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Speed Decluttering: How to Clean Out in a Heartbeat

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I’ve never tried speed dating, but I have a feeling I’d be good at it. I’m a gut-check person—instinctive, decisive—and if my understanding of the sport is correct those would be useful skills to have in speed dating. There’s no room for hemming or hawing or pondering possibilities when there’s a queue of eligible dates lined up! A quick "yes" or "no" is how it must go (and there will, no doubt, be more nos than yeses). The same is true in my invented game of speed decluttering.

Decluttered but not devoid of life. Photos by Erin Boyle

I’ll pause to say that I’m a decluttering true-believer: When I’m feeling frazzled or burnt out, I take to the linen closet. Pillow cases looking topsy-turvy? I’ll refold those suckers until they fit in a neat stack and actually feel myself breathing easier. Cheap thrills!


But—say you don’t have an afternoon to spend being at one with the linen closet. Say, you’re busy and frazzled and your problem isn’t a few rumply pillowcases, it’s a whole apartment in need of a once-over. You want in on the magic, but you’ve got a job to do and a family to feed—and where the hell would you start, anyway? We've all been there.

I think there’s a misconception that decluttering is an all or nothing proposition. To declutter a space doesn’t mean to divest it of everything you own! No one—or not many of us—wants to live in a sterile box. But there’s a long way to go between a room filled top to bottom with things you feel ambivalent about and a room filled with only what you love (and need). The problem isn’t the stuff that you love. It’s the stuff that you don’t.

I propose starting with twenty minutes to do away with some trash. As in speed dating, get rid of the garbage, then wonder about whether you’re ready for a longterm relationship. Here's how it works.

Photos by Erin Boyle

Start with your visible spaces, set a timer, and collect the garbage:

Really! Stand in the middle of the room and spend ten minutes identifying the things within view that are more trash than treasure. These might be things that are literally expendable: catalogs and junk mail and empty bottles (why?!). Trash might also be things that are already gone in the practical sense, but still lingering around: the scented candle you can’t stand, but that you’re holding onto because of a sense of obligation to be grateful. Or the out-of-date computer that you’ve been meaning to donate but haven’t bothered to look up who to give it to. Perhaps it’s the pair of wool socks that you got for Christmas. And you hate wool. Am I getting closer?

These are things that don’t belong in your space. For all intents and purposes they’re trash: valueless to you and in need of removal. At the end of ten minutes, you’ll easily have a pile of things.

Sort the trash and pack it up:

Make the one pile three: things to throw away, to recycle, and to give away. Spend another five minutes packing up your piles and making a plan for getting them out the door.

Yes, speed decluttering requires making quick decisions—but because you're dealing only with what's visible from the center of your room, it's likely your opinion of what's trash is already fully formed before you begin. Speed decluttering is really just about starting somewhere.

Now turn your attention back to your space. Twenty minutes down, piles of visible clutter removed, and the future looking a little brighter already—isn’t it?

What's your best way to tidy up in a flash? Let us know in the comments!

Tags: home, design, organize, clean