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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“Laura, the #15minwin is going to be my decluttering motto from here on. These are invaluable tips!!”
— Arati M.
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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

5 Comments

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.
 
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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.
 
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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!!