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Illustration by Wenzdai Figueroa

If decluttering sounds daunting or even downright scary, you’re not alone. It takes some serious energy to organize your physical belongings and most of us are already spread pretty thin. But that overflowing closet and cluttered countertop might be affecting you more than you know: A 2009 study showed people with cluttered homes actually had higher levels of cortisol, aka the stress hormone.

But don’t worry, you don’t have to do it all at once! Achievable goals are the name of the game. So, an easy way to get started (aka to avoid becoming overwhelmed) is to take it one space at a time. That’s why we created this room-by-room guide to paring down.

Weathered food containers

Once your plasticware has gotten stained or cracked, it’s time to get rid of it. In fact, now might be the time to upgrade to glass containers for leftovers.

Old takeout menus

Look for takeout menus for restaurants that are no longer open and toss those. If your stash includes places you no longer frequent, those can go, too. Most of the menus can be recycled, so you can look the menu up online instead.

Cookbooks

When is the last time you cracked open that vegan cookbook? (You’re not even a vegan anymore, anyway, right?) If there’s a recipe you can’t live without, snap a photo of the instructions and save it. You can find other recipes online.

Expired condiments, dry foods and pantry items

Comb through your pantry and check expiration dates on everything from canned food to spices and oils. If there are items you haven’t used in a long time, like that celery salt or sesame oil, don’t let them take up unnecessary space. Look in the fridge for empty and expired condiments. Move items to the front that need to be used so you don’t forget about them.

Scratched pots and pans

Once pans start becoming scratched, that material can end up in your food. Go through the pans and get rid of any with significant damage.

Utensils and gadgets

You know that pineapple corer you never use? Don’t let it clog your drawers. Same goes for the unused slow cooker, hand-mixer, or whatever seemed useful but collects dust now.

Empty the closet

To really commit to good closet cleaning, you have to take everything out to truly see what’s inside. Maybe there’s a shirt you forgot about or a shirt you want to forget about. Removing what you don’t need from clothes to shoes and more will make the items you do wear regularly more accessible. This’ll make it easier to get dressed every day.

Any clothes that don’t fit

It’s time for a fashion show. Don’t just guess, try on clothes to confirm the fit. If the clothes aren’t in good condition, you can cut them up and use them as rags.

Clothes you know you’ll never wear

You know that pantsuit you bought on a whim and have literally never worn outside your bedroom? It’s time to make peace with that questionable decision, and say goodbye.

Socks with no mates

Your laundry is done and all put away, but some socks have no matches. It’s inevitable. You can reuse those socks as rags, too or even DIY a craft out of them. Whatever you do, get them out of your sock drawer.

Stretched underwear

Take all your underwear out of the drawer and keep only what you wear. Toss the pair that lost its elastic stretch or that pair with the period stain.

Go by category and make keep and donate piles. If you haven’t worn it in more than a year, it’s probably time to let it go.

  • shoes
  • pants
  • dresses
  • skirts
  • shirts
  • t-shirts
  • workout clothes
  • jackets
  • dress clothes

Holey sheets

Remember that time your toe was caught in that hole in your sheet? Find that sheet and either cut it up for rags or drop it off at a pet shelter. The same goes for worn sheets, blankets, and pillowcases.

Bedside table

Clear out this space and leave the essentials. You’ll sleep better and feel less stressed if you wake to a clean surface.

Under the bed

If you use this area for storage, open every bin and box. Chances are if it’s under the bed, you’ll find something you don’t often use or forgot about. Worse case, you’re likely to find a sock gone astray or a herd of dust bunnies.

Old medications

Whether it’s an over-the-counter medicine (OTC) or a prescription, check your medicine cabinet for expiration dates. Be sure to properly dispose of all medications per these guidelines from the FDA.

Faded towels

There comes a time when bath towels and washcloths becomes faded and tatty. If there are some hiding in your cupboard in this condition, let them go. They’ll make great rags, or you can donate them to an animal shelter.

Old makeup and personal care products

Be aware of how long makeup and personal care products last because they have expiration dates. Using them past those dates can increase your chance of developing skin conditions.

Excess personal care products

On the flip side, if you have an overstock of shampoo or hand soap (we know how couponing can be), maybe it’s time to donate it to someone who can use it immediately. Shelters, a nearby church or maybe someone in your neighborhood group would probably be happy to take it.

Useless cords

There are always more cords than you know what to do with, for some reason or another. If you have cords that aren’t plugged into anything and just taking up space, dump them. Old cords, chargers and electronics can be donated or recycled, but don’t just throw them in the trash. Following these guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Books you’ve read

This may be a controversial one, but hear us out. Unless you plan to re-read a book often (and even then, you can use the library), there’s no need to keep it around. If it’s signed or holds significant value to you, then by all means, keep it.

Anything with bad vibes

We all have something lying around that has bad memories tied to it. Maybe it’s a gift from a friend who wronged you or the outfit you wore for your grandma’s funeral. If it doesn’t bring you joy, channel Marie Kondo and get it out.

Old magazines

They’re just taking up space. If there are stories or images you love, tear those pages out or see if you can find and save them online.

Furniture and accessories

There are a couple of ways to reconsider your furniture. Is there too much? If furniture is blocking entry or access points, windows or bookshelves, you want to remove or reshuffle those pieces. If there are damaged pieces, or chairs or tables that go unused, you can free up space and create more flow by removing them. If you aren’t sure what should go, play around with the space by removing one piece at a time to see how your space is most comfortable and functional.

Fancy dishware

Just hear us out on this. If you have fancy dishes that you never use, consider donating them. At this point, they’re just decor and collecting dust. Even if they were passed down or they’re a wedding gift, if they’re not serving a purpose, they’re just taking up space.

Nearly done candles

If those candles you pull out for fancy dinners are starting to get to the end, melt them down completely in a double boiler and put the wax in an ice cube tray. Now you have wax melts for a wax warmer. This works for any spent candles lying around.

Pens that don’t work

How annoying is it to try a pen with dried ink? Spend a moment going through all the pens in your office to test them out.

Papers more than 5 years old

This will vary based on what your papers are, but most papers don’t need to be kept for too long. Keep official documents that you might need forever (keep any tax documents that are from the last 3 years) but receipts, old bank statements, and old mail can head to the shredder. If you don’t have one, you can use a shredding service.

If you’re unsure whether you should toss a document, take a photo of it as record and email it to yourself.

Old calendars

Even if your calendar has pictures in it or you really like it, once the year has passed, it’s time to let it go. And maybe, if you’re still using a print calendar, it’s time to switch to a digital version.

Old gadgets

Yes, your flip phone from 2005 is a relic at this point, but it’s also useless. Old laptops, iPads, the list goes on and on. Take all these old gadgets somewhere to recycle properly.

Old awards

Your diploma can stay on the wall if you feel strongly about it, but that “Most Improved Athlete” award from ninth grade can probably go.

Craft and wrapping supplies

If you’re a crafter (or maybe you used to be) comb through your supplies and toss dried out paints, empty tubes of glitter or dried out pens. If you have crumpled up wrapping paper, throw it out.

Anything rusty

If it’s rusty, it probably isn’t doing you any good. Whether it’s an old bike, some old tools, or whatever else. If your rusty tools are also antiques, consider taking them to a collector — it’s a win, win for both of you.

Paint, cleaners, and other household waste

If you have any of the above items that are candidates to go, make sure they are disposed of properly. The EPA outlines how to recycle these items safely.

Instruction manuals

There’s probably a cupboard in your garage with instruction manuals dating back years. If there are manuals for appliances you no longer have, you know what to do. And even for manuals you still want to keep around, check online to see if you can find a virtual copy to save instead.

Old sports equipment

Sports balls that are beyond repair, cleats for a sport you don’t play anymore, and everything in between can either be donated or thrown away if they’re not serving any purpose.

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illustration by Wenzdai Figueroa