Ask the Experts: 5 Steps to Clutter-Free Living

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Let the decluttering begin. Maybe it's because of decreasing home sales. Or rising gas prices. Or maybe just because it's still spring. Whatever the reason, there are several grassroots movements afoot that have average Joes trying to pare down their possessions and do more living with less stuff. The 100 Thing Challenge is a pledge to cull your belongings to a mere 100 items. If that seems too daunting, there's the 365 Days of Decluttering Challenge, which has people promising to donate, sell or toss one unused item from their homes everyday for — you guessed it — a year.

The biggest challenge, of course, is simply getting started. Organizing experts Julie Morgenstern and Peter Walsh each have their own approaches to decluttering, but they agree that the key to a successful purge is defining what your ideal life should look like and then deciding which of your belongings still fits in the picture. Both are also trying to draw attention to different kinds of clutter: physical, emotional, even temporal clutter. Some stuff keeps you stuck in the past and I-might-need-it-some-day clutter keeps you from focusing on the present. Here are a few of their tips figuring out what to keep and what to toss:

1. Define your vision
In her new book When Organizing Isn't Enough, SHED your Stuff, Change Your Life, Morgenstern advises people looking to declutter to come up with a theme. "No one lets go without reaching for something else," she says. "You need to come up with a theme for the next phase of your life. Giving a name to what you want to do or feel or express will help dislodge you from your current state of stagnancy." Some common themes are creating a nurturing home, striving for career excellence, and focusing on self-expression and enrichment. Walsh agrees. "If you focus on the stuff, you will never ever get organized," says Walsh, author of the bestselling It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff. "The starting point has to be, 'What is the vision you have for the life you want?,'" he says. "Then you're in a position to ask, 'What do I need for this space?"

2. Define the clutter
Once you have your vision or theme, separating the treasures from trash should be a little easier. Ask yourself: does this item help me get there? What doesn't fit gets purged. Morgenstern emphasizes that clutter doesn't have to be messy. "A perfectly organized closet or drawer is clutter if it is filled with clothes that you haven't worn for years," she says. And clutter doesn't have to be made of stuff. "It can be any obsolete object, space, commitment or behavior that weighs you down or distracts you or saps your energy," she says. "It can be bad habits that take up too much time."

3. Start small
Purging can be very emotional. "It's a big mistake to dismiss clutter as junk," says Morgenstern. "These piles are things that were once important to you, to who you once were or who you wanted to be." To help ease you into the process, she suggests starting in the room you are least attached to. If books are your great love—and clutter weakness—don't start your purging project by the bookcases. Move to a less emotional area, like the kitchen or hall closet. Once you are successful in those parts of the house, it may be easier to tackle the rest. "And be ready for the panic," she warns. Every once in a while you will be overcome with thoughts of "what if I really need that later?" If that happens, just take a deep breath, remember your goal and keep going. "Keep in mind that if you aren't careful, what you own will end up owning you," says Walsh.

4. Let your good riddance help others
It might not be as difficult to say goodbye to your belongings if you're giving them to organizations that can really use them. For instance, those books that are gathering dust in your home could be page-turners at a library, school or senior-citizen center. And those skinny clothes that you'll probably never fit into again could be doing a whole lot more than making you feel bad; take them to a charity shop or shelter.

5. Examine all aspects of your life for clutter
Morgenstern points out that poor uses of time, outdated commitments and bad habits can all be defined as clutter and are worthy of purging. Walsh makes the case for a strong mind-home-body connection in his latest bestseller, Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? "If you think about it, the reasons why a lot of people buy stuff are exactly the same reasons why a lot of people run out and eat inappropriate food—to make themselves feel better," he says. "The parallels are amazing. Our homes, heads and hips are connected." At the end of the day, experts agree that there are many different types of clutter, and they all rob us of peace and harmony. So look at the vision that you have for your life and then ask does keeping this item — whether it be a chair, vase or eclair — help me get there.