12 Decluttering Tasks to Welcome 2021

Taking a page out of the Japanese handbook with my version of oosouji

As the end of the year fast approaches, I’m thinking about how I can prepare for the year ahead. I haven’t historically been into celebrating New Year’s Eve or Day — if I’m going to make a change or resolution, I won’t wait for January — but this year is different. Obviously.

A lot of my friends say they are “so over 2020,” but we all know logically that 2021 won’t magically make life rosy again. But I do feel different about the new year, which is why I wanted a new way to greet it. 

The Japanese tradition of oosouji is about clearing your physical and mental space to welcome the new year, good fortune, and the gods. Although oosouji has certain rules that I may or may not follow (like starting from the entrance and cleaning clockwise), I am doing a deeper clean than I’ve ever done in such a short time. 

But this won’t be a cleaning and decluttering frenzy like what I did a few months ago. That felt different when I began, urgent. Instead, I’ll focus on being mindful and present while I take care of my home. I believe that handling each task and item with care is the essence of preparing for the new year, not just in my physical space but also in my mind. But if you’re following along, feel free to blast some music and dance around if that’s what feels good 💃

Here are the 12 tasks I’m focusing on the next couple weeks while I prepare to welcome 2021 with open arms.

Fix or recycle anything broken

I’m definitely going to sweep through my belongings once again for one final purge of the year. In addition to looking for things that don’t have nice things to say to me, I’ll also be specifically looking for items that are broken or unused. 

For example, I have an oil heater that’s been sitting by my front door for at least a year, maybe longer. It’s broken, and whenever I tried, I couldn’t find a place that would accept this kind of waste. Because I didn’t want it to end up in the landfill or give it to someone else knowing that it was broken, I passively let it clutter up my entryway. 

No longer! After quite a search this week, I finally found a place that will accept this broken, hazardous item. It’s going to cost me $1/lb to get rid of it, and the facility is about an hour away, but at least I’ll dispose of it in a responsible way. 

Anything else I see or find that’s broken or in disrepair will either get repaired or responsibly discarded. I’m a big fan of giving new life to things, and I was also able to find an electronics recycling place that makes art out of old computers, so we might be taking our old computer there too. 

Scrub the fridge and freezer

I don’t do this as often as I should, but I will be cleaning out the refrigerator. I’m pretty good about keeping the food in the fridge current because 1) we generally eat our food before it goes bad, and 2) I’m sensitive to smells, so if anything gets funky, I sniff it out and compost it immediately.

But we definitely have spills and stray leaves or stems in there that don’t belong, so I’ll be wiping the shelves and washing out the drawers in addition to removing expired items. 

Clear out the kitchen cabinets

My kitchen is not large, but it’s not small either. What I call our pantry is actually a tall cabinet with 3 shelves that are tall and deep, making them a challenge to keep organized — and not for lack of trying. Because it’s just this big gaping hole with very little organization, items tend to get lost in the back corners and forgotten. I’ll be completely emptying my kitchen cabinets to make sure to get everything in the corners, then I’ll replace only the things I want to keep.

If you have an area in your kitchen (or anywhere) like this, take a few moments to see what’s there and if you want to keep whatever it is. While you’re at it, remove anything that you’re honestly not going to eat or has expired. If any of these items are still sealed and within expiration dates, donate them to a food drive, soup kitchen, or other non-profit organization that accepts food. You can also give them to a friend or post them on your neighborhood forum for pickup. 

Does your cabinet get sticky where the honey lives? Mine too. Since I’m emptying the cabinets, I can easily wipe up all those spills so everything is clean for the new year.

Clean all the things

I’m going to finally unclog the tub drain, which has been slow for months. I’ll also make sure the tub and toilets are scrubbed, all surfaces are dusted and wiped down, the floors are cleaned, and the carpet is vacuumed and cleaned of stains. Basically every cleaning implement I own will get good use, and the plan is for my apartment to never have been cleaner (except for maybe when we moved in). I’ll vacuum under the couch and pull up the couch cushions — where we’ll no doubt find random debris, stray French fries, all those missing socks, and who knows what else. 

I do like a tidy home, but I’ve never been what anyone would call a “neat freak,” if that term is still a thing. I definitely don’t mop my ceilings like a friend of mine does, but I have once-in-a-while tasks that make me feel like the place is deeply clean, even if I don’t take the time to do them weekly or even monthly. Sweeping out cobwebs from the front door and balcony, and wiping the vents are examples of these tasks. 

What are those tasks for you? Now is a good opportunity.

Open the windows

While all this cleaning is going on, I’m definitely going to make sure the windows are open. Not only will the cleaning stir up a bunch of dust, but air circulation is important to allow indoor pollutants to clear out, which may be beneficial for allergies

I also like the idea that opening the windows allows your home to breathe in the fresh air with you. 

Opening the windows mid-December may or may not be comfortable depending on where you live, but you can open the windows for as little as 5 minutes per day and that should be enough to freshen up your space. Here in California, we’re fortunate to have pretty mild winters most of the time, so I’m planning to do the majority of the cleaning on a clear day so I can take advantage of the clear air outside.

Clean out the car

The car may be forgotten when we clean out our homes, but not this time. I don’t know about you, but my car has slowly been accumulating clutter, which is actually not normal behavior for us. What’s been happening is that we keep bringing boxes and other stuff to the car to donate them, but then Goodwill is closed when we get there, so we vow to do it next time. But then next time rolls around, and we either forget or have something in the car that needs to be kept hot (dinner) or cold (groceries) and can’t make an extra stop.

Especially if you eat or used to eat a lot in your car, make sure to take out the garbage and vacuum there too. I’m not sure if cars are traditionally included in oosouji, but I definitely want to make sure my car is clean as well.

Address the miscellany

I’m not really a procrastinator, to which anyone who knows me will attest, but even I have some random tasks here or there that have always been pushed to the backburner for one reason or another. Time sneaks by while we wait for the ideal opportunity to take care of that thing, and “I’ll do it tomorrow” may quickly become weeks or months. 

One of the things I will be doing is waxing our West Elm coffee table. We bought it on Craigslist because we couldn’t afford to pay retail, and it’s probably the most expensive furniture we own. Since it’s real wood, it needs care, so I’ll be wiping it down and waxing it.

Another example might be replacing the filters on any number of appliances. Do you have an air purifier, humidifier, vacuum, water pitcher, or anything else that has a filter? Replace or clean the filter if it’s time (or overdue) to make sure the appliance is doing its job properly.

The point is, you know that task you keep putting off until tomorrow? Do it. Today. Right now, even.

Alternatively, make a conscious decision not to do [whatever it is]. Consider how important it is, how long you’ve been putting it off, and determine if it’s something that is actually necessary. Sometimes a task may seem unnecessary now, but later down the road, the reason for doing it becomes clear. If it’s a preventive task that will prevent future issues, it’s worth doing. But if the task is legitimately not necessary, it’s ok to just let it go. It’s one less worry, and that’s what decluttering is all about 👍 

Sweep up outside

If you are lucky enough to have an outdoor component to your home, don’t forget to tidy that too. I only have a small balcony, but it gets covered in leaves as the nearby tree sheds during the fall and winter. This is a task I don’t do often because we don’t go on the balcony, especially in the winter. But I actually enjoy it because the act of sweeping can be therapeutic and is a direct translation of what I feel like I’m doing in my mind. 

If you have a larger outdoor area with leaves, grass, ponds, or whatnot, you may deal with them in a more advanced way (leaf blowers etc), but either way, take the opportunity to be present with the task if you can.

Clear out your inbox(es)

I used to have many different email accounts I was checking regularly, so I started unsubscribing from everything that came in or update my email address if necessary. After a few weeks of that, I shut down those email accounts.

For my remaining email accounts, both at work and in my personal life, I use my inbox like a to-do list. If I have a message in there, it is an action item for me at some point in my day or week. If it’s not for that week, I use the snooze function to make sure it pops up again when needed. Otherwise, it gets filed away or trashed.

Though it seems to be pretty hotly debated among time management and productivity experts, I like Inbox Zero because — if you can believe such a thing — it actually brings me joy. Not the same joy as a good meal, but probably the maximum amount of enjoyment I could get from this digital thing.

That said, I agree with the opponents’ claims that Inbox Zero could be a waste of time — if you’re not addressing the source of your inbox clutter. If you keep deleting those unread emails without ever unsubscribing, you’re absolutely creating more work for yourself and wasting your time.

I have a small number of subscriptions that I kept because I look forward to reading them, but other than that, achieving Inbox Zero meant unsubscribing from dozens (possibly hundreds) of email lists. I was doing this anyway because of my journey to minimalism, so Inbox Zero was an unexpected benefit of my digital decluttering. After a few weeks, I began receiving less and less email, and now the only emails I receive are the ones I actually read.  

Keep in mind that my inbox was already pretty neat with less than 100 messages (none unread) when I started this process. I know people who have thousands, and some in the tens of thousands, of unread emails in their inbox, and I’m not sure how this process would work for them other than setting aside a chunk of time every day to clear out the inbox.

If the idea of Inbox Zero appeals to you, try it! But make sure you’re addressing the root cause of the email volume rather than the symptom of having too many emails. If you’re paranoid like me, you can archive everything, but check your email provider for storage limits and to see what circumstances they automatically delete messages. This way, if you ever need something from an old email, you can search your email and find it. If you’re skeptical, try this process with your personal email first and see how you feel about it before implementing in your work email (or vice versa). 

Even if you don’t achieve Inbox Zero, unsubscribing from irrelevant mailing lists is super helpful on its own. Whenever you check your mail, instead of checking the box to delete a mass message without reading it, open it and see if it’s something you want to continue receiving. If it’s not, tap that unsubscribe link then delete the message.

If you already don’t subscribe to a lot of email lists and you simply receive a lot of emails because you’re busy, you may need other kinds of tips 🤔

Reflect on 2020

I recommend writing this in a physical or electronic journal, but if you’re not into that, do what works for you.

In addition to the heaviness of the events of this year, some of us have been doing a lot of introspection. I spent a lot more time with myself (not the same as by myself) than usual, focused on exploring some big topics. I’ve learned a lot about myself and my relationships with others, both in my personal and professional life. 

To ensure that I remember all I’ve discovered in this year of learning, I’m writing down what I’ve accomplished, quotes that stand out in my memory and what those mean to me, and any moments of clarity I experienced.

A few examples of many: I realized that I want to focus my energy on writing, a daily practice is a legit way to get something done, nourishing my body with healthy food is better than any treat because indulgence isn’t the same as happiness, and less is more.

Reflect on your year and let that inform your big questions in the next section.

Ask what’s really important

The new year feels like a fresh start, and it’s when many people focus on making positive changes. To do that, you have to know what you want first. If you’re not sure what that is, the best way to start is by asking questions.

Again, I recommend writing this down either electronically or in a physical journal, if you’re into that sort of thing (I am). If you don’t like to write, at the very least, talk to a friend or partner about what’s important to you. 

This could be a list of things you’d like to accomplish or it can be an intention you’d like to set to guide you this coming year. A few years ago when I was looking for a new job, I realized that my problem in finding a good job was that I was too impatient and quick to jump at the next opportunity. So I set an intention in January to be patient and find, not just any job but the right job. Sticking to that intention was not easy — especially when I received an offer for a job that was attractive but clearly not the right one — but my current job was worth the wait, and I absolutely learned patience in all aspects of life.

In previous years, eating more vegetables was always something I wanted to work on, but since I was able to develop that habit this year with the help of Kaki’s Minimalist Japanese Kitchen program, I’ll be focusing on getting more exercise and maintaining the good eating habits that I’ve developed this year. I’d also like to reconnect with my mindfulness and meditation practice.

If you need help getting started, try answering one or more of the questions below:

What skill or trait would you like to cultivate?

What would you like more of, or what do you want to continue in the new year? 

What would you like less of, or what would you like to leave behind?

These are just examples, and your answers can be straightforward (like weight loss) or they can be more intentional (like practicing patience), but it works best if they’re specific. Regardless of what you decide, this is an essential step to decluttering your mind so you’re able to focus on what’s most important and make space for personal growth.

Dare to hope

I haven’t been super positive about the world this year. Whenever someone asked me how I was doing, the answer was that, in my tiny corner of the world, I’d been fortunate and doing as well as could be expected. But outside of that, well, you know the story.

But as the year draws to a close, I find myself perking up a little and clearing away some of the negativity from this year. While I recognize that January 1 isn’t a portal to an automatically better year, I am looking at 2021 with cautious optimism.

Closing thoughts

Now that I’m looking at it all together, this list seems like a lot of work for the next couple weeks. If you’re following along and this seems overwhelming, just pick the one or two that resonate most and try the rest throughout 2021. For me, whether or not I finish it all, I know the process will feel reinvigorating.

I’m excited because I’ve found that keeping a tidy home brings joy in itself, and the act of cleaning is a perfect opportunity to practice mindfulness. Especially with oosouji, I won’t be thinking of it as a chore that I want to get out of the way. Instead, I’ll be mindful while cleaning and infuse the good energy and intentions for the new year into my space and the belongings I’ve chosen to keep and move forward with me.

Photo by Hide Obara on Unsplash

Teena Merlan