Home Decor

9 Decluttering Secrets From Small-Space Homeowners

Thinking about tidying up while you’re staying home? Here’s what I learned from writing a book on living small.

April  1, 2020
Photo by Weston Wells from 'The Little Book of Living Small'

Now more than ever, home is where many of us are seeking refuge and solace in light of the novel coronavirus. This is a tough time, but we’re here for you—whether it’s a new pantry recipe or a useful tip for your kitchen, here are some ideas to make things run a little more smoothly for you and your loved ones.


Last year, I got to see firsthand how about a dozen of the most creative homeowners were making their spaces work when I photographed their homes for my book The Little Book of Living Small. I’m thinking about all of those people now, as we all hunker down to keep our distance and hopefully prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. Living in small spaces calls for creative solutions every day, but especially so when you’re spending a lot of time at home—not to mention when kids are involved!

My first two tasks when my family started our isolation was to write a big list of meals to cook (I’m finally getting a chance to make recipes from Joe Yonan’s Cool Beans) and another of all the activities we could do with my son while his school is closed.

Next up? I started a list of all the home projects I’d been meaning to tackle that could be done without a trip to the hardware store. In the coming weeks I’ll be sorting through outgrown clothes and toys; organizing our bookshelves and making a “to donate” pile; and generally giving my home the love I don’t always have the time to give it.

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“I live in 600 square foot home and there is very little storage . So it is the day to day things like the mop bucket the mop and pet supplies and the blobb also known as mail and receipts I have problems with. I have one storage idea to pass on. If you have old drawers or find furniture that is not so great with drawers . You can get small caster wheels on Amazon to put on drawers for more storage under a bed or anywhere they might fit. ”
— Dee
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During these strange days, I’ve decided tidying and decluttering are a form of self-care: I may not be able to control the world outside our doors, but I can contain the chaos of my family’s belongings.

The fastest, easiest way to make your home feel more spacious is to declutter, and you can do it without buying anything from the store, so it’s a great task to tackle right now. However, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, don’t drop off your donations now (but do donate funds to these nonprofits, especially those like the Salvation Army that provide shelter and disaster services: they need our support now more than ever). You should be limiting your trips to public places. You should also wait at least two weeks to make sure that no one in your family is sick and that your donations are free from any possible traces of the virus. Plus, the nonprofits that accept used goods might be overwhelmed with fewer workers available. So instead, designate a specific place for your “to donate” (and “to toss”) items that are out of the way.

Here are some of the decluttering tips that I'm putting into motion, gleaned from the small-space dwellers I met:

1. Start with just 15 focused minutes

Professional organizer Shira Gill has long used the classic Pomodoro Technique with her clients; to do it, you set a timer for 25 minutes to do focused work, then break for 5 minutes. But when she applied it to decluttering she found that many tasks only took 15 minutes, so she coined it the #15minwin. You spend 15 minutes going through a drawer, a shelf, or a room looking for items to recycle, donate, and throw away, as well as items to be returned to their proper places. Don’t do anything else (check your phone, get a snack, etc.) while the timer is running. In a small room, 15 minutes might be all you need to make a big impact.

2. Create a prescribed place for transitional objects

Professional organizer Shira Gill uses an 'inbox' and 'outbox' for transitional items Photo by Weston Wells

Another tip I stole from Shira? The inbox and outbox—but not for paperwork. Shira has a large basket that she keeps near her front door that acts as an “inbox” and a drawer below it is the “outbox.” These are repositories for incoming and outgoing items like library books, Tupperware to return to her mother-in-law, and packages. I’ve found this game-changing in my own small entryway.

3. Use photos to see your clutter

Shavonda Gardner, a designer and blogger in Sacramento California found that taking photographs of her home for her blog and Instagram has helped her see her home more clearly. I’m not going to tell you to start a home blog, but you can take photos of your home to gain a fresh perspective on where clutter lurks. Don't believe me? Snap some photos of your home and you may be surprised at how untidy it really looks.

4. Ask yourself, “What do I need?”

Pare it down to the basics. Photo by Weston Wells

For designer Jacqueline Schmidt the key that unlocked her ability to declutter and downsize from a 1,200-square-foot loft to a 675-square-foot two bedroom (with two kids!) came from a passage in a Terence Conran book that asked: "What would be left if you were to take everything out of your home, put it on your lawn, and only bring in what you needed?" Thinking about necessity got Jacqueline to assess why she needed so much space—and so much stuff.

5. Carve out specific homes for everything

I once heard a professional organizer define clutter as anything that has no designated home—and it’s true, especially in smaller spaces where every inch is valuable. Part of the reason the homes we photographed look so clutter-free is because the homeowners took the time to find and commit to storage spaces.

6. Simplify your home media

Simplified media, fewer wires, less clutter. Photo by Weston Wells

Many of the homeowners whose homes we photographed had decluttered their video and music setups. This was something I’d never thought of until I worked on my book! Almost no one had a television and most homes had a tiny but powerful wireless speaker—very often, it was the Sonos One. Getting rid of all those devices, wires, and the furniture that holds them can be a huge win for a small space.

7. My magic bullet of decluttering motivation

My personal de-owning tactic is to use the snowball method: You get rid of one thing on Day One, two things on Day Two, three things on Day Three, and so on for a month. But the way to make this extra effective is to get a decluttering buddy to do it with you. Text each other pictures of what you’re throwing away or donating each day. (It’ll also be a quirky way to stay in touch with a friend you can’t see in-person.) You might think you don’t have that many things to get rid of in a small space, but trust me, you can find things, like why was I hoarding more than 50 pens and pencils in my tiny desk drawer?

8. Declutter on the daily

A daily decluttering schedule keeps a kitchen from getting overwhelmed. Photo by Weston Wells

Hard truth: No matter how vigilant you are about keeping clutter out of your life, it has a sneaky way of returning. Magazines pile up, socks go missing, pens migrate home from unknown places. If you do a sweep each night and put things back in their places, you’ll be able to home in on new clutter and keep the pileup at bay.

9. Just say no to freebies

This is where even avowed minimalists can get into trouble. When something is free, it is so hard to pass it up. Of course, in the current 'shelter in place' environment, this is less of a problem. But in general, those extra things that we don't really need are exactly the things that clutter up homes, especially small ones. If you must bring something home, make a rule to strive for “one in, one out.” New free water bottle? An old one gets donated. In a small space, you can’t hang on to stuff “just in case” you need it one day.

Photography by Weston Wells from The Little Book of Living Small by Laura Fenton. Reprinted by permission of Gibbs Smith.

What is your favorite decluttering or tidying-up strategy? Tell us in the comments below!


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Laura Fenton

Written by: Laura Fenton

Laura Fenton is the No Space Too Small columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton.

14 Comments

virginia August 12, 2021
Love this! You're inspiring me.... And I need it!
 
Deb H. December 7, 2020
My favorite hint for keeping a clutter-free home and life--"don't put it down, put it away." The coat you toss on the chair and just have to hang up later? hang it up when you get home, and you don't have to touch it (or think about it) again, or at least till you need to wear it. Our home isn't the most spotless on Earth (yeah, I need to mop the kitchen floor tomorrow morning to get rid of the evidence that yours truly wasn't very careful while moving a carton of eggnog to get to the eggs while making sourdough pumpkin bread for Sunday breakfast yesterday. Sploosh! It's amazing what a sticky, nasty mess even a little bit of eggnog can make. Or maybe, not so amazing...), but a non-cluttered but not always spotless interior will always beat one that is dusted, mopped, vacuumed, but still cluttered with lots of unnecessary stuff.
 
Molly M. July 30, 2020
Throw it out!
 
Cindy H. July 30, 2020
My situation is a bit different than the most people's.
I am disabled with a very rare Neuro disease. I am always exhausted and I'm getting "Frontal Temoral Lobe Dementia". I am rapidly losing my oranizational skills, developing ADHD among other symptoms.
I am expiermenting on myself. Trying a form of "muscle memory"- for my brain.
I am playing the music I used to listen to, while cleaning house and keeping things organized. I hope the music will "remind" my brain (and body), how I used to clean and organize when I had a very busy life. It does seem to help my focus but it's too early to say it works.
I also have flat bins, one labled for each room. Kitchen, bedroom, bath, etc. They are actually dollar store cat litter boxes, big enough for a coat and they stack.) As I clean a room, I use them like restraunts bus tables. Things that belong in other rooms, go in the bin for that room.
When I get to a room, I put away the contents in the bin for that room, before I start cleaning.
I also changed where I started weekly cleaning. I found as this disease progressed I was running out of energy before I had finished. The last room was not as clean. Now one week I start at the living room, the next cleaning day, I start in the master bedroom, before I run out of energy.
I keep reinventing and adapting.
I especially hope these ideas are useful for disabled readers.
 
Author Comment
Laura F. July 30, 2020
Thank you for your ideas, Cindy! Rotating which room you start cleaning in is a smart idea for anyone. Wishing you strength!
 
C F. October 17, 2020
Cindy, Really love the "change the room you start cleaning in!"

Have mobility issues myself, as well as chronic fatigue, so I'm definitely using this tip.

And, just in general -- if you want to know how to "work smarter, not harder" ask someone with a disability, we're always re-evaluating how to do things to make them easier on us but with still achieving the results we want.
 
Monica G. July 24, 2020
I love these ideas and will try to implement what I can, but it’s really difficult when you’re married to a borderline hoarder. I have come to the sad conclusion that the only way I can live in a clutter free home is to be either widowed or divorced. The best I can hope for is to keep it from getting too out of control.
 
Author Comment
Laura F. July 30, 2020
One of my friends struggles with a hoarder-y spouse, and her solution has been to give him an ample amount of closed/concealed storage and to place strict rules on the shared/public living spaces. And if you get really desperate: My father-in-law's wife used to outright lie and say she'd put his things in their "offsite storage."
 
Anne June 24, 2020
Another retiree who downsized from an 1800 sf home to a 575 sf apartment: while we had many lovely things - both furniture and decorative arts - it became clear that we couldn’t bring everything. The technique that helped me was to decide what items / sizes of furniture I needed to furnish the apartment (# small tables, dining table, couch, single chairs, chests that had storage, etc.). By identifying what items were needed to furnish living/dining room and bedroom and THEN looking at what we already owned, it became easier to identify what items were crucial and which ones were “tertiary.” Furniture that could do “double-duty” got higher priority. After that, small items were parsed by which items we truly loved vs items that were simply “nice.” Needless to say, we had many items to dispose of, and used four vehicles: high level auction, lower level auction (slightly above flea market), online auction, and donations to community groups assisting people in need. Took us 6 weeks, from start to finish, to pare down and move - a process both eye-opening and freeing!
 
OldGrayMare April 14, 2020
Moving from a 3500 sf house to a 1360 sf condo was an experience! Liberating, but still an eye opener. Our kitchen is small so almost everything does double duty. We are retired, so no need for an Instant Pot...the all day crockpot is just fine. One small skillet nestles into a larger one, into a still larger one. Only one dutch oven, one 9x12 baking pan, one large sheetpan...you get my drift.
 
Author Comment
Laura F. April 15, 2020
Yes, that's the spirit! When we moved into an apartment with a smaller kitchen I did a real pruning of our cooking stuff and kept only the hardworking things. I also borrow things I don't have like special cake pans and the like!
 
Dee April 2, 2020
I live in 600 square foot home and there is very little storage . So it is the day to day things like the mop bucket the mop and pet supplies and the blobb also known as mail and receipts I have problems with. I have one storage idea to pass on. If you have old drawers or find furniture that is not so great with drawers . You can get small caster wheels on Amazon to put on drawers for more storage under a bed or anywhere they might fit.
 
Author Comment
Laura F. April 3, 2020
Dee, I love this tip! Self-adhesive felt pads also work for drawers, if adding casters feels too big a DIY. One way we've tackled the quotidien things like mops and buckets is to invest in ones that we don't mind looking at every day. And mail! This is a constant battle in every home. Beyond keeping it under control with a dedicated home and actively recycling things the minute you receive them, I am a big proponent of unsubscribing from mailing lists: I am constantly calling catalog companies, non-profits, and the like to ask to be taken off their lists. DMAchoice.thedma.org and Optoutprescreen.com can make a huge difference in the volume you receive.
 
Arati M. April 1, 2020
Laura, the #15minwin is going to be my decluttering motto from here on. These are invaluable tips!!