Decluttering is Not Your Final Answer

Not Your Final Answer
{ via Trash & Treasure }

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

“I really need to declutter. Everything’s weighing me down, I feel frustrated and on-edge. I just need a good clean-out.”

I know for certain that I have said those exact words more than once. In fact, I used to utter them approximately every six months.

Every six months I would reach breaking point, feeling overwhelmed by clutter. So I would have a “good clean-out” – toss old papers, clothes I never wore, all the crap that collects in the junk drawer and random toys the kids had accumulated. They all went.

Then they all came back. And I found myself repeating the process again. And again. And again.

Do you feel like you get on top of the clutter, only to have it reappear over the following weeks and months?

Why Does Clutter Keep Coming Back?

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do think I know why this happens to us.

When we talk about simplifying our lives, we often don’t get any further than decluttering. I’m as guilty as anyone of this, because decluttering is easier (and therefore preferable) to soul-searching.

But decluttering only deals with the surface issues – too many toys, the lack of space, too many clothes – it doesn’t look at why we have this recurring problem in the first place. It deals with the symptoms, which is fine, but not the underlying problems.

In searching for a simpler life, decluttering is a step in the right direction, but it shouldn’t be the final answer.

Decluttering Doesn’t Really Change Anything.

Well, it doesn’t change anything on a deeper level, anyway.

On its own, decluttering will not make you happier, healthier, more satisfied or content with your life. I believe you will feel less anxious and less weighed down, but unless more permanent changes take place the clutter will keep reappearing.

To be fair, part of this recurring clutter is simply life. Clothes, toys, sporting gear – they are so often part of our consumer-driven world. It’s almost inevitable that we will accumulate some of this stuff over time – via hand-me-downs and gifts if nothing else.

Part of it is also the result of redefining our needs. Things we kept six months ago are now given away or sold without a second thought. That’s simply about shifting our boundaries.

But if we don’t make real changes to how we value and deal with stuff, then nothing will change. And in order to make a real change, I think we need to work out why we keep acquiring in the first place.

Where Did All This Stuff Come From?

There might be very practical reasons for the stuff you own, and continue to accumulate:

  • you come from a large family who gives boxes of hand-me-down toys and clothes regularly
  • your partner is a pack-rat and has a reason to keep everything
  • you are a crafter/artist/quilter and see artistic potential in everything
  • you’ve just had a new baby and have been inundated with gifts
  • you don’t have a system in place for papers, bills, filing and admin
  • you shop for sport or because you’re bored
  • you have kids – they attract stuff like magnets

Or there might be more emotional reasons:

  • you’ve inherited the belongings of a deceased parent or relative and don’t know what to do with it
  • you suffer from a hoarding mentality or live with someone who does
  • you feel obligated to keep gifts, artworks, school work, old clothes and birthday cards
  • your upbringing was one of scarcity and you hold on to things to feel safe
  • you use shopping as an emotional crutch, gaining personal value and worth from the things you own
  • you are holding on to things for a future that may never happen (another child, a goal weight, a new job)

If you’re like me, you will see a mix of both practical and emotional reasons behind your recurring clutter.  One thing is certain though – everyone’s reasons are different. So I can’t provide a one-size-fits-all approach.

Look a Little Deeper.

I think we each need to ask ourselves questions that help define the reasons behind our stuff:

  • What makes up the majority of this recurring clutter?
  • Where is it coming from? (Artwork and projects from school? Toys from parties or fast food restaurants? Junk mail, catalogues, bills and paperwork from the mailbox? Study materials from university?)
  • Is any of it useful, beautiful or meaningful?
  • Is there anything we can do to stop the clutter coming inside in the first place?

And once we understand these reasons, it will be easier to deal with the clutter as it appears (or better yet, before it appears) rather than wait for breaking point to roll back around twice a year.

I’m currently writing a list of tips and techniques to keep your home clutter-free and will be posting it later in the week. If you have anything that works particularly well in your home, please leave a comment and I’ll add your suggestions to the post.

In the meantime, tell us, what are the main reasons behind your recurring clutter? For us it’s artwork (the kids), procrastination (mine) and just-in-case-itis (Sparky’s).

23 Responses to Decluttering is Not Your Final Answer

  1. Oh, the reasons behind my clutter are numerous and varied. I’m not much of a shopper, but I have a terrible time throwing things away. It just feels so incredibly wasteful to me, so I end up hanging on to stuff that really is just garbage. I’ve got broken things that “could be fixed” or “could be salvaged for parts,” things that are part of some “project” that I undertook and quickly lost interest in, and things that have come into my life because some circumstance has changed, but I haven’t figured out a place for them yet.

    But there’s another level of it too… I think that the clutter itself serves some emotional purpose for me. I think that some crazy part of me actually enjoys the distraction and the chaos, because it gives me something to focus on rather than having to deal with other nagging emotional issues that always seem to be lurking somewhere in the background.

    • I think you are right on… most serious clutter (not hoarding) has an emotional base to it… if one digs deep enough to figure it out. I enjoy the distraction n excitement in acquiring things… to avoid the emotional crap I don’t want to deal with… then I also have trouble letting go and having enough confidence that I don’t need these things… generally insecurity goes hand in hand with my clutter.

  2. It’s “just in case” for us! I’m getting over out pretty quickly, but the hubs is not convinced.

    Just yesterday he was very excited that he had a need for a tool that he purchased in 1993 and had only used one time prior. That helped solidify his position…

  3. A useful tip that I find is helpful for any area of my life, not only decluttering – Always ask yourself “Is this the best use of my time – money – or whatever?” When shopping look at what you are considering purchasing and evaluate if you need it? Will it truly add lasting value to your life? Is it the best way to spend your hard earned money? This technique has prevented a number of impulse buys recently.

    In summary – Be Mindful.


  4. Most of my clutter is just in case namely my husband, my daughter who just attracts things like a magnet.
    The best thing I have found so far is the one in and the one out at least for myself. My daughter sometimes I just get rid of toys she has not played with in awhile and then it just goes to goodwill to save drama.
    Books for our family are a bit harder to part with although I am getting better at getting rid of them at least for 2 out of 3 of us.

  5. Cheap toys for the little one are my weakness! They make her so happy, even if they don’t last (and she certainly doesn’t need any more!). I just have to remember that there are other things, that we can DO together, that also make her happy and are more meaningful.

  6. Man I would be very tempted to email Kerry because we just don’t buy much new at all, or buy at all. I had realized a while back that there is no point to decluttering if you are going to replace that clutter. Since I wasn’t much of a spender it made it easier to simply not replace the things I decluttered. But since we are planning to build an Earthbag/cob home this year there are some supplies we’d need for our home that we would have trouble buying used. Otherwise I plan to buy nothing new for a year. :)

    • You know, I thought of you guys, not realising your build was coming up so soon. Can’t wait to see how it progresses!

  7. Our recurring clutter is mainly due to having kids! My husband and I are very minimal and rarely purchase new things but our children seem to attract stuff! Christmas and birthdays bring the most in but people just love giving things to children, whether it’s ‘just because’ gifts, small gifts from random people (in stores, restaurants,etc.), party favors, art work from church and so on. We’re thankful that so many people love our children and are kind to them but we’re also not afraid to pass on the stuff!

    I do think those of us who find ourselves in a frequent decluttering pattern eventually do begin asking some deeper questions which lead to more mindful spending and changes in bringing things into our homes!

    • Agreed 1000%!!! Kids attract love and stuff. On the one hand, so wonderful. On the other, we really do need some kind of system in place to deal with the excess. Glad to hear I’m not alone in struggling with that side of clutter. :)

  8. Hi Brooke–
    This topic touches close to a topic I wrote about recently on our blog. I’ve got three rules for new stuff: 1. Have to love it. 2. Have to have an immediate use for it. 3. Has to be affordable (considering not just price, but time and energy it will require).

    Our readers had lots of other great suggestions for not accumulating too much stuff, as well as insights into the whole issue. You can see their ideas in the comments here:

  9. I was in a revolving door of decluttering, so i changed my focus from decluttering to stopping the clutter from accumulating. Staying out of the stores helps, but is not enough, especially if you have kids. Taking a few minutes to clear the day’s clutter is vital. Once the clutter gets established, it’s harder to get rid of it.

  10. A small cluttering avoidance tip is to sort the mail when you get it out of the box. Toss out any junk mail, catalogs, circulars, or magazines that you won’t read right then and deal with the remainder next. When you wait to go through the mail then the magazines, ads, and junk mail end up in a pile and it’s hard to find the things you needed that were in the mail. I used to come in and lay the mail down thinking I would sort it later, then never get back to it – which meant it piled up and I avoided it because it was going to be a CHORE to go through, which meant that bills were sometimes late if I put it off too long. Now the table where I used to set the mail stays neater and I feel better when I come in – which makes it easier to keep things decluttered.

  11. Not everybody moves so often, I have realized that part of my desire to live clutter free is also a combination of liking things to always be clean and being too lazy to clean all the time.

  12. The boyfriend of a friend of mine offered to hire a personal organizer for her. I told her that after working with the person she should book additional appointments at intervals that made sense in order to keep up whatever system they set up. But she never took advantage of the offer.

    It’s very clear to me that decluttering is only the first step. You have to find a way of being organized that is relatively effortless for you and every one is different.

  13. I felt Kerry offered a thorough list of how this stuff accumulates. So many refer to picking it up by shopping but this address things that ring with me such as inheriting (very nice and valuable artwork etc.)-being an only child I ended up with alot, being raised by depression era grand-parents-I wss raised to be thrifty, and being artistic and craftly-yes can find a use for many things and I hold on to case…though the reality as a working woman in an intense career I no longer have time for crafts I’d enjoy—but the fantasy continues. I’ve procrastinated setting up an e-bay type acct because I’m so bad at technology-need some guidance, but there’s where I’d feel better about selling some of the nicer stuff…recently learned an old fairytale book I had as a child was a rare edition and selling for $1,000. Unfortunately, one of my kids threw it away a few years ago… beware of what you think is clutter.

  14. Enjoy your blog! I’ve been working on decluttering/downsizing for a few years now. One would assume that I must live very simply by now, but NO! Five years ago my husband (age 67 and an only child) and I (62) began the overwhelming task of going through his parents’ house and 50 years of their stuff. Although we’ve sold a lot (most everything was either an antique or vintage), I found myself bringing too much into my own, already full, house. I’d tell myself how pretty the item is and that I’ve never had anything like that before. Now, several years later, I realize that I don’t love these items. They aren’t my style. So,I’m STILL fooling with getting rid of vintage/antique stuff. It’s STILL overwhelming, but I am basically a person who likes order and I’m able to get rid of most stuff rather easily. So, to anyone who inherits other people’s stuff, I feel ya!

  15. I love browsing in thrift shops. I have come to realize that when I see common items in the thrift store that I still have in my home, that’s a clue that I should donate mine, too. Think: tall, clear glass bud vases (there are tons of them in Goodwill), baskets of all shapes and sizes, excess 4 X 6 and 5 X 7picture frames, mismatched beverage glasses, candle holders, etc. You know the stuff. You have multiples of all of them, too. Not only are they not needed and not really desirable, but if you get rid of yours and discover later that you really do need a bud vase, well, you know where to get one cheap.
    This observation now seems so obvious, but it took me years and hours of browsing through thrift shops to realize this. So, if you aren’t sure what to throw away or donate, this is another way to go about making that decision. Remember, if you see it (and especially if there’s LOTS of it) at your local thrift shop,it probably needs to go and join its friends there.
    Happy decluttering!!!

  16. Well said. It isn’t the Be All. It does come back clutter and sometimes we may have given away something of value. Yes, go slow is the best. When one married, a parent and no longer a 20/30 something we have accumulated some things. I over purged and suffered the consequences a few times.