Oh my, what a topic.

If you found yourself here because you need help decluttering your apartment, I can certainly help.

I’m currently living in my most minimalist-style apartment to date, and it took me a literal decade to get to this point (the story behind that is at the very end of this article, and I’d welcome you to scroll down and read it).

I’m coming from a history of cramped, messy and cluttered NYC apartments, so I think that gives me the credibility of finally cracking the code for how to declutter a small apartment.

We’re giving the decluttered life a new try in our current Brooklyn apartment, where we’re seeking to:

  • Eliminate visual clutter
  • Only keep what we need
  • Continually purge things we don’t use
  • Communicate with each other on a continual and ever-present decluttering plan that works for us

The following is my list of decluttering tips for your small apartment, whether your own, or shared, and I hope you find a huge amount of value in how to start a new life free of your own clutter.

Let’s begin! Where do we start?

Get rid your stuff & declutter your life

I made this my mantra in 2020. It’s the straightforward answer for “how do you declutter an apartment” as soon as possible!

I started listening to the Minimalists podcast and I took the feeling of “my apartment is so cluttered” to “how do I declutter my house?” (and make money at the same time?)

This is my guide to selling your stuff and making money online, which in turn becomes one of the best budget lifestyle hacks to date.

It’s more than that, though. There’s a step-by-step guide that I’ll take you through, for decluttering your apartment, purging your home of things you don’t need, and starting a minimalist vibe that will declutter your apartment AND your mind.

So, how do you start decluttering if you’re overwhelmed? Let’s begin, by breaking the decluttering process into simple steps in this guide.

Determine where most of your clutter is.

Some people have bathroom clutter. Some people have kitchen clutter. Some people have bedroom clutter that is confined to a small bedroom.

If you live in a studio apartment, you may find that this is the hardest because a lack of walls leads to a feeling of clutter all throughout the apartment.

Here’s your action item: Pin down where your clutter is.

Maybe you need to tie streamers around cluttered areas to visually point them out to yourself. Maybe sticking post-it notes on cluttered shelves or drawers will give you a reminder that ‘these are places where clutter lives.’

The first step is to determine where most of the apartment clutter is located, and then continue into your decluttering plan.

Helpful Tip

As a tip, I recommend starting a spreadsheet, if you like being extremely organized.

Decide if the clutter is all yours, or if you share the clutter with someone else.

Are you responsible for the clutter? Is it your messy spouse? Is it your roommate who doesn’t believe in organizing things?

Here’s your action item: Point a finger (figuratively) at whose responsibility the clutter is.

If you don’t want to be starting battles within the home, do this really nicely.

If the clutter is getting in the way of your life so detrimentally that it needs to be an intervention, then come prepared with your reasons when discussing why clutter makes you stressed, upset or unsettled.

Next, move on to the start of your apartment decluttering plan.

Pin down if the clutter is needs, or wants.

When you look at clutter, it can fall into a few categories.

  • Things you use every day (for example, the kitchen spices, or your face products in the bathroom)
  • Things you like to look at (collections, art, mementos of vacations, books)
  • Things that wound up in a miscellaneous pile (for me, this was a bizarre assortment of accessories, papers, purses, scarves, and unused electronics)
  • And, decide if the clutter is stuff you will 1000% use in the future (extras of toiletries, jewelry for certain occasions, seasonal clothes, items for your home office)

Here’s your action item: Start the mindset of decluttering your apartment and your life with this in mind: “Do I need this to live my life, and does it make me happy?”

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I am sure you are getting huge Marie Kondo vibes from this section, but she was really onto something when she had us all ask ourselves: “Does this spark joy?”

Sorting your needs (clothing, food, body products) from your wants (extras of basically everything) will help do the trick.

Determine if you can keep the clutter, and store it better.

When I looked at my clutter, it made me feel sort of wasteful. I was looking at scarves, purses and random things that wound up in my “I’ll-look-at-this-later” drawer and for anything that I had at one time purchased and never used, I felt sorry for myself.

That red clutch bag with a removable strap? I think I used it three times, and none of those times were in the last five years.

A green neck scarf from Argentina that my friend handed off to me as a heartfelt keepsake? I have never as much as worn it, but I can’t give it away or trash it.

Between these two items, for example, I knew which I could give away and donate, and among the other things in my drawers and deep in my closet, I started working on the list of stuff I wanted to sell online.

Decide what to do with unwanted clutter.

Deciding what to do with unwanted clutter is one of the most painful yet also liberating parts of the process as your decluttering plan continues.

One of my biggest tips for decluttering your apartment is that once you decide what to do with stuff you want to get rid of, follow these rules:

Try to make money off of some of your valuable or name-brand items.

If something will be of value to someone else (i.e. it doesn’t fit you anymore, it’s slightly out of style, it doesn’t give you joy, or you don’t like it anymore), default to selling it to make some money.

Next, determine if anything is of value to friends or family.

Are you stuck with some heirlooms from grandparents, or old things that belonged to your parents or siblings? Offer them back to these people in your family, and they may be worthy of some good memories.

If you find that you have anything you borrowed from friends ages back, offer it back to them! Or, determine if any of the stuff you want to part with would be enjoyed by another friend.

For anything that you can’t sell, donate.

We started donating stuff we decluttered in our apartment to several places near our home: Goodwill, Salvation Army, a store that either buys your items for consignment OR donates them to fabric recycling as discards, and a store that accepts donations and re-sells them for proceeds going to HIV and AIDS.

Donating feels good!

For anything that can’t be donated, recycle.

Recycle anything that’s recyclable, like plastic, glass, metal or paper.

For anything that can’t be recycled, leave it outside on the curb or stoop.

We left some items that didn’t fit recycling or donation categories on our front doorstep, and were pleasantly surprised to see that by nightfall, they were gone (or blew away).

Or, they got put in the trash, but we’d rather not know about that.

Have you decluttered your apartment yet with these tips?

Purge and get rid of the clutter you do not need.

Purge the rooms of your apartment one by one, or move in steps, checking off the boxes of your various spaces:

  • Bedroom: dresser, under the bed, desk, closet
  • Kitchen: cabinets, storage racks, counterspace, under the sink
  • Bathroom: medicine cabinet, storage under the sink, any extraneous racks or storage spaces
  • Hallways: shoe racks, entryway tables, cabinets, etc.

Assess your apartment decluttering plan for organizing stuff.

Now that you’ve hopefully decluttered different areas of your apartment little by little, assess your apartment decluttering plan!

Is it working? Are you motivated? Could you do better? Should you revisit all your apartment spaces in 3 months?

This will be different for everyone, but if you stand by these tips, you’ll make great progress in decluttering your home and your life, from useless mess and things.

Eliminate visual clutter in your home.

Now that you hopefully sold, donated, recycled and gave away some stuff, work on hiding visual clutter.

One thing I aimed to do with a blank slate when we moved into our most recent apartment we currently reside in was to hide piles of ‘stuff’ and have only things in visibility that I wanted to look at.

In this way, we’ve made great decluttering and organizing progress in our apartment.

I keep my home office space and desk free of most things except those that I use for working every day (laptop, mouse, headphones, coasters for coffee and tea)

We keep our kitchen neat and tidy, and we’ve minimized the number of postcards and magnets we stick to the fridge.

We have one single bookshelf for all our travel books, cookbooks, and travel knick-knacks.

We put several items on our dresser like a vase of dried flowers, a plant and a jewelry box, and consciously try to not add anything to that space to keep it simple.

There are some types of storage spaces you can get that are both cute and will hide clutter from view, assuming you’ve already decluttered your apartment with your declutter plan:

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Use an upcoming move as an opportunity to declutter.

I was insanely excited to move, after living in our third (how do I count properly?) NYC apartment together for two years.

I used our move as a time to purge, take inventory of what we owned, determine if we had excess, and declutter, declutter, declutter.

I was really proud of us after moving into a new space, using a vision board from Pinterest that we shared, focusing on smart storage, smart uses of spaces, and how much space we’d dedicate to items we didn’t use daily.

I admit we are not perfect. In fact, one of our downfalls is that we like saving boxes (reduce-reuse-recycle!) and much of our closets have boxes with other boxes in them… for the next time we move (New Yorker mentality).

In any case, we moved mostly with items that meant something to us, or provided crucial functions (laptop stands, and our travel gear collection!).

Your action item at this phase is: Use a move to another apartment, a new house, or a different bedroom as a chance to purge, declutter and start fresh, leaving everything unnecessary (clutter) at the door.

Employ clever ways to organize a small apartment.

Lastly, start getting smart with smart ways to organize a small apartment and hide any clutter that can’t be purged.

My best advice is to “think vertically.”

This means think about what can go on walls, stand upright and maximize space, especially in a closet, so that your belongings are organized and you can always easily take inventory of what you own and employ a one-in-one-out theory if you wish to be strict on yourself.

Here are some smart organizers for a small apartment when you’re decluttering:

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Conclusion: Start decluttering today, with your decluttering plan

Did my tips and tricks help you with how to declutter your house in one day? Probably not, but my decluttering guide for a small apartment is a great way to start if you want your decluttering process to be enjoyable and not stressful.

Remember: get rid your stuff, and see how you can “declutter your life.”

If you can’t stop thinking, “my apartment is so cluttered,” just know that I felt the same way, time and again.

And if you found my advice helpful, share this list of small apartment decluttering hacks with someone else who’s trying to figure out how to declutter their life and mind.

Super Conclusion: The true story of how I got into a decluttering hobby

I’ve always been neat. I’ve never liked a mess, but somehow, starting in my 20s, after college (during college I recall being super neat and organized), I let things pile up.

I come from a wide array of apartment experiences, going from big to small, small to big, and likewise, in this cycle during my 20s and 30s.

In my first apartment as an adult, I lived in Shanghai, China, where I was given a massive (free) apartment as part of my salary and benefits as an expat. I had a two-bedroom apartment that I had no idea what to do with, having arrived with two suitcases.

Surprise, surprise, I never really had enough stuff to fill it up and I wound up using one room of it, and I think I touched the kitchen about six times in 10 months (I’ve changed a LOT since I was 22).

In terms of the clutter, I never really had ways to organize things, and nor did I care at the time, because my goal was to spend as little time there as possible.

The apartments that followed this bizarre living scenario ranged from full-term leases, to sublets, to finally moving in with my now-life-partner, Dan

After my first strangely-large apartment in Shanghai, I moved into a place I could call my own, a two-bedroom apartment with a huge living room and tall ceilings. I still didn’t have that much stuff, but I accumulated a fair bit through shopping and just living my life. Did I ever declutter? Not really, not until the week I moved out and gave away my towels, bedding, pots and pans to some very lucky friends of mine.

When I moved [back] to NYC in 2013, I had the tiny bedroom in a three-bedroom apartment I shared with two other women in their 20s. My goal was also to spend as little time in this apartment as possible, and that’s probably because it lacked space and natural light.

Helpful Tip

Are you planning a move to NYC? See our breakdown of the best neighborhoods to live in, in NYC.

Given the sheer size of my bedroom, I don’t think I truly accumulated that much, and I certainly didn’t move out with too much.

But, as per my immediate small-to-large and large-to-small cycle of living arrangements, I next lucked out with the master bedroom in a four-bedroom apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

It was there that I became a true accumulator. I could’ve used a course all about decluttering. I moved in, inheriting essentially all the furniture from the roommate before me. The pro was that all the furniture was already measured to fit, and it was plentiful: a full-size desk, a plush leather chair, a queen-sized bed with a bed frame, a rug, a desk chair, oh, and two full-sized closets.

I lived like a rockstar in that bedroom, and due to its size, it became a magnet for accumulating clutter: clothes, shoes, bags, jewelry, hair products, extra blankets, towels, books, oh my gosh, I’m already stressed.

My biggest lesson learned when I moved out of that master bedroom (it was the size of a studio apartment on its own) was that I had to get rid of things and sell them when the lease ended and I had to move.

Remember the big-small-big-small cycle? My next apartment, in 2017, was a sublet on 78th St. near Broadway, and it was the smaller of two rooms. In fact, it was quite tight. It had a desk I used zero times, a small wardrobe, and a queen-sized bed. I guess there was also a dresser that I used as a … dresser. This room was not memorable.

I moved into that room in a jiffy, with the ‘stuff’ from my previous place, and not the furniture (as I had sold it). Had I truly decluttered though? Not so much. I just unpacked my boxes, set up everything in groups, and never organized anything again.

Where did I go next (and are you having fun reading about the synopsis of my NYC apartment history)? I moved in with Dan, in Brooklyn Heights.

We made the same novice mistake (well, I did) of simply transferring everything from one apartment to the next. The main idea was that we wanted to save money, which is a mindset we borrowed from when we travel on a budget, and we wanted to apply it to our real life at home.

While our apartment itself was clean, white, modern and full of natural light coming in from the Hudson River, we put up shelves and just loaded our stuff into them without taking interior design into account much at all. We went through our world maps and posters, and pinned them to walls, we set up excess kitchen items on open shelves and we filled up our double closet with clothes we’d never wear.

This is getting exhausting, but the story continues because we continued on in 2018 to “sell everything” (except the stuff we kept) and travel the world while working remotely until 2019, with just bags on our backs, packing like the minimalists that we strive to be.

After our trip around the world (seriously!), we moved into a two-month sublet with only a few bags, and then moved into our home for two years in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. You can see photos here.

I find it a little hard to describe that no matter how hard we tried, the space didn’t come out as ‘minimalist’ and ‘decluttered’ as I was always hoping. We always had a box of something new, or stuff on the coffee tables, collections on the dressers and more.

Now, with the tips we’ve spoken about here, we’re on a journey to a life-long lifestyle of keeping our space decluttered and visually minimal.

If you’re on a journey to lifestyle optimization, check out our guides to life at home.

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Last updated on November 7th, 2021