Back to Basics Decluttering

If you are overwhelmed with the idea of decluttering, or just a little discouraged by clutter creep, the simplest way to move forward is to get back to basics.

Getting rid of stuff comes with all kinds of complicated emotions and feelings, so it’s easy to get discouraged. Or, if clutter crept back in after a big decluttering effort last spring, it’s easy to think that the work was a waste of time. Where did all this stuff come from?

If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone. Even though I decluttered a 2000 sq. foot home over the course of a few years to the point where we had empty rooms, I still have to deal with clutter.

A major benefit of consistent decluttering was selling our home and moving into a 750 square foot apartment. I love our small space, but it’s much harder to overlook clutter. When it’s time to declutter, I like a simple strategy.

Getting back to basics is the simplest way to find calm in the chaos.

Back to Basics Decluttering

Know your why.
Remember why you want to live with less stuff. It’s different for everyone. Some people enjoy more space, time or money, and others appreciate the freedom of owning less. Maybe you want room to dance, or bake, or entertain. Knowing your why gives your decluttering purpose.

Be clear on your approach.
This isn’t an organizing mission. While everything you own needs a place, you don’t need to own everything. Decluttering is not organizing. It’s getting rid of the stuff you don’t need, want, or love. If if doesn’t add joy or value, let it go.

Start with the simple.
Don’t worry about the sentimental stuff or the things you are really attached to. Start with the simple knickknacks, candle holders, junk drawer items, and clothes that don’t fit. Then look at the books you don’t read, towels you haven’t used in years and cords, and chargers that don’t work or don’t belong to anything. Getting rid of the easy stuff will give you momentum and inspiration to consider the more challenging items.

Lighten up.
Lose the duplicates and the just in case items. Figure out how many kitchen utensils and place settings you really need and use and get rid of the rest. If you’ve been collecting place mats, napkins and linens for years, keep what you use and give the rest away.

Celebrate your efforts.
Of course there is more that could be done. There always will be, but this isn’t the time. Now that you’ve gotten back to basics and decluttered your home, or a room, or even a corner of the room, it’s time to celebrate. If you decluttered your kitchen, host a small dinner party. If your idea of celebrating is turning on music, grabbing a good book and relaxing in your newly decluttered space, do that. You deserve to celebrate your efforts in a way that resonates with you.

If you are still feeling overwhelmed or confused about the benefits of decluttering, simply remember that your home is not a container for your stuff, but rather a place for joy and connection. I can’t think of a better reason to declutter than to make room for more of that.


  1. Blythe says

    This is a good reminder! Every time I declutter I get rid if more and more, to the point where I am now able to part with some of the harder stuff (sentimental clothing, why oh why have I kept you??). But it has definitely been a process — there’s no way I could have started with the hard stuff…it just takes time, but you can get there if that’s your goal. Thanks for an inspiring post :)

    • Courtney Carver says

      Blythe, That’s how it was for me. I had to do a few rounds to work up to the hard stuff.

  2. says

    It is always good to stand back and look and then see where you need to go next or what you need to do next. You still inspire me to keep looking and doing what is right for me, now.

  3. Linda says

    I love your emphasis on simple decluttering. it took a long time to gather all this stuff so it will take a long time to remove it as well. it’s not a task that can be done overnight.

    The one thing that stupefies me is the waste. I find myself wanting to donate useful items and finding they aren’t wanted. Oh no that tv is not a flat screen. No one will want it. Oh no that couch is older (an antique) and people only want modern things. How do you get around this?

    • Courtney Carver says

      Hi Linda, I got to the point where I realized that I could give more of myself in other ways if I didn’t think too much about where the stuff went after I donated it. Someone will want the older couch and the tv that isn’t a flat screen.

    • Gail says

      Your experience of discovering that perfectly good and useful stuff is no longer desirable is my experience also. My husband and I are not only trying to downsize our own stuff, but we’ve been working for the past few years on redistributing and disposing of the contents of his deceased parents’ possessions. His parents’ house was full of antiques. We have heard over and over again from antique dealers that antiques are not selling. As the elderly pass on, their antiques are flooding the market, and the younger generation wants nothing to do with them. My husband and I kept what we wanted, but we already have too much of our own. We have ended up taking cut glass dishes and beautiful stemmed glasses to Goodwill. After a while you get weary of dealing with all of the stuff, and the time it consumes, and you just drop it off at a donation center. it is, after all, just “stuff”. I took another box today to a Christian thrift shop. Good luck with your decluttering.

    • Terrie says

      There are often half-way houses or women’s shelters (e.g. YWCA) where they try to help set people up with new lives. Ask around and find one of those. They often need all the basics of setting up a new apartment.

  4. Michelle says

    This is a topic I have not seen covered on the de-cluttering sites I look at. We have been challenged with decluttering the mother in law’s house. They were not hoarders but have the average American home full of gifts and trinkets of interest. Not enough valuables for an Estate Sale so here is how I’ve handled it: 1) It was getting near summer and I knew the attic would get hot in a hurry so I emptied the attic. Everything except the Christmas items which I would bring down in time for the yard sale. 2) I had to find a better location for a yard sale than her residence which is farther off the beaten path so I asked my neighbor and she was happy to let me use her yard which is on a main throughfare. 3) I made a plan to first pack and sell items that didn’t matter to the family. This included anything with a duck on it (!), angels, placemats and table cloths and books (Readers Digest, Cookbooks and Bible study books). Two sets of dishes (10 servings each) were packed up and two of the better ones were left for family. Several sets of glassware and all kinds of serving pieces were packed and ready for the sale. Pictures were taken of the dining room set, the master bedroom set and an upright freezer that is in great shape, all for Craig’s list. I plan for the sale to take 2 Saturdays which will give me time between the dates to add to the sale for the 2nd week. The theme for the sale is “Everything’s $1” except for the better pieces. One never knows the outcome but I expect to make a few hundred dollars and hope to keep some to reimburse my gas that I’ve used to get back and forth to the house. Thanks!

    • Gail says

      Been there done that. Good luck with your sale. Six years later, my husband and I are STILL dealing with some of the “straggler” items from his parents’ house of 50 years. We’ve done several garage sales, Criagslist, Ebay, dragged things to antique shops galore, and even had dealers come to the house. Some items we gave to dear neighbors who loved them. Some things we thought we wanted to keep, only to find out a few years later that the things really aren’t our style and don’t “go” with our things. They are just in the way, and cluttering our home. So now we are trying to find a home for these last things. It is all SOOOO time consuming, as well as emotionally draining. I feel your frustration. Hang in there!

      • allison says

        Terrie’s suggestion of a woman’s shelter or a half-way house was a good one. I would also suggest, if you live anywhere hear a college/university, to put up signs in their student center – upperclassmen who are sharing a house would be thrilled to pick up a couch or a lamp or a dresser.

  5. Toni says

    Ever since my big declutter in February of this year, it is much easier to keep up now. I am even learning to let go of the sentimental things. I was so worried about moving to a small apartment. And now I am amazed at all of the space I have. If I could just keep up with mail & emails. I have not done the digital declutter yet. My list is shrinking though.
    Thank you.

  6. says

    Our situation is similar to yours, we sold our 4 bedroom house and downsized to a two bedroom apartment. Clutter is far more noticeable in our smaller space, although it’s also easier to clean when it does get cluttered. We do a daily cleanup before bed to get everything back in order and it usually only takes about 10 to 15 minutes.

    Starting with simple is a great suggestion. It gets the ball rolling and builds decluttering momentum.

  7. Gail says

    You keep me going. Love your articles. This one is great. When I get discouraged at how long it’s taking to declutter my house, I can read your columns, and readers’ comments, and find that many people, like me, have been working on decluttering for more than a year or two. I used to think simplicity, or a decluttered home, was a destination at which I would finally arrive. Thanks to your blog, and others’, I now know better . I still don’t like the thought that I’ll never be finished decluttering, but it is what it is.
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experiences.

  8. Pat says

    When my inlaws passed away it took 4 of us working 20-30 hours a week over a three month period to clean out their house, garage, shop, and several ‘storage’ buildings. we lost count of the pick-up loads we hauled to the burn pit, dumpster loads that went to recycle, and more carloads then I want to count to the household auction, and then a farm auction. Then my mother passed away and we had a ‘rememberance’ party so family memebers could pick things they wanted to remember her by, two garage sales and an auction. over 40 boxes of clothing, dishes and books to charity shops have rid us of a great deal, but I still have one room full of papers and files to go thru and shred.
    I have told my children ‘no gifts’ and every time I go into a room I look around to see if I can put something in the charity box. My goal is to fill one very large box every week until I get this all gone!!! I refuse to leave my children a mess like I’ve had to handle, and it’s so wasteful besides.
    Enjoy so much reading your posts.

    • Gail says

      Anyone who HASN’T gone through what you describe cannot understand the magnitude of it. My husband and I have been there. With just the 2 of us working through my in-laws’ house, we worked 7-8 hour days Monday through Friday, and gave ourselves the weekends off. We treated it like a job. We lived in their house for 2-3 months at a time, every year for 3 years, to get it done. My mother and brother didn’t “get it”, they wondered why it was taking us so long. They’d say things like, “Just hire someone to come in and hold an estate sale and be done with it”. It’s not that simple when it’s the stuff that you grew up with and your parents saved and loved. Only someone who’s been there truly understands. Like you, Pat, I’m now culling through my own stuff so that someday my son doesn’t have the same experience that we’ve had to go through.

  9. says

    I find that in my family, decluttering is a constant effort. When I forget about it for a few weeks or months, it all creeps back in. I’m feeling reinvigorated now, thank you!

  10. Pam Berg says

    I have four kids with the last going to college next fall. I have an accululation of memories, pictures, artwork, and the plethora of paperwork and memoribilia that comes with being a parent. I’d LOVE to take my life back in the now rather than just trying to remember the past.

    I’d love to hear from people who have the same problem. I’m not worried about getting rid of spatulas and old tools. It’s awards, old pictures, medical paperwork, warm clothing, cool clothing, uniforms, and programs from concerts and plays. My memory doesn’t hold all that so I keep the stuff. But the stuff keeps me from living freely in the moment. It’s like a catch-22.

    I love this blog and look forward to starting the process of decluttering the “easy” stuff.


    • Martha S. says

      My son just graduated from college and is moving to a new place and full time job / real grown up life this fall. What I have found is that taking photos of the memorabilia or scanning & saving (with backups!) is the way to go. Then I can see all that anytime I want to … and it doesn’t take up any more space than my laptap already takes up.
      I, too, am looking forward to that less kid-centered life. I’m calling it my “Second Adulthood” (like a second childhood … but who really wants that?)
      Best of luck

  11. says

    Thank you for the inspiration. I had an epiphany this past weekend and thought of Be More With Less. I was traveling a country road in NY after my daughter’s college graduation and came across an amazing ongoing book sale on a piece of property that had once been an old inn. The book dealer, Melanie, was passionate about her business which houses 20,000 books and about selling them but she mentioned that they were meticulously catalogued and only remained on the shelves for 2 years and then if they did not sell, they went. She said, “if a book won’t sell for .50-$1, it won’t sell (ALL books were this price).

    I thought, we should all look at our possessions in this manner, if they are not being put to use and/or valued, remove them from our “living shelves”. Melanie was very matter of fact and we all could benefit from that energy. Courtney, thank you for the constant reinforcement. :)

  12. Muntaha says

    Good god I don’t want to think about what will happen when my parents or in-laws pass. I can’t convince them for the life of me to rid themselves of excess possessions. The thought of dealing with that keeps me awake at night! People just don’t understand that functionless possessions add no value to your life whatsoever. I’ve learned my lesson, even though I can’t part with all the “semi-functional” items I bought after marriage, I have vowed never to add anything more to it unless absolutely necessary. Preventing clutter creep is the ultimate goal after decluttering!

  13. Martha S. says

    I don’t know if this will help anyone else, but after several passes at decluttering my new strategy is this: stand in a room of your house. Let’s say it’s the dining room. What purposes and functions does this space serve? What do I need in this space for it to accomplish its purpose and function? Anything else is either clutter I need to get rid of or needs to go to its true home. In my dining room, the items of silver that I don’t use and aren’t really “family heirlooms” had to go! The paperwork that always seemed to land on the dining room table really needs to go into the office space. It really is an ongoing process, sometimes because of “clutter creep” and sometimes because each person’s life and interests change over time.

  14. Kim Goffard says

    But When stuff is out of hand (not quite to an episode of hoarders) but out of control none the less. Unexpected visitors are terrifying. I need to NOT take it slowly and just do it….any suggestions?

  15. Toni says

    Kim, just do what Courtney suggests. Start small, just Start! I have also read on the minimalist website to begin in a corner of a room if you are overwhelmed. I just got a bunch of boxes & lawn bags and started to fill them up. in the living room, I just did one shelf per day. Then one junk drawer per day. You will be surprised at how wonderful you feel. Now I have so much space! Good luck.

  16. Gail says

    Since you are terrified of unexpected guests seeing your clutter, here’s my suggestion. Stand in the most public room, probably the living room, and look around. What is the most glaring mess? Is it piles on every flat surface? Start there. If you don’t have time right now to make decisions about where each and every item should go, then get a large box and place the things that need decisions into the box. Go through the box later when you have more time, or do the box little by little, 3 items tonight, 3 more tomorrow night. etc. This way, you’ll see an immediate improvement in your space that guests would see.You could even clean up every public room this way. Get several boxes, label one “guest bathroom”, another “dining room”, etc. Hide them in your garage or master bedroom temporarily, but don’t leave them be. You MUST go through them soon. This is a way to give you instant relief from the fear of anyone seeing your clutter.
    Hope I’ve helped.

    • Kim Goffard says

      YEs, thank-you! I got a lot done this weekend and am cleaning off my dresser as we “speak”…I did dump the living room toy bins into one bin and hid the big bin from our 11 year old…he hasn’t even noticed it’s missing yet!!!