How to Declutter When You Have No Time

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January 2018, and has been updated in March of 2019.

Want to know what the number one struggle is for busy moms when it comes to decluttering?

Time.

I hear it constantly: “I want to declutter, but I just don’t have time.”

Believe me, I get it.

When the sink is constantly overflowing with dirty dishes, laundry mountain is taking up half your couch and you’ve got to carefully navigate a Lego minefield every time you cross a room, the idea of taking on anything to get your home in order can be overwhelming.

But…it’s not a deal breaker.

If you’re sick of feeling like you spend all your spare time cleaning, the simple truth is that you need less to clean. You can read more about that here.

If you’re just embarking on this journey, join the nearly 1,000 fellow moms and  grab your free decluttering starter guide for busy moms: Disaster Zone to Peaceful Home.

There is more than one good way to declutter. And it doesn’t have to be a marathon project where you dump all your stuff into a big pile and begin to sort through it. You can make a big difference in short bursts of time (that don’t equal a bigger, overwhelming mess that leaves you feeling even worse about your home than when you began).

Decluttering, whether a tiny part of a drawer or an entire room, is still decluttering. And at the end of the day, you still wind up with less of what you don’t want (stuff you don’t need/want/use) and more of what you do (space, freedom, time, peace).

If you’re struggling with getting started on a decluttering project because you don’t feel like you have the time to do it, here are my best tips:

How to declutter when you have no time:

1. Make decluttering a priority.

Let me share a short story with you. I Jazzercise (and I’m borderline obsessed with it). One day I arrived late to class, all frazzled and wondering if I should have even bothered to come at all because I hate being late.

At some point, as I was deep in a lunge with sweat pouring down my face, the instructor started sharing her stories of her early days of Jazzercise. It was such an accomplishment to make it to class during these crazy, busy days of our lives with young kids and a full schedule (this particular class has a lot of moms).

And then she said something that hit me so hard I almost fell out of my lunge.

Anyone can find the time to do anything, it’s a matter of honoring that time.

Wow. I have found that sentence echoing so many times in my head since then.

So why, you may ask, am I sharing this story with you?

Because it really hammers down the heart of what the real issue is for many of us.

Your struggle isn’t really with having time. It’s about defining your priorities.

Think about the way you are spending your time. How does it makes you feel?

If you’re tired of living in constant chaos and survival mode, tired of feeling like you have to spend all of your time cleaning up after your life instead of living it, or tired of looking for things, running late or feeling like a hot mess, the best thing you can do is declutter.

And if you want to achieve a real, lasting change then you need to make decluttering a priority. That might mean some sacrifices. But keep in mind, this is only temporary.

This is not the rest of your life. This is a step you are taking to get to be in control of the rest of your life. And I promise you, if you’re willing to make those small sacrifices and put in the work, it will be 100% worth it to you.

Treat your decluttering time the same as you would a doctor appointment or an important meeting. Set a date and time (preferably recurring). Put it on your calendar and don’t schedule anything else during this time. This is a key step in making time to declutter when you feel like you have no time.

2. Declutter faster and avoid overwhelm by breaking your space into smaller zones.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Done is better than perfect, and when it comes to decluttering projects, a little bit done is far better than nothing at all. Remember, decluttering gains momentum as you go along. Check out this list of 25 Quick decluttering projects for some inspiration.

Don’t take on your whole house at once. Break your space down into smaller, manageable zones that align with the amount of time you have to work — this is a concept that you’ll learn to master with the Making Space Decluttering Bundle.

One drawer becomes a dresser, becomes a closet, becomes a room, becomes a floor, becomes a house. If you look at your entire home as your project, it can get overwhelming pretty quickly – and for me, that can even be paralyzing.

Instead, just focus on the one small area you are choosing to work in during your decluttering time. The corner of the play room. A shelf. A drawer. Don’t worry about the rest – you’ll get to that. Just take it one small step at a time.

20 minutes here. 15 minutes there. Get a rhythm going and stick with it for a week or so. You’ll be amazed at what you can accomplish.

3. Define your “Why.”

Research has already shown a strong link between clutter and depression. And Psychology Today reports that, “mess causes stress.”

According to the article, clutter overstimulates us, distracts us and makes us feel anxious, among other negative effects.

So ask yourself: Why is this important to you? Why do you feel like you would be better off with less stuff? Do you want more time for yourself? Do you want to feel less anxious? Do you want to feel like you can commit more of yourself to enjoying time with your kids instead of just picking up after them?

Dig deep and find your true reason for why you want to live a life without clutter. Whatever it is, that is your why. Write it down and put it where you can see it. Put it in multiple places, your planner, on your refrigerator, by your bed. Anywhere it might be helpful to see a reminder of the bigger picture. Let that motivate you to get going.

4. Track your time to identify your windows of opportunity

Think about the flow of your typical day. The majority of us have periods when we’re not actually doing much…even when we feel like we’re busy all the time.

When are you likely to be mindlessly scrolling through things on your phone?

If you’re unclear about where your time is going every day, track it. You can use an online tool like toggl or a spreadsheet. Or just a notebook. Every 30 minutes, spend a couple of seconds writing down what you did over the last half hour. It’s crucial to be honest here — no one is going to see it or judge you, but you need to get the most accurate picture of where your time is going.

After a week of tracking, analyze how you’ve been spending your time.

It may turn out that while you think you spend 45 minutes cooking meals, you’re actually browsing Pinterest for a recipe and spending only 20 minutes actually cooking.

Knowing that, you could tweak your meal planning — maybe have a list of a few quick, easy staples you choose from each week so that you can spend the extra time you’re saving by not browsing Pinterest working on decluttering.

Or you may realize that you’re guilty of spending more time than you thought browsing Facebook or Instagram.  You may see a pattern of times when you’re likely to get sucked into social media. In response, you could set some parameters for times of the day when you’re unplugged. Set your phone aside so you won’t be distracted and use the time you’re gaining back to declutter.  

5. Create more opportunities to declutter.

Knowing where your time is going is half the battle. The other half is having some fail-safe measures in place to be able to power through a task when you really need to.

Just because your kids are around doesn’t mean you can’t (or shouldn’t) do anything aside from playing with them or tend to their every need.

Be real. You don’t need to neglect your kiddos, but every moment of your day does not need to revolve around them — whether you stay home or work outside the home.

Even toddlers can be occupied independently for 10-15 minutes with an engaging activity. Sensory activities are great for this. Break out the playdough, give them a tub with rice and some toys hidden in it. One of my favorites is to give them a dish of soapy water and some rags and let them “give their toys a bath.” Sure, you might have to do some extra sweeping, or change some wet clothes, but they’ll be occupied so you can get some much needed decluttering time too.

Some other ideas to consider are:

  • Utilizing screen time to declutter. You don’t need to do this all day every day, but letting your kiddo have a few minutes to watch an approved show while you get other things done doesn’t make you a bad mom. This makes you a smart mom who knows how best to utilize the resources she has available. And when you’re done, you will have so much more time to play and be involved with your kids.
  • Partner with a friend who has kids who are similar ages and swap baby-sitting days. You watch her kids for a couple of hours on Tuesday while she declutters, then she takes yours for a few on Thursday.
  • Delegate other tasks — Let your spouse cook dinner one night while you declutter. Or designate one evening where you spend some time decluttering while your spouse handles bed time. Let your kids be responsible for putting away their laundry, emptying the dishwasher or taking on other chores around the house.
  • Get takeout and use the time you would have spent cooking and cleaning to declutter instead.
  • Order your groceries instead of dragging yourself (and possibly your kids) through the store and use that time to declutter.

6. Be willing to make sacrifices.

Where can you find those 15 minutes? Maybe you need to get up 15 minutes earlier every day for a little while. Maybe you give up 15 minutes of watching a tv show or reading a book. Maybe you stay up an extra 15 minutes later (just be sure to set a timer so you don’t go over and miss out on sleep).

Remember that this is not the rest of your life. This is a phase you are choosing to grow through so that you can have more control of your time when you’re done.

7. Enlist help.

Find an accountability partner. Enlist your family to help you. Give everyone a zone to work on. If your kids are old enough, have them find some items they are ready to part with. Have your spouse sort through drawers. This isn’t all on you.

Get help with your kids. Got a neighbor, friend, Grandma who could watch them for a few hours so you can work on a bigger chunk of this project? Ask them for help. Swap kid sitting with a friend who is also looking to declutter. Let your kids have a movie afternoon, pop some popcorn and get to work while they watch.

8. Take breaks.

Maybe one week you get up early every day to work on this, and the next week you take the week off from decluttering. Then you jump back to it the following week. Or maybe it’s an every other day task. Or maybe you spend a whole day each week working in 30-60 minute increments and leave it alone the rest of the time. Work at your own pace and at your own speed. You get to decide how long this takes you and when you’re done. Just don’t allow yourself to get overwhelmed.

9. Stash “donate,” “trash,” and “put away” near main areas of your house.

Then when you find yourself with some spare minutes (while your kids are brushing their teeth and getting ready for bed, for example) you can go through a shelf or a drawer. Every little tiny bit counts.

10. Stop when you need to breathe.

You can always pick it back up at another time. Decluttering can be emotionally, mentally and even sometimes physically draining. It’s ok to stop. The goal is not to add stress to your life. It’s to remove it.

Don’t forget, if you’re just starting out, I’ve got some tips for how to begin here, and you can sign up below to get your free decluttering starter guide.

Sign up here to download it for free!

And if you’re really ready to dive into decluttering and learn step-by-step how to declutter every room in your house, overcome common hurdles like dealing with sentimental objects or how to manage the endless influx of toys, check out the Making Space Decluttering Bundle for busy moms here.

Now that you have some ideas for how to make time to declutter, what else might be holding you back? I’d love to hear from you. Or, got some tried and true tips of your own? Share them below – I’d love to hear how you make time for projects like decluttering.

I’m cheering for you!

How to start decluttering when you're short on time (plus a free starter guide)