9 Expert-Approved Essential Skills You Need to Prevent (or Fix) Clutter Issues

The earlier you start in adulthood, the better, pros say

Under the bed storage drawers

Trinette Reed / Stocksy

Take a look around your home, and I would wager you spy at least a couple of areas that are a little too packed with the flotsam and jetsam of your life. In fact, according to the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO), 80% of the “things” we hold on to, we never use. 

So why do we keep everything? One big reason, according to organizing expert Jes Marcy, founder of the Prioritize Your Sanity program, is because we don’t know better. 

“Living within the space you have is not a skill we are taught as children,” Marcy says. “Hoarding has been a revolutionary advantage forever. Until 30 years ago, we have been able to retain resources and use them in the future.” And that is no longer the case. 

Rather than spend decades accumulating things and overwhelming your life, 20-somethings who might be living in a dorm room or heading out on their own for the first time have the chance to learn now how to head off the clutter beast.

1. Know the Difference Between Buying and Learning Organization

“We are living in a world where we have more stuff than we have ever had before,” Marcy says. “Not only do we not have the skills, we are battling nature. Whatever age you are, you can’t buy organization; you learn organization. We try to buy it without understanding anything about our space and organization.”

2. Let Your Space Inform Organization

Understanding the space you have to work with is a critical piece of the organization puzzle, says New York organizer Aly Finkelstein.

“Your space needs to determine what you have. If you live in a larger space, you can keep more stuff. And typically when you are in your 20s, your space is not big,” Finkelstein says. “Most people make the mistake of keeping what they want, not what space dictates.”

When you are just starting out on your own, wherever that might be, you are also starting out with a smaller amount of belongings that an older adult would have. That doesn’t mean everything you have kept from kindergarten to college needs to tag along. 

3. Understand What's Important to You

“In a dorm, you don't bring all your clothes or linens with you,” Finkelstein says. “For me that has been the greatest lesson I have tried to teach people. It’s really a matter of picking what you use and what’s important to you. So many people keep so many things they don’t even use.”

4. Limit Storage to a Designated Space

Marcy is on board with tackling organization lessons early on. Those lessons pay dividends in many other facets of life. “Living within the storage space you have comfortably is a parameter for life like time or money,” she says. And it isn’t all about minimalism. 

“If you have 200 square feet to store your clothing, then that is your parameter to live within unless you choose to shrink another selection,” Marcy says. “Floor space isn’t storage space. We create the idea that we can create more storage space by buying storage items and stuff.” Cluttering up your floors with baskets and furniture that you use for storage also has a strong psychological effect.

“When your eyes fall on something in your house, it is a silent to-do list,” Marcy says. “When you have empty floor space, you can mentally take a breath. If you have empty floor space, you have space to exercise, you can play with your dogs.”

5. Know When to Get Rid of More Stuff

So what if you have culled through your belongings and still can’t keep your home clutter-free? It’s a simple equation, she says. “If you try decluttering and organizing and it doesn't stick, it's because you didn’t get rid of enough stuff. You can’t have 100% of your storage space full or that’s not comfortable. Just like you can’t spend 100% of your time or your money.  You need to leave yourself some room.”

6. Make This Your Mantra: 'Quality Over Quantity'

“It doesn’t feel good to have all that stuff,” Finkelstein says. “The more you have that isn’t useful to you, the less you enjoy it. Get one amazing thing you love so much as opposed to eight  that aren’t as exciting. It’s a really big part of growing up. We are all so trained to value quantity over quality.”

7. Start Early

Young adulthood might seem early to start paring away at your stuff, but it is actually a great time, according to Andrew Mellen, an organizing expert who touts the phrase “Clutter Isn’t Your Problem. You Are. “

“Because they are at the beginning of adult life, this is the perfect opportunity to be mindful of the objects they bring into their life,” he says. “It’s easy to accumulate things if you are not paying attention. Whether it's a dorm or a first apartment, this is the first time they are responsible for everything, even if they have roommates. Building those habits and the structure for yourself now is going to pay dividends whether you live alone, with a roommate or an intimate partner.”

8. Consider This 3-Pronged Approach

Mellen takes a three-pronged approach to keeping your belongings—and your life—manageable:

  • One home for everything
  • Like for like
  • Something in, something out

The first one is crucial not only to streamlining your space but also to maintaining your sanity and controlling your time. 

“That isn’t debatable,” Mellen says. “One example is keys. They are either in your hand, unlocking your home or in a place you designate.” Keeping things in a set space, every time you are done using them for their intended purpose, means you are not wasting time looking for them later. NAPO estimates that people spend a total of one entire year—more than 8,700 hours!—over a lifetime looking for objects they “know have to be here somewhere.”

Getting used to having everything in its place sets you up for a lifetime of good organizational habits. “One wants to approach it with the proper sense of significance,” he says. “The same way you focus on your studies in school.”

9. Choose Smart Storage Solutions That Work for Your Space

Beyond finding a permanent place to store everything, consider the layout of the space you have to work with, says Finkelstein.

“You need to maximize vertical height anyway you can,” she advises.  Also think about storage that you can’t always see for items you need but don’t use often, like under-bed containers or even a bed that lifts up to show secret storage space.

Apartment bathrooms tend to be tiny, she says, so look for over-the-toilet storage and wire racks that can go on the back or front of doors to keep items close by.

And one of the biggest lessons to take from your 20s and beyond? Reframe your relationship with your stuff. 

“It’s important for people to remember what is really important to them, regardless of how beautiful or expensive or functional,” Mellen says. “It’s partly remembering where you want to put your attention and values, such as experiences, relationships and activities. And not on these one-sided relationships with inanimate objects.”