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How to Declutter When You Don’t Have the Time or Energy

You have a hard time finding important items–umm like your keys, driver’s license, birth certificate, that stack of bills, and those old family photos. Maybe you also have stuff in all sorts of nooks, crannies and corners, and much of this stuff overshadows the significant stuff. And it’s largely become invisible.

As writer Brooke McAlary noted, “We don’t see it, we don’t use it, we don’t like it, and in many cases, we don’t even remember that we own it. And yet it takes up physical, mental, financial and emotional space.”

You know you need to declutter. Desperately.

But you also have a demanding career, a house full of children, and an endless to-do list. You’re already exhausted and have very little wiggle room in your schedule.

McAlary can relate. Today, she’s a mom to two kids, and traveling around North America with her family. In 2011, she was diagnosed with severe postpartum depression, and during that time decided to start cutting out the excess from her life. Rachel Jones can relate, too. She’s also struggled with depression. She’s a mom to six kids, a business owner, and is involved in ministry full time.

You might feel powerless and stressed out. But there are shifts you can make and things you can do in the margins of your day. Below, McAlary and Jones share practical tips and powerful insights.

Empower yourself. “We have a tendency to walk around the house saying ‘I don’t have time for this. I’m too tired! My house is going to be messy forever!’ and these thoughts end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Jones, known as the joyful space specialist and author of

That’s why the first thing she has her students do in her online course is to rephrase disempowering statements, such as: “I have enough time to take care of my home. I have enough energy to do what I need to do. I am capable of having a tidy home and I am going to accomplish this.” 

Save tough spots for last. Most people feel like they need to start with the biggest, most challenging job, Jones said. You think you should tackle the bin of sentimental letters or the massive pile of paperwork in your office.

However, Jones suggested starting with the kitchen, which is usually the most-used room in the house, and has functional tools. “You already know which silicone scraper you prefer using, which pots are always the perfect size for your signature dish, and which coffee cup is your favorite.”

Start super small. Another starting point is very small areas, so small that it “almost feels silly,” said McAlary, author of the book Slow: Simple Living for a Frantic World and the blog Slow Your Home. That is, you might start with your purse or backpack, a drawer or corner of a bookshelf.

As you’re picking up each item, she suggested asking yourself: “Do I want this? Do I actually use this? Do I like it when I do use it?” Depending on your answers, you might keep it (and put it in its proper place); put it in a donation box (and take the full box to charity); recycle it; or put it in the trash. 

Capitalize on five minutes. Sometimes, we think we need to devote at least half a day to decluttering. But five minutes can go a long way, and all of us have several five-minute chunks throughout the day, Jones said: “Five minutes while waiting for the kids to get their coats and shoes on, five minutes while the microwave heats up a meal, five minutes between homework help at the kitchen table.”

McAlary suggested setting a timer for your five minutes, and picking easy clutter, such as old magazines, dried up pens, broken items, empty bottles and expired toiletries and medication. Jones has a chart on her website that lists different areas to declutter in each room, such as getting rid of ten items of clothing from your closet and throwing out three expired items from your fridge.

Focus on efficiency. Many of us get overwhelmed by decluttering (and delayed) when we think about organizing garage sales and listing items online. Jones suggested skipping both. “Making the decluttering process as quick as possible means you accomplish more, feel better about your progress and you have less to stress over.”

She stressed the importance of coming up with the most efficient way to remove items from your home. Sometimes, this might be dropping donations off at a local charity or having the organization come to your house. Other times, simply throwing it out is the best choice.

Ask the right questions. This also speeds up the decluttering process. Because nothing siphons your energy more (or slows you down) than waffling and feeling bad about getting rid of something. Instead of asking “What should I get rid of?” Jones suggested considering: “What do I use/need/enjoy enough to keep?”

Because decluttering is so much bigger than tossing useless things, another valuable, vital question is: “Does this item help me live the life I want to live?” Jones said.

What kind of life do you want to live?

“Many times we own things because we believe we should have them, or we have a specific ideal in our mind of what a perfect mother/father/doctor/creative/etc. should own,” she said. Let that go. Focus on the items that help you live your own version of a beautiful life. 

Get your family involved. Talk to your family about your goals behind decluttering. For instance, your goal might be more family time, fewer arguments about cleaning, less laundry to fold, Jones said. And create rewards. Every time Jones and her family decluttered 500 items, they celebrated with a trip to the park or ice cream shop. She also created a special grid chart for her kids to track the number of items they got rid of.

This year, in 2018, their goal is to declutter 2,018 items. This might sound extreme, but as she said, “when you’re counting every plastic spider from that last trip to Chuck E. Cheese, 2,018 items isn’t too difficult at all!” 

Ultimately, one of the biggest actions we can take also requires the least amount of energy: Watch your input, McAlary said. That is, she stressed the importance of paying attention to what we regularly consume—Instagram feeds, magazines, podcasts, books—and whether it makes us feel like we need to have more. Because often that’s why we have more stuff: We think we should have it. We think it makes us more successful. We think it makes us worthy.

When we remove these kinds of inputs, “we can gradually un-learn the lesson that we’re only as good as the way we appear to others,” McAlary said. “Gradually you will let go of the need to keep up with the Joneses, and you will find more contentment, more space, more time and more money to go along with it.”  

How to Declutter When You Don’t Have the Time or Energy

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Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). How to Declutter When You Don’t Have the Time or Energy. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Jul 2018 (Originally: 11 Jul 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 11 Jul 2018
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