decluttering resolutions for a new year.

January 5, 2016

decluttering resolutions for a new year | reading my tea leavesIn a tiny apartment or otherwise, let’s all agree that the excess of the holiday season followed by the promise of a new year creates perhaps the perfect incentive for paring down, reevaluating our homes, and kicking bad habits to the curb. Clear out the pine needles, sure, but then I say, take a look at the other things that have also fluttered into your space in the last year and decide whether they’re deserving of the space they’re taking up.

Decluttering, a term that I’m fairly certain my grandmother would ask for a definition of, is all the rage; thank goodness and no surprise. Faced with a near endless opportunity to fill our homes with ever more, there’s been a shift in the zeitgeist and people are beginning to yearn for less. 

For me, true decluttering doesn’t mean finding new spaces to store old things; it means giving all of your spaces—visible and hidden—a bit of breathing room free from anything at all.

I have a chapter devoted to the subject in Simple Matters, but since we’ve got a few days yet ’til that makes its debut, here are four quick  resolutions for embracing right away:decluttering resolutions for a new year | reading my tea leaves

1. Use up what you have.

Doesn’t matter if it’s peanut butter in the jar, shampoo in a bottle, milk in a jug, notecards in a desk drawer, or pens in your pocketbook, use up what you have before buying anything new. One of the biggest sources of clutter that I notice in people’s homes comes from an impulse to stockpile. It stems from an urge to buy something—anything—new, or forgetfulness about what we already have, or reluctance to rustle up what we’ve stashed into hiding, but whether it’s undrunk tea or unworn sweaters, or duplicate moisturizers, I’ve got a hunch that making a commitment to use what we already have before adding anything new to the mix could be the biggest game changer in the quest for a clutter-free home. I’m embracing this with particular gusto this year. Hunk of beeswax waiting to be made into candles? Melted and poured. Notecards not yet sent? Written and mailed. Sea salt hair mist in the cabinet? Used with enthusiasm every morning.

Where to start? Your bathroom. Finish the last drop of your shampoo, use your soap until the last sliver slips down the drain, resist the urge to buy the new face mask until you’ve used the one you already heave. If there’s something lurking in the cabinet that’s so heinous that you can’t use it up. Let it go. As I write in my book, it’s gone already. Once everything is finished, start fresh. Buy things one at a time. If you’re like me, it will mean reveling in the newness when you need to restock and enjoying a clutter-free bathroom (fridge, cabinet, stationery drawer, etc.) the rest of the time.

decluttering resolutions for a new year | reading my tea leaves

2. Clear your surfaces.

It’s the clutter, perhaps, that comes to mind when you think of the term: The trinkets and baubles and tchotchkes that can make a space feel cramped and crowded when allowed to run roughshod over otherwise smooth dresser tops and counters and kitchen tables.

Where to start? Your bedroom. Take every solitary thing off your dresser (or desk or night table). When you’ve got the pile in front of you, decide what you want to put back in those places. Chances are it won’t be the pile of mail or the spare car keys or the coffee cup you came home with on your morning walk with the dog. Only put back what you really want to look at all the time. Then decide whether what’s left is worth making a space for elsewhere, or whether it’s time to send it on out, never to return.

decluttering resolutions for a new year | reading my tea leaves

3. Throw away your trash.

Or recycle it. Or donate it. The point is that many of us keep things in our homes that we were never meant to hang onto in the first place: junk mail and packaging and freebies that are better left behind. I’ll have more to say on the subject later in the week, but these things create visual clutter and take up precious real estate.

Where to start? With five minutes. Take five minutes to scan a room. Gather anything visible that you see that looks like trash: cereal boxes left out on the counter, catalogs that came in yesterday’s mail, advertising stickers still stuck on your stereo, receipts and warranties and brochures left lingering. Make three piles: one for things that can be immediately recycled, one for things that could be decanted or unpacked or otherwise made to feel more like a part of your home and less like a part of the corner store, and one for things that need to be dealt with. Then deal. Not tomorrow, today. We’ve taken to hanging a large clip on the wall next to our door. We use it as a place to leave each other notes, hang up out-going mail, or pin up things that need to be dealt with before they spiral out of control. The relatively small size keeps us from creating an ever-growing pile, and the visual reminder near the door means we’re more likely to take care of what we put there.

decluttering resolutions for a new year | reading my tea leaves

4. Pick and choose.

I understand that not everyone is in the mood or mindset for a wholesale rejection of material goods. No need to strip the place bare, I suppose. But if you’re finding yourself overwhelmed in your space—or not enjoying what you have—try, at least, to pack some things away for awhile. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from living in even very tiny spaces, it’s that there’s almost always a place to stash something. So if the pile of books on your nightstand is making you feel crazy, but you find that you’re unable to part with any for good, pile up the ones you’re not reading and tuck them into a place for safe-keeping. 

Where to start? Seasonally. I have a collection of small books—poetry and essays mostly—that I realized I was keeping tucked into the crate I use for my nightstand, but never really reading. This fall, I decided I’d leave just one book out at a time—I replaced David Sedaris’s Holidays on Ice with Oliver Sack’s Gratitude for January and that will be swapped out for Pablo Neruda’s Love Poems in February, and so on and so forth. This doesn’t just work for books. I have a small collection of antique glass bottles that I love, but I’d feel claustrophobic if I left them displayed all the time. Instead, I bring them in and out of rotation depending on the particular twig or flower stem I’m in the spirit to display. 

What about you guys? On a decluttering kick or very much pleased with your clutter thankyouverymuch?

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  • Reply Abby January 5, 2016 at 8:51 am

    Decluttering makes me giddy! This post is great inspiration, as always, for a tidy, simple life. Really looking forward to your book!

  • Reply Emily January 5, 2016 at 9:16 am

    You found a rug! Can I ask where you found it?

  • Reply lowolf January 5, 2016 at 9:43 am

    i would like to see some sample notes please. ; )

  • Reply Alex January 5, 2016 at 9:49 am

    thank you for the advice! ever since my husband and i moved into our studio, we’ve been noticing clutter more and more, and it’s high time for us to declutter. anxiously awaiting your book!

  • Reply stephanie January 5, 2016 at 10:04 am

    I lived with very few things for a long time, and for a long time, I felt that was what I should aspire to. Now, though, I am looking forward to having a bit more clutter in my life. Having fewer things put too much pressure on whatever I bought or made. There wasn’t room for process or mistakes or serendipity. While I appreciated a clean surface and tidy drawers, I needed more freedom to keep the random object that eventually was just right for a project; the magazine with my notes underlined or pages torn out, books read and half-read at hand so I can find an illustration or a quote … years later. Just moving into a slightly bigger space has had a transformative impact on my work. For the first time in a long time, I am making things again. I still feel guilty for having more than I (technically) need, but more is the way that works for me.

    Have you ever talked with any artists or writers on how they balance a minimal approach to what they need to feed their work? So many times, I’ve found the random thing I’ve kept circles back around and gets used eventually. Creativity can be messy …

    • Reply Erin Boyle January 5, 2016 at 11:06 am

      I think, of course, that some of this comes down to personal preference. For me,the very definition of clutter is things that *don’t* inspire: Things that clog up a creative space, rather than enhance it. Mine isn’t a compulsion to live without anything at all that might be useful, but make sure that what I keep around is doing good work. As with anything, I don’t think there’s a need to jump off the deep end, here. One can find inspiration from a clean, minimal approach but still have a messy box full of art supplies (as I do) to dig into when the time is right. It would be wonderful to talk to a variety of creatives on how their space—and stuff—impacts their process (food for thought). For me, the distraction I feel from a cluttered work space hinders my creative process. I’d be fascinated to hear from others!

      • Reply Paula January 6, 2016 at 8:07 pm

        It can work to have bare, minimal spaces (bedroom, living room) and ones filled with inspiration and (good) clutter. It’s a little trickier if you’re in a studio apartment. I like to be able to sit and look at a serene blank space at times. I think some artists find the right kind of visuals stimulating. I agree with Erin, you can contain the bits and bobs.

    • Reply Kim January 8, 2016 at 8:54 am

      Yes it’s a monkey on my back clutter… What if I might need these…the saver.. The artist studio is a busy mind… Now that garbage… Wonder what that says about us…

  • Reply Ris January 5, 2016 at 10:15 am

    Such good advice, all of it. Can’t wait for the book!

  • Reply Loribeth January 5, 2016 at 10:55 am

    I can’t wait for the book to come in the mail! Love the tips and I know my husband will love reading the book with me. He’s the minimalist between the two of us.

  • Reply Christine January 5, 2016 at 10:57 am

    I’m super on board with all of these, but one thing I need to do: TAKE BATHS. I have a bunch of nice bath salts and bubble baths that I always pick up from luxury hotels (where I always try to take baths!) but then I never take them at home. You’ve inspired me to have an at-home spa day this weekend to start using them up!

  • Reply Kari January 5, 2016 at 11:01 am

    Decluttering is my favourite thing to do. Best stress banisher ever. And there is always clutter to get rid of, with a family of four.

  • Reply Mary Kate January 5, 2016 at 12:39 pm

    All good tips, but my favorite is the “finish what you have”. I’ve worked at a cosmetics company for years, so as you can imagine I’ve amassed quite a collection of perfumes and body lotions, etc., all for free. Moving this past year made me realize how MANY of those things I actually have, and my resolution is not to buy a single new cosmetic item–even perfume, which is my weakness–until I finish some of this stuff up. This morning I completely finished a jar of body lotion and it was SO satisfying throwing that jar in the recycling bin and grab a new one from my now-shrinking bin of them!

    Also, you’ve inspired me to try some of the DIY face and body stuff you put up here, but I can’t justify making more stuff for myself when I have so much already. So I’m considering getting to make a DIY body scrub my reward for finally using up my old stuff!

  • Reply Jessica January 5, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    Yes to all of this! It’s amazing how much decluttering a physical space leaves my mind feeling less cluttered and more at peace.

  • Reply Julia R. January 5, 2016 at 1:19 pm

    Wonderful suggestions! I especially like the one about clearing your surfaces. In my studio apartment we have so many surfaces that do double-duty, this is a good reminder to not let them get cluttered just because they’re hardworking.

    I am also on a decluttering kick (that has lasted for about a year now? :)! In January, as part of a “detox” from all the stuff that inevitably comes in to the apt or gets given to me during the holidays, I like to get rid of one item a day for the whole month. It can be something small like a sample toothpaste I won’t use because I need the ones for sensitive teeth, or a pair of shoes that I just don’t love anymore, I gather one thing a day and find it a new home outside my apartment (recycling, goodwill, a sister who does love those shoes). For me, making it something I have to do helps shift my perspective on the things I own and circumnavigate my impulse to keep something “in case I need it someday.” Because I’ve found that I won’t need it someday. If it’s something I’ll consider getting rid of, I can just let it go. I’ll forget I ever owned it as soon as it’s gone, because I feel happier, freer, calmer with fewer things around. Three cheers for decluttering! 🙂

  • Reply SEM January 5, 2016 at 2:41 pm

    This post makes me rethink my definition of “trash.” I tend to keep labels/stickers intact and the visual clutter makes me anxious. I have read that turning bathroom toiletries around or removing the packaging/re-packaging can reduce stress. I haven’t tried it with bath products but I always do it with candles. I hate nothing more than those cheesy stickers that are stuck on the fronts of B&B or Yankee candles. The first thing I do is pull them off and I’ve found I can’t buy a candle if I think the color is obnoxious. So even if I enjoy a lavender candle, I can’t make myself bring it home if it’s a loud purple, say. I’m finding more and more that I am unsettled in a visually cluttered, albeit organized space. CAN’T HARDLY WAIT FOR YOUR BOOK TO ARRIVE!

    • Reply Erin Boyle January 5, 2016 at 2:45 pm

      yes!!!! agreed a million times over.

      • Reply Cussot January 10, 2016 at 7:17 pm

        One time I was driving across the country and stopped for the night in Nowhere, Saskatchewan. My motel room’s light was one of those 2-tube basement fluorescents mounted to the wall over the questionable bed – flick it on and listen to the soft buzzzzz. Nice. The room smelled so weird I complained at the “Office”. Lady gave me a loud purple, half-guttered candle whose scent was equally deafening. Thanks.

        Just when I got back to the room and settled into the bed with the TV on, the power went out all over town. Just 2 sources of light left after that – the purple candle and an uproar of Aurora Borealis overhead in the big sky.

        • Reply Erin Boyle January 10, 2016 at 8:13 pm


  • Reply Stacie January 5, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    Over the years my family has continually been in “declutter” mode. It has only been recently that I have started to feel like maybe we’ve finally made it to the end goal – found our happy place – with only the things we need and love. Even my kids have picked up on it, and they enjoy having less toys knowing they have their favorites and that clean up is easier with less. But their art work has actually been the most difficult for us. Papers everywhere. Papers that are important to them, and bittersweet for me. Our solution has been to give them each moleskin notebooks to sketch/paint/write in. They take up SO much less space than loose, crinkled paper, and we still have a sweet compilation of their art and the progression of their style! It’s always interesting to me to hear about what things different families prioritize in their spaces.

  • Reply Heather January 5, 2016 at 3:38 pm

    As a decluttering addict, I love this kind of post! Lovely. Also, it makes me excited to get your book, which I preordered. I grew up with two parents who were both packrats and, from a young age, I was always trying to clean up their stuff! Now my mom has asked me if I would help her get rid of some of it. Perhaps your book will help inspire her in the process, too. 🙂

  • Reply Karen January 5, 2016 at 5:05 pm

    Love Love ya blog, soooo happy I found
    it, I have alteady started this de cluttering
    going in each room.
    What you said about finish, or use up
    before buying more, ohhhhh my goodness
    I am sooooo badness at this, just feel
    like I have to stock pile, lotions n
    potions, to ya name it.

    My hubby and I, we have furry children
    Tank/lab newfie and Tanner golden
    yellow lab, we are closet ones, just
    shove into closet (s), sooooo no more!!

    Excellent tips, can’t wait for ya book.

    Thank you

  • Reply nikkiana January 5, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    Decluttering is an area of my life where there’s almost always been a significant amount of struggle. I *know* I own too many things for the size space I live in. Many of the things I own, I don’t use and I don’t need. My space is a constant disaster because so many items don’t have homes. It would be a logical decision to declutter.

    Yet, I seem to have a significant block around getting the job done because it creates such an irrationally high degree of anxiety… I envy the folks who seem to just be able to do this like it isn’t a big deal.

    • Reply Kim B. January 18, 2016 at 5:49 am

      Oh Nikkiana, I am so there with you! Very well said.

  • Reply Emily January 6, 2016 at 1:02 am

    I’ve always excelled at decluttering, but now my kids are getting old enough to have their own opinions and they love stuff, and family loves giving them (well meant and in keeping with their values which somehow makes it harder) stuff, and there’s now a constant stream of toys and activity books and so on coming in to our lives, so I’m feeling a little lost lately and their room has gone from sweet and simple to busy and crowded (even with regular purging and so on). I need to get back to my roots – I used to be just like you! Baby stuff all fit into three small, wood boxes and one shelf. Sigh.

  • Reply Emily January 6, 2016 at 1:03 am

    *our values, meant to say

  • Reply Archana January 6, 2016 at 1:09 am

    A dangerous side effect of decluttering : it doesn’t stop. I am always looking to let go something. And feel guilty about owning the stuff I do. I wish it stops and I start enjoying what I have.

    • Reply Erin Boyle January 6, 2016 at 10:58 am

      Ah, interesting! I think I get where you’re coming from: it can be cathartic to get rid of things. But for me, clearing out of things that I don’t love is precisely what allows me to cherish what I have! Here’s hoping that becomes the case for you, too!

  • Reply thefolia January 6, 2016 at 6:38 am

    Cheers to clearing. Happy Nesting.

  • Reply Viv January 6, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    I’m pretty good at decluttering and living minimally, EXCEPT when it comes to that one corner. It used to be a chair and now it’s my desk – it’s got my laptop, books, journal, candle, mug… Looking forward to clearing the space as soon as I get home today!

  • Reply meridith January 6, 2016 at 5:12 pm

    I have a studio Plus and am constantly de-cluttering. So many of your tips help. Even after a purge things do pile up. The bathroom one hit home, do I need all those soaps, lovely as they are?!

  • Reply Alicia January 6, 2016 at 5:56 pm

    I’m curious about your suggestions for removing/decluttering gifts. You seem to have success in surrounding yourself with family and friends who do not go overboard with gifting, but for those of us who may not be so lucky…what can we do?! While some things I have been able to slowly make disappear over time, it is more difficult with others. There is always an element of guilt behind this (particularly for some things that were homemade or hand crafted), but I have made sacrifices. Even so, I find I’m swimming in a lot of gifted items over the years and have even been caught when a family member or friend will ask about a gift they’ve given me that I have parted with. Since we’ve added children into our lives this problem has exponentiated.

    • Reply Anna January 7, 2016 at 3:11 pm

      Totally relate to this difficulty. Some good tips on this I found here:

    • Reply Lindsay January 8, 2016 at 10:46 am

      Yes! Gifts for us but especially for the children. We have very enthusiastic, generous and rather well-resourced grandparents at hand who do not remotely “get” any minimalist aspirations we may have. Insisting they stop giving, or trying to sneakily exit their gifts from the house, feels confrontational and/or ungrateful, and definitely inhibits “enjoying what we have.” Help?

      • Reply EatsPaste February 8, 2016 at 11:09 pm

        The reason they do it AND the reason you feel mean for asking them not to is because in our particular culture, for better or worse, material things are associated with love. We are conditioned to show love by giving an object, be it a card or a box of candy or a ring or a toy, whatever.
        And so when someone who doesn’t realize they were conditioned thus cannot give a gift, they get anxious/stressed/whatever because they equate it with neglect or unlove.
        If you find you cannot convince them that objects and love are not irrevocably linked, then you must compromise. You can PROBABLY convince them to gift you things like movie/theatre/concert tickets, spa days, massage certificates, a class in something you want to try like painting or cheese making, museum day, blah blah. If you cannot get them to stop giving you ‘stuff’, you can likely also steer them at least to stuff that’s consumable like wine or candles or art supplies, so at least the stuff ain’t junkin’ up your pad forever and you can repurpose/recycle the containers.
        I give my candle empties to a lady who makes new jar candles out of them. The leftover wax goes to someone else who makes fire starters out of it.

        This way they still feel like you know they love you/the kids and you don’t drown in stuff.

  • Reply Rachel January 6, 2016 at 5:58 pm

    Thank you so much for this post. Timely, on-point tips! Btw, where did you get your binder clip? I’ve been searching unsuccessfully for ones just like the one pictured!

  • Reply Rebekah January 6, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    Decluttering makes me so happy. I’m prone to it all year round, but in January the itch to get rid of all the things is especially strong. I suspect it has something to do with more cold and messy days spent trapped in my house with all of those things. Familiarity breeds contempt, non?

  • Reply Zara January 6, 2016 at 9:18 pm

    This post really spoke to me – especially “use up what you have.” I love stocking up, but it’s not always reasonable/necessary. Un/fortunately, we live in 850 square feet, which means there’s room for this habit to grow.

    One decluttering habit that I have is recycling book jackets. Book jackets make me nuts, so I (almost) never keep them.

    Happy new year!

  • Reply Sarah January 7, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    I love to declutter! And the “using up what you already have” is something that I’m trying to work on. It’s very therapudic for me to organize or go through things and have clean open spaces. But the problem is my husband is a complete 180 degrees from me in that regard. He does like to organize his things, but he is very much the “it might come in handy one day” type of guy. Thankfully he contains most of it to his shop and the garage but he only uses half the stuff he has. He absolutely HATES to get rid of stuff. So its a constant push and pull trying to get him to purge through his things.

  • Reply Sophie January 12, 2016 at 4:33 am

    Hi Erin, love this post!

    I find this so inspirational especially at this time of year! Since the year has begun I’ve taken on an internship in addition to the job I already have, resulting in long, hard 12 hour days and precious weekend time I’d rather spend relaxing (in a clutter-free household) however the chores from the week are adding up and clutter is in abundance so the down time turns into stressful cleaning that ordinarily I’d enjoy… Cleaning for me isn’t a cumbersome task in small quantities, in fact I think I take pleasure starting a project and seeing it through till the end, however in large amounts, I just want to cover it up, stash it away and so forth… Do you have any tips or schedule ideas for cleaning etc during a busy week that can provide calmer and cleaner weekend?

    Thanks in advance!

    Also I’d love to know where you got the big clip next to the door from? Such a great little idea that I’m sure will work in my house!

  • Reply Vee January 13, 2016 at 10:24 am

    Excellent post! I love decluttering (I find it enhances my sense of “enoughness” and gratitude) and plan to adopt the use-it-up and clear-your-spaces resolutions.

  • Reply Elise Xavier January 13, 2016 at 5:45 pm

    Found you from A Cup of Jo and am so glad. Love your decluttering tips! Subscribed :).

  • Reply Tia January 14, 2016 at 7:13 am

    I got hooked on streamlining after I was burglarized. You’re so angry when your space is invaded, and my way of dealing was to haul crap out of my basement. “If stuff’s gonna walk out of here, I’M the one who decides what goes!” I fine-combed, sorted, and made untold trips to donation and to the curb. Recycling day became an an adrenaline rush, emptying one more box of old files, and then another, and another! It was cathartic, and I’ve been obsessed with purging ever since. That was five years ago, so how could I possibly still have possessions left to evaluate? Well, I’m also a collector. “New” stuff does make its way in. But I’m much pickier than I used to be. And that would normally be great for budgets, except that I’m one of those saps who likes expensive stuff. What can I say? I appreciate quality. Fortunately, that’s an asset rather than a liability in the business of decluttering. Now, all that’s left are things that I love and use. Purge, purge, purge!

  • Reply Emily-Kathryn January 16, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    Your blog has taken me on between 12-15 trips to good will in 2015.
    I have a small portion of a tiny old row house in DC to call my own and yet still i somehow managed to amass a large load of un-necessities. I gave away 75% of my clothes and every day I open my closet I feel like a weight has been lifted! I only kept what I really love and wear, and as a result I have been wearing almost all new outfits since the purge. I use more of the things I forgot I had and make more creative combinations with the pieces I kept.
    I’m reading your book now and am in the process of making yet another donation pile (albeit small). It was a tab bit scary at first giving away things that I bought just a few months/ years ago, some things i think are “still kind of cute”. But once I learned to see those tchotchkes as a waste of money in the store I began sticking to purchasing only what I truly love (very little things make the cut).
    I am an interior designer, and have been getting more and more compliments on my home the more spartan it becomes– all white walls and wooden furniture with a story have breathed a fresh new life into my house! I’m suggesting your book as well as “cradle to cradle” to clients who seem open.
    -in shorter words, thank you Erin.

    • Reply Erin Boyle January 17, 2016 at 11:01 am

      all the thanks to you!!!

  • Reply Erin February 29, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    I grew up in a home so decluttered that exs used to call it a “museum”. It limited my mother’s anxiety. Subsequently, it limited mine, too. I thrive with little clutter, I feel like there is not a rush of over-stimulation. Decluttering has been a work in progress in our home (a 1400 sf bungalow large in scale compared to you but teeny in suburbia standards) and with every bit I take out of the house, the better I feel.

    Do love that light without a shade…

  • Reply Laura March 22, 2016 at 11:14 am

    Great post! I know your book will do me well. I don’t love living with a bunch of things but I have problems letting go. I was born and raised in Cuba and left when I was 12 years old leaving all I remember was my home behind so I constantly try to hold on to things to feel at home. I will use this long weekend of Easter celebrations to de-clutter a little, one step at a time, specially my closet because even when you suggested the bathroom first, I already did that part a couple of weeks ago. Once again thanks for sharing your wisdom. xoxo Laura

  • Reply CK March 23, 2016 at 10:08 am

    Great post! Ur right about people stockpiling items and increasing clutter. But I feel like if I never stocked up I’d constantly be running to the store

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