If your decluttering to do list says “clean out office,” you’re doing it wrong. No worries, we all fall into this trap. We quickly scribble down the things we’d like to get done, without any thought as to the exact steps we need to take.

I’m here to help. So often we wonder why we don’t get anything done, and yet we put giant goals on to our to do lists, like “Paint bedroom” or “Declutter garage”. The problem with these lists is that they neglect to mention all of the smaller items that must be completed to accomplish the big goal.


15 minutes or less

Let’s focus on breaking down a project into the smallest possible actions, preferably ones that take 15 minutes or less to accomplish. Therefore, “Vacuum living room” becomes:

  • Pick up toys that are scattered across the floor.
  • Put couch cushions back on the couch.
  • Empty vacuum container (if needed).
  • Vacuum.

Let’s say your child interrupts you halfway through and never actually get around to vacuuming the living room. The first to-do list (“Vacuum living room”) says that you failed. However, the second list with the small, manageable items, says you’re halfway there!


Focus on progress, not perfection

You see, the more we break down a project into small, manageable items, the more we focus on progress and not perfection. And the more we feel warm fuzzies from accomplishing these small goals, the more we want to keep chipping away at that list.

Think of those thermometer diagrams fundraisers use to illustrate their goal and how much they’ve collected so far. Let’s say an animal shelter is trying to raise $20,000 to buy new beds and toys for their dogs. At the end of the fundraiser, they raised $18,236.75. Which illustration gives you warm fuzzies?

Focusing on perfection. [decluttering checklist]


Focusing on progress. [decluttering checklist]

In both cases, the animal shelter fell short of their initial goal to raise $20k. But the second diagram acknowledges all the amazing progress that was made. Furthermore, it gets people excited about the progress and encourages them to donate more.


Creating a decluttering to-do list (that actually helps you get stuff done)

Decluttering to-do listThere are two ways to go about this:

  1. The first way is to start off with specific categories and write what needs to be done in each category.
  2. The second is to do a brain dump of everything you’d ever want to accomplish in a particular area, then set about the business of categorizing those items.

I personally prefer the first method. I find it easier to take a big project then continually break it down until I have small and manageable to-dos. But if you are so overwhelmed by the numerous to-dos that are screaming in your head, get them all out on paper. (It can be very therapeutic.)

Let’s go back to our original example of cleaning out the office. We all have that one room (or many) that we never want guests to see. It becomes our catch-all for clutter from the rest of the house that we don’t know what to do with.

Let’s break the giant project of cleaning out the office into several categories:

  • Declutter desk.
  • Declutter closet.
  • Address unlabeled boxes in the middle of the floor.
  • Go through pile of random items stacked on the chair.
  • Break down and throw out boxes from moving

We then take each of those categories and break them down further. One thing you may need to do is sort through that pile of papers on top of the desk and figure out what to throw away, what to keep and what to shred.

Breaking down the list looks something like this:

Clean out office

  • Declutter desk:
    • Sort through papers piled on top:
      • Throw out trash.
      • Shred private information.
      • Create folder with papers to keep.
    • Create organization for pens:
      • Find a cup to use as a pen holder.
      • Gather pens.
      • Take a piece of scrap paper and test out pens to see which ones work.
      • Throw out pens that don’t work!
      • Put working pens into pen holder.
    • Go through top drawer:
      • Create trash, donate, and keep piles.
      • Put any papers that you want to keep in the keep folder.
      • Test and put working pens in the pen holder.

And so on and so forth. Take each category on your initial list and break them down into small, manageable items that take no more than 15 minutes to do. If it takes longer, break it down even further.

In some ways, this may seem much more overwhelming. Instead of having one major project on your to-do list (“Clean out office”), you now may have 100 or more items. Yikes!

But here’s the secret: each of those 100 items is small and manageable and can be done in less than 15 minutes. A giant project requires and entire interruption-free day, and let’s face it: that may never happen. On the flip side, if you take 15 minutes every day to tackle just one of those 100 items, you’d reach your goal in a little over three months. Just by committing to 15 minutes a day.


Your turn!

Pick a decluttering project you’d like to focus on. Word of advice: pick small wins first. If you have a whole lotta decluttering to do, pick the quickest project first. It might be much easier (and quicker) to take on sorting through your makeup drawer than it is to clean out the garage.

Write out the things you have to do to accomplish this project, then refine, refine, refine until you have a list of small, manageable items that can each be completed in 15 minutes or less. Most important: Pick an item and go do it! (Remember, focus on progress, not perfection.)


I’d love to hear from you!

What is the decluttering project you’re avoiding most?


4 Comments on Create a decluttering to-do list (that actually works!)

  1. I love lists and being able to cross off each item as it is completed. Thank you for applying this to “housework” as well.

  2. This is such a great idea! I need to declutter my closet but keep avoiding it…now I am going to try and break it down into small tasks (shoes, hanging clothes, baskets..etc.). Thank you for sharing this method!

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