Your Most Common Decluttering Dilemmas, Tackled by a Pro

Shira Gill’s new book ‘Minimalista’ is full of thoughtful (and surprising!) ways to think about decluttering and organization.

October 30, 2021
Photo by Vivian Johnson

The title of professional organizer Shira Gill’s new book Minimalista: Your Step-by-Step Guide to a Better Home, Wardrobe, and Life might have you thinking of all-white spaces and capsule wardrobes of just 25 items of clothing (I know that’s what I used to think when I heard the word “minimalist”). However Shira’s brand of minimalism is different: It makes room for all types of aesthetics and styles, kids, spouses, pets, and in Gill’s own case, a weakness for vintage jeans.

In the introduction to Minimalista Gill writes, “To me minimalism doesn’t refer to the lack or absence of something. It’s about having the perfect amount. Just enough without the excess. More specifically, I mean the exact right number of something for you. You might love hats. No problem. One hat is the perfect number of hats for me. For you, it could be ten. It could be fifteen. It’s probably not one hundred. I preach a philosophy of minimalism that confronts excess—not one that deprives you of the things you actually enjoy. In the end, whatever the number, you’ll be left with only the hats you truly love, they’ll be displayed nicely, and you’ll always be able to find them.”

In Minimalista, Gill explores this idea of “just enough without the excess” in depth (don’t be surprised if it gets you thinking about excess in other areas of your life too!). What sets Gill’s book apart from other organizing books is that her method encourages people to tackle their homes bit by bit—not in some once-in-a-lifetime purging that inspires tears. Gill walks you through her steps of clarifying, editing, organizing, elevating (aka styling), and finally maintaining. In the pages of Minimalista you’ll find loads of practical advice for decluttering and organizing every room of your home. We zeroed in on six of the most common organizing struggles and Gill’s strategies for tackling them:

My clutter is overwhelming: Where do I even start?

Gill says to start with something small: A sock drawer or your desktop. Many organizing books and shows would have you believe that decluttering needs to happen as grand gestures, but Gill takes a micro approach. “Organizing your home is really just a series of small decisions and micro actions,” she writes. “Lots of little decisions will stack up to create big, fat transformative results. And if you’re feeling resistance or even inertia, just challenge yourself to dive in for just 15 minutes and see what you can do.” Gill has even launched a #15minwin challenge on Instagram and says, “You’ll be blown away by what you can create fifteen minutes at a time.”

How do I get my partner or family members on board with decluttering?

“If your partner is resistant to decluttering and organizing, it may be that they’re busy and it’s not at the top of their priority list,” says Gill, who notes that every person has their own tolerance level for clutter. Instead of focusing on the things that aren’t working, take time to identify a shared vision of your home that you can work towards together.

You should also lead by example and tackle your own belongings first. (Gill tackled all of her own possessions before approaching her spouse). When she wanted her husband to declutter his books, she got him to tackle the task by (literally) sweetening the deal. “I made him an irresistible offer: I told him all he had to do was give me thirty minutes of his time to play 'Keep or Donate?' I removed the books from the shelf, set up donation boxes, and put out some saltwater taffy (I know my guy). When he was done making his selections, I donated the books to our local library and styled our bookshelves with the ones that remained.”

What do I do with the ‘maybe’ pile when I’m decluttering?

Gill says that her clients often feel stumped during the editing process, and ask, “Can this be a ‘maybe’?” or “Can I put this in the basement and decide later?” Gill says to banish the “maybe” pile. “‘Maybe’ just prolongs the inevitable and doesn’t serve you. Living in any kind of mental limbo is exhausting, even if it’s just over a T-shirt or a mug from college,” she says. Instead, if you find yourself undecided, “just keep [it] and move on with your life. If you feel ready to let go of it in a week or a month or a year, you can easily toss it in your donation bag, but for now don’t waste another minute worrying about regret.”

How do I deal with the paper pile-up?

Gill says your new mantra should be, “There will be no more random piles of paper strewn all over my home!” Her solution to the piles? A single vessel to collect mail, action items, and school forms. “In my home, we use one oversized basket that sits on our entry table. A tray, bin, basket, or wall-mounted pocket can all serve as perfect vessels for mail and papers. If you prefer, you can set up an inbox for each member of your family,” says Gill. “Just make sure to consistently put all mail, bills, invitations, and other papers that need to be dealt with in this ONE place and review them at least once a week. This is one of the single most impactful things you can do to feel more in control and on top of your life.”

The author, Shira Gill. Photo by Vivian Johnson

OMG, decluttering feels like it never ends.

Give yourself a literal deadline for your donations. “Putting a date on the calendar to get it all out is powerfully motivating,” says Gill. “I’ve had more than a few well-intentioned clients who’ve ended up storing bags of items by the front door for years, waiting to find the perfect or most sustainable recipient for their unwanted items. Let this be a cautionary tale.” Another tip to help you finish: Gill says it will be easier to let go of sentimental items, clothing, household items, and the like if you identify a charity in advance that can benefit from your editing efforts.

Help! I’m having trouble deciding which items to keep in a category.

Your problem might be that none of them are keepers. Gill shares a personal story that might sound familiar, “I had five pairs of sunglasses... and none of them was great. All of them had been purchased spontaneously or had come to me by chance: a pair I bought in Tokyo for $20 because I forgot to pack sunglasses, another I bought at a gas station. My brother, Max, who always invests in the best, asked me, ‘Why don’t you follow your own advice and get one really good, high-quality pair and ditch the rest?’ Of course, he was right. I invested in a beautiful pair that now lives in my everyday handbag, so I always know just where to find them. I dubbed this simple hack the 'Rule of One,' and it has been a game changer.”

Gill says, you can apply this Rule of One to just about anything. “What if you owned only ONE functional and stylish pair of sunglasses? ONE high-quality umbrella? ONE well-constructed wallet or piece of luggage? Consider how you can apply the “Rule of One” to your own home and life. How can the less-but-better principle improve your relationship with your stuff?”

What problems do you run up against when decluttering and organizing? Tell us in the comments below!

Adapted from MINIMALISTA by Shira Gill. Copyright © 2021 by Shira Gill. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Photographs copyright © 2021 by Vivian Johnson.
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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 or subscribe to her newsletter Living Small.


Kim J. November 7, 2021
I think my biggest decluttering issue is that there are 5 of us in the household, the youngest are teens, so even a small or moderate amount per person adds up—even 3 coats each (light, heavy, and rain) is 15 coats. One umbrella each is 5 umbrellas... We don’t have a hall closet or much storage at all. My oldest doesn’t even have a bedroom closet.
The paper clutter is always a problem, probably the biggest. We have cubbies that are supposed to be for managing paper clutter, but my husband took over all but one to store old taxes. He’s out of town and I’m going to take this opportunity to find somewhere else for our old taxes—they certainly don’t need to be in the kitchen!
Lazyretirementgirl November 7, 2021
Another plus with “buy one high quality” for me is, if I spent a buncha money on that umbrella, pair of sunglasses, etc. I take care of it, and it’s rare to lose or break it.
Janice November 7, 2021
I’m always trying to declutter more. It’s an on going process. The 15 minute micro approach is great. My best advice for folks stuck in limbo over that possession that holds a memory, snap a picture of it. Keep the picture, donate the item. Also, remembering that your donations may be very well used and appreciated by someone who cannot afford new always helps me let things go.
GodLevelSchnitzel October 30, 2021
So … a must in getting rid of paper mail clutter. I signed up for to stop some major catalogs, to stop credit offers (free) and for everything else. Physical inbox zero!