Closets, even with the best intentions, have a way of filling back up again. Now that the New Year is upon us, you have a few days to do a great job with this closet, and storage containers are on sale, here are some tips to keep ahead of the clutter.

As if our house is ever going to look like those beige, pristine closet systems on HGTV, but there is hope. Getting an over-stuffed closet under control can actually add a lot of happiness and relieve a remarkable amount of stress. It will even save you money if you can find that belt you knew had a while ago and don’t have to buy a new one. It’s not so hard with this checklist.

A note on language: For this purpose, “closet” can include a bedroom or hall closet, the junk stuffed under the bed you’ve previously called ‘winter storage,’ an entire basement, dressers, kitchen cabinets, the garage, other people’s houses, or utility areas inside or outside. If it has too much stuff in it, these principles will apply and help you get unstuffed!

Get Ready:

  • Give yourself a solid 3-4 hours for this task. 5-6 might even be more reasonable. A recipe for disaster is to pull everything out and then not have enough time to sort and put things back in order so you just shove it all back in. Start with the end in mind.
  • Have a stack of plastic bags or big boxes for trash, one for things you plan to donate to charity. If you want to make a little money with your effort, make a separate pile for things you plan to sell on See our article De-Clutter and Make Money for more tips on photographing your items to sell. I am typically not a fixer of things, so if broken things are trash that you haven’t thrown out yet, have two boxes of trash. Otherwise, make a box for things you plan to rehabilitate.

The Five Boxes of Sorting Success:

Prep for Sorting:

  • Start by taking everything out. That includes everything on shelves, hooks, hangers, the floor, in boxes, shoes, in cubbyholes and dangling off of clever specialty hangers. You should see bare walls. If it doesn’t give you a strong impulse to re-paint, there might be more in there to come out.
  • Spread out all that stuff over a big space. The wide terrain is vital for seeing everything at once. You’ll want to unfold bundles and even empty out the contents of boxes. I found a box in my last cleanout– a big box!–in my bedroom closet packed in our old house and had not opened in the 7 years we lived in the new house. It quickly became out much of that I needed! Your bed, a wide floor space, the living room will all work. You want to be able to see most if not everything at once. Ideally, your wide space has good lighting, too.

The Magic Questions of Sorting:

Everything now gets to AUDITION to get back into your closet. Your house is important, you only want the best stuff around you. Your space is valuable and your time is valuable. Everything you don’t need or use keeps you from the things you do need and use, so make it a fierce competition to see what goes back in your closet. Let the best things reign supreme!

  • Do you like the thing? Or do you have it because it was sentimental or you feel like you should keep it? Even things you used to love may not pass this test. It’s OK to grow out of things. It’s OK to appreciate the person who gave it to you and not need to hold onto this baggage.
  • Do you use the thing? That you might use the thing in some unspecific future time is not the same as a functional valuable thing that you use all the time. If you don’t use it, donate or sell it.
  • Is it worn out? We all look better and feel better when we wear clothes that flatter us. Stretched out, faded, missing buttons, worn, full of holes won’t make even the best thing look good anymore. It is OK to trash it and make room in your closet (and your life) for things that do fit and flatter you.
  • Does it fit? Let’s be honest about the difference between ‘yes, it does currently fit the body I actually have,’ and “I really, really, really want it to fit.’ If it does not fit today then trash, donate or sell it.

Returning Items to Your Closet:

You might be taking everything out to use the space for something new. But if you just wanted a cleaner version of what you had, there is a little bit of structure you’ll want to put in place BEFORE your items come back in:

  • Make sure hangers are clean and intact. Broken and bent hangers add to the mess so throw those out with the trash. Clothes go back in with respect, and rest on happy hangers.
  • Group your clothes by function. All jackets at the far end of a closet because you don’t use them all the time. Hang all the pants together, all the shirts together, etc. This makes it easier to find what you need because you only have a foot or two of closet space to look in, rather than the whole thing. Stores have been doing this sort of segmenting for generations because they understand too many choices can be paralyzing. Sort them so the items you use most are right in front.
  • Make boxes and label them for your shelves. Put in things like folded sweaters or gym clothes. Identify a few categories of items that you have several of, and group those into their own box. I have a box now for purses because they are odd sizes and bulky. Hanging them made a mess of the purses and the items they were near. Make a box of scarves, or a box for helmets or workout gear. Organize it by what you have because that signals what is important to you.
    • Group things that are alike together
    • Use boxes for bulky or awkwardly-sized items
    • You don’t have to buy elaborate storage containers, and they don’t have to match
    • Labels are important so you don’t have to spend time thinking about where things are
    • Bonus benefit: labels make it easier for kids to put the laundry away so you can find it!
  • Your space will probably seem more bright with less stuff. If not, replace the lightbulb or find a way to get light into your space regularly. There are several inexpensive LED light fixtures that stick to the wall with some adhesive and go on when you open the door!

Why Cleaning Closets Feels Overwhelming:

If we’re not feeling good about ourselves, then we might fear the upsurge of emotions before we even start. We fear that we might feel worse if we open that box or start pawing through our past.

Let yourself be amazed at how productive you will feel after tackling this item. You’ll be proud of overcoming inertia. And you’ll be proud of reclaiming that space in your house. You’re in charge.

This project might have been lingering for a while and a sense of feeling judged could be holding you back. I felt guilty that I wasn’t taking good enough care of the stuff I had, so I didn’t open that door and deal with it.

Now you are going to take care of those items. You’re going to put them to good use, or you’re going to give or sell them to someone who will make good use of them. Everything will go where it belongs.

You might feel overwhelmed about what to do with the things you pull out of there. It might leave you with a bigger mess or it will all go back in the closet and this will just be wasted effort.

Be confident that you are creating a better space in your home, and you will donate the items that no longer fit. Pick a place to donate to before you start if “where to send it” is a stumbling block so you don’t have to make that decision again, which can reduce stress.

The Aftermath:

For the items you plan to sell, set those aside for another day when you can take photos and give them your full attention. There are several steps to that project as well, so don’t wear yourself out.

The sorting is generally the hardest part because of the emotional connection to all the things you will find in your closet. There is quite a lot of mental energy for evaluating each item, too. It’s tiring work. But don’t drag it out longer than it needs to go. Get the trash bags out to the curb and carry the boxes of items to donate to your trunk right now.

The Future:

Keep your closet tidy with a few shifts in your mindset:

  • Savor the joy of the fresh, clean space. Smile when you find things when you need them and enjoy the brighter and airy space you have. There is remarkable value in just knowing that you’ve completed that big To Do item. Open that door, touch your favorite items, let the accomplishment and clean lines make you happy.
  • Add a fragrant candle or scent you like to the space to add to the positive association every time you enter or use the space. I really like cedar and put hanging cedar blocks in all the closets I have cleaned up to remind me ‘that’s what accomplishment smells like.’
  • Reduce your shopping. It is a common coping mechanism to buy things to help us feel good, or we might accumulate items we don’t need so we feel more secure. No judgment here, just gently ask yourself if you really need the items you’re considering buying, or if you are actually looking for something deeper. Sometimes a new thing can make us feel great, and sometimes it can simply add to negative feelings. Fewer items coming in the house means fewer items to clog up your closets in the future. Simple strategies like making it harder to log in at Amazon with a two-step login, or cutting up a credit card can help manage those impulses.
  • Ask yourself if you really want to store that new thing. When we shift our mindset from “that’s a dazzling new item” to “that’s a thing I have to store and dust for three to five years,” the dazzle tends to wear off a little.
  • Be gentle with yourself. If (when!) it gets messy again, know that you are capable of cleaning it up when you’re ready. And no, you do not have to take on the rest of the house right now. Enjoy your accomplishment.

Good luck with your closet. Please share ideas and suggestions about what has worked for you in the comments area below.

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