Minimalist Strategy: Don’t Organize Your Clutter

I used to be a big fan of organizational items. Although I wasn’t much of a shopper, a trip to The Container Store or Organized Living never failed to excite me.

The idea of corralling hundreds of loose bits and bobs into sleek, perfectly-matched containers had great appeal.  I truly thought that by putting all my stuff into various bins, I could maintain a sense of order in my life.

But while the containers made my house look shelter magazine-tidy, they didn’t bring me the serenity I’d hoped for. Even though everything was arranged neatly in pretty boxes (cloth-covered, wooden, wicker, plastic, etc.), it was still there.

In reality, all those lovely boxes, bins, and drawers served no higher purpose than to hide my junk. At some point I realized that I wasn’t organizing my life; I was organizing my clutter.

That’s when I changed strategies: I went from world-class organizer to world-class declutterer. Instead of arranging and containing things, I got rid of them. I decluttered on the weekends; I decluttered in the evening; I decluttered in the morning; I decluttered in my dreams (really!). When I wasn’t actually decluttering, I was thinking about what I could declutter next.  :-)

And it worked. As my house became emptier, I became happier. With the weight of my stuff lifted from my shoulders, I felt more spontaneous, energetic, and carefree.

The big payoff came when I was able to declutter the containers themselves. There’s something very satisfying about not needing any more storage! Even so, when we completed our ultimate decluttering to move to the UK (see My Minimalist Story, Part 2: The Great Unraveling), I’m embarrassed about how many containers we left on the curb. (Don’t worry, they didn’t go to a landfill; they were snapped up within minutes!)

My advice to anyone who feels they need to get organized: declutter first. If you have to, declutter for a year before you start buying fancy boxes and squirreling things away.

Then think long and hard before you put something into a container (especially if it’s not something you use regularly). Because once you give something a warm, cozy abode, it can be hard to get it to leave.

46 comments to Minimalist Strategy: Don’t Organize Your Clutter

  • Christine

    So, so true. Realizing that I needed to declutter, not organize “the stuff”, was life changing for me. I’ve moved twice in the last year and gotten rid of more than half of everything we owned and I’m still going! I can’t wait to reach our “just enough” …

  • This is a perfect post today. As I’m looking into the new year I have so many plans to continue to pare down my belongings. You are so right about putting things into nice cozy containers. That is exactly where I am in the downsizing of our lives. Since our home is small and we only have one closet I put the “extras” into neatly organized containers in the basement. You know what? I rarely use what is packed away. I have to admit that I get a certain amount of comfort knowing they are there. I don’t know why but I do. I really want to just have what I need. In the rooms that I’ve done this (all the rooms except my bedroom) I really love the feeling. I am inspired by your actions. I hope I have the fortitude to carry out my plans.


  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kym, Cheryl L. Perkins. Cheryl L. Perkins said: Org Info: Minimalist Strategy: Don't Organize Your Clutter « miss minimalist: In reality, all thos.. […]

  • Greg44

    I always tell my family “Organized Clutter – is STILL Clutter”. Declutter, Declutter and then by a storage container! Greg44

  • Great, dead on post. A couple of years ago I had folders and boxes and bins where I stored everything – for future reference and to Get Things Done :) But then I realized that I don’t need most of this junk anyway, so I got rid of it. I am happy to own less and I still want to keep selling and donating my stuff in 2010. I guess that’s the path that we all need to take – collect, organize, and finally declutter.

  • Ann

    I enjoyed this post and all the others I’ve read here on my first encounter with your blog. It’s wonderful to encounter kindred spirits! I remember fondly my many travel and living adventures overseas, when I lived as a minimalist. As I sit in my studio apartment in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m oddly comforted knowing that there are others who actively embrace a minimalist lifestyle. I just plain don’t like having to manage too much stuff. It weighs me down. I recently lost 20 pounds, which dramatically changed my wardrobe. I’ve been meaning to buy more clothes, but have found that I enjoy having a small wardrobe. I think that your blog and this little community are helping me to see that deep down, I’m quite a happy minimalist who’s been feeling pressure to be otherwise. But now I see that I really do enjoy living with less. It’s just so much easier!

  • Heather

    Great post and I completely agree!!! Whenever someone asks for the my help in organizing, I FIRST tell them to declutter BEFORE you go out and buy the cute bins and what nots. They are always amazed that they don’t have to spend money on cute hold it all items, they just needed a good decluttering session. Also, I tend to work with the space I have and bring nothing more in that won’t fit. For instance, we are renting a house that for some reason came without many closets. Instead of rushing out to buy storage items for bathroom needs (We lack an actual bathroom closet), I had some of those shelf organizer…they are metal and you can stack them in a cabinet and expand the space upward. This is in my kitchen, the last cabinet in the corner. Not traditional but I didn’t need to BUY anything else to organize. Think outside the box..the storage box that is!~!! : )

  • miss minimalist

    Christine, it sounds like you’re doing great! I’m convinced that moving is the most effective decluttering method… ;-)

    Thanks so much, Janet! Just take it one box at a time, and question the likelihood of your needing the items. (And if the need does arise in the future, would those items be that difficult and/or expensive to obtain?) I think you’re well on your way to a decluttered 2010!

    Right on, Greg44! There are too many books/ads/etc out there telling us to organize our stuff rather than get rid of it.

    Glad you liked the post, Andrew! I agree, it’s so liberating to realize you don’t *have to* save all this stuff…

    I appreciate the nice words, Ann; it’s great having you here. There’s so much societal pressure to buy MORE, that I love having a place where we can all celebrate having LESS!

    Heather, thanks for the great comment–that’s a wonderful example of using what you already HAVE to meet your needs (love it!).

  • Dave

    Clutter in bins is stil clutter. Don’t get me wrong some “organized clutter may be needed for family items or such. I can’t wait to the whole house is deluttered!

  • miss minimalist

    Very true, Dave; good luck with the decluttering! :-)

  • Yesterday’s earthquake was a perfect reminder of why we all need less clutter. When it gets shool up in an earthquake the last thing we want to worry about is getting out of the house swimming in debris and clutter!

  • Jess

    What would I do with my time if I wasn’t always moving stuff from one part of the house to another? I hope someday to find out.

    As a SAHM of two young children, I have realized that you can’t tidy your way to a calm and serene house. Tidying just shuffles things around (and they immediately get unshuffled again!) You MUST get rid of things you don’t need.

    I am now prioritizing decluttering and releasing above tidying. It’s harder, but each item I release is one I never have to put away again. And decluttering hidden areas like cupboards is at least as important as decluttering your visible piles. You are more likely to find unneeded items there, and when you are rid of them, voila! A place to put all of what’s left over. Bye bye visible piles!

    (Ideally, mostly, and your mileage may vary :-)

    • miss minimalist

      Way to go, Jess! You’re absolutely right — each item you release is one you’ll never have to put away again. Love that! :-)

  • Krista

    This is such good advice.
    I used to do that too… and now I’m at the stage of decluttering. I started systematically going through my room last weekend, and I’ve done it all week. Today I counted all my clothes and realized how much I have that I don’t wear.

  • Lorraine

    It’s amazing what an impact one sentence can have. After reading Ann’s post above, where she said, “I enjoy having a small wardrobe” I suddenly realized that all my life I’ve felt pressured to have lots of clothes, when in reality my real desire is to have a very small wardrobe – maybe 6 outfits in total, of comfortable, low-maintenance clothes I really like and feel good in. So this afternoon I ruthlessly dejunked my already fairly-sparse wardrobe, and got rid of piles of stuff. I’ve decided not to listen to the voices that tell me “all women love shoes!”, and “you need lots and lots of purses!” – what a lovely feeling of liberation and order! Thanks, Ann, for the post, and thanks for this wonderful site.

  • so, umm, thanks for this post! There’s this disconnect between my mind (which is all “hey – I agree, you can’t organize clutter…just get rid of it!) and my hands and feet (which are all, “I love containers, I can’t choose what to get rid of, let it all stay in boxes. they look all neat that way)….

    I need to get it together and declutter. Make it my thing. I’ve organized this clutter for too long now! I decluttered a closet and bedroom and ended up with an office nook half-filled with EMPTY containers. seriously. maybe getting rid of the empty containers will be an improvement. declutter. must write that down and keep it in mind.

  • Melissa

    I recently read somewhere that “organization is the cousin of clutter.” That’s when it hit me. I am organized and am known as an organized person to my friends and family, but in reality I spend way too much time dealing with stuff in order to organize it. I need to get rid of the excess and move on!

  • […] (Just a note: be sure to declutter, declutter, and declutter some more, before you put anything in a container–otherwise, you’re just organizing your clutter.) […]

  • […] Minimalist Strategy: Don’t Organize Your Clutter: I used to be a big fan of organizational items. Although I wasn’t much of a shopper, a trip to The Container Store or Organized Living never failed to excite me. The idea of corralling hundreds of loose bits and bobs into sleek, perfectly-matched containers had great appeal.  I truly thought that by putting all my stuff into various bins, I could maintain a sense of order in my life…{read more} […]

  • Diane M

    As I have fallen in the past of buying container after container, I now realize the beauty of free space and owning less. Years ago I walked into a friend’s closet and she had just a few items of clothing. All these years, I couldn’t figure why. She had plenty of money to buy whatever she wanted, but I see now that it was a conscious choice. I now get it and am working my way to more freedom!

    Your book was just delivered to my door today from Amazon and I’m anxious to start reading!

  • miss minimalist

    Lorraine, Sunny, and Melissa – thanks for the great comments, and happy decluttering! :)

  • Caroline

    Since changing my organizing ways I’ve started to kinda hate Ikea and the Container Store…

  • […] In the last couple of weeks, I’ve continued to work on my organizing list for the first 12 weeks, but I shifted my focus to doing some more serious purging first. I started realizing that organizing stuff I didn’t even want was a waste of my time, energy and limited space. This ties in perfectly with Laura’s topic this week on OrgJunkie: Purge Until It Fits. I also read another inspiring post a friend sent me called Don’t Organize Your Clutter. […]

  • What a great post and so true! I have been having a passionate affair with decluttering while getting ready to move :-)

  • […] Minimalist Strategy: Don’t Organize Your Clutter ~ @ Miss Minimalist […]

  • You are so right. Many of us have spent years trying to organize our clutter only to find it was over-running us everywhere. Clutter has to GO! Thanks for the great reminder.

  • George

    I’ve dozens of bookson organizing, considered hiring professonals and purchased all kinds of shelves, systems, crates, boxes and files.

    All to little avail. After thirteen years of trying to organize and occasionally getting rid of a few, or even several boxes of old files and magazines, my floors and every horizontal surface are covered with STUFF. Now, of course I either cannot find what I need or have to searc for hours or days, in many cases.

    The saddest part of all is that I am retired and my clutter has to be faced every day and all day. When I read this little article, I realized why my current efforts to get back control are not going well.

    Finally, I also found why my recent vacations have been to remote parts of the earth and on long small ship cruises where it was possible to go up on deck and see nothing but the ocean and sky. What a relief that was. Now, I must finish because the house is going up for sale.

  • I love de-cluttering and just came across your post today after interviewing a professional organizer.

  • Peggy

    This is EXACTLY what I do! I am changing my life by following your advice. Getting RID of the clutter. Thank you!

  • I really appreciate your post! I read it last night and was inspired to just purge “stuff” that was taking up space. What a difference! I feel–lighter! :) Thank you so much!

  • Ses

    I have indeed been de-cluttering for a year now. To celebrate I’m off to Ikea to buy a small chest of drawers to keep my (much reduced) knitting yarn in. (And the yarn stash will be limited to the drawers too.)

  • Marijke

    I recognize myself very well in this story :)

  • T

    When we rid ourselves of enough possessions, we were left with three enormous plastic storage containers. They weren’t your “normal” size either; they were unbelievably big and I wondered what we were thinking when we bought them a decade ago! It was relieving to get rid of those giant containers and know nothing would fill them again! Now we are onto other areas of the house – and of course, it’s a continual process.

  • bemusedfox

    Thank you!!!!
    I have always LOATHED storage containers (and closets (they just accumulate crap!!!)). I would be happy to nevev see another storage container in my life!!!

  • Tina

    I was recently offered some beautiful pieces of china which I love. I have gotten rid of 1 item of my stuff for each item of china I’ve taken in. 5 books, a jacket, some underwear, and some other china has lost its happy home. I will take in more when I give away some glassware I’ve lost interest in.
    There is more to lose. I can’t say I’m a minimalist if my numbers are increasing.

  • Tina

    I started doing jigsaw puzzles which I get second-hand. I do each one twice, then give them away. I realized I don’t make many craft projects any more so I ‘ve given away more craft supplies. I found 2 empty drawers this way. I have more things to pass on and even my husband has started sorting through his wardrobe which is much bigger than mine. We don’t use paper towels, just rags so that eliminates a lot of clutter.

  • Tina

    Since I wrote the above, I have given Goodwill a big bag every week. We also send a stack of books and magazines to the library each week. Craft items have gone to the local park district. My goal is to eliminate 1 bookcase and one dresser if possible.I still have to go through all my painting supplies.

  • Tina

    Just filled a big bag with clothes for Goodwill. There are more clothes I am considering for the giveaway bag. I have 4 sweatshirts. There is one with a hood that I don’t wear very often. There are also some sweaters that have seen better days. I can do a load of wash most any time so 3 sweatshirts and 3 cardigan sweaters and 3 long sleeve shirts should be plenty. I also have 4 T shirts to wear under things for extra warmth. I have 2 pairs of nice jeans, 2 pairs of dressy slacks and my painting jeans if I need to wear them.

  • Mona

    You actually hit the nail on the head . Now I will start ruthlessly de cluttering and remember that quote every time ! “Don’t organise your clutter .Thank you :))

  • Faith Finkes

    My home feels larger, brighter, and more airy. I have time to do things with my family. I have four bags of stuff for the Vietnam Vets to pick up in 2 days. Some things are still difficult to part with but I don’t miss what’s already gone. A work in progress.

  • I was given a set of dishes large enough for 16 people. I have been giving them away to the local museum for lunches and teas, and some to Goodwill. When I am down to what I need, I will stop.

  • Tina

    We give a bag to Goodwill almost every week. I also have a big bag of linens for the cats’ Dr. I am down to half a bag of garbage a month and if I could find a use for dirty cat litter I would have even less. Between reusing, composting, recycling, and not buying we are doing pretty well. I wear very old clothes unless it really is a dressy occasion. My good shoes are 15 years old.

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