So, say you’re standing in front of a drawer or a box or a cupboard full of stuff and you know you are ready to let go of some things, but maybe you’re not quite sure the best way to go about that–now you need to know how to sort when you declutter!
It’s easy to get stuck when you have to make decisions, but I’m about to walk you through it and show you how to sort quickly and efficiently. Are you ready? Let’s do this! (Fair warning: you might need to bookmark or pin this post for future reference … there’s a lot to unpack!)
This post contains affiliate links, meaning I might make a small commission (at no extra cost to you) if you click on a link and make a purchase.
You can read our full disclosure here.
Before you start decluttering
Know your purpose. Do you want to clean out a drawer? Organize your bathroom? Make room for a baby? Downsize?
Make sure to give yourself enough time for the scope of your project.
Whatever the specific purpose, this is your overall goal: to free up space and live with only those things you need and love the most.
Set aside time to sort. Allow adequate time for sorting through stuff. Sorting a single cabinet in the kitchen will take less time than downsizing to move into a smaller home.
If you’re not sure when you can take the time to sort, sit down and determine what your normal daily or weekly schedule looks like first. Find the pockets of time in which you have the most time to focus.
Then, once you find that pocket of time, whether it be 15 or 50 minutes, keep your appointment with yourself. Focus fully on the task at hand.
If you have younger kids at home, working when your kids are asleep is the easiest, as I’m sure you well know. So, this might mean working early in the morning before they wake up, during nap time (if your kids still nap), or in the evening after they are asleep.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help, either. Especially if you’re a single mom or your spouse works third shift. Yes, I know this means that someone will be in your home while you’re trying to declutter the mess. So, if you don’t have a spouse who is able to spend time with your kids while you work, find a friend or family member instead who won’t judge the messy middle of your progress. (The non-judging part is VERY important!)
Sorting is infinitely easier for moms when we don’t have to field requests for the blue cup (no, not that one! The other one!) or to participate in pretend play or homework help. But, if you simply must do your sorting and decluttering while the kids are awake and you’re on active mom duty, that doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish anything. It just means that interruptions will be more likely. So plan for that.
Supplies you will need
Large trash bags, as well as 4 boxes or totes. These will become your TOSS, KEEP, SELL, DONATE, and DECIDE LATER containers you will use to sort your items. (Note: I also find laundry baskets work pretty well for this!)
A folding table or other staging area (for large projects). DO NOT use your bed, the floor, or your kitchen table, if at all possible. Trust me. Every time I’ve used my bed to sort anything, it all ends up on the floor at night when I’m tired and just want to go to sleep already.
It doesn’t matter how often I promise myself I’ll deal with the newly moved piles in the morning (even if it’s just laundry being folded!) it rarely happens.
Don’t create even more work for yourself.
Because if those piles end up on the floor or elsewhere, they’re just going to get disorganized again and you’ll have to repeat the whole process.
This is why tackling small spots appropriate for the time you have available for sorting is very important, especially if you can’t have a dedicated sorting and staging space for a project.
Small projects, like a drawer or shelf, that can be completed fairly quickly, are okay to use your available counter space for during the sorting, but only if you can put everything away where it needs to go within an hour or two.
For large projects like a walk-in closet or attic, having extra folding tables to place sorted items on will be invaluable to you. If you have a room you don’t use frequently, set the tables up there. Then you can walk out and take a breather without seeing the mess everywhere in your home.
A kitchen timer (or your phone’s timer, if you prefer). This is optional, but if you have difficulty dedicating time to one activity at a time, the timer will serve as a reminder to stay focused.
On the other hand, if you tend to get lost in whatever you’re doing, use the timer to limit your sorting time to avoid burnout. A sense of accomplishment comes from meeting goals, and the timer can serve as an incentive to stay on task. You can even use a musical timer. (I love these!)
Earbuds and your phone. I find that listening to music or podcasts keeps me going. Plus, if I have my earbuds and phone on me, I can also easily answer phone calls hands-free. Or I can take pictures of anything I need to remember to ask others about. I can also just take a quick picture to remember an item that I toss or donate.
Gloves and a face mask. Dust can trigger allergies or just make you sneeze. I find it helpful to have a mask on hand that can filter out particles, just in case I need it.
The same goes for disposable gloves (or even just work gloves, if you prefer). Sometimes piles of things in boxes can attract spiders or bugs. Other times they become eroded with age and unpleasant to touch (think melted candles in a hot attic, etc.) Or there might be sharp scissors open at the bottom of a drawer. You never know. It helps to be prepared.
A shredder. If you are sorting papers and important documents, having a quality shredder nearby is useful for protecting your private information.
A water bottle. Staying hydrated is important, especially if you’re sorting a hot attic or garage during the summer!
Labels and a permanant marker: (Optional) These are for your SELL, DONATE, and DECIDE LATER tubs or boxes. Smaller labels could help you identify your sorted piles of things to keep, as well. These could be print-outs, index cards, sticky notes, even masking or painter’s tape.
How do you sort and declutter?
Above all, keep your end goal in mind: a peaceful, clean, organized environment in which you don’t have to spend as much time hunting for things. Having this goal at the forefront of your mind will make decision making easier.
You want a home with room to live. Focus on the positive emotions and circumstances that will arise from having completed your task.
Now, with this goal in mind, remove each item from a messy space individually. Examine it and decide where it belongs (don’t linger on this step!)
Dispose of trash immediately in a trash bag. Group things you keep with like items and put things you’ll let go of in your DONATE or SELL box.
DO NOT pull out any item you will not be able to quickly examine. You can always come back to this drawer, box, etc. when you’re ready. Pulling out more than you can sort in the time you have will result in just moving clutter around.
If you just can’t decide what to do with an item, put it in your DECIDE LATER box. Then make sure you actually do decide later.
So, that is the key for how to sort when you declutter without getting bogged down with the details … let yourself decide later if you must. Yes, deciding now is the best way, but providing a framework to decide later (and following through) gives a little more flexibility. And goodness knows, moms need flexibility!
Make a pact with yourself to move quickly, efficiently, and with determination.
Don’t give in to those pesky negative voices in your head. The ones saying “what are you thinking starting this now?” or “You have to cook dinner in two hours!” or “I’ll never get through this mess,” or even “who am I kidding, I’ll just fill this space with more stuff eventually and be back at square one.”
Acknowledge those thoughts, then move on from the negative emotions that may arise while you are in the process. Reluctance, guilt, shame, anger, frustration, fatigue, sorrow, fear, anxiety, panic, and even claustrophobia can all be natural responses to tackling sorting through your possessions.
Finally, replace items you are keeping back in your freshly decluttered spot. Organize like things together in the spot you decluttered (pencils and pens together in a small container, for instance).
Yes, you CAN do it! I promise! I know it is daunting. I’ve been there, myself. I’ve also been there with other people as they sort through a pile of “stuff” as they move or clean. It is not an impossible task.
Here’s a handy list of how to sort when you declutter:
- Remove items one at a time and evaluate them.
- Put obvious trash and broken items beyond repair in the TOSS bag or container.
- Decide if each item is something you need and regularly use. Avoid duplicates if unneeded. Does the item have intrinsic or sentimental value to you? If the answer is yes, keep it.
- If the item is useful and has value but is a duplicate or no longer wanted, put it in the SELL container.
- Put the item in the DONATE container if it is useful, with low value, but is a duplicate or something you no longer want.
Donating works especially well when you want to clear out extra stuff but don’t want to deal with the hassle of putting it up for sale. If you THINK you want it and will use it but never actually do, put it in the DONATE container.
- When you are unsure if you are ready to part with a useful or sentimental item, put it in the DECIDE LATER container. This container serves as a temporary home for “stuff.”
Sometimes the hardest part of letting go of your “stuff” is the initial pang of the decision. You might feel confusion or even guilt about getting rid of an item (but it’s a coaster from 1978 that my deceased Grandmother gave me!) and it is much easier to make a rational decision after the DECIDE LATER container has been set aside.
Put it in an out-of-sight but easily accessible location.
If, in a month or two, you find yourself going to grab the item out of the container, keep it. If not, any items that have not been missed should be sold, donated, or thrown out.
About putting off decisions …
Like its name suggests, the DECIDE LATER container holds items that require a decision that may be too complicated while you are sorting things.
Some examples of this might include documents, puzzles with missing pieces, or things you simply aren’t sure what they are! Sometimes, sorting can become emotionally charged as well. Things that remind you of a deceased loved one may require some space from that memory before you can sort them.
Whatever you do, don’t use the DECIDE LATER container as a “store in the attic somewhere forever” container. That is not its purpose. Its purpose is to get items out of an area you are trying to clear while also giving your time to decide what to do with them. It is also meant to help remove yourself from the emotions associated with the items.
The DECIDE LATER container should be revisited within a few days, weeks, or even months, but never years. It is short-term, not long-term, storage.
Should I sell or donate my clutter?
Whether you sell or donate an item you declutter comes down to personal preference and your financial situation. If you need the money more than you need the space at first, by all means, do what you can to sell.
I’d recommend pricing things cheaply, selling similar items in bulk as a lot, and giving yourself a firm deadline. If you don’t sell your items by then, donate them immediately, and move on. You will delay your decluttering progress if you can’t let go.
What if I get overwhelmed while sorting and don’t know what to do?
First, take a deep breath.
Then walk away from the mess for a little bit if you need to. Do something that makes you feel relaxed, then revisit your sorting staging area. I’ve talked about decluttering and overwhelm in this post, but there is one more way to help get you over a decluttering and sorting speed bump: let a professional guide you through it.
Find a local professional organizer who can come to your home and help, if needed. She will be an invaluable help! This will be more expensive than doing it on your own, but if you are truly stuck, the best way to move forward is to call in the troops.
However, if you just need a little extra guidance and cheerleading to get you started again but aren’t ready to invite someone into your home, why not consider hiring me! I offer virtual decluttering and organizing services that are perfect for those times when you just need a nudge to get unstuck or are getting discouraged.
We can set up a video call, or I can guide you through the sorting decision making by chat or text. Just go to “services” in the top menu of this page to learn more about that and reach out to see if booking some virtual decluttering sessions with me would make sense for you and your project.
Want even more inspiration? Like our Facebook page for daily inspiration and join the Clutter Fighters private decluttering Facebook group where we cheer each other on in our journey to conquer the chaos!
- How to Change Your Mindset and Declutter Your Home at Last (Part 2)
- How to Change Your Mindset and Declutter Your Home at Last (Part 1)
- Declutter your holiday with this free 12-Day challenge
- Why no-clutter gifts for kids are the best new trend
- A Simple Christmas: How to Have a Relaxed Holiday Season