Some of my friends have apartments that are spotless, artwork hanging all over the place, and paint jobs that make it all feels so — cozy and adult.  I wanted that.

But I couldn't do it, so here's what I do instead.

Every six months — sometimes more frequently — I do a deep-clean of my apartment.  It's a fairly heavy lift but after doing it once you'll have a much, much easier time each time after.  It enforces good buying habits for me and has reduced my "buy crap on amazon at 2am" spending by a significant margin.

I've done this with a bunch of friends and they've enjoyed the end result (not so much the actual process, which met with a lot of groans and whines) and a significant (!) number of them have kept up with some form of it.  It isn't uncommon every few months to get messages with pictures of bags saying, "Look how much I'm giving away this time!"  

It's heart-warming.

It's home-emptying.

KonMari et al.

You've read The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, right?  

If not, don't worry about it.  It's a great little book and there's a few core things that we're going to talk about in this post that I do but there's additions and subtractions that I've made over time.  The main points we're going to go through are below so if you don't care about going "in depth" and doing the exercises yourself, read these four things, close out of this blog, and go make a sandwich or something.  

In equal order of importance:

  1. When cleaning, do everything at one time.
  2. Focus on giving things away or, failing that, throwing things away.
  3. If you haven't used it in a year* get rid of it.
  4. Everything has its right place, by function.

Before we go on with these, I want to emphasize: this is not some strange form of ascetic minimalism where all your things should fit in a backpack.  This kind of fetishization of emptiness feels more like masochism than it does enjoying things one has.  This is about removing exactly the right amount of marble to enjoy the statue that is your ideal living area.  

No item-counting required.

Doing It All At Once

Why?  Why can't I do the kitchen today and my bedroom the next day and...?

Because stuff gets shuffled around.  Because you probably won't get around to it.  Because you've done it before and it doesn't work.  Because it doesn't show you that amount of clutter that you're actually living in.

I'm going to assume you live in a small home or an apartment.*  

The first thing you are going to do is to designate an area (usually right by the door, but anywhere around the corner of the main room is fine) which will be the Give Away Or Throw Away pile. This is the most important pile in the entire process so give it a lot of room.

Putting something here means that you will either give it away or throw it away — you do not have to decide during cleaning, and this makes things a lot easier to handle.  You might not want to throw something nice away but you could at least convince yourself that you could give it away.  Put it in the pile.

The next thing you'll do is get two or three trash bags ready to throw straight-up trash in.  I find it's easier to put these on a door handle so you can see and feel how much you're throwing out.  It's encouraging.  You'd be surprised at how much straight up garbage (packing, old food, tissues, weird old things, etc.) people have lying around that they never bothered to throw out.  Don't put this in the Give Away or Throw Away pile — you know you'll throw it away, so put it right in the trash.  

Finally, for this step, you're going to take everything out and put it in one room, preferably around one spot.  

If you want to throw things out as you go, great.  But you want to move everything.  You want to touch everything.  This is especially important.  And it's also important because there's no going back.  If you don't want it to look like a tornado went through your home, you're going to need to go through things.  Be careful with your valuables, obviously, but shoving things together decontextualizes the item and allows you to see the bulk mass of how much you own.  

Don't worry about food, but going through plates and dishes at this point is great.  They'll beg: "But I have so many cups and plates!"  "Why?  Can we get rid of some?"  "I don't know."  "Let's look..." and then we wind up minimizing the kitchen cabinets before we have to move anything.  This also works with the bathroom.  For things like collectables and books, see the end note.

Everything in one place is the first pass — it will take the top layer off of the onion of clutter.

Giving it up

By far, the most difficult part for people when trying to clean is the idea that they have to throw a bunch of things out or give a bunch of things away.

It sounds easy until you realize that I mean they probably need to get rid of a lot.  Things they think they need.  Things that they think they'll use one day.  Things that are obviously useless, have no sentimental value, but what if, you know?

For each item they pick up from the big pile, the process is something like this:

  • Do you currently use this thing?
  • Do you think you'll use it in the near future (see below)?
  • Do you have a strong emotional attachment to it?  (Takes care of sentimental items and art.)

If none of these things apply, 90% of the time we wind up throwing it into the Give Away or Throw Away pile.  The other 10% is griping that they really need it and they'd be lost without it or it's really cool or something like that.  I don't fight these battles too hard, knowing that I did this myself, but in a few cleanings down the line they will most likely be putting it into the Give Away or Throw Away pile.

This seems simple, but it's honestly the hardest part, and it can't be overstated how important it is to be tough-love on yourself here.  If necessary, have a friend over who will tough-love you by asking you these things and pushing you to give or throw away things.  The first time around, the Give Away or Throw Away pile (unless you're already quite clean) should rival the things you're keeping.  Again, don't worry about which you're going to do (give it away or throw it away) — that'll come at the end.

If you haven't used it in a while...

There's no magic bullet here that will apply to all cases — and this only comes up above in the second question to yourself.

I have had a pair of bolt-cutters for years because they're expensive to replace and I need them maybe once every three years or so.  I've used my Dremel exactly twice in the last four years.  On the other hand, if I haven't played a board game more than once in a year or two, I'll give it away.

Most of my things fall under the "if I haven't used it at all in six months, give/throw it away" rule.  Some of my things (tools, some medical/bathroom supplies, seasonal things) get a year.  Some of my things are a combination of cost and time: if it's less than \$20 to replace this thing and I haven't used it in two years, I'll get rid of it.  If it's less than \$200 and I haven't used it in 5 years, I'll get rid of it.

Think about time-frames that make sense for the kind of thing you're holding.  Err on the side of sooner than later.

Everything in its Right Place

Once you're done cleaning, you're going to need to put things back.  Before you do this, attempt to group things into functional units.  That is, things that deal with eating should all go around the same area.  Things that deal with bathing should go in the same area.  Things that deal with clothing should go in the same area.

This seems obvious but I don't think I've been to an apartment cleaning where the person didn't have some sort of bizarre reason for putting cups by their computers, make-up far away from the make-up mirror, socks in some random place that's not even close to all the other clothes — it happens.  

Putting things together into functional units reminds you what you have, what you have it for, and where it should go when you're done with it.  You can't put the comb on your desk: that's meant to go to the bathroom.  Even if you have to take it into the bathroom next time you get up, you'll know it belongs there.

Everything has a right place now and when you get something new you'll have to assign it a right place as well.  Once everything has a right place, it's also much easier to see what things do not have a place — this makes your next cleaning extremely fruitful.  

And, indeed, I recommend doing a second one of these in around six months.  Even if you don't do anything major after that and you just tidy up — six months out, the second cleaning will be when it all solidifies in you.  You will be in your right place.

Comics, Collectables, Books, ...

People feel passionate about their books, collectables, etc.  I don't fight them on this.  Keep them.  If it "sparks joy" or you connect with it emotionally, keep it.  

The only time this becomes a problem is when it approaches hoarder territory, or the person thinks that they're making an investment which will, one day, have a huge pay-off (think: beanie babies) and "invests" in a huge amount of something-or-other and it is becoming problematic in some other way (fiscal, hoarding, exhausting,...) — and, in this case, it may be more of a psychological problem than simply enjoying collecting or wanting to make a bit of money.  Of course, some individuals might make great money this way — it's really a case-by-case on this one.  

Either way, I don't fight anyone about these things anymore.  It makes them less likely to do the rest.  If they feel good about things after the first cleaning, perhaps in subsequent cleanings they will work on what collectables or books or whatever are the ones they enjoy the most and which they can give away.

Optionally, then, we do not require books or collectables to be thrown into the big beginning pile.

The Whole Thing

Here's the entire process, start to finish.

  1. Create a space for Throw Away or Give Away things.
  2. Drape some trash bags somewhere for straight-up trash.
  3. Excluding food (and possibly collectables and books), bring everything out into a big, main pile.  You'll want to touch everything.  Don't simply pull a storage container out and put that in the pile — empty that as well.
  4. Ask yourself: Am I currently using this?  Will I use this soon*?  Do I have a strong emotional attachment to this?  If not, place it in the Give Away or Throw Away pile.
  5. Once you are done, group things together into functional units and begin putting things back.  Note that you can still put things in the Give Away or Throw Away pile at this stage.
  6. Once everything is back, sort through the Give Away or Throw Away pile.  Keep Give Away things in the pile and make definite plans about where to give the things.  Throw away the Throw Away items immediately.  Over the course of the next few days, you may move some Give Away into Throw Away, but strongly (!!!) resist the urge to move any Give Away items back into your space.
  7. Everything has its right place.
  8. Do it again in six months and see how you feel.

The first time I did this, it took me and a friend around an entire Sunday and one bottle of wine.  The next time I did this, it took around 3 - 4 hours.  After that, I don't need to move much around anymore since I know that my functional unit things are where they should be and I take inventory of those before moving things I'm not sure about into the pile.  I still find a bag of Throw Away and a lot of Give Away each time I do this.