Why you should try the 12-12-12 decluttering method

This technique turns decluttering into a game, and experts say its impacts can be huge

living room with white couches and chairs
(Image credit: Future PLC)

Sometimes, when clearing out our belongings, we need a little bit more structure than 'Does it spark joy?'. Something to motivate us to keep actively making our homes messier, and stop worrying that maybe we will want to wear that fancy dress outfit one day. 

This is where decluttering techniques like the 12-12-12 method come in: find 12 items to throw away, 12 to donate, and 12 to be returned to their proper home.

Whether we call them decluttering methods, games or challenges, some kind of framework takes the sentimental dithering out of the whole process. 

The 12-12-12 decluttering challenge

We recently wrote about the 'move out' decluttering method which encourages us to ask ourselves if we would take an item with us to our dream home, and the 'ski slope' organizing method, which breaks down a room into zones.

But if your cabinets won't close properly and you've been putting it off for a while, we think the 12-12-12 decluttering challenge will help to get things started.

hallway with archway and bookshelves

(Image credit: Future PLC)

What is the 12-12-12 decluttering challenge?

Joshua Becker, author of The Minimalist Home: A Room-by-Room Guide to a Decluttered, Refocused Life, free at Amazon with an Audible trial, first came up with the 12-12-12 challenge as a way to break decluttering down into achievable tasks. 'The rules are simple: locate 12 items to throw away, 12 to donate, and 12 to be returned to their proper home. That's it. Repeat if desired,' he says on his website Becoming Minimalist.

This makes decluttering into a game with achievable targets that can be reached in a matter of minutes, preventing decluttering overwhelm or burnout. The challenge also encourages swift decision-making, preventing us from getting stuck when decluttering sentimental items. Setting a timer while you complete the challenge will increase the sense of urgency and will it feel a lot more manageable – after all, clearing out your stuff is physically and mentally tiring.

Another reason to try it is that it encourages us to be mindful of our possessions, encouraging us to consider what truly adds value to our living spaces.

Joshua Becker
Joshua Becker

Joshua Becker is an author from South Dakota who has written four books on minimalism and runs the Becoming Minimalist blog. After realizing he and his family had more time, money, energy and freedom with less stuff, he began encouraging others to embrace minimalism, and to discover their own journey and the benefits of owning less.

What do minimalists think of the 12-12-12 decluttering method?

living area with couch and fireplace

(Image credit: Future PLC)

'12 is great but how about just 1?' asks Kelly Kandra Hughes, a research psychologist with a passion for decluttering and minimalism.

'12-12-12 is a great method for people who are comfortable with the idea of decluttering and are emotionally ready to get rid of their stuff. But for others, twelve items in each category might seem overwhelming. Start with one and see how that feels. Keep it up for a week and, then, maybe consider increasing to more items,' she suggests. 

'If one is working and you're decluttering consistently then you're making progress. That's much more important than hitting someone else's ideal that may not be relevant, efficient, or possible for your own life.'

Kelly Kandra Hughes
Kelly Kandra Hughes, Ph.D

Kelly Kandra Hughes earned her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. After quitting her job as a tenured associate professor, Kelly gave away, donated, recycled, and trashed 95% of her belongings. Although she has zero expectations that anyone else should subscribe to her level of minimalism, she is always happy to assist others on their personal growth journeys, particularly with decluttering, goal setting, and behavior change.

Tips for trying the 12-12-12 decluttering method

grey armchair in wooden floored froom with shelving and desk

(Image credit: Future PLC)

If, on the other hand, you have a lot to get rid of and want to see results fast, you could try a variation of the challenge and choose 20 things to donate and 20 to throw away. Alternatively, you could try what Prerna Jain, a cleaning expert from Ministry of Cleaning, calls the 'reverse countdown method,' so rather than starting with larger numbers and gradually reducing them, begin with a smaller number, typically 3-3-3, and gradually work your way up.

'On the first day, I aim to find 3 items to discard, 3 to donate, and 3 to return to their designated places. Progressing to subsequent days, the count escalates – 6-6-6, then 9-9-9, until I reach the ultimate goal of 12-12-12,' Prerna explains. 

This method is similar but less of a commitment than the 30-Day Minimalism Game and according to Prerna, it works as an effective starting point for those new to decluttering. 'It instills a sense of achievement and momentum as I ease into the decluttering process,' she says.

Other tips for trying it include making it part of your weekly tidying routine, focusing on specific areas at a time rather than the whole home, and keeping a donation bin handy. 'Make it a family thing. Everyone pitches in to declutter their own stuff,' adds Eryn Donaldson from The Model Home.

professional organizer eryn donaldson headshot
Eryn Donaldson

Eryn is the CEO and Founder of The Model Home, an Organizational Company with teams in the DC metro area and LA specializing in the unpacking/packing, decluttering, and organizing of all spaces including homes, garages, offices, and basements.


What is the 3 second decluttering rule?

This fairly self-explanatory decluttering rule works by giving you just three seconds to decide whether something stays or goes. Try this if you have only a few items to get rid of and struggle with making decisions, and see how it goes.

'The "12-12-12" decluttering method might seem small, but its impact can be huge,' shares Elizabeth Shields, the Operations Manager of Super Cleaning Service Louisville. 'This method brings both order and a sense of accomplishment. As you let go of items, you're creating room for a fresher environment. 

'Donating lets you give back to the community and reduces waste.'

Millie Hurst
Section Editor

Millie Hurst is a freelance lifestyle writer with over six years of experience in digital journalism. Having previously worked as Solved Section Editor at Homes & Gardens and Senior SEO Editor at News UK in London and New York, Millie has written for an array of homes brands including Livingetc and Real Homes and was formerly Senior Content Editor at Ideal Home. She has written and edited countless features on home organization, decluttering and interior design and always hopes to inspire readers with new ways to enjoy their homes. She lives in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, and loves to weave nature-inspired decor and nods to time spent in Italy into her own home.