Decluttering on a Deadline

By Lisa Linard, Professional Organizer


So you’ve decided to sell your house and you need to get rid of stuff…fast.

Chances are you’ve got a deadline and the thought of decluttering in a short time frame is making you anxious.

First, take a deep breath. You’ve got this! You can follow these steps to make the process less daunting, more efficient, and (dare I say it?) more fun.


1. Determine your “why”

Why do you want or need to declutter? Some of your reasons might be your own, and some might be suggested by your real estate agent or home stager. Do you want to:

  • Fit all of your belongings into your new, smaller home?
  • Remove personal items for an open house?
  • Get rid of a storage unit?
  • Prepare your home for staging?
  • Make unpacking in your new home go more quickly?

Your “why” might be one of these, none of these, or all of these! Write your “whys” down so you can refer back to them if you need to refocus. They will be your North Star.


2. Prioritize and set goals

Let’s face it, if you have a short period of time to accomplish your decluttering, you might not be able to get it all done.

Be realistic. Sit down with a pen and paper or your iPad and make a list of all of the areas or categories of stuff you want to declutter. Then, rank them in order from most to least important and star the ones that MUST GET DONE.

To determine priorities, ask yourself questions like:

  • Does my new place have specific space limitations? Fewer closets, a smaller basement, no kitchen pantry, less room for my favorite hobby?
  • Are there certain categories of items taking up a disproportionate amount of space? Clothes, sporting goods, tools, kitchen appliances?
  • Are there any spaces with safety issues?
  • Where do I have the most personal items (photos, mementos, clothes) that I need to remove?
  • What space(s) in my home will be most appealing to buyers once they’re tidied up?

Don’t be afraid to ask your real estate agent or home stager for guidance.

Once you determine your priorities, set some milestones for completing the work and figure out how you’re going to reward yourself when you hit those milestones. My personal favorite is ice cream, but you do you!


3. Prepare

Before you pick up a single tchotchke, lay the groundwork for success.

  1. Block out time on your calendar for decluttering. Plan your first few sessions for 15-30 minutes to ease into the process. Eventually work up to sessions of 3-4 hours. Any more than that and you may get “decision fatigue” and lose motivation.
  2. Eliminate distractions. Plan to have someone take your kids out for a few hours, sequester your pets, and turn off your phone. The more focused you are, the faster the project will go.
  3. Get the right supplies. You’ll need:
    1. Bags for trash, recycling, and donations — I like clear bags for donations (to differentiate them from trash)
    2. Cardboard boxes for donations — Get these for free at your grocery or liquor store
    3. Light cleaning supplies — wipes, spray cleaner, paper towels
    4. Three to four large bins for sorting — plastic storage bins work well
    5. A couple of Sharpie markers — for labeling bags and boxes
    6. Packing tape — for packing up donations
  4. Enlist a buddy. Grab your sister, your kid, or your friend to help and you could double your pace! Pick someone who can help you make decisions, load and carry boxes, and be an accountability partner. It’s important that this person be objective and supportive of your goals. If you want expert help, consider hiring a professional organizer. More on this below!
  5. Schedule a donation pick-up (or two). Many charities will pick up your stuff. Be sure to read their guidelines so you don’t put stuff out that they don’t take. In the Boston area, try Vietnam Veterans of America, Salvation Army, Mission of Deeds, Epilepsy Foundation, or More Than Words. You can find others at Note that they’re often booked several weeks out, so plan ahead!
  6. Find the nearest donation drop-off location. You will probably have items that your pick-up charity won’t take, and you’ll probably come across more stuff later. Many charities have drop-off locations and boxes. Try Goodwill, More Than Words, or Savers. Again, research what they take before making a drop-off.
  7. Find a shredding resource. If you’re going to have paper to be shredded, research options. If it’s just a box or two, you can do it at Staples or UPS for a per-pound fee. If it’s more than that, look into local shredding companies. Note that your town likely doesn’t accept shredded paper in recycling, so if this is important to you, hire a shredding service that recycles.
  8. Find a junk hauler. If you think you’ll have a lot of stuff that you won’t be able to donate, look into companies like Clean Out Your House, 1-800-GOT-JUNK, or Junk King. These companies usually require just a few days advance notice.


4. Determine where to start

You’ll want to declutter one space at a time, so pick one. That space can be as big as your garage or as small as your junk drawer.

Keep in mind that your highest priority space or category may not always be the best place to start. You want to start somewhere that’s quick and easy, will boost your confidence, and will get you in a groove.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself.

  • What small tasks or areas can I complete in 15 minutes?
  • Where can I make measurable progress really fast?
  • What space has the smallest amount of sentimental stuff?

Once you get started you’ll probably get on a roll and look forward to the next space. Start tackling the high-priority spaces next to ensure they get done.

Keep in mind that decluttering takes time and you may need multiple sessions to finish a space. How long it takes to finish a room depends on how much stuff there is and more importantly, how quickly you can make decisions. Keep track of how long it takes you to finish each space so you can estimate for future spaces.

If you decide you just can’t do it, consider hiring a professional organizer to help.


5. Get to work decluttering

  • Before you start, eat and get hydrated. Have a bottle of water on hand, too. You want to be firing on all cylinders.
  • Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and picture what the space will look like when you’re done.
  • Get out a bag for trash, your cleaning supplies, and line up your sorting bins. Label them:
    • Donate — You’ll pack this stuff up later
    • Recycle — Please do!
    • Rehome — For items that belong somewhere else in your home
    • Shred — Only necessary if you’re going through paperwork
  • Start looking at items. Work around the room, either clockwise or counterclockwise. If you bop around willy nilly, you’re likely to get distracted.
  • For each item, ask yourself the following questions. This is a time for honesty!
    • Is it broken? Is it fixable and will I actually fix it?
    • Will I need it in the future? If so, could I rent or borrow it if I didn’t have it? Would it be expensive to replace?
    • Do I use it? How often? Do I have something else that does the same job?
    • Do I have multiples of this item? Do I need more than one?
    • Am I keeping it out of guilt?
    • If I saw this in a store today, would I buy it?
    • How do I feel when I look at it? Do I love it?
    • Could I take a picture of it and get rid of the actual item?
  • Resist the urge to give items to other people unless they are of significant value to that person. Otherwise, you’re just passing along the burden!
  • Put items into the appropriate bins. When the bins get full, take a few minutes to bag items, take out the recycling, etc. You’ll need the mental break and it’ll feel good to move around.
  • At the end of your session, gather up your supplies, tidy up the space a bit, and take out the trash, recycling, and donations. Then stand back and admire your work!


Some tips for saving time

  • Don’t agonize over an item for more than a minute. If you can’t decide, set it aside and come back to it later.
  • Work with a buddy. Extra hands and minds can make physical work and decision-making go more quickly.
  • Donate, don’t sell. Unless you have really unique, really high-quality items to sell, you’re probably not going to make as much money as you’d like. Selling takes a lot of time and involves dealing with a lot of potential buyers, and it’s usually more trouble than it’s worth. Plus, donating your items so someone else can use and love them just feels good!
  • Skip the donation receipts. Check with your accountant to see if itemizing your donations is worth it.
  • Keep bins or boxes around the house for ongoing decluttering. Whenever you notice an item you can get rid of, drop it in the nearest box.
  • Make re-homing automatic. If you see an item that’s out of place, grab it the next time you’re on your way to where it belongs.
  • Don’t bring any new items into the space. If you must, follow the one in/one out rule. The last thing you need when preparing to move is more clutter!


Finally, make it fun!

Mary Poppins knew the secret: “For every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and ‘snap!’ the job’s a game!” Try these spoonfuls of sugar to make your sessions more enjoyable.

  • Have a competition. If you’re decluttering with someone who shares your space, see who can get rid of the most items.
  • Chant a mantra. “Let it go.” “Less is more.” “Move it out.”
  • Set a timer in 15-minute increments and give yourself a reward every time it beeps.
  • Listen to an audiobook or podcast.
  • High five your organizing buddy when you make a hard decision.
  • Put on your favorite music.
  • Picture the recipient of your donation loving and using it.
  • Take before and after pictures. Post them on social media for some virtual pats on the back from friends!


Ready to get to work? Click HERE to download a helpful outline that will get you started.


Plan B: Hire a professional

If you developed hives over the course of reading this post, consider enlisting the help of a pro. Professional organizers are trained to ask the right questions, understand the emotions that go along with decluttering and keep you moving forward.

Bonus: We know where to take your donations and many of us will do it for you! We can also help you pack for your move so it goes more smoothly and set you up in your new home so everything works efficiently.

Want to learn more about how a professional organizer can help you? Contact me at

Happy decluttering!




Lisa Linard, Professional Organizer


  1. December 04, 2019 by Jill Urbancic

    This article is incredibly helpful. It feels like you have read my mind! I love you too much to let you sift through my clutter; however, I would love a visit from you when we get into our new space… probably March.

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