• The Four Box Method – Decluttering

    CoachRudy Rodriguez
    ADHD Center for Success   

    The Four Box Method

    By CoachRudy Rodriguez, LCSW


    Do you find yourself challenged, anxious and even overwhelmed by the thought of attempting to declutter your home or office? You are not alone in this matter. This simple and practical Four Box Method may be the answer.

    One day when my girlfriend offered to help me clean out my Tupperware drawer. I had multiple containers and lids but many of them didn’t seem to match. This is easy, I thought. Simply shuffle through the drawer and match lids to the container, right? NOT! Laurie and I removed ALL the contents of the Tupperware drawer. Then we sat on the floor and systematically matched lids to containers. Once this task was complete we replaced the matched containers back in the drawer and immediately tossed out the rest. I was forced to let go of a few lids that I was sure would come in handy someday. This exercise was one more reminder that my mind does not function like my girlfriend’s brain and led me to develop my Four Box method.

    Fueled and inspired by my Tupperware success, I confidently jumped into my next decluttering project – my multi-purposed bookshelf. My four-shelves bookshelf had become home to a variety of things including loose papers, a stack of folders, assorted mementos, photos, misplaced objects, and books., Thus, my Four Box Method was born.

    The Four Box Method is a simple, effective and systematic strategy for decluttering most areas of your home or office. But, before I introduce you to this system, let’s begin by exploring the nature of clutter. Clutter often begins when…

    • items lack a designated home
    • we are indecisive or don’t care about where an item belongs
    • we are running late or simply in rush mode and we don’t take time to place an item in its designated place

    As you know, clutter generally begins with a small number of misplaced items strewn about here and there. “Oh, no big deal” you may think. However, after a while, the items increase in volume, and we stop seeing the growth of the misplaced items. It’s amazing how we can walk past or even step over our clutter without seeing it. It’s as if we develop a blind spot to our own clutter, and it generally continues to grow until we finally acknowledge the moderate or expansive volume of ‘stuff’ that has collected. This is when our sense of overwhelm, sets in and we feel paralysis, anxiety, a sense of powerlessness and lack of motivation.

    An integral part of clutter management would be its prevention but that would be too obvious and not the default nature of the clutter person. Over the course of my coaching career, I have learned that there are a few essential steps to address clutter management, especially for those of us with ADHD and/or challenged with executive function deficiencies.

    • It’s often our nature to avoid or retreat from any ‘thing’ or circumstance that causes us to feel anxiety or overwhelm. Thus, it is imperative to reduce or eliminate one’s sense of anxiety or overwhelm.
    • When clients tell me about lack of motivation I ask them to explain what ‘lack of motivation’ means to them. More often than not, I find their lack of motivation stems from their not knowing what to do or where to start. In the case of clutter, I would add the element of ‘volume’. What my clients are telling me is that they don’t have a ‘plan of attack’. I often find that the lack of a plan manifests in paralysis, anxiety, sense of powerlessness and lack of motivation.

    Now that we’ve set the context for our clutter problem let’s proceed to detail the ‘plan of attack’.

    As one would assume, the Four Box Method begins with having ( at least) four boxes at hand. For best results, I recommend you consider file boxes which are easily found at office supply stores or moving companies such as U-Haul.

    • Box dimensions: 15″ x 12″ x 10″
    • File boxes include a lid and built-in handles for easy carrying and lifting

    Now that you have your boxes in place, you are ready to engage in the first step to decluttering – the ‘sorting process’. When sorting I recommend you start with a small manageable number of items. There are a few advantages to this approach –

    • First, it helps to reduce your levels of overwhelm and anxiety.
    • Second, it’s much easier to complete sorting a smaller volume of clutter in case you have limited time or energy for the task.
    • Third, completion of a small portion = Success! You’ve DONE IT!
    • Once completed, you now have the choice to stop or continue sorting another small portion of your clutter.

    The Sorting Process

    The Four Boxes are designated as follows:

    Box #1 – The KEEP box

    • These are items that have a clear purpose and you will use in the near immediate future

    Box #2 – The “I’m NOT SURE box”

    • This is a tricky box so beware. Place items in this box if you are not clear at the moment what to do with it.
    • I’ll speak more about Box #2 below.

    Box #3 – The TRASH box

    • This box is self-explanatory but we will discuss it further soon.

    Box #4  – can actually  become multiple secondary boxes as needed

    1. The SHRED box – important documents that are best not included in your trash.
    2. The Giveaway or donate box (i.e. The Goodwill or Habitat Store).
      1. I can promise you that someone in your community is looking to find this item.
      2. You may use different boxes depending on its eventual destination.
    3. The Gift box – items to give to friends and family.
      1. Again, you may use different boxes depending on which friend you are gifting the item to.


    I will demonstrate how to use the Four Box Method using the multi-purposed bookshelf as an example.

    1. Begin by removing ALL of the contents of one shelf of the bookshelf and place them on the floor or a ‘sorting table’. You’ll find this more effective than removing one item at a time from your bookshelf.
    2. Select a single item and quickly determine if this item will be placed in Box # 1, 2, 3 or 4.
      1. Learning to be quickly decisive with your sorting will aid you in many ways as you will soon see.
        1. It’s easy to become distracted by reading an article rather than acting decisively which box to delegate the article to.
        2. Stopping to read can be time-consuming and prolong a process of sorting and eventually lead to the risk of running out of time before completing the sorting process.
    • This, in turn, can, unfortunately, lead to further false evidence that you are not capable of decluttering your home or office.
    1. Once you sort ALL the items on your designated shelf, it’s time to return your sorting focus to Box #2, your “I’m NOT SURE” box.
      1. This is the second and final opportunity to decide if the items will be placed in Box # 1, 3 or 4.
      2. It is more important for you to be decisive this second time around because your goal is the leave Box #2 empty of ALL items.
      3. You may find it easier to be more quick and decisive on this second pass.
    2. Once you sort ALL the items on your designated shelf, you can:
      1. Immediately deliver the contents of your TRASH box to your larger trash container.
      2. Take ALL Box #4 items to your car or a staging area (i.e. basement or garage) so they can be delivered to their designated location or shred box.
      3. Once this process is complete you can take all your items from Box #1 and immediately place them in their designated home or location. It’s important that you complete this task before proceeding so avoid these items becoming clutter once again.
      4. At this point, you are essentially DONE! You have successfully completed the sorting of your designated first shelf. However, you now also have the option to move on to sorting your second shelf of your bookshelf. If you determine that you will sort another shelf you will:
        1. Repeat the entire sorting process as outlined above.
        2. You are likely the find the next sorting to be much easier and completed more quickly. The key is to be DECISIVE.

    To Keep, or Not to Keep…

    If you find yourself indecisive about some items that you’ve placed in Box #2, you’re not alone. There may be some things that you honestly cannot decide whether to hold on to or let go of. I get that but do not allow your indecision be your guide. Otherwise, you’re likely to simply move things around your home or office and find yourself surrounded by clutter. However, it you honestly find yourself indecisive about contents in box #2, here’s my suggestion:

    • Leave the contents in Box #2 and place the lid on this box.
    • Label the box with a date 45-60 days in the future.
    • Next place Box #2 in a storage area (basement, attic, closet) and leave it.
    • Now here is the answer, If you find that you’ve not opened this particular box by the date you’ve labeled to searched for a particular item – don’t bother! Simply take this unopened box directly to your curb and say good-bye.

    It seems our nature to constantly bring ‘stuff’ into our home or office but we are not so good at removing or let go of things in return. Thus, I would suggest a general goal of tossing out 2/3 of everything you sort. Yes, that’s a lot of stuff, but look around your home or office and take an honest inventory. When was the last time you used that item? When was the last time you explored that stack in the corner or read that article that you put aside to read ‘later’?

    Now close imagine for a moment that a magic organizing genie had visited your house or office one day while you were away. Upon returning, imagine opening the doorway, walking in and seeing things in their proper place. Imagine that you can sit comfortably on your sofa and eat at your dining room table. Imagine that your ‘stacks’ have disappeared or that they’ve been organized. Imagine looking at your kitchen, and your bedroom. Now, imagine that all this ‘is’ possible for you. And finally, imagine looking around the new, organized look and feel of your home or office. How does this make you feel? I’ve heard my clients express feeling such as freeing, relaxing, welcoming, warm and simply ‘wonderful’.

    Some Final Thoughts…

    Clutter management is possible but it takes time and practice. I have worked with some clients for weeks or months to achieve a goal of decluttering one corner, one surface, one closet or one room at a time. It truly gets easier with time but let’s also not fool ourselves. The act of decluttering is only one half of clutter management. The other half is the regular (daily) maintenance to keep it uncluttered, orderly and freeing. But that’s another article.

    If you find yourself stuck, having trouble getting started with decluttering, not to worry. The Four Box Method is a process of taking one step at a time towards creating freedom, order and comfort into your life. Several years ago during my coach training, we were taught, “One step at a time, each step informing the next”. Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying too much at first. Don’t start by attempting to  declutter an entire room. Start small – start with one box, one shelf, one corner, one stack. Don’t start with an entire day of decluttering. Start with fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes will often seem reasonable and less likely to feel overwhelming. Once you’ve spent only fifteen minutes of decluttering, you’ll most likely want to continue once you’ve started. However, if after fifteen minutes you’re still not feeling it, then stop, take a break and come back to it later or try fifteen minutes again tomorrow.

    Follow the Sorting Process of The Four Boxes and I can almost assure you that you will experience some level of progress, some of the level of success at decluttering your home or office.

    CoachRudy Rodriguez, LCSW is Founder of the ADHD Center for Success. He is a Life Coach specializing in adult ADHD, productivity and organization-time management. He began working with ADHD in 1981 and was diagnosed with ADHD in 1993.

    You can learn more about CoachRudy at https://adhdceneterforsuccess.com


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