This week, Kathi finishes her three-part series of Clutter Free Basics with Tonya Kubo, fearless leader of Clutter Free Academy Facebook Group. Kathi and Tonya discuss the three totes and two bags system. When combined with space boxing and time boxing, this system leads to a sustainable clutter free home.

In this episode, you’ll learn how:

  • each technique discussed in Clutter Free Basics harmonizes to help you get and stay clutter free.
  • the three totes and two bags system makes decluttering easy and fun for the whole family.
  • you have what you need at your home to get moving towards a clutter free home today.

If you’re ready to use what you’re learning in this Clutter Free Basics podcast series, be sure to head over to the Clutter Free Academy Facebook Group. There, you’ll find more tips and a community of friends to encourage you on your journey. Join us today!

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Transcript for Clutter Free Academy Podcast Episode #381

Read along with the podcast!

Clutter Free Academy Podcast #381

Clutter Free Basics: Three Totes & Two Bags

<<intro music>>

Kathi – Well, hey, friends. Welcome to Clutter Free Academy, where our goal is to help you take small, do-able steps to live every day with less clutter and more life. We are back with part three of our series of Clutter Free Basics. If you’re just joining Clutter Free, or you need a refresher, these are the basics that you need to know in order to have a clutter free home; to sustain your clutter free life. With me today, back explaining all the good things, is Tonya Kubo. Hey, Tonya!

Tonya – Hey Kathi.

Kathi – Well, you are in there, day to day, with our Clutter Free Academy people over on Facebook. If you’re not part of that, we’re going to put a link in the show notes so you can do that. We’ve talked about Time Boxing and Space Boxing. So, Tonya, can you just give us a little recap. What is Space Boxing?

Tonya: So, Space Boxing is when you choose one very small space, (like a drawer or a cabinet) that you are going to focus on during your decluttering session.

Kathi – It’s basically the opposite of the Magical Art of Tidying up. I’m so sorry, if that works for people, God bless you. Go for it. That’s basically gut your room, put it all in the middle of the room, sort it out, and put it back. I’m just like, “No. No. Oh, my goodness, no.” Anyway, it works for a lot of people. If you’re actually a clutter-y person? I don’t actually watch the show, because I don’t want to feel like I’m stealing from her, but from what I heard, she’s actually going in to people’s homes who are already pretty tidy, and she’s bringing them up to the level of obsessive compulsive. People love that. People want to live in a house where everything in perfect and tidy. For us, with a clutter-y brain? That would be the most overwhelming thing in the entire world.

Tonya – Well, let’s be honest. Those of us with clutter-y brains, we’re not letting TV cameras in our houses.

Kathi – This is true. We will not do that. Here’s the other thing I know. I have read the accounts of people who have had other people come in and declutter. Unless you declutter yourself, the only that’s going to happen? You’re going to fill up that space again. If seen it happen over and over and over again. You cannot have someone else declutter for you, ‘cause you have to be the one making the hard decisions. So, you described Space Boxing, can you recap Time Boxing for us?

Tonya – Space Boxing focuses your energy on one specific location. Time Boxing focuses your energy on a very short period of time. In Clutter Free Academy, we’re always advocating for 15 minutes, because if you spend 15 minutes on your decluttering, you can give yourself an extra five minutes to put things back where they belong.

Kathi – Yes! Or get them out of your house. That’s the other thing. 100%.  So today, what we’re talking about, is The Three Bag System. It really should be called The Five Bag System. In Clutter Free I originally called it The Three Box, Two Bag System. Let’s just be clear: Three Totes and then garbage and recycling bags. For my garbage bag, I use a white garbage bag and for recycling, I use a brown grocery bag. What do you use, Tonya?

Tonya – I use a garbage bag, because I am a terrible human.

Kathi – Ah! See? I live in San Jose, California, which was the first town to recycle. By the way, throwing garbage away here is crazy expensive. So, when we go to the dump in Placerville, which is where our Red House is, we can load up our car; we can look like the Clampetts from Beverly Hillbillies, (that shows you how old my thinking is) and it’s eight dollars for the entire carload. If you have more than a few bags when you go to the San Jose Dump, it’s $40. It is five times as expensive. It blows my mind. It almost makes me want to take my garbage from San Jose to Placerville. Recycling is just part of who I am, because it’s been happening since I was 18 years old. So, now let’s talk about the three totes. I love to color coordinate, but I think there’s a purpose behind this as well. If you have kids, it’ll help you with sorting through the stuff if they’re helping to declutter. I have an orange bag: that’s for other rooms. I have a purple bag: that’s for put-back. I have a green bag: that’s for give-away. I now line that green bag. This is what I suggest, especially for moms with littles. I line mine with a white bag, so I can just cinch it up and take it straight to Goodwill, or wherever I’m going to donate it. For you, Tonya, I think you need to line your green give-away tote with a black garbage bag. Do you know why I think that?

Tonya – Because kids think everything is a treasure.

Kathi – Yes. Exactly. So they’ll go through it. You just need to grab that, put a knot in it and take it to your car when you’re done. What I want you to do with your Space Boxing, I want you to plant your feet with those five bags around you and I want your feet to not move this whole experience. You go into that drawer or that shelf or that cupboard and everything that doesn’t belong in there goes into one of those five bags. If it’s put-back, it means it goes into that room, but it’s just in the wrong place in that room. Other rooms, that’s pretty self-explanatory. Give-away, anything that has to be given away. Garbage and recycling. So, if you have old ointments, things like that, then that needs to be put in the garbage. If you’re decluttering a medicine cabinet, just have a special bag for medicines that need to be dropped off, to be donated, whatever you need to do with those. At the end of your fifteen minutes, say you’ve put a few things in other rooms. You’ve put a few things in the put-back bag. You’ve got things in the garbage and recycling. Garbage goes straight into the garbage can. Recycling goes wherever you do recycling. I know some communities still don’t do recycling. Green give-away: You take that inner bag and you take it directly to your car to put in the trunk where no kids will see it. Other rooms, you just take those things to the other room. You don’t even have to put them away. You just have to put them into the room that they belong in. Put-Back, you put back in that room that you’re doing. That is The Five Bag System. Now, do your kids help with The Five Bag System, or are you on your own?

Tonya – No, my girls love to help. Abby’s five now, and I realize that five is that peak “I want to help my mom” stuff. It’s great. Sorting is a lot of fun for little kids.

Kathi – Yes. I love that. I love having those as tote bags. The reason is: when you’re done, you can fold them all up and put them away, which is a beautiful, beautiful thing. I used to have boxes, and that’s what I said in Clutter Free, but then you have to have a place for the boxes to go.

Tonya – Right, and when I started with Clutter Free, I had boxes. I remember, there was a part in the book where you said, “Don’t go and buy anything special.” Because I was so in that phase of life, right? Where I was like, “Oh, if I buy the perfect thing, then my house will be clutter free.” So, initially we used three boxes that we got from Amazon, or whatever, until those got torn up. Then I went to laundry baskets. The problem is, you have to make sure the laundry baskets don’t have laundry in them.

Kathi – Right? When does that happen?

Tonya – So, totes are so much better.

Kathi – Yeah. Then I just put them in a closet and I’m done until the next time I go to declutter. It makes me feel so great to fold those up and put them away. As you do your daily decluttering, say you’re Monday in the kitchen, I want you to get your timer. It’s so funny. Whenever I talk about this, I turn a dial to represent ‘timer’ and my daughter is like, “Mom. You’re a thousand years old. Everybody just has a timer on their phone.” I’m like, “You’re absolutely right.”

Tonya – Can I tell you something funny about that, though? So, in Clutter Free Academy, ages ago, talking about setting a timer, talk about Time Boxing. We had one member that would ask all these questions and we were like, “Well, you just set your timer.” And finally, after a couple of months, she was like, “I know that you’re just going to tell me to set a timer, but I don’t own a timer and it seems to go against the principles for me to just go out and buy a timer to do this.” And I said, “Well, do you not have a microwave or a phone?” ‘Cause some people don’t have microwaves and some people don’t have smart phones. She was just, “Oh my gosh! It never occurred to me that there was a timer on my phone.” We get so tunnel focused. So, I just had to share that. I’m not making fun at her expense, but with her, she was so focused on a turn-dial timer. That’s what it meant to her. It didn’t occur to her that a microwave, or any device that keeps time, would work.

Kathi – Okay, so this is a perfect example. Roger showed me a .gif yesterday from one of his friends. It was a cat in a cat carrier, but the cat carrier had no lid, but the gate was closed on it. It had no lid. The gate was closed. It said, “When you’re so focused on the problem, you can’t see the solution.” Yes! That’s how clutter-y people, and I count myself among them, think. If I don’t have the perfect timer, then I can’t do any of this stuff. Or, if I don’t have Kathi’s book, Clutter Free, I can’t do any of this stuff. Really? ‘Cause I think we just laid it all out for you.

Tonya – If I don’t have an orange bag, I can’t put things in another room.

Kathi – Right! Exactly! Think about it this way: If you really want to use the color coding system, find an orange piece of paper and staple it to it. Make it work for you. You do not need to go out. 90% of cases, you have what you need at home. There are a couple of tools that I think are really important to have the right thing. One of them for me is a labeler. A labeler is a good thing. I think it’s a great tool. It’s helped me tremendously. For the most part? This stuff doesn’t need to be specific. Right now, we are trying to gear up the house again for the next round of AirBnB. My old, clutter-y way of thinking would be, “Hey! Let’s go buy all the right sized totes and things for this.” You know what? I have enough totes. It might not be the perfect size for the perfect thing, but I’m not taking pictures of my totes to show to people. I don’t need to do that. I just need a safe place to store the things. That’s what I’m going to do. So, Tonya, would you mind recapping our three principles. The Space Boxing, the Time Boxing, and the Three Totes, Two Bags?

Tonya – Yep. So, Space Boxing is very simple. Plant your feet in a designated location and don’t move while you’re Time Boxing, which is a set amount of time. Fifteen minutes, I think is perfect. Then you can just set your timer for another five minutes to put things away using your Three Bag System. So, it makes real-life so much easier if you’re just standing in that one spot and you’re saying, “Okay, so this goes in another room.” Throw it in that bag. “Oh, this is going to need to be put away behind me.” Put it in that bag. “Oh this is going to do this other thing.” Put it in that bag. Then, just put it all away.

Kathi – Okay! So, let me tell you a couple of things, why this works. I want to explain why it works. The Space Boxing is so you don’t get distracted. The Time Boxing is to help you make decisions. We can make decisions for fifteen minutes without getting worn out. After about fifteen minutes, at the most, an hour, you are not going to make good decisions any more. This is really all about decisions. Then, the Three Totes, Two Bags? What we’re doing is we’re limiting. You only have five ways to make decisions. You either give it away, put it back in that room, put it in other rooms, garbage or recycling. You only have five decisions. If you don’t have those bags and totes right there, then your decisions are times infinity. What we want to do is limit the number of decisions you have to make, so that you can make great decisions. Tonya, this has been a great series. I know we’re going to add to it in the future; other clutter free basics, but I think this is the best place to start.

Tonya – I agree.  You combine this, so that, incrementally, you end up with a clutter free home.

Kathi – It’s true. You know, nobody is going to become 100% clutter free, because we still have the humans living there. Whether that human is you, or other people, clutter is a part of life. I want you to be able to manage the clutter of life and not overwhelmed by it. Tonya, thanks so much for being here today.

Tonya – Thank you for having me.

Kathi – Friends, thank you for being here. You’ve been listening to Clutter Free Academy. I’m Kathi Lipp. Now, go create the clutter free life you were always intended to live.


*see show notes in podcast post above for any mentioned items

Meet Our Guest

Tonya Kubo

Tonya Kubo

Tonya Kubo is the illustrious, fearless leader of Kathi Lipp’s Clutter Free Academy Facebook group. A speaker and writer, Tonya makes her home in the heart of California with her husband, Brian, their two spirited daughters and one very tolerant cat. Visit her at or

Clutter Free Academy Team

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