time is the right time!

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  • Slackerjo

    My storage gizmos are small boxes I got out of the recycle bin stuck to drawers with 2 sided tape. Nobody cares about your drawers.

    I have crazy rules for my apartment, just for me, and one of the rules is that I can have things, but I have to keep about 80% of the things on display. So I built a LOT of shelves in my apartment. I am lucky because people throw out a lot of old desks, cabinets and other furniture and for less than hour’s work and a couple of bucks worth of hardware, beautiful shelves.

  • Carrie Harding

    This is great advice – I agree that doing this one small area at a time is best. It makes a much larger project feel a lot more manageable.
    I do believe that simplifying your life is one way to destress and focus on what realy matters. Here’s to starting this myself!

  • As a stacker, and someone that often says “but I’ll just have to buy it again when we need it if we toss it now,” you’re giving some great advice. I’ve gotten better about letting stuff go if I don’t need it right here and now. Every year, I toss and am always surprised just how much is still left to toss. But I know I can’t go full Kondo just yet 😉

    • Kathryn MacNeill

      I love the phrase ‘going full Kondo’ – so good!

  • dingleberryjerry

    My wife and I decided to have a garage sale. We went thru stuff on the main floor first, using the kitchen as the launching point. Have made it thru the whole house and have 90% of it priced with two weeks to go! Our rule is: anything that doesn’t sell can’t come back in the house. All leftovers get donated to a charitable thrift store.

  • Great tips! Thank you! We are in the process of finally merging our 2 houses into 1 slightly smaller home, so a lot of purging and getting rid of is going on here :). It’s amazing that I had some items that I never used for probably 5 years and they were in my house, and I still doubt donating them….what is this with a human mind lol?! But yes, I am feeling successful and trying not to feel bad or guilty about getting rid of stuff.

  • Holly Hopkins

    Break it up into rooms & do 1 room each day also assign tasks to others in the household. I do spring cleaning week. I get it done & move on if not I’d be spring cleaning til next year haha.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    ORGANIZED CLUTTER IS STILL CLUTTER is the great FlyLady mantra that has stuck with me. In some cases, I know perfectly well that I will be forever organizing my clutter. Out of my very large fabric stash and sewing notions supplies come wonderful things for which I have not even had the vision as yet . . . but I WILL. But in other areas of my home, I have found it freeing to cut things down rather than to find ways to store stuff I am not using and may well never use.

  • Lorrie Shelley

    Thanks to my delight at reading your works, Gretchen, and one of Marie Kondo’s, I have relocated and laundered EVERY piece of manchester/linen and clothing I own. It is arrayed in the dining room, at present, and not one item is making it upstairs or into ANY kind of storage, until I have assessed whether it still ‘sparks joy’ for me!
    I completed this task with crockery, baking dishes and mugs, giving four tub-loads of dishes to the local Salvation Army store.
    I am two-thirds of the way through the pantry…use-by dates…yikes!!
    My sister is coming this weekend to help me with one…last…wardrobe.
    The work is hard-going but I feel lighter as each new de-clutter brings me greater peace.

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! what a great process.

  • Trina Summers

    Gretchen, I’d like to point you to two books by Stephanie Bennett Vogt: Your Spacious Self and A Year to Clear. She sort of takes an approach that is the opposite of “outer order contributes to inner calm” and focuses on connecting to feelings very similarly to the Konmari method, only the focus is on working with the feelings more than the items. If you don’t work through the “what if I need it someday” and other fears, anticipation, idealized mental pictures of your future self, you will end up with the clutter all over again. I would compare it to how studies show that lottery winners nearly always end up back in their pre-winning circumstances. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on Stephanie’s “slow-drip” method.

  • Chava1997

    Gretchen, what are your thoughts about throwing away old letters and journals?

    • gretchenrubin

      I don’t have many old letters, so not hard to keep those. Journals I definitely keep.
      One criterion is: if I throw this away, how hard will it be to replace it? Those things are irreplaceable. So I feel justified in keeping them.

  • Great tips! #1 is a must! I always start by tackling one room at a time, then divide that room into sections. I start by looking for anything that I can toss, giveaway, or sell. I organize last!

  • Deanna Hicks

    I am so glad I spent the time to read this article. I am a storage bin person – cannot believe I am admitting that. One bin at a time will be gone through and that chapter in my life would be closed. I also donate every month to AMVETS. A great organization that assists our military families with clothing, household items. Please consider them if you are donating in the future.