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How to Master the Art of Speed Decluttering

Tiny apartment-dweller Erin Boyle shares her strategy for gut-check cleaning.

January 20, 2016
Photo by Rocky Luten

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.

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 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 heck 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:

How to Speed Declutter

Start with your visible spaces, set a timer & round up the garbage

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 Or the out-of-date computer that you’ve been meaning to donate. 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 to toss or give away.

Decluttered, but not devoid of life. Photo by Erin Boyle

Sort the trash & pack it up

Turn that one big pile into three smaller ones: things to throw away, things to recycle, and things 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 is 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!
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Erin Boyle is the writer and photographer behind the lifestyle blog Reading My Tea Leaves and the new book, SIMPLE MATTERS. She’s a minimalist with a penchant for a good story and a soft spot for an aged patina. Her approach to living simply is one that acknowledges that life isn’t always simple, but the curtains can be.