Cleaning house is a great way to give a fresh start to the new year

Forget spring cleaning. January is the best time of year to declutter a home, to toss old junk and resolve not to refill the empty space. Cleaning house is a great way to give a fresh start to the new year, and there are usually plenty of post-holiday boxes handy to carry unwanted stuff to Goodwill or a favorite consignment store.

I like to think of myself as a noncluttery person, but when my son's pet rat escaped in my home office and it took me 10 minutes to move books, bags, papers and something that looked like dried fruit in order to reach the little critter, I realized it was past time to clean up.

Usually, when I decide to declutter, I do it with a kind of mania, randomly throwing things in the garbage or boxes for donation. I flit from room to room grabbing everything in my way. The kids get jumpy and start hiding their toys, and my husband follows me around in a panic, carefully monitoring the trash can.

This time, I've decided to be more organized, and to make it a family affair. To inspire us all, I went looking for resources, and came across several great ones.

FlyLady.net is an online advice and support forum to help people with organizing and housekeeping. It was founded by Marla Cilley, a homemaker and organizational coach. Topics include clutter, the value of routines, weekly and monthly cleaning, and letting go of perfectionism. Cilley starts off telling readers to clean their sinks. Really clean them until they shine. Her theory is that a shiny sink will give one a sense of accomplishment and the motivation to move on to deeper cleaning. While initially more focused on cleaning than organizing, the overall message of simplifying one's life, clearing away unnecessary stuff and thus allowing more time for noncleaning activities, is good.

I found many books on home organization and decluttering, but one of my favorites was "Organized Simplicity," by Tsh Oxenreider. I found it insightful as it helped articulate a problem I think many busy families have. The book sprang out of the writings and comments in the author's blog, SimpleMom.net, which discusses household management and offers tips on cleaning, saving money and making more time for family. She refers to it as "zen habits with an apron."

"Organized Simplicity" is divided into two parts. Part 1 offers tips on putting things in order and making life a bit more simple. The chapters have titles such as "Stuff: Our Modern-Day Slave Master" and "Time is a Tool: Use it Wisely, Enjoy It Thoroughly." Part 2 is a 10-day program designed to help organize every room in a house. The book also has a fun section with recipes for homemade cleaning products and toiletries. I will probably never make my own carpet cleaner or deodorant, but it was a kick to learn how.

While "Organized Simplicity" is a helpful guide to cleaning house in an organized and painless way, it also invites readers to consider why we have so much stuff and how clutter affects us. Oxenreider's message is that clutter is a reflection of the stress and chaos that often creeps into our lives. By removing the things that don't matter, people are free to focus on the things that do matter. As she says in her introduction, it isn't about what you give up, but what you gain.

For more decluttering inspiration, check out "The 100 Thing Challenge," by Dave Bruno. The book chronicles his journey to reduce the sum of all his possessions to no more than 100 items. And, if you want help purging, join the local chapter of Freecycle.org. Freecycle is a forum where you can advertise things you're willing to give away for free, and its members will often happily make a house call to pick up your reusable items.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer in Ashland and can be reached at decker4@gmail.com.