Clutter Control Rules

Jeff Campbell's Clutter ControlBelow are some of the key rules from Jeff Campbell’s best-selling book, Clutter Control. These de-cluttering rules have been developed over many years and Jeff knows they work. So long as you consistently implement them,  you’ll enjoy a relaxing, uncluttered home.

Rule One: When In Doubt, Throw It Out
Nothing can have a more liberating effect on your life; the following rules will give you some guidelines. (And, of course, when we say “throw it out” we are including giving it away, selling it, or recycling it.)

There are plenty of excuses for keeping things forever, but at some point you need to get rid of at least some of them. If you have a desk drawer filled with several dozen pens but have one or two favorites, toss the rest of them. Old glasses with old prescriptions? Donate them. Give your grown kids things back to them. Don’t say “It’s too nice!” – that’s the oldest excuse in the book. If it’s so nice, why aren’t you using it? If it’s broken, fix it or toss it.

Rule Two: Use It or Lose It

Sensible – if you don’t use it, why keep it? This does not allow you to plan on using it tomorrow. Remember, “Tomorrow never comes.” If you haven’t put up strawberry preserves since 1985, you can safely give away your mason jars and lids. (HINT: This rule is also a solution to another household problem: when you reduce clutter you make housecleaning easier!)

Rule Three: Efficiency Counts, So Store Things Accordingly

This means that the things you use most often are stored in “hot” places. Hot places are easily reachable, such as top drawers and eye-level cupboard shelves. Hot items differ, but usually include keys, measuring spoons, the corkscrew, scissors, your cell phone, etc. Don’t put seldom used things in hot places – reserve them for the things you reach for most often.

Additionally, store similar things together, such as all of the different flower vases you own. When you need one, you need to look in only one place. This gives you a fighting chance of finding what it is that you’re looking for, so long as it’s where it belongs (and saves you time and energy, too!). That can be a surprisingly gratifying experience.

Rule Four: Handle Things Only Once

This rule is to counteract the “for now” excuse, such as “I’ll put this jacket here, for now.” Or “I’ll put these papers here, for now.” The “For Now” excuse should be banished from the vocabulary of a known clutterer. Once you say “for now,” you’re admitting that you will handle whatever it is more than once. This seemingly innocuous decision increases clutter and at least doubles your workload.

My own mother had a particularly bad case of the For Nows – she had a repair drawer where we children were instructed to put clothes that needed to be mended. The problem was that, once the clothing was in that drawer, it never, ever, emerged again.

Rule Five: Recycle It

Not just paper, aluminum, glass, and plastic, mind you. Some people have a difficult time tossing glass pickle bottles or plastic Cool Whip containers with their irresistible resealing lids: pretty soon they take up an entire cabinet. Don’t forget about clothes, old sweaters, and shoes as well as the books that overflow the capacity of your bookshelves. The same goes for unused linen, baby clothes, diapers, belts, purses, wallets, plants, or bikes. In fact, almost any inanimate object in your house is a candidate for reuse by someone else.

Rule Six: Pick a Number and Stick With It

If you intend on saving boxes for packaging future gifts, pick a number, stick with it, and don’t save any more. If you’re convinced that you must save a box of each of the different potential sizes of gifts, you really ought to call a spade a spade and just open a box store. Really, it has to be a sensible number and you must not allow yourself to exceed it. If you come across another irresistible box, then toss one when you add the new one to your collection.

Purses can be another area where you need to pick a sensible number. If you now have 30 of them and your sensible number is seven, that means the other purses are now clutter. Rank your top seven purses, give the others to charity, and don’t buy another one until you’re willing to let one go.

Rule Seven: Use a File Cabinet

Even if you don’t have a desk, get a file cabinet; you can always use the dining table as a desk. Make sure that your file cabinet (two-drawers are often enough) has the hardware so that you have hanging files in the cabinet drawers: hanging files can have easily viewed labels and will help you stay organized.

Besides being perfect for such obvious choices as bills, important papers, and correspondence, the file cabinet is just right for warranty cards, product information, instruction booklets, stationery, photos, stamps, your kids’ important school work, report cards, spare batteries, CDs, pens, pencils, tax returns, receipts, invoices, and even telephone books.

Rule Eight: Do Something

This isn’t as flip as it sounds: we encourage you to start acting now in order to start solving or fixing something that’s bothering you. Most of us have some idea of what needs to be done, but we may not know exactly what to do, or exactly where to start, or what to toss and what to save, or what we need to buy in the way of shelves or storage baskets. So we mull things over and are stuck through our own indecision and inertia.

Embrace your imperfections: No matter what you decide to do, you will feel better. Besides, it’s quite unlikely your efforts will make things worse.

Rule Nine: A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place

Obviously our parents thought of this rule before we did, but a lot of clutter is just stuff that belongs someplace else. Kids clothes, newspapers piled in a corner, and paper stacked on a desk are some examples. The flip side of this rule means that if everything is in its place, you can find an item precisely when you want it. That event, in and of itself, can sometimes make your day.

Rule Ten: Items Displayed in the House Have to Pass a Test

This rule seems only fair: after all, you have only so much space and the items in that space should justify themselves. This is not a complicated test; the reason can involve function or form. For example, an antique clock may no longer work, but it may pass the test because it’s beautiful, but not because someone put it there “for now” five years ago and it’s not been moved since, or not because someone gave it to you who might notice if it’s gone, or not because you don’t know where else to put it. Walk through your home mentally testing things. Ask yourself: Why am I keeping this? What is it doing there? If it has a function, does it work? Am I sick and tired of dusting or cleaning it? Do I have others like it stored elsewhere? For the form side, ask yourself if you enjoy seeing the item as you enter the room. How does this item really look sitting there for the entire world to see or to use? Employ your critical eye and be honest.

Rule Eleven: Don’t Do Things “Later”

Here’s a partial list to get you started:

1. If you brought stuff into a room, take it back out the very next time you leave the room (after you’ve finished with it, of course).
2. Take things upstairs when you are going there anyway.
3. Take things downstairs when you are going there anyway.
4. Take everything out of your car that was added this trip.
5. Pick up things when they drop.
6. Wipe up spills when they happen.
7. Vacuum up messes when they occur.
8. Wish dirty dishes and wipe down counters before food dries.
9. Fold clothes when they’re taken out of the dryer.

Rule Twelve: Label Things

This rule goes beyond labeling your kids’ gym shorts. How often have you come to a closet to retrieve something from a box only to discover that there are six boxes and they all look pretty much the same? You select one box and, after searching fruitless for your item, you halfway reseal the box with the old tape and try the next box. Eventually you do find the item, but it’s now 45-minutes and five boxes later.

Instead, label all of your storage boxes and avoid the label “Miscellaneous.” Other choices that may come back to haunt you are “Garage Sale” or “Charity”; chose a label that’s complete enough so you can tell what’s in the box without actually opening it.

Along the same lines, label everything that you put into the freezer (it all looks the same in a week or so). Labeling cupboards can help you keep them organized, too, and are helpful with young children, though you may need to use pictures instead.

Rule Thirteen: Call In a Professional

There are so many clutterers in this world that there is now a group of saintly people who make their living solving other peoples’ clutter and organizational problems. Look in the Yellow Pages or on-line for “Organizing,” to get started. There is a catch to this rule: We insist that you use it only if you promise to follow all the other rules once the professional has come, worked their magic, and left. Otherwise, the professional will leave and the clutter will immediately return – unless you modify your behavior. In other words, implementing this rule does not exempt you from the other twelve.

If you’ve found these rules helpful, you might want to purchase Clutter Control, which is full of additional insights and strategies for tackling day-in and day-out cleaning tasks.

You’ll also want to check-out Jeff’s other cleaning rules and the books they’re from:

Speed Cleaning Rules: Rules for speed cleaning tasks, from Jeff’s Speed Cleaning book.
Spring Cleaning Rules: Rules for tackling spring cleaning, from Jeff’s Spring Cleaning book.
Talking Dirt Rules: Cleaning questions and answers from Jeff’s book Talking Dirt.
Cleaning Maintenance Rules: Rules to maintain your belongings, from Jeff’s book Good As New.