How to See Hidden Clutter

If you really want to know what your house smells like, you can’t stay indoors. You have to go outside and get some fresh air, and when you return you’ll know if your house smells like dinner or laundry or paint.

I’ve even witnessed someone not notice a gas leak because she was so used to it.

Clutter happens the same way. You get so used to it that you don’t see it any more.

It helps to switch up your perspective sometimes so that you can see a room the way other people will see it. One way to do this is to take a photograph.

I took the picture above of the couch in a furnished apartment we rented last year (I liked the fabric).

A different time that I snapped that picture, I was surprised by the socks that someone had left on the back of the couch. I couldn’t see them at all when I was standing right in front of them. I could only see them in the picture.

Photographs help you to notice details like extension cords dangling and piles in the corners.

Another way to change your perspective about the way you look at a room is to invite people over. This never fails to make me notice the things we left on the counters or by the back entrance that I had been so good at ignoring before I knew other people would see it.

If you need to tackle something big, something like a Monica’s closet or a back room, the best thing to do is take everything out. I don’t do this for every clean-out project, but I did it for my back room makeover, and it was the best way to see what was filling up space (and to keep things from falling on my head from shelves above). Take everything out when you can’t see to assess the area because so much stuff is in the way.

The ultimate method, and this is not for wimps, is to stage your house and pack for a move. It’s better to keep up with your stuff before you have to.

It’s easy to ignore my own stuff (I’m more likely to notice my husband’s stuff). I even successfully ignored a Wonder Woman piñata buckled in the back seat of my car for months. What method works best for you to start noticing clutter?
About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. Having people over works best for me. At other times, I always think, “I’ll do that later.” But later never comes. :) I take lots of pictures of the kids, and then I notice the things in the background that I have ignored or just don’t see b/c they have been there for so long.

    • I notice that when I’m taking pictures of the kids too.

      • Sadly, when I look at pictures I took of my children years and years ago I can see the mess all around them, the piles of “stuff”, the litter on the floor. At the time I had no idea what a messy house we were living in. I agree that pictures put it right in front of our eyes in a way we cannot ignore, no matter how much we might want to. I also like to take pictures to show progress along the way and of course when we get to the finished project I simply would not believe what used to be, except that I have the pictures to prove it.

  2. I love inviting people over … and the extra motivation to de.clutter.

    And then, I just enjoy the people.


  3. Robin from Frugal Family Times says:

    We try to have friends over at least once a week, usually Saturdays. It forces a rythym to our tidying. Since I started taking food shots for the blog, I have realized how much clutter we have but don’t normally notice! Thank goodness for photo editing software!
    Robin from Frugal Family Times´s last post…Frugal Fall Family Fun

  4. I live to use the “blank page” method when I’m going to completely clean something out whether it is a drawer or a whole room. I completely empty it out and only put back what I want to keep. I need to do that my home office! Before and after pics will be fun! Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. Oh, totally pcitures!

    Especially when I’m taking a picture of my son to tweet or post to Facebook – it’s major motivation to neaten up. I don’t need the internet seeing all my clutter. ;)

    I’m currently in the state where I SEE the clutter and it drives me CRAZY but I don’t have the time to clean it up. I almost wish I didn’t see it! Ha.
    Ashley // Our Little Apartment´s last post…How to: Roasted Applesauce.

  6. Today my Aunty Helen visited me on the spur of the moment. Now, my house is a mess right now because I’m preparing to go away on holidays for a week. So, there’s a box of food by the door, two bags of things that I can’t fit into my suitcase and then there’ll be an esky/ice-box and my suitcase – and this is for a week at my brother’s house.
    I’ve spent most of this week shopping and being out and about via public transport getting things for my fish – so they don’t die over hte next week – and then getting as much laundry done as I can so I can have all the clothes I want to wear next week packed. Tomorrow I’m going to be cleaning the rest of the house… then on Saturday, Dad will drive me and my budgie to my brother’s place.

    My Aunty Helen dropped a massive, in my face hint today that I was a hoarder. I don’t hoard; never have hoarded… and don’t intend to become one (and after seeing those shows from the USA, I don’t see myself as one). But she said to me today, ‘You and Uncle Allan (our Uncle who we recently lost to Prostate Cancer) both live alone and his house was just filled to the brim with junk. And, you know, you started out with an empty place, you had nothing.’ I said to her that I have been here for 10 years in my townhouse and I started out with a folding chair, a plastic box and a bookcase… so what else was I supposed to do when my friends dropped around, ask them to bring their garden chairs with them? Of course I was supposed to get furniture… but it’s my house that makes the furniture look cluttered, no the other way around.

  7. My best method is to pretend I’m a stranger walking into someone else’s house, specifically to drop off my kids there to be babysat. If my kids are going to be there, I want to see clean surfaces free of dangerous clutter and germy dust and gunk.

  8. What works best for me is to have a Day of Reckoning every Friday. That’s the day I pretend I’m a stranger and look at my house and find all the stuff that has not been put away for a while and then put it away. Then I dust and vacuum. There are, however, larger issues that I can still ignore on those days (like my open pantry that is waiting for my husband to build the new pantry). For those, yes, a photograph helps.

    I’m glad you’re back online! And I see a new site design, too.
    Margo, Thrift at Home´s last post…Fresh Corn Salad

  9. Great tips! The camera does not lie! I also apply this to fashion! When I am in a dressing room, unsure on an item, I snap a picture on my phone–the most flattering, I will pose while know one is watching, photo–and if I am still not loving it…a sure sign it is not working! I often go to take blog post pictures of my home and see all the little imperfections! It is definitely a helpful way to see things more clearly like you said! And I am a firm believer, as someone who doesn’t like to clean, that having people over always holds me accountable to getting those toilets cleaned!

  10. Taking a photograph is such a good idea! I’m always very mindful when we get home from vacation to take a good look at how my house looks, smells, and feels. But I love the idea of taking a photograph so I can get a true read without going on vacation. (I do this with my clothes; why didn’t I think to do it with my house?)
    Anne @ Modern Mrs Darcy´s last post…The Future of the Internet

  11. Definitely having people over helps with this! Although I am trying to tidy daily before dinner, and then I just pretend that I am walking in the door home from work after a long day, and think about what would drive me nuts! This seems to be working well, and I enjoy having a tidy house in the evenings.
    Bronwen @ Bronwenreads´s last post…Review: Norwegian Handknits: Heirloom Designs from Vesterheim Museum

    • Bronwen, I try to tidy up as I go, too. It takes less energy to maintain than to do a major roundup. Also it’s easier to find an extra minute here and there to put something away enroute than it is to find a whole hour to dedicate to the task of putting away many things.

  12. In a small space like ours, I have to be very mindful of clutter. Every evening before supper, the children help me pick up and put things away, toss papers, and put away the day’s folded laundry.

    I also have a box for ‘donations’ on a shelf in my room. All outgrown items, or items we no longer need, go into the box immediately. When it is full, I drop it off at our thrift store.

    Taking photos is so helpful – I always notice the background!
    Mooberry Farmwife´s last post…Thankful Thursday

  13. I actually wrote a post just like this not that long ago. I had been living with a giant (and I mean, giant) box in our living room for weeks. I got so used to walking around it that I almost forgot it was there. Finally, when I was trying to take pictures of my apartment, I couldn’t get a good angle that didn’t include the box! I finally decided to break it down and get rid of it. Then when I came back inside, my apartment felt totally different.

    I started taking more pictures to see what else I was missing.
    Jennie´s last post…Motivation to Overcome Fear

  14. The picture-taking tip is so true. Often I take pictures, crop them to hide the clutter before posting them online – and then clean up the room afterward!

    Also: I love the new blog look! I guess it’s been a while since I clicked through from my reader? It looks great!
    Jessica @ Quirky Bookworm´s last post…We’re Going to the Happiest Place on Earth

  15. I like the new blog look but I miss the little house at the top. :)

    It’s taken me 2 months (or more!) to dry some Greek oregano that I hacked down from my garden – piles and piles of it drying on old baby gates in the basement (I use those baby gates to dry our sweaters after washing, too). So it was in the basement drying, then on big sheets of paper in my office on the floor waiting for me to strip the branches and put the dried leaves away in the kitchen. Last night I finally tackled it and got it put away, and now even though we’ve got all our homeschooling books in piles on the floor in my office (need to do something about that!), it feels a lot neater and I can take bigger breaths in there.

  16. Wait! Staging a house…are you moving?

    • No, thank goodness. It’s taken a while to get used to the idea that I’m staying in one place for a while.

  17. When I take photos of my kids, I notice the clutter, then tell them to move elsewhere so that the clutter is not in the background. Or I just crop it out. But if I were to take a photo for the purpose of trying to evaluate what I can get rid of (vs. for the purpose of cleaning), I bet that would work really well. Great suggestion!

    Once I told my kids that I was going to take a photo of their bedrooms and in 5 minutes I wanted to see a change. Amazingly, that was a great motivation for them to do a quick pick up. My daughter wanted to keep going until it was completely clean so that I could take a picture of that, too.

    If I really want motivation to clean, I sign up to host our small group from church at our house once a week. That’ll do it.
    Anne´s last post…God Loves Me Like a Dog (Exhibit A: Reggie)

  18. I <3 the Friends reference. :)

  19. Rachel, I love the new look of your blog!

    How about taking pictures of the inside of your closet and posting them on Facebook?
    My son was entertaining his younger girl cousin, who got the idea to do crazy hairstyles and take pictures. They did this in our main bathroom, taking pictures of themselves in the big mirror directly across from our linen/supply closet. Of course, neither of them thought to close the closet door.

    Fortunately my closet was relatively “photo ready,” but still.
    Bridget´s last post…Me and the Rich Young Ruler

  20. I am constantly aware of how things can accumulate living in a villa. I am always giving away magazines to the library that I have read, finishing projects that have started long ago, picking up after myself right away and recycling that junk mail pronto. You have to be vigilant because vigilance works. I always pretend that I am a real estate agent coming into my house for the first time and I am very critical.

  21. I totally do the staging thing – when I decorate for the holidays or something I like to take pictures and post them on Facebook, and I do a lot of rearranging to make everything look nice. The best thing I ever did for clutter, though, was when I watched the toddler I baby-sit regularly at my apartment instead of at her house. In order to baby-proof the place I had to put a LOT of stuff away. I ended up filing papers and rearranging two storage closets.

  22. Rebecca Slaughter says:

    I consider that sock to be a sock, not clutter. It’s just one sock. Honestly, a room like this would be nice to have, and I don’t have enough time to worry about a sock or two out of place. I minimize and minimize, but I still have clutter. I just don’t worry about it.

  23. Definitely pictures. Not necessarily taking them and then looking, but trying to take a picture of my kids without something else taking focus. We’re in a large apartment with a very large living room, but there is always some toy sneaking into the picture! I’m really trying to focus on getting the kids to help me pick up when they’re done playing with something. nothing annoys me more (besides my husbands computer cords) than kids toys!!!

    • I have some pictures of my kids playing in their messy room that I love to look at because that’s what it was really like, but I don’t want my own stuff to be distracting in the background. In one apartment all my photos faced the same direction because that was the clean side with the light from the window.

  24. We’re going for the extreme version – packing for a move. Unexpectedly, alas. But it sure does work to make you realize how much stuff you have and sometimes how much you don’t, which is kind of nice.

  25. I love this advice. I guess I’ve always *known* this about taking pictures, but I’ve never truly realized it. And I have some of the WORST cord issues- so I just try to never take pictures in those areas. Might need to re-think that. Thanks Rachel!

  26. ooooooh my! this is for me! but… i don’t know to ever truly catch up in this area with 7 in this house – 5 little boys and a husband! it is the continual chore i never catch up in. we do host ministry meetings in our house twice a week, half the week away from each other, so we straighten constantly, but it is never truly clutter free. i agree though that opening our home is great motivation to keep it cleaner and less messy.
    charis´s last post…what i have learned having 5 kids…

  27. You are so right about pictures! Something I try (*try*) to do is compare how my home looks and functions compared to a room in a catalog or magazine. Some things that I think are necessary or functional really aren’t, and can be put away when not in use. You don’t see stacks of hodge-podge mail and misc. electronic chargers in the pages of Pottery Barn.

  28. I really like the new look of your blog. I’ve been curious for awhile about how your remodeling projects are going on your home. Did I miss the updates?

  29. I have experienced this when visiting other people’s homes-then I realize what I would do if that were my home. It makes sense that a different perspective can influence our aesthetics.

    Like the new layout!
    sonrie´s last post…summer reprise-south carolina

  30. Photos. It’s good to look back over old pictures to see how far I’ve come though. I’ve always been an orderly messy person (big fan of the Neat Pile – which is just a stack of clutter rather than having it spread everywhere)

    I just bought a new bike on the weekend, but when I went to take a picture to show it off (outside of course!) I wasn’t comfortable sharing it because of the amount of crap in the background – even though the crap in the background was a direct result of decluttering a room and was in a relatively orderly pile awaiting transportation to the tip!

    In the kitchen, my biggest motivation for keeping it orderly and decluttered is a) that I like to cook and bake, I have a tiny space with limited bench area to work on and b) ANTS.

    • I agree, ants are a fantastic decluttering tool. Although not as good as cockroaches. I see one cockroach, my apartment swiftly reaches unprecedented levels of clean.

  31. Aaaaand I just realised I hit post before I finished my sentence. Orderly messy person, loads of piles, always find things… Start living with the bloke – discovered a) he was really messy, b) he was well accustomed to being picked up after and c) he liked clean surfaces! NOT a match made in heaven, I give you the tip. But after more than ten years of living together, the house is more or less orderly, and has many less piles (don’t be looking *in* the cupboards though!) Amusingly – for me at least, *MY* cupboard is orderly and filled with neat piles…yes, I just moved my clutter piles out of sight. Oops.The bloke’s cupboard and the kids cupboard… WELL!

  32. Include me in the group of inviting someone over in order to really see – and get rid of – clutter. I’m a believer in – don’t wait until the house is ready to plan an event plan the event and the house gets ready ‘enough.’ Someone I know planned a party in the middle of a major kitchen re-modeling. Just painted the cement floor orange, the house got clean ‘enough,’ everyone was all relaxed and had a great time. I love folks being about other people more than their own stuff.

  33. I love your new look blog! My mantra is ‘always expect someone’. I think to myself ‘if someone knocked on my door right now and I had to invite them in, would I be embarrased by clutter and mess?’ It really makes me have a good look around and reduce the visual clutter!

    • I agree!!! This is the way I clean my home. I think of the neatest person I know and imagined if they walked into my home right now, what would they think? I once had a Aunt tell me she knew a good house keeper by how dusty their light bulb was. Yep, that makes me dust my light bulbs. :)

  34. Catherine Lo says:

    I’m a big fan of taking pictures. We recently had a home appraisal done and I wanted to take pictures of my before and after staging looks. Some pics revealed clutter and some pics revealed that maybe we had taken minimalism a bit too far. Figuring out how to strike that balance.

  35. I’ve gotten “willfully blind” to some of the daily clutter. Living alone, it’s easier to become blind to it – because any mess is my own. I cannot blame the cat. When people come over, or I’m taking pictures – I am so self-conscious of the space I call home. I have to use my eyes to “see” the extension cords dragged half way across the wall, papers in a pile on the desk,…

    Getting into the habit of putting things away straight away…and now viewing my home as I would through the viewfinder when I am taking a picture.


  36. This is a great post. We had a last minute home “showing” because we’re prospective foreign exchange student hosts. I was mortified as I tried to quickly get the house ready – every room has weird stashes of things on top of bookshelves, photos waiting to be hung, dust bunnies everywhere….The thing with last minute cleanings, or cleaning for a party, is that I just take all the random clutter from all the rooms and put it in one hidden spot. For ever and ever. How do we prevent that from happening? :)

    Also, do you have suggested sites for the super challenging stage and pack as if you were moving scenario? I would like to consider that (we are contemplating listing our house in the next year or so).

    • The Nester had a series on Staging a Home for Sale.

      I would first focus on repairs, maintenance, and decluttering, and when your house does go on the market, that would be a good time to rent a small storage unit so that you could move storage and moving boxes offsite and make your closets and storage areas look spacious. (The small rental fee would be more than worth it if it helps your home to sell faster, and declutter first, of course.)

  37. I miss Brenda.

  38. I don’t have the time to take photos all round my house when I am looking for Hidden Clutter. Hidden Clutter is a biggie for me, and in our house also refers to disorganised storage areas. Anyone else have this problem? ;-)
    What I do when I am trying to “see” what needs to be stowed, purged or put away, is to go out for a while, and when I return I walk in through the front door, pretending I’m a visitor to our home. I also involve the youngsters in the game. When you see your own home through “somebody else’s eyes” your vision all of a sudden becomes a lot clearer!
    Thank you for this. It’s Saturday morning here and 8.45am. I’m off to clear away that pile of toys in the corner! Have a wonderfully productive day!

  39. Company makes me see clutter and dust. A plus is when company is schedule to come, then cancel, and I can enjoy my clean house by myself. That happens so rarely -smile-.

  40. I find inviting people over ~ particularly ones that haven’t been in my home before ~ is the quickest way to notice the “state” I’ve been content to live in!! This post inspired one of my own this week. (

  41. Returning from a holiday usually has this effect, too. “Such a large space, but so much junk!” And recently, we visited my brother, whose house is far worse than ours, yet somehow motivated the three of us to be tidier for a couple of months afterwards, and to purge more junk (this has been our year of intensive decluttering), as though we were afraid of reaching that level of clutter (borderline hoarder level).

    Also, the change in format of this site works for me – a couple of other blogs changed their layouts recently, and they don’t work for me, I don’t seem to be able to see as much as I used to. However, this one is fine, perhaps even better for me, as I drop by just once a week, and it is obvious which posts are new, and I can access them easily. Thank you.

  42. We live in an old house (built in the 1920s), which only has 1 cupboard built in in the upstairs section (that’s 10 rooms!). I love your suggestions. Another one for me is to keep a stock of ‘decorations’ (ie: candle holders, bowls) in the cupboard and swap them out occasionally…not everything needs to be on display all the time!

  43. Redheadfae says:

    We just had an appraiser in for a re-finance, and boy, oh boy, did that make me clean up my act! I de-cluttered the hearth where so much indoor/outdoor junk accumulated, plus the area behind the monitor on the desk, the kitchen counter, my sewing room, my couchside table, the bathroom counter… the list goes on.
    I had very little time to get ready, so most of it simply got thrown into boxes in the closet. This week is my week to start going through all of that and discard all the excess junk that’s been sitting around our home for a couple of years.

  44. I think this is your best posting. Somehow your signature posting. So simple and effctive at the same time. And fun!
    I really like it.
    And: it even feels like a gift, no kidding!

    So thank you for this usefull gift that won’t use any storage-space around here but improve our living,
    Paula´s last post…The End of Paula’s Diary