If I seem to yap about the Pareto principle a lot, it’s only because it’s so widely applicable. Also known as the 80/20 rule, the principle essentially says that 80% of results come from 20% of your effort, which is valuable to keep in mind when planning your to-do list or studying for a test. It means you can focus on the basics, get rid of anything superfluous, and still see great results just by mastering the foundational elements of what you need to do. The same is true when you’re decluttering. That’s right: You can apply the 80/20 rule to your cleaning and minimizing efforts.

What does the Pareto principle have to do with decluttering?

Just like 80% of the test you’re taking will probably be based on 20% of the basics you studied, 20% of your stuff is probably used 80% of the time. On an average day, when you’re picking out what to wear, you likely gravitate to the same few shirts and pants. Doing your makeup, it’s likely the same combo of foundation, blush, and eyeliner. Cooking, you probably reach for the same implements to make the same dishes on a regular weeknight. 

We are people of habit with signature looks, meals, and hobbies. There’s nothing wrong with that except that when you have tools scattered around that only work for the things you do rarely, that other 20% of the time, your space can get pretty cluttered. 

How to use the 80/20 rule to declutter

First, prove the theory: Spend a few weeks taking note of what you reach for and use on an average day. You can jot it down in a spreadsheet or a note or just try to make a conscious effort to pay attention. Eventually, you’ll realize that you gravitate to the same items over and over—and others go practically untouched. The things you don’t use comprise the 80% of stuff that could be considered true clutter. 

Set an intention to get rid of most of it. You can do this using a technique like the 12-12-12 method, which asks you to keep, throw, and donate 12 items every day, or KonMari, which allows you to hold onto some of the items that are sentimental or nice, even if they aren’t used frequently. That’s the thing: While you probably never use most of the stuff in that 80% bulk, some of it is meaningful and some of it does have sporadic usage. Nice outfits for special occasions, the cookware you use for Thanksgiving meals, or board games you whip out when it’s your turn to host your friend group don’t necessarily have to get tossed out. If you’re struggling to decide whether something is pure clutter that can be eliminated or you might need to hold onto it, there are two approaches you can try. The first is the 90/90 method, which involves recognizing if you’ve used something in the last 90 days or might have use for it in the next 90. If you’ve already conducted your mini Pareto analysis, you probably already know that the item in question has not been used in the preceding 90 days, but this technique still leaves space for the possibility that it will be used in the next three months, which can reduce some anxiety around whether or not it’s appropriate to get rid of it. 

Second, try the 20/20 rule, which is especially useful when you’re clearing out huge swaths of unused items. Here, you ask yourself if the item in question could be replaced for under $20 in the event you end up needing it in the future and if it could be replaced in under 20 minutes. If the answers are yes, get rid of it; the space you’ll save in your home will be worth the $20 or so you spend replacing it in the unlikely event you ever actually need it. 

Learning to recognize your own usage patterns and figure out which possessions are actually useful in your day-to-day life will help you get in the habit of not only decluttering, but keeping it that way, as you’ll have a better frame of reference when making buying and organizing decisions.