How to Decide What’s Clutter and What’s Not

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Struggling to decide what to get rid of and what to keep? These 8 questions will help you identify clutter so you can get it out of your home without regrets.

You already know how stressful and overwhelming clutter feels. You know the guilt and embarrassment it causes, and how hard it is to keep a cluttered home clean. Surrounded by a mess, you feel anxious and restless. But, since you can’t relax, you also feel too exhausted to get rid of clutter.

Worse yet, you begin to believe you deserve to live that way. You don’t. You deserve a comfortable home that makes you feel proud. You deserve a place where you can relax and entertain those you love. So, let’s talk about the things that are keeping you from deciding what’s clutter and getting it out of your house.

Why is it Hard to Get Rid of Clutter?

Separating yourself from your stuff isn’t only about parting with things. There’s an emotional aspect to it, too. Deciding what’s clutter requires being honest and a bit tough with yourself. The questions below will help you identify clutter and also why you’ve been holding onto it.

If you find it challenging to identify clutter and get rid of it, you’re not alone. That’s why books like Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and my book, 30 Days to a Clean and Organized House, exist. But learning to identify and get rid of clutter is like any other skill: the more you practice it, the better you get at it.

How to Decide if Something is Clutter

Sharpen your decluttering skills by asking the following questions. They’ll help you decide when something is clutter. Over time, they’ll also help you recognize your personal stumbling blocks to decluttering. In time, you’ll know to skip straight to that question. Then sorting through and purging clutter becomes a breeze.

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1. Is it still useful to you?

If you’re using something often, it’s not clutter. But, it might be sitting out because putting it away is a hassle. Find a more accessible storage spot. If it’s something you use daily, don’t store it in a container. You’ll skip putting it away when you’re in a rush. Make shelf space or find a vertical storage spot that keeps it within reach. (Related: 9 Tips on Kitchen Organization.)

2. Does it need work?

The desire to repair stuff is only good if you act on it. Otherwise, holding onto broken things is pointless. The same goes for unfinished projects. If it were useful or necessary in your life, you’d have fixed or finished it. It’s clutter, so get rid of it or create a specific spot for things to fix or finish. Review the items in that spot monthly. If you still haven’t fixed or finished something in three months, toss it.

3. Is it out of style or a trend you hope will come back?

Even when styles return to fashion, they’re not the same. Mid-century furniture is a great example. What’s in vogue now is not the same stuff that filled homes in the 1950s and 60s. It’s similar, but with a twist. (That’s why it’s called Mid-Century Modern, or MCM.) If you put Grandma’s sofa from 1956 in your MCM living room today, it would look outdated. So, those things you’re hoping will come back in style never will. Unless you’re operating a museum in your home, let them go.

4. Would someone else love/use it more right now?

Unused things are clutter. If you give something to a person who uses it, you’ve rid yourself of clutter and helped them, too. But please, please don’t hold onto things for your adult children to inherit. That burdens you today and them in the future. If someone else might love or use it more, give it to them now. It will help you declutter and gives them a say in keeping unwanted stuff out of their homes.

5. Is it worthless aside from your memories?

Often, letting go of an item is about more than letting go of the actual thing. For example, your child’s baby quilt is a reminder of your past. It’s not proof of your love. Your child won’t likely remember their blanket, anyway. Without those memories, it’s an old piece of cloth with spit-up stains. Why would you hold onto a ratty, stained blanket?

By ignoring the nostalgia, it’s easier to decide what’s clutter. That doesn’t mean you have to let go of the memories, though. Find a photo of your child wrapped in their baby quilt and let go of the blanket itself. Or, take pictures of things that bring back happy times. Looking through old photographs releases serotonin that improves happiness. Being surrounded by clutter does not.

6. Do you have something like it already?

Clutter wastes your money. When you can’t find something, you buy a new one. Then you wind up with duplicates but feel bad about getting rid of one because you paid good money for it. Don’t talk yourself into keeping stuff just because you paid for it. Decide it’s clutter then give it away and enjoy the good feeling. Or donate it and enjoy the tax write-off.

The only kind of duplicates you should hold onto are consumable items. Examples include cosmetics, paper items, school supplies, and canned goods. Turn a cupboard or closet into a holding spot for these kinds of things. (If you’re decluttering well, that shouldn’t be a problem.) Next time you run out of something, “shop” that spot first.

7. Are you only keeping it out of guilt?

Guilty feelings lead us to hold onto two types of clutter: stuff we spent money on, or stuff we got for free. Do you see the trap there? You’re holding onto things you don’t like because you think you should keep them. But how can you feel peaceful surrounded by things that make you feel bad?

Clutter you paid for. Did you buy it on impulse to cheer yourself up? Did someone pressure you into it? Did you buy it thinking you’d have more time than you actually do? Or for a version of you that you’d hoped to become? The money is already gone. Decide it’s clutter and get rid of it, but keep the lesson to be more thoughtful about future purchases.

Clutter you got for free, like gifts. It’s tempting to keep unwanted gifts to avoid hurting the giver. But then you’re paying for the gift with your peace of mind. You’re entitled to turn down presents you won’t use or enjoy! If that feels awkward, accept it but regift it to someone who will like it. You don’t owe every gift space in your home, or every loved one the right to decide what goes in it.

8. Are you only holding onto it “just in case”?

Do you hold onto stuff you’re not using just in case you might need it someday? It can be hard to let go of things that have the potential to be useful. Reframing the situation often helps.

So, rather than ask whether you might need something in the future, ask if you can live without it today. If it’s something you can replace without much time or effort, get rid of it. (A good rule of thumb is that if something costs less than $20 or you can get a new one in just 20 minutes, you should decide the spare is clutter.) If one of those scenarios you’ve imagined does come about, you can quickly get a new one. But the chances are good you won’t ever need it — or you’d have already found it useful.

What if I Still Can’t Decide if It’s Clutter?

Getting rid of clutter can feel overwhelming. It’s not uncommon to reach a point where you can’t decide if a thing is clutter or something to keep. Your brain is overloaded, and you need a break. That’s normal. So, when that happens, here are a couple of things to do:

Put it in a box and label it with the date. Seal the box and put it in your garage, basement, or somewhere else out of the way. Then, make a note on your calendar for six months in the future. If you haven’t needed or thought about the item by then, decide it’s clutter and get rid of it.

Or, put it where you’ll see it every day. It sounds strange, but seeing it daily can help you decide if it’s clutter. Having to dust it, clean around it, or shove it out of your way repeatedly will reveal your true feelings. You may realize that it would look perfect on a particular shelf or side table. Put it there and enjoy it. Or, you may realize you can’t stand the thing after all. Then you know it’s clutter. Get rid of it.

Should I Clean or Declutter First?

Cleaning and decluttering are separate things. Cleaning gets rid of dirt. Decluttering gets rid of stuff. It is easier to clean a clutter-free home. Getting rid of clutter makes your home look cleaner even if it’s not.

So, if you feel like your home is overwhelming you, start by decluttering. After you’ve purged clutter in a room, clean it. Alternating the two, room-by-room, will help you avoid burnout and inspire you to keep your home clutter-free.

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