Ask Maxwell: How Can I Stay on Top of my Kid’s Clutter?

published Aug 1, 2022
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Credit: Maxwell Ryan
Here's one of my Outboxes with our Patroness Saint, Billie Eilish, who watches over our progress.

My house is a living, breathing mess of my two kid’s clutter, and, especially with school coming up in a month, I need to get control of it. Any help would be appreciated.


Dear Baki,

I’ve been working on bringing my first book, Apartment Therapy: The Eight-Step Home Cure, to video over the past two months and it’s got some great tips in it that I’ve updated and which I think you might find helpful. I’m going to take the next few weeks to select some sections just for you. This first one, on The Outbox, I would use with your children and give yourselves all a nice reward, ice cream or some family treat, when you complete a cycle.

Enjoy! M

The Outbox is Your Friend
One of the most powerful tools that I’ve discovered to deal with the overwhelming problem of clutter is called The Outbox.  We all know what an InBox is in a mailroom or on a desk, and we’re all wired to be very good and bringing things INTO our home, but very few know what the opposite is – the Outbox – which is just what we need to move things out of the home, restoring balance and bringing calm back in. 

In this session I’m going to walk you through how The Outbox works, why it works and you can start using it right away on any drawer, closet or room in your home. 

The Outbox is your ally as you work to remove clutter from your home. Clutter is like a sentient BEING and it doesn’t like to move and it resists being thrown out. That’s why it’s called clutter. It’s a very smart, very strong little pest and you need a really good tool to get past its defenses. Then it’s easy. 

The Outbox works because it DISARMS clutter and uses a two-step process that allows you to figure out if you need something without having to decide what to do with it immediately. 

Most clutter clearers will tell you to sort through your belongings and remove a certain amount to the garbage, to recycling or to a giveaway pile. This is first generation clutter clearing. It focuses mainly on identifying clutter that will immediately be taken away. The problem with first generation thinking is that it doesn’t take into account that there are really two problems:  

1. Do I want to get rid of it? How much of the clutter do I want to clear? 
2. If I think I don’t need it and can clear it out, where should it go? What’s the destination?

I’ve found, over time ,that the first problem is not too hard, It’s this second problem on top of the first that stokes separation anxiety and what I want you to focus on. 

When faced with two anxiety-provoking decisions, most people get stuck and simply hold onto things as a default. Second generation clutter management unhitches these two stressful decisions. It deals with organization first and separation later. 

This is how you do it:
1. First choose a space that is clearly defined. This area should be out of the way of daily activities and be a place you can comfortably allow to get messy and chaotic. A closet, a guest room or simply a box is perfect for this, but any small area or corner that’s out of the way will do. 
2. Designate this as your Outbox. This is where you put things that you THINK even a LITTLE BIT that you might be able to get rid of and clear out.

The Outbox is not the garbage, it is a halfway house for your clutter, where things go to sit while their fate is being decided. You should never be afraid to put something in the Outbox, AND you can always take anything in the Outbox back into your home at the end of this process. 

BUT a strange thing happens when you start to use the Outbox. 

Once an item – let’s call it a SENTIENT CLUTTER BEING – has been separated from it’s energetic source – it’s Clutter Energy Center – it releases it’s almost magical hold over the owner and becomes just an ordinary object that one can easily decide what to do with. 

One client compared it to the phenomenon children experience when they fall in love with a rock that is wet and shiny from a lake or sea, which they then want to take home. Later, when the rock has dried off and is no longer shiny, it becomes just a plain old rock again, and that strong sudden attachment that started when it was shiny and wet suddenly disappears. 

NOW you are faced with one remaining decision, which is much easier to make:  Where should this box of clutter go?  Can I give it away, recycle it or do I have to throw some of it away?  All of these decisions, if made at the beginning would have been paralyzing but with CLUTTER TRACTOR BEAM BROKEN it’s a simple logistical decision and you already have them in a box to transport them to their next destination. 

As simple a concept as it is, the Outbox has proven to be extremely successful in allowing people to clear out and clean their homes efficiently on a regular basis. I start a new one each new season or when I’m working on cleaning out a closet or room, and simply let it fill up… waiting at least a week or two before I decide: 

a. If I want to bring something back in (you totally can) and 
b. Where the heck I’m going to take the box of stuff to

So, let’s review…

1. Anything can go in the outbox. If you have the slightest inclination to get rid of it or give it away, put it in!  As Marie Kondo famously said, “if it doesn’t give you joy, put it in the Outbox!” Actually I added the last bit.
2. The outbox is allowed to be messy. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of it all at the end. 
3. Everything must stay in the Outbox for at least one week. Longer is also fine. 
4. After that time, you then get to decide:
a. If you want to take something out
b. Still undecided? Leave it in for another week
c. Take the rest to recycling, giveaway or garbage…. 

It’s really that easy and you’ll be amazed at how much easier this second step is once you’ve already organized and decluttered your room, closet or drawer and now only have to decide what to do with this box of odds and ends.

ALSO once you get used to separating possessions first and disposing of them later, you’ll want to put more and more in the Outbox and the process of decluttering around your home will become easier and easier. 

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Maxwell Ryan is a father and was an elementary school teacher in NYC before founding Apartment Therapy. He’d love to answer your question: This piece was created for Cubby, our weekly newsletter for families at home. Want more? Sign up here for a weekly splash of fun and good ideas for families with kids.

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