What’s the 20/20 rule for decluttering? Professional organizers explain

Discover how to simplify the process with the 20/20 rule, a highly effective decluttering strategy

decluttering list with cup of tea
(Image credit: Alamy)

If you’re asking ‘what’s the 20/20 rule for decluttering’, we’re going to guess you’re on the lookout for strategies to make the process a little easier. We don’t blame you – decluttering can be overwhelming, particularly if you’re not sure where to start. 

There are different approaches to helping you own less, but if it’s decision-making you’re struggling with, employing the 20/20 rule can be one of the most effective decluttering tips. Designed to help you clear clutter quickly, it saves you time and unnecessary stress, plus builds your confidence in tackling bigger tasks.  

So, what exactly is the 20/20 rule for decluttering? We’ve quizzed the experts to find out how it works so you can make an informed decision on whether it’s the right strategy for you. 

What’s the 20/20 rule for decluttering? 

One of the main voices in the modern decluttering movement belongs to Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus, aka, ‘The Minimalists’. After a life dedicated to building up possessions, in 2011, they left their corporate careers and embarked on a simpler, more meaningful lifestyle based on the principles of minimalism. Essentially, living with ‘less stuff’. 

They claim that clutter builds as a result of our ‘just in case’ thoughts. We hold onto items in the worry that we might one day need them, yet the likelihood is they’ll remain unused, taking up valuable space and contributing to a cluttered home – and a cluttered mind by default. 

So how do we distinguish between those ‘just in case items’ that are worth keeping and those that can be let go when we're looking for home organizing ideas? This is where the 20/20 rule comes in: if you can replace something in less than 20 minutes for less than $20, you don’t need to keep it.   

How does the 20/20 decluttering rule work?

The 20/20 decluttering rule is designed to help you wheedle those smaller, everyday items you’ve held onto ‘just in case’, but likely will never need. 

‘Go through each and every item and for those you’re struggling with, ask yourself these two questions: can I replace this item for $20 or less? Can I replace this item in 20 minutes or less? If the answer is yes to both, let it go – rest assured knowing you can easily replace it if you do need it in the future. If you answer yes to one of the questions, give extra thought to whether you really need to keep the item for a ‘just in case’ situation’, advises professional organizer Susan Santoro of Organized 31

The theory is that you’re unlikely to have to replace the items you decide to let go, leaving you with a home that’s easier to clean, easier to manage and easy to spend time in. 

‘Although we’ve rarely had to replace a just-in-case item (fewer than five times for the two of us combined), we’ve never had to pay more than $20 or go more than 20 minutes out of our way to replace the item. This theory likely works 99% of the time for 99% of all items and 99% of all people - including you’, claim Joshua and Ryan in their book, Essential (Aysmmetrical Press). 

What do you throw away when decluttering with the 20/20 rule?

Once you start working through your home, you’ll be amazed at how many everyday objects you can actually do without. Coffee mugs you never drink from? Check. Clothing that’s no longer your style? Check. Books you’ve already read? Check. Duplicate toys? Check. Kitchen appliances you never use? Check. The list goes on and on. 

If you’re finding the process of getting rid of these items hard, think about donating or selling them on to people that will truly benefit; imagining their happiness can help you change your mindset of letting go from a negative to a positive one. 

Should I use the 20/20 decluttering rule? The pros and cons 

Making decisions on what to keep and what to let go can be difficult (and emotional, in some cases), but having set time and distance guidelines in place enables you to look at the situation more pragmatically, and speed up the decision making process – worth bearing in mind if you often find yourself wondering how do I declutter when I’m feeling overwhelmed

For example, should you keep that bright orange nail varnish that brings back such good memories from last Halloween? Employ the 20/20 decluttering rule: you’ll likely not miss it, but if you did, a new bottle can be bought for $5 at the drugstore 15 minutes down the road. Quick and easy decision made.  

Will the 20/20 rule help solve every decluttering dilemma? No. Items that don’t fall into the ‘under 20 minutes, under $20 dollars’ categories will require a different strategy. But it is ideal for smaller, everyday items, and it’s often these that make up the bulk of your clutter. 

‘Sorting through these items quickly and easily frees up time, energy (not to mention storage space) to deal with trickier items, those with sentimental value for example’, says Lucy Searle, Global Editor in Chief, Homes & Gardens.

Can the 20/20 decluttering rule save me money?

The 20/20 decluttering rule can save you money. In order to maintain a decluttered home, it’s important to remain mindful of the principle behind the 20/20 rule not just when assessing existing items, but before bringing anything new into your home, too. Think like a minimalist. Before buying anything, try and separate what you really need from a ‘just in case’ purchase, and always have in mind where you think it’ll go. 

Adopt a ‘bouncer’ attitude to your home and allow for a ‘one in one out’ policy’, advises professional organizer Lucy Mansey of Organised by Lucy (https://www.organisedbylucy.com). If you buy something, think about what may need to be donated or given to a friend to ensure items don’t build up’. 

Where should I start with the 20/20 decluttering rule?

There’s no right or wrong answer to this – it’s really up to you. However, there are areas of the home where the 20/20 rule is likely to be more effective: something to bear in mind if you’re looking to boost confidence. 

‘A bathroom is usually one of the easiest rooms to start as there’s less likely to be things of sentimental value in there. Once you’ve worked through toiletries, medicines and make-up, you’re halfway there already’, says professional life coach Ari Shaffer.

How does decluttering with the 20/20 rule help?

Taking the first step is usually the biggest hurdle when it comes to decluttering, but employing the 20/20 rule is a great help to get you started on the small things. Often it’s emotion that’s holding you back, so this will help you take a more practical approach to the task. 

Whether you’re planning to start with something small, such as organizing kitchen drawers, or tackle something on a bigger scale, such as decluttering clothes fast, the best starting point is to gather up all items and work through them one by one, evaluating as you go. 

Should I organize or declutter first?

Decluttering must come first if you want to maximize space and live more minimally. After all, organized clutter is still clutter. 

‘We like to add another 20 to the rule – 20 minutes for cleaning. This is for those times when you’re not feeling motivated or you’re feeling overwhelmed at the thought of cleaning a whole house. Taking 20 minutes every week to speed clean will keep everything in place and clutter at bay’, says Stefan Bucur of The Rhythm of the Home

Contributing Editor

For 10 years, Tara King worked as a Content Editor in the magazine industry, before leaving to become freelance, covering interior design, wellbeing, craft and homemaking. As well as writing for Ideal Home, Style at Home, Country Homes & Interiors, Tara’s keen eye for styling combined with a passion for creating a happy – and functional – family home has led to a series of organization and cleaning features for H&G.