How to start the decluttering conversation with a pack-rat…

How to start the decluttering conversation with your pack-rat partner...

My life would be so simple if I didn’t have kids. Or a husband.

I mean, I wouldn’t have a PlayStation4 in the living room.  I could garden for hours, uninterrupted. There wouldn’t be a Barbie doll and her dinosaur minions staring at me as I brush my teeth. I wouldn’t feel the stabbing pain of a rogue Lego block piercing my foot as I make my way to bed.

However, my life would not be my life without my family. And considering I love my kids and my husband dearly, living without them is not an option. This does mean that parts of life can be problematic when we don’t share the same definitions of certain things, like:

  • clutter
  • mess
  • enough
  • tidy
  • prepared
  • relaxation

I am fortunate that Sparky isn’t a pack-rat. And, at 3 and 5, our kids are still at an age where I can help guide their keep-or-toss decisions. Plus, if I’m being honest, toys sometimes quietly disappear, along with the reams of artwork that come home from pre-school and no-one has noticed yet.

So often I receive emails from readers whose situations are different. Their partner is a pack-rat, or their children have a hard time letting go:

“My husband keeps everything, always saying we might need it one day.”

“My girlfriend has carted boxes of old school stuff and toys from one house to another. She won’t let go.”

“How can I simplify our home when it is literally bursting at the seams with their crap?”

They are desperate to create a simpler life for themselves, only to face constant opposition from their husband, wife, kids or housemates. But the truth is, there is only so much you can do in this situation, aside from tossing their belongings without permission – which I really don’t advocate.

Start the Conversation

You don’t need anyone else’s permission to simplify your own life or your stuff. Undoubtedly though, it’s helpful to have support.

So start the conversation:

Bring up your desire to simplify.

Make it about you and your desires, and avoid accusations or judgement. The quickest way to get people off-side is to start a conversation with an accusation. Their defences will go up and they won’t be receptive to anything else you have to say.

Talk about what you need and want from life.

Tell them that you want to start simplifying your life and will begin with your belongings. Tell them that you feel frustrated, stuck, overwhelmed or depressed and that the clutter in your home is adding to the problem. Tell them how you plan on going about simplifying and then ask if it’s something they are interested in. You could be surprised at the answer!

If you live with others – kids, housemates, relatives – talk to them too.

You’re not asking for permission, you’re just telling them what will be happening and why. (Bonus: you may just inspire them to action too.)

Now…Walk the Walk.

It’s time to show the conviction behind your words.

Do the decluttering, cut out unnecessary commitments, create a simpler life for yourself and enjoy the benefits. You will have more space, more time, more room to pursue passions and more clarity about what makes life better.

But please, don’t:

  • brag about it
  • constantly talk about it
  • toss other people’s stuff – no matter how tempting

Just by living it you are demonstrating the benefits of a simpler life. Let your partner, kids or housemate see simplicity in action. Let them see how it’s impacting your life. Let them see how you are benefitting.

Then, after a month, or three, or six, you can talk about it. Ask them how they feel about simplifying some of their stuff. Even just some of your shared belongings. If they’ve been inspired by your efforts, they may be keen to get on board. Then again, they may not.

But like I said at the beginning of this post – there isn’t much you can do about that. Just keep living your life as simply as possible and presenting them with a viable alternative. One day, your influence will make an impact.

“[They] don’t remember what you try to teach them. They remember what you are.” 

― Jim Henson

PS. If anyone is attending The Minimalist’s Everything That Remains tour stop tonight in Sydney, let me know. I’d love to meet you!

13 Responses to How to start the decluttering conversation with a pack-rat…

  1. Thanks to discovering your wonderful blog a few weeks ago, I have started to make some changes in our home, starting the conversation with our family. I will be going to the Minimalist talk tonight too!

  2. I keep on having this struggle with my parents anytime I come to stay at home. I always deal with my stuff first, then I try bring up an idea for their decluttering every day, spliting it into tiny actions they could even take. How I would do it, how they can do it, what exactly could they do with the crap they decide not to keep, how it would look then, how it would affect their lives. If it’s something I can do myself, I do it myself. Sometimes all it takes is to start tidying mum’s shelves and asking:”Where else could this go, do you need this here, do you still use that?” and she joins in the end, helping at least a bit (even though more often she just takes the stuff and moves it to another place as she apparently “can’t or doesn’t want to deal with it right now”). Sometimes they just don’t respond to it, sometimes they go “Not now, we have more important things to do” or “First this or that has to be done!” and then that thing is never done – like we can’t declutter the kitchen storage, we first have to repaint bathroom or something. My parents are crazy packrats (well, mum is. Dad is just too busy to worry about decluttering and it’s mostly her stuff anyway) and procrastinators. When I loose my patience, I usually just go abroad again. It’s crazy, though, I think I wouldn’t be so tempted to leave if our home wasn’t this full of crap and unsolved reconstruction-related to do things. I just can’t look at it and be in it, it makes me reaally frustrated and tight. I wish they were more inspired by how happy I am when I’m abroad living with minimum things that I actually love. But you can’t force this to people. You can offer help and guidance and if it doesn’t work, get the hell out of there. If they want to live such live, their business. Do not let anyone’s decision swallow you, though.

    • “Do not let anyone’s decision swallow you, though.” You got it in one, Em. :)

      I do feel for you – it’s so difficult to be in a situation that is completely opposite to your personal philosophy. Just keep doing what you’re doing, knowing that you can’t change someone, only support them and offer them the benefits of a simpler life. Be the example without judgement and they will eventually notice the positive impact simplifying has had on your life.

  3. This is a tough one. My mom, through a decade long depression (and treatment with a drug to treat it that enabled her shopping tendencies) packed her house to the gills with junk. When she would occaisionally surface, she would be completely overwhelmed. I started decluttering my stuff in my home. After a few years, my husband started on some of his stuff. (Though in my opinion, he has a long way to go.) and my Mom, bless her, noticed how much better she felt in my house–so I volunteered to help her. One summer we made great progress–but it was too much, too fast and she filled it all up again during the winter. The next summer we re-did her living room–and that helped for about a year–and then clutter began to creep back in. Her place, though, will never go back to the barely walkable hazard it was many years ago. But it is a process–and one we have to keep doing.

    In fact, I have got too lax lately and need to start clearing things out again. (I did the 1 thing for the 1st, 30 things for the 30th monthly challenge mentioned by The Minimalists in March. Oddly enough, it was so chaotic and so overwhelming, it exhausted all desire in me to declutter.)

    • You’re right, Alana – that is a very tough situation. It’s interesting, I’ve discovered over the past few years that the outcomes differ greatly when we do something for people (ie make the decisions for them) as opposed to when we help them ask questions (ie. they make the decisions themselves). One is certainly a longer process than the other, but I’ve found that when people take ownership of the process for themselves, it will invariably be a change that sticks. And the frustration of that is, as you well know, you can’t make someone change.

      You are doing a wonderful thing though, by continuing to support your loved ones. You’ve accepted them as they are and are happy to help them when/if they ask. :)

  4. Hi Brooke I didn’t realise they were in Sydney so thanks for the heads up, I’ll be going along tonight. I discovered your blog after I saw you on The Feed.


  5. Years ago when my 3 sons where little, I used to sort out their toys in the school holidays. Mind you it was In front of the TV with a glass of wine. I used to get them to bring out all the boxes of Lego, technics, cars, animals etc and I would sort and cull them. They always got to see was I thought should go and had some say in it. It was amazing the bread crusts and ‘creations’ that’s used to get tossed in those boxes. Then when it came to putting it away I held back some boxes just to reduce the choice they had. Later on I would swap a box over and it was like Christmas. They used to love to see me surrounded by toys sorting the Lego from the happy meals junk.

Leave a reply