The Great New Years’ Clean Out

All of us have too much stuff.  When we have too much stuff, it’s next to impossible to keep our houses neat and clean.  The difference is: some of us want a neat and clean house; some of us want stuff. 

After years of doing property management and dealing with tenants who have left behind stuff, junk, trash, dirt, and more stuff, I think I’ve grown more and more appalled by the hoarder mentality.  It’s amazing to me how people with no money to pay rent accumulate So. Much. Stuff.  And when they have to move, they suddenly realize all that stuff means nothing to them.  They have no way to move it and no place to put it and so they leave it behind for someone else to put in a dumpster.  And then they start over; accumulating stuff again.   

But it’s that sort of nonsense that encourages me to continually purge our house of stuff.  I don’t want so much stuff that I can’t find my stuff.  I don’t want so much stuff that I can’t take care of my stuff.  I don’t want so much stuff that my house looks like I’m in love with stuff.  I’m not a minimalist but I confess, I get a certain thrill when I pop my hatch at Goodwill and start unloading bags and boxes.  Occasionally, I even get so extreme as to not buy stuff because I know it will just be…more stuff. 

When I do bring home more stuff, I try to even it out by simplifying and decluttering enough to keep the equilibrium.  In fact, I always keep a give-away bin where I toss things ready to be banished to Goodwill.  I even try to do an extra purge before the holidays.  But Christmas always bring more stuff than I thought it would and New Years always brings with it this burst of motivation coupled with a tiny sliver of time in which I try to accomplish a weeks’ worth of cleaning and sorting in a single day all the while putting away Christmas decorations, writing thank you notes, grocery shopping, and now…watching kids.

But I still have this drive to lighten our stuff load in 2023.  So I’ve taken a few minutes to put my own twist on some of the best tips and tricks I’ve gleaned from the smart ladies who make the TV shows and YouTube videos. 

Generally, I think of starting my clean up by putting away the things that are out.  For example, I had gifts people have given the girls and me; bags from travel that needed to be unpacked; Christmas decorations, boxes, and wrapping that had accumulated while my bedroom was a staging area for Christmas; a few misc gifts that never been given; bills and mail that had piled up, plus a few days of “life stuff” that was out because in the general rush of things, our house had gotten a bit disheveled.

But I know I’ll get to those things.  So I started with making room for all the stuff floating loose around the house screaming to be put away.

The black bag, the brown box, and the clear tub

For me, it works best when I start by getting a black trash bag for stuff I am throwing away (it must be black so no one in the family can see it once it goes in!); then a box or two for stuff I am giving away (I recommend a box because some times it’s easier if you tell yourself you will store it for a week or two and if you miss anything in the meantime, you can take it back out).  And ideally, a plastic bin for things I come across I want to keep but need to go somewhere else (if I am constantly trying to run things where they belong, I get sidetracked and NEVER finish!).  I like a clear tub, but if you’re overrun with Amazon boxes and tubs are in short supply, don’t let that hold you up.

The 75% Rule

Here’s my suggestion: Make a list of your most crowded storage spaces (ie – clothes closet, linen closet, pantry, bathroom drawers, etc).  If you really want to stay organized, you have to keep the major storage junctions of your home (closets, drawers, cabinets, bookshelves and bins) at or under 75% capacity.  If they are full and running over, you can’t add anything to them and if you can’t add anything, you can’t clean up efficiently. 

Let the container be the bad guy.  You don’t need more space, you need less stuff.

If you have the luxury of time, you can tackle each one by taking everything out of that space and putting items back in one at a time–sorting as you go–so that in the end, you have a beautiful looking closet.  But unless you have a LOT of time to devote to one space, I don’t recommend you start that way.  Instead, tell yourself you need to reduce this storage space by 25%.  In my clothes closet for example, I glanced through and did some rough math and figured out about how many items I needed to get rid of in order to reduce by 25%.  I figured I needed to pull out at least 25 items of clothing…and it’s never as easy as I think it’s going to be.  Even though our many clothes choices overwhelm us, the thought of fewer choices scares us.  Go figure.

But because this is New Years, I tried to be especially ruthless…I stopped counting at 26 items and I definitely could tell a noticeable difference. 

Side note—if you get rid of a bunch of stuff in your closet, get rid of the hangers too!  I don’t keep more than a few extra hangers or else I’m just inviting new stuff.  Besides, it looks so much more spacious when you see the actual rod, not a mass of messy hangers.

If you have containers within your space (bins, baskets, boxes) and, as an aside, I highly recommend you do: the same rule applies.  They need to be kept at 75% of capacity.  I’ve found the most effective way of doing this is often to glance in, choose the things I most want to keep, hold my nose, and dump the rest in the trash.  This is especially effective for junk drawers and places where tons of little nothings collect!

The Bulging Hamper Principle

For spaces like a sock drawer, I start by asking myself, “how many pairs of socks do I really need?”  If the answer is 6 pair of athletic and 5 pair of black dress socks, I match up that many pairs and dump the rest in the give away box.  Keep in mind that you really don’t want to go more than a week without doing laundry anyway.  Who wants three weeks’ worth of stinky clothes piled in the hamper?  Yuk. 

The same principle applies, for example, for storage containers in the kitchen…how much rotting food do you want to keep in your refrigerator at any given time?  How many bottles do you want piled up in your sink?  How many mugs do you want to unload from the dishwasher?  How many pens and pencils do you want lying around the house?  How many towels do you need under the sink?  If there are four people in your family, you don’t need twenty mugs even if you do have plenty of cabinet space for them.  You don’t need more than two sets of sheets for any bed.  Truly.  You don’t. 

Fill up those give away boxes with vases and water bottles and don’t worry about who gave them to you!

The Timer

After setting a rough goal of how much to purge, I set a timer.  My theory was that this would help me budget my time.  For example, If I have 10 spaces on my list that needed to be cleaned out to get down to 75% capacity, I can realistically only spend 15-20 minutes for each one.  The good news is that if I have your bins ready to go and you can stay focused, this is plenty of time to make meaningful headway in most spaces.

The reality was, I started on my closet at 10:00 in the morning and set a timer for 20 minutes.  I finished up at about 7:00 pm.  That’s because this is real life…and because I took my time to make it look neat…and because I ended up with a mix of my closet, bedroom, bathroom, kids room, kitchen, and hall closet…and because that’s the way it works sometimes.

I had filled up two trash bags, four give away boxes, and one large plastic “put away” bin. 

The Conclusion

I was glad I had the trash bags as proof that I had made progress because it was a little discouraging that my house didn’t look significantly different than it had at 10:00 am.  But I also knew that I had done a lot of the hard work to declutter so the next phase of cleaning could be done much quicker and with longer lasting results. 

And it did…after the Great Clean Out it only took about two hours to clean up my house and unpack because everything has a space.  Well, almost everything.  There is always another frontier. But we made progress as evidenced by a very full Highlander ready to be driven to charity.

And you should have seen the grin on my heart when I popped my hatch and began to unload.  I’m loving 2023 already.