Got more stuff than space? Can't find what you do have? Decluttering your home of excess items can take some time and determination, and for some it's a cathartic experience. Opening up the space you live in sometimes opens up new spaces in your life: for friends and entertaining, for a new hobby, or for more space for family activities.

If this is your first go around with clutter in your home, have patience. Be gentle with yourself. Realizing you have more stuff than you need is a step in the right direction to editing it down. It's not a project you can accomplish in one sitting. That clutter didn't just appear in an afternoon, and it's going to take longer than that to get it under control. But the good news is even a little effort will pay off big dividends right from the beginning.

A very basic decluttering method is the Keep, Give and Toss system. Label three sturdy boxes: Keep, Give, Toss. Look at every item in your home and decide if you want to keep it, toss it, or if it could be given away or sold. Then put it in the labeled container and keep going. Line the toss box with a garbage bag and you can keep reusing that box.

Try your local grocery store for sturdy cardboard boxes. Also stop by copy centers for copy paper boxes. They're great because they have covers and stack nicely.

This process sounds simple, but you may need to be ruthless at times, or you may need a friend for moral support. This process requires that you really "look" at your belongings and think: Do they serve you? Are they useful? Or are you serving them by having to make space, clean, arrange, or otherwise deal with them? If you can really say they enrich your life and you use them, then they stay. If they can enrich someone else's life, they can be given to charity or sold. Keep an eye out for duplicate items as well; kitchens are a great source of multiple items. How many can openers do you really need?

You'll also be living with some boxes for as long as it takes to finish this project. You, or other family members, may find this uncomfortable or annoying. It's part of the process, and for some, motivates them to finish it. Getting rid of the boxes along with the clutter is a tangible sign you're making progress.

If you're on a whole house purge of excess items, you may also be looking getting rid of furniture, beds, appliances and computers or electronics. It's sometimes impractical to dispose of these as you make the decision to give them away or throw them out. Keep a list of what will go and when you're done with the rest of the process, return to deal with these items.

If you plan on tossing furniture or appliances, know your city ordinances regarding large items left curbside. Most require arrangements made ahead of time for pick up of large items such as mattresses or furniture. And never leave appliances, especially refrigerators, outside without disabling their doors. Small children and animals can become trapped inside and suffocate.

If you have electronics or computer components, check for a recycling center that accepts these items, rather than cluttering landfills with electronic items. Many cities have drop off centers as well for these items.

A special note about garage and basement items: if you have paint, chemicals or motor oil to get rid of, never dispose of these by pouring them down the household drain. Check with your local government agencies or online for drop sites for many of these difficult to dispose of products. Some areas also have drop sites for expired prescription medications.

Okay, back to decluttering. If you really cannot decide on an item, or there are sentimental attachments you need to overcome, or you need to consult a family member before a final decision can be made, you can add a fourth, Undecided, box to your project. This can hold those undecided objects, but only for a very limited time. Mark the box with a date in the near future, and pick a quiet day to go through just that box.

If the Undecided box is starting to hold more items than the Give Away or Sell, you may need to stop and re-evaluate why you feel the need to hold on to these items. This may not be the best time in your life to do a major decluttering.

Where to start? If you feel overwhelmed just thinking about this project, pick a small drawer, possibly in the bathroom, kitchen, or your desk. Go through the process of really looking at each object and deciding how it fits into your life. Put each item in the respective containers (Give, Keep or Toss) and if you feel you're finished after that, pat yourself on the back, toss the trash and move on to the next step. If you feel confident that you can make some more progress, go for it. But don't get burned out on the first day. Save some of that enthusiasm for the bigger areas and to keep yourself going for the long haul.

When looking at items, try not to fall into the trap of "I might need it someday." If you do get rid of the item, and you find you need one in the future, you can always buy another one. But some day may never come.

The second trap to avoid is "But I can fix it." Can you really? If so, then set a date and fix it by that date, or find someone who can, or it goes away. That goes for clothes as well. Either invest the time in mending the article of clothing, or find a tailor. Check with your dry cleaner; some offer minor mending services. If you don't love the clothing enough to invest that much time in getting it fixed, give it away.

Okay. So you've tackled that drawer or desk or the whole closet. Now what? You can toss the trash. Take the Give Away box and set it aside for now. It can act as a reminder for some that they've got a good start on the project. But don't be tempted to undo your good work by delving back into that box. And keep family members from retrieving their donations as well.

If the Give Away items start reappearing in your home, particularly if small children realize their toys are in there, tape the box securely shut and stash out of site.
Be careful though if you're storing items in the basement, attic or garage. Small animals can make a home in clothes or stuffed animals, and mold and damp can ruin many items. Remove batteries from any items to prevent leakage of battery acid on items.

It's easy to forget these boxes and they'll just turn back into clutter if you don't do something with them. Set a date on your calendar to do something with them. You can also stash it in the trunk of your car and drop it off at your nearest donation site the next time you're out and about.

So you've decluttered a few areas and now you've got a pile of stuff--stuff you want. But it seems messier than before you started and it's all over. And what do you do with things from one area that really belong somewhere else? You have a choice: you can either start a box for each room for items that need to be redistributed, or you can start one big box for these items. Don't try to put them where they belong just yet; you may end up sorting them again when you do that area. Either put the individual boxes in their respective rooms, or the big redistribute box in a central location.

For the items that are left, think about the space they'll be going back into and how you want to use that space. Is it the most appropriate space for those items? And while you're thinking, do a bit of housekeeping...sweep or vacuum the floor, wipe down the empty surfaces. As you return the items, wipe them down if they need it, or fold them nicely, and treat them with love as they go back in their clean home.

If you decide the area you just decluttered and cleaned is not the best place for the items you're returning, don't despair. Just put everything back for now, preferably in a box you can move later when you're ready. At the end the project, you can just grab the box and move them to the new spot and unpack them. You may even find yourself editing out some additional items at that time.

You may be tempted at this point to invest in new organizational items, such as drawer dividers, storage boxes or containers. But hold off on purchases until you completely sort all your objects. It's not necessary to spend money to organize, plus you're adding more "stuff" to your stuff. Make a note of what you'd like to use for organizational items and if you do really need to purchase additional items, you'll only need to make one shopping trip when the whole project is finished.

One idea is to watch for items that can be repurposed as storage containers or organizational items. You may have a cookie tin in the kitchen missing its lid; too pretty to toss, and you love it because it was your Grandmother's. But it has no use in the kitchen. Try using it as a catch all for hair ornaments in the bathroom. Or for socks or scarves in a drawer. Paper clips and rubber bands on the desk? Smaller cardboard boxes covered with fabric or contact paper can be used as pretty storage containers, as can clean recyclable containers. Be creative.

A note about kids and their items. Try to involve kids in their space, if they are old enough to really help. And realize that kids have different ideas about what they love and why. You may have to learn to compromise and this may turn out to be a perfect opportunity to teach your children the same lesson. It's easiest to motivate small children for short periods of time. Setting a kitchen timer for 15 to 20 minutes works well. Some adults also work well with set periods of time of time. If you find yourself suffering from burnout, try the kitchen timer method for yourself as well.

How do you handle the give away or sell boxes? If you have thoughts of having a garage sale, be realistic with yourself. Can you have all those boxes of items in your home, waiting until the sale? Or will temptation win and those things start creeping back? Perhaps you can find a consignment store for clothing sales, use an online list for large amounts of usable items, or you may need to tape them all securely and arrange for a charity donation. You won't be completely finished until those items find their new homes, outside of yours.

So you've made through all your rooms and all your items, and you've got them edited, sorted and returned. Give yourself a reward and enjoy!! And realize that some clutter is part of an active, engaged family. It's normal. But now that everything has a place it can be returned to, it's easier to keep clutter from becoming overwhelming.