The Two Best Decluttering Hacks You’ve Never Heard Of

Last month, I wrote about how decluttering your physical and visual spaces can help with mental clarity and creativity.

But I’m well aware that sometimes decluttering is just plain hard. Personally, I’ve read a LOT of books and listened to a LOT of people sharing their personal hacks, systems, and philosophies aimed at streamlining the process, and I’d say most of these systems/philosophies really boil down to two basic ideas:

a) Keep only the things that you really love (or as Marie Kondo says, “spark joy”)

b) Get rid of anything you haven’t used within X period of time (sometimes year, sometimes much shorter periods in more extreme systems).

Now those rules might sound simple at first, but the nitty gritty details can get rather complicated. I don’t know about you, but it’s often hard for me to remember when the last time I used an item was. Particularly if we’re talking about something that’s only used for specific situations (like, say, seasonal clothing), it can be kind of hard to remember if I wore that particular sweater last winter, or if it’s been longer. Since I don’t keep a running inventory of every single thing I’ve worn and every single thing I’ve used within the last year, the question, “Have you used this in the past 12 months?” can often be a dead end.

But things get even more complicated when I get to the “spark joy” question. In my experience, it can sometimes be really, really complicated to self-evaluate your feelings about an item. Even if you feel a “spark,” how do you know it’s the item itself that’s doing it? Maybe it’s actually a case of “Gee, I bought that on a trip that sparked joy 5 years ago and now I have to save it forever even though I would never notice if that item randomly disappeared”.

The question “Does it spark joy?” tends to just translate in my head as “Do I want this?” And the answer might be yes for all sorts of reasons that on a deeper level have nothing to do with actual joy. Like guilt, habit, or even plain old practicality. Trying to de-tangle and identify all those feelings by doing intense self-evaluation with every item you pull out of a drawer in a decluttering session seems….a bit excessive? Not to mention time consuming.

But what if I told you there are two simple, easy, and completely free hacks that could sort out whether an item truly “sparks joy” as well as whether you’ve used it in a designated time-frame, WITHOUT spending tons of mental energy?

Turns out, there are. And I’m super excited to share them with you. They are called ‘The Red Wine Trick’ and ‘The Brown Paper Trick.’ (And no, the first one has nothing to do with consuming alcohol in order to dull the pain of decluttering. Though that might help some people I suppose. lol.) Keep reading below to learn about my two favorite decluttering hacks!

Do you really LOVE it? (The Red Wine Trick)

Ok. First I want to clarify that this trick is not original to me. I learned it from this fantastic (and hilarious) home organizing video, which I highly recommend watching because there’s a lot of other helpful stuff in it. To me though, her Red Wine Trick is the best part. It goes like this. Picture a clothing item you are considering decluttering. Make sure it’s NOT something you just have for practical purposes (like long underwear or whatever), but something you are wondering if you truly LOVE. Now, in as vivid a mental picture as you can drum up, imagine you accidentally spilled an entire glass of red wine all over it.

Ok. In that moment, give your gut reaction answer to these two questions.

a) How do you FEEL about the item being potentially ruined forever?

b) How hard would you try to save it?

(This obviously works best with items that would actually be seriously damaged by red wine, like clothing, upholstered furniture, etc. But there are other alternatives you could use with, say, a crystal vase. More on that in a second).

Now, in my experience there are about four different possible reactions to that imagined scenario. Here’s what each reaction tells you about your decluttering choice:

Reaction #1 – Emotionally devastated. Would try every stain removal trick in the book.

If this is your gut reaction, then obviously, this item is special to you. Keeping it is a no-brainer.

Reaction #2 – Slightly upset, but wouldn’t work too hard to save it.

In this case, the item is something you like, but don’t care too deeply about. If you have plenty of space, you might decide to keep it. But if you’re looking for things to declutter because your space is way too full, this is something you probably won’t miss once you get over the hump of saying goodbye.

Reaction #3 – Annoyed that you will have to repair/replace the item, but not emotionally disturbed.

This means the item actually falls into the practical category. It’s something you need/use but it doesn’t necessarily “spark joy”. Obviously, you should keep it for now. But depending on the item, at some point you might consider replacing it with something you like more. Nobody really expects their toothbrush to “spark joy”, but if it’s, say, your umbrella, then depending on your budget/lifestyle you might eventually want to get one that has cute polka dots on it or something. (This is coming from a gal who likes to surround herself with as many joy-sparking items as possible, and who DEFINITELY has a polka dot umbrella. Just sayin’. Everybody’s going to have their own thoughts on this one though.)

Reaction #4 – Relieved to have a reason to get rid of the item without feeling guilty.

This is the true super-power of the Red Wine Trick. It instantly makes it clear which items you are keeping out of guilt/fear/hollow sentiment, vs the things you truly love. If you’re anything like me, you may be shocked to discover how many items you THOUGHT sparked joy, when really it’s just that the idea of getting rid of them sparks anxiety for some reason. I’ll give you a real life example.

For a long time I held on to a cute little porcelain phonograph I had bought in my early teens. It didn’t particularly go with my decor style, it wasn’t expensive or valuable, and it wasn’t something I found myself gazing at and smiling. BUT when I considered getting rid of it, I always felt unhappy with the idea. At one time, long ago, I had been totally in love with it. It was connected vaguely with a shopping trip I went on with a family member I care about. Plus, it was cute, when I stopped and really looked at it (which I only did when I was thinking about getting rid of it, ahem).

Those feelings confused me into keeping it for a long time.

Then one day I noticed that the surface where I kept it (top of a jewelry box) was slightly non-level, which meant the the vibrations of our foots steps made the little phonograph gradually shift left. I repeatedly found it sitting just on the very edge, and would move it back lest it tumble off and break.

UNTIL the moment I caught myself thinking, “Hmmm. Maybe if I stop paying such close attention, one day it will fall off and break and then I can feel good about getting rid of it.”

Yes. You read that right. I was secretly HOPING the phonograph would break so I could get rid of it without feeling guilty.

Light bulb moment!

Once I realized that the real reason I kept hanging onto that phonograph was simply because getting rid of it made me feel guilty, I knew it was NOT actually something that sparked joy. That knowledge helped me get over the hump and give it away. (spoiler alert, I’ve never missed it).

That story actually took place months before I heard about the “Red Wine Trick”. And it illustrates why wine isn’t actually important. Obviously the porcelain phonograph would have survived a glass of red wine no problem. The real message behind the red wine question is, “If it was accidentally ruined, what would you feel/do?” Red wine is just something easy to visualize. And checking in on your gut reaction to an imagined scenario is often a lot easier than deciding if an item “sparks joy.” That’s why I love it so much.

If you want to know whether you really love something, or whether you just have guilt/anxiety at the idea of decluttering it, this trick makes it super easy to tell.

Do you really USE it? (The Brown Paper Trick)

Ok. So now we know how to tell what items we really LOVE. But how do we figure out what practical items we really USE? Do you really wear all 17 t-shirts in that drawer? Does that extra mixing bowl ever actually come out of the cabinet? When WAS the last time you used those juice glasses?

This is where we pull out the Brown Paper Trick.

I call it the Brown Paper Trick because that’s my most recent iteration. But just like the Red Wine Trick, it’s really a concept that can be applied in a lot of different ways (some of which I’ll mention below).

The first step is to pick a category of items. Let’s say winter sweaters. Then pick a time-frame. Many people use a year as a good measuring point. For seasonal clothes though, that really means you just need to keep track for one full season (winter, in this case). The thing we want to know is how many of those sweaters do you actually use in a winter? Here’s how to tell.

Step #1:

At the beginning of the cold season, grab some old brown packing paper (I had a bunch lying around from a recent shipment, but you could use almost anything here (used wrapping paper, pages torn out of a catalogue, plastic grocery bags that are piling up, etc). Tear the paper into pieces around the size of a hallmark card (you don’t have to tear plastic bags) and stuff one inside each sweater. Put the sweaters back in the drawer.

Step #2:

For the rest of the the season, any time you put on a fresh sweater and find paper crinkling inside, pull it out and throw it away/recycle it. Easy peasy.

Step #3:

At the end of the year/season, open up your sweater drawer, go through all your sweaters, and find any that still have paper in them. Voila! Those are the ones you don’t actually use. Don’t stand around debating why you didn’t wear them or if you might wear them next year. It’s a safe bet you won’t Just declutter them and move on with your life.

There. How easy is that? It probably takes a total of 5 minutes, and you find out what you actually use without wracking your memory, getting confused about how “cute” an item is, etc.

I like the “brown paper” method because it can be used with almost anything. You could stick brown paper inside socks, shoes, hats, mugs, vases, pots and pans, books, you name it! But of course, there are other ways of accomplishing the same thing. For instance, you could turn all your summer shirts inside-out in May and get rid of any that are still inside-out come September. For an item that’s not seasonal (meaning you actually have to keep track for a whole year to see if you use it) try putting a piece of tape with the current date on it (which you remove if you use the item). Once that date rolls around next year, it’s super easy to see what you’ve used and what you haven’t. You could even pack up a bunch of items in a box in the garage, and at the end of a year if you haven’t needed anything out of it, give the box away without looking inside.

The basic principle is simple. Find some way of marking an item so that you KNOW whether you actually use it. Then get rid of the stuff you don’t use.


And there you have it. The decluttering/minimalist montra “Love it, use it,or lose it” just got WAY easier to apply. With these two tricks in your pocket, you’ll never again have to stand there wondering desperately whether an item actually sparks joy, or trying to remember if you’ve worn those shoes any time in the past 12 months. The Red Wine Trick and the Brown Paper Trick will sort that all out with only minutes of actual time (and no mental angst) on your part, so you can focus instead on doing life with your friends/family, pursuing your goals, and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere of a beautiful, decluttered home.

It doesn’t get much simpler than that!

What about you? What are your favorite decluttering hacks? Let me know in the comments below!

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