Start small, finish big: A step-by-step guide to downsizing your home

Aug 07, 2023
Decluttering tips from the community and the experts. Source: Getty

There are many benefits to decluttering. A tidier and more controlled space helps to ease and reduce stress, providing a happier, calmer, and more controlled environment for your home. Decluttering is also incredibly beneficial if and when you plan to downsize, making the job so much easier – and cheaper – with fewer “things” to move.

However, the idea of decluttering can be daunting, often leaving the declutterer not knowing where to start with what can often feel like a mammoth of a job. Not only can decluttering and downsizing seem overwhelming due to the number of things to go through, but the emotional attachment certain items carry often causes us to put the job off even longer.

Starts at 60 talked to members of the community about decluttering and downsizing, to provide real-life experiences to help on the tough and emotional journey of decluttering.

Author Sandy Curtis said the best way to get started is to figure out the motivation behind throwing your things out.

“Before you start to declutter, ask yourself why you want to do this,” Curtis said.

“Is it because your friends have rooms that look like Home Beautiful or House & Garden? Or you hate the mess? Or family members are nagging you to? Whatever the reason, it will be very difficult if your heart isn’t in it.

“Some people are natural minimalists, others feel uncomfortable in, what is to them, a sterile environment. I find not having a place for everything is frustrating. I want to keep something, but don’t have a place for it, so it hangs around looking untidy. So, I try to find something that really should go.”

Curtis said one of the biggest struggles she came up against in her decluttering mission, was letting go of items that couldn’t be rehomed.

“I hate throwing things out. I don’t mind giving them away, donating or selling them, but consigning them to the bin makes my poverty-childhood heart overrule my tidy-house head. I’ve managed to dispose of a lot, but now I’m working on putting no longer-needed stuff in one room and slowly working through it all, so I don’t feel stressed,” Curtis said.

“Having to make an on-the-spot decision about something you’ve been attached to for years can be difficult, so be kind to yourself. I recently had a garage sale and put things that a charity shop would reject in a FREE box. It all went. Someone’s trash really can be someone else’s treasure.”

Bolton Clarke retirement village resident, Annette Cropper, said she’d recently made a significant downsize to a one-bedroom home, and offered valuable tips to those about to embark on their decluttering journey.

Like Curtis, Cropper said the hardest part of decluttering and downsizing was figuring out what to do with “the stuff that’s sentimental but of no value to anyone else”.

“I had a lot of things from my mum and dad and my grandparents that I’d kept over the years. And you think, where and when do they go and where do you take them? I tried eBay, I tried Marketplace, the op-shops and friends. Like photo albums, birthday cards, postcards, letters and things like that – nobody wants that so it just has to go. But that’s emotional, and that was very, very hard,” she said.

Cropper’s advice on getting started is to begin with the larger items first and tackle things like extra sets of linen and crockery that take up a lot of space.

“Being somewhere for 40 odd years, you accumulate a lot of things,” she said.

“Start with the big stuff like furniture. I went from a three-bedroom with a big double lock-up garage and shed, to a one-bedroom at Winders Lodge retirement. Once the furniture went, it was just the stuff accumulated in the garage and shed, lawnmowers, whipper snippers, suitcases, esky’s – everything like that that takes up a lot of room.”

Cropper noted declutterers should be mindful that op-shops won’t take everything and council pick-ups are often limited to what they will remove, meaning you have to spend money to hire someone to take it away. She also offered some insightful tips that often get neglected.

“Don’t forget to change your mailing address, your electricity, your phone. It all takes time and there are cut-off dates when you’re shifting like when your electricity cut-off date is and what date it reconnects,” she said.

Thanks to Marie Kondo’s one-woman mission to make the world a tidier place, the decluttering trend has taken off with households across the globe clearing out their wardrobes and kitchen cupboards of any unnecessary items that are just taking up space.

Although the occasional household mess here and there is relatively harmless there is growing evidence that the impact such mess can have on your health and mental well-being is not so harmless.

The Current Psychology journal recently published research that discovered that clutter that accumulates due to procrastination can increase life dissatisfaction.

Head of Marketing at Godfreys, Nathan Dixon supports these findings claiming that “for most, decluttering a home or a space provides a great sense of satisfaction.”

“What some people don’t realise is that it can also promote productivity and improvements in mental and physical health,” he said.

Dixon cited other benefits that come with decluttering, which include ridding yourself of visual clutter can help with focus, clearing your living space can provide you with a sense of pride and help you feel in control, cleaning can reduce dust and mould that could trigger asthma and allergies, decluttering and cleaning your home can also be a great form of exercise.

Lack of time, uncertainty around how long to hold onto things, lack of storage and feelings of sentimentality are just some of the factors Dixon cites that contribute to clutter.

“Between juggling work, the grandkids, shopping on the weekend and everything else in between, it often feels like there’s not enough time in the day or in the week to dedicate to cleaning and decluttering,” he said.

“Lack of storage is another big one. If you don’t feel like you have enough space or the right storage containers for everything, this can often feel overwhelming and lead to clutter”

“Some of us are very sentimental. Whether it’s your child’s school project from when they were eight years old, or your grandchild’s latest picture, we can develop an emotional attachment to
gifts, objects and items in our homes that we don’t want to throw away.”

Although Dixon highlights that “cleaning and decluttering your home can be overwhelming, no matter the size of the job” the positive impact it can have on your state of mind cannot be understated.

“If you break tasks up throughout the week, you’ll find you’ll never get to the point where you need to do the whole home at once,” he suggested.

Despite decluttering appearing to be an insurmountable task at first, Director of Studium Design Co and kitchen designer, Trisha Pickersgill suggests to “pick a small space at a time and recognise it doesn’t have to happen all in one day.”

In order to set yourself up well for future decluttering efforts, Pickersgill recommends “bringing together systems and sticking to them will help with reducing clutter.”

In an effort to untangle the mess that is decluttering, Starts at 60 spoke further with Dixon and Pickersgill who provided their top tips for tackling the process of decluttering as well as how best to get motivated to take on the job because as Dixon points out “whatever your age, anyone can be prone to clutter.”

decluttering your home
Source: Getty Images.

Do smaller tasks first

One step at a time is crucial when it comes to decluttering, as Dixon reveals that “looking at your home as a whole and the job of decluttering can seem daunting or stressful.”

“So start with smaller tasks. Decluttering even one small area of your home will produce a tangible difference you can see and help you build up momentum to take on the rest of the house,” Dixon said.

Taking a step-by-step approach may seem arduous at first but it will certainly pay off in the grand scheme of things.

Use action boxes

As Marie Kondo preaches, if an item doesn’t “spark joy” it needs to go. Dixon takes that one step further and suggests a “common approach” to sorting what you should keep and what you should throw away.

“Set up a box for things you’re keeping, one for things you’re throwing away, one for things you’re donating and one for things that need to be returned to other rooms in your home,” he said.

“Place things in the appropriate box as you declutter then, after you’ve finished a room, action accordingly.”

Give everything a designated place

Benjamin Franklin once said, “a place for everything, everything in its place”. This saying still holds true today with Dixon pointing out the importance of having a designated spot for all of your household items.

“Whether this is a drawer, a shelf or a box, you should know exactly where each item should be returned to when you’re done with it,” he said.

“This will stop you from leaving things lying around because it’s easier than thinking about where you could possibly put them.”



Keep track of recurring clutter

Everyone has that spot in their house where they dump things, whether it be a chair in the bedroom where you stack your dirty clothes or the kitchen sink that can often overflow with last night’s dirty dishes. As unsightly as the areas may be, identifying them plays an important role in effectively decluttering.

“Identify high-clutter areas like benches, bedside tables and entryways and keep an eye on them. In the days after decluttering, make note of items that end up back in those spots,” Dixon said.

These tend to be items you use a lot, so reconsider where you’re keeping them. Their designated spots should be as accessible as possible to discourage just leaving them anywhere.”

Sort out your paperwork

Whether it be old tax returns, receipts from purchases made months ago, or old letters more often than not there’s always some paperwork or documents we cling to “just in case”. But again sorting what’s needed from what is no longer relevant is crucial to minimising clutter.

“Paperwork tends to cause the most clutter, so it’s important to keep on top of it,” Dixon explains.

“That means no more boxes of random forms and letters or envelopes strewn across counters. Go through every piece of paperwork in your home, file important documents away and put the rest in the recycling bin.”

Don’t clean as you go

Saving the best for last is all well and good for something you enjoy but it can also apply to cleaning and organising your home. Start off with the lighter tasks that only need a few moments of your time and save the bigger cleaning tasks such as cleaning the shower to the very end.

“Stopping to deep clean everything will break your momentum and drag out the entire process,” Dixon said.

“Carry a cloth or rag around with you to quickly dust anything that needs it, but save vacuuming and wiping down surfaces until you finish.”

Buy fewer, better products

The minimalist lifestyle trend has taken off in recent years and although it may seem like a trendy fad it also lends itself to living a de-cluttered life. Dixon suggests, “minimise future clutter by shopping more strategically.”

“As products run out, try to buy replacements that serve multiple purposes, take up less space and do their jobs more effectively. Over time, this will allow you to streamline your home until everything in it is consistently earning its place,” he said.

Wardrobe probation

Sentimentality is one factor that can contribute to clutter and this is especially true when it comes to clothes. That coat you wore on a first date or the dress you wore to your daughter’s graduation may have value to you but if you haven’t worn it in years or even forgot it existed it is simply taking up space.

“To combat the constant thought of, “Oh, but I might wear that in the future”, implement a wardrobe probation system,” Dixon said.

“Separate everything you’re not 100% sure about keeping and set a time period. Commit to donating or selling anything you haven’t reached for in that time. Alternatively, turn around the hangers of every single item in your closet. After you wear an item, turn the hanger the right way around. Anything still facing backwards at the end of your probation period should be decluttered.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

As the old adage goes, “many hands make light work” and nowhere is this more relevant than when it comes to a big cleaning job. Although friends and family can be a great resource, Dixon cautions to “choose carefully” and not to “invite anyone over who’ll persuade or pressure you to keep things you don’t want or need.”

“Depending on the amount of clutter you’re dealing with, this could be a big and daunting task. Sometimes it’s easier to get through this kind of time-consuming chore with company, so recruit your most helpful and supportive friend to help get the job done,” he said.

Audit your utensils

Although your kitchen utensils may not hold as much sentimental value as the items in your wardrobe, Dixon suggests culling unnecessary kitchen items in much the same way.

“As strange as it sounds, treat your kitchen like you treat your wardrobe,” he said.

“Put all your utensils and tools in a box, and only place them back in drawers after they’ve been used. This will help you weed out unnecessary doubles and gadgets you thought would change your life but never touched.”


Decluttering kitchen
Source: Getty Images.


As we make our way to the kitchen in our decluttering journey, Pickersgill’s expertise as a kitchen designer becomes crucial in decluttering this space. Pickersgill suggests that “kitchens are probably the first place we visit when coming home.”

“So it becomes the place we dump all of our ‘stuff’. Having a dedicated location to put the mail, drop your keys and charge your phone will help keep the clutter at bay. The Island bench in my home is the place where all the little things that need fixing seem to accumulate, if you have the space, find a drawer or basket to put these in and dedicate some time every week to clear it out,” she said.

Much in the same way that Dixon recommends cleaning one room at a time, Pickersgill suggests that those embarking on their de-cluttering journey should “tackle one cupboard or space at a time” as her top tip. 

For those re-doing or upgrading their kitchen, Pickersgill recommends assessing “how you operate in your current one and identify your pain points” and when you’re planning your new kitchen be sure to take into consideration “different heights (& sizes) of drawers and cupboards, consider the things you use every day and where you would like them stored for easy access.”

Another interesting task that could be completed in your free time is conducting “a stocktake on your kitchen equipment” which Pickersgill suggests “will help identify how many double-ups you already have -and cull!” 

If you’re having trouble getting started and lack the motivation to begin de-cluttering, start off with something small like your cutlery drawers. Pickersgill highlights “how easy it is to organise your cutlery drawer” and that anyone can “manage to put the knives and forks in the correct tray.”

Kitchens are a haven for storage, whether it be cutlery, food, cleaning products the kitchen is almost the one-stop shop for all your household items. Pickersgill suggests using this to your advantage and “utilise cupboards and drawers with good storage solutions” to keep things neat and tidy. 

Storing medication “in one location” and keeping similar medications “together i.e. over-the-counter versus prescription medications” can be another organisational lifesaver.   

Working with what you’ve got and utilising “containers and boxes you might already have on hand” can save you time and money when it comes to de-cluttering. No need to but fancy storage containers and decorative items to tidy up your home when what you already have can do the trick just as well. 

“It doesn’t all have to be matching like on the TV shows,” Pickersgill points out. 

As Dixon pointed out earlier, identifying the locations that are magnets for mess can help you in the long run to avoid clutter accumulating. Pickersgill stresses the need to “form systems that will help you stay on top of the clutter, allocating dedicated areas or immediate response actions will help.” 

Finally, Pickersgill reveals the “BIG one” when it comes to effective decluttering. She suggests going all out and “pull out everything from all of your cupboards, ONLY put them back once they have been used and washed. After 2 weeks (or a month) see what is left and identify what can be removed, recycled or donate.”

Motivation to declutter
Source: Getty Images.

If these helpful tips and tricks still haven’t motivated you to embark on your decluttering journey, Dixon wants to remind those who are struggling to get going that “just because you need motivation from time to time to declutter, this does not mean you are unmotivated as a person, you might just be dedicating your time and energy to other things in life.”


This artilce was originally published on September 18, 2022, and has been updated on August 7, 2023. 
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