5 Decluttering Tricks That Don’t Actually Work (and 5 That Do)

published Jan 4, 2023
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When I first started living on my own, it was very apparent that if you don’t declutter regularly, the stuff will pile up. And it will pile up fast. I grew up in a house where there was a lot of stuff and learning how to let go wasn’t well taught. It’s kind of ironic then that I eventually decided to start a professional organizing business and my only sibling, a younger brother, is one of the most minimalist and organized people I know.

My brother and I realized that we don’t want our own homes to become clutter magnets that, as we jokingly (seriously?) say to our parents “have to be burned down one day.” Routinely decluttering your things should happen for a few reasons. Most of all, you only have so much space in your home. Even if you upsize, you still own so many square feet. That means you can only fit so much stuff within said space. 

Holding onto items that you no longer need, want, or even like is simply unnecessary and can be holding you back from moving forward in life. That spare bedroom full of your grown kids’ things or sheer junk that you’ll get to “one day”? It could transform into the home gym of your dreams and put you on a path to better health. And that’s just one example of the life-changing effect of decluttering.

There are, however, ineffective ways to let go of things that I have witnessed my clients fall victim to before bringing me in to help, and even I have made mistakes of doing in the past. Here’s a list of five decluttering tricks that don’t actually work and five that you can try instead.

Trying to declutter the whole home in one weekend

This is a recipe for failure, mostly because it’s overwhelming. And, also, impossible. I used to set aside two weekends each year to declutter and reorganize my bedroom closet and by the end of those 48 hours, I was fried. If you have responsibilities, like kids or pets, forget about doing them uninterrupted. In general, people simply don’t have the time, patience, or willpower to declutter a lot of stuff in such a small amount of time. Attempting this, even with help, professional or otherwise, is unproductive.

Do this instead:

Pick a small area to tackle once or twice per month. It could be the junk drawer, the coat closet, or the kids’ craft supplies. Something this size shouldn’t be too stressful and by doing a little bit each month, you get into the habit of decluttering so it feels less like a chore and more like second nature. While you might not feel like you’re making a big dent, doing a little is better than doing nothing at all. Remember, microtasks matter.

Starting with the most overwhelming space

Sure, in theory, it can make a substantial difference in your home and everyday life if you tackle the spot that bothers you the most. However, if it’s something that you’ll find difficult — say, sentimental items — then it may discourage you from the start. Mementos, for example, are known to slow down the process as you’ll focus more on the memory attached than your project at hand.

Do this instead:

Begin by looking at things with expiration dates, such as medicine in the linen closet, since this usually decides for you. If you’re the type who doesn’t read books a second time around, head to the bookcase. It’ll be easier to let go of the stuff that you have little to no attachment to first then, as your confidence builds, move on to the areas that require a little more discipline, patience, and brain power.

Assuming someone wants your discarded things

You might think that you’re doing them a favor, especially if your love language is gift-giving. But the person you want to pawn off your used clothing, kitchen tools, or kids’ toys to might be on a decluttering journey of their own and not need or want it. Essentially, you could be making it harder for them to keep a clutter-free home.

Do this instead:

Simply ask if they need or want what you want to give before dropping bags or boxes on their doorstep. Consider posting items for free or asking if anyone in a local Facebook group knows of a family in need. If you like to ensure that your donations are going to a good home, this may be the better method for you instead of blindly dropping things into a generic donation box in a nearby parking lot.

Filling a donation bag but not having a plan of where to donate

The meme about driving around with bags of clothes in your car for weeks (months?) is funny because it’s true. Before professionally organizing, I’d do it too. Then, I had no choice but to be a regular at the local donation center or else my car would be packed to the brim. Hanging onto donations means it’s also tempting to rummage back through them and convince yourself you really do need that top … even though you haven’t worn it in at least half a decade.

Do this instead:

Research local charities that have a good reputation and find out their hours for drop off or their schedules for pickups. Is it on the way to work? Leave a few minutes early and swing by with the stuff. For pickups, plan your decluttering sessions around when they can come by as they often come to certain neighborhoods once or twice per month. Have everything ready and labeled the night before and then place it outside, per their instructions.

Thinking that as long as you declutter regularly, you’ll always be organized.

Decluttering is just one part of the process. Once you let go of the stuff that doesn’t spark joy, then the remaining things should be organized into a system. As you use or replace those things, they need to be put back into their homes. Simply getting rid of stuff won’t make your home magically tidy 24/7.

Do this instead:

Curb your impulse shopping to avoid bringing in just as much, or even more, than you’re getting rid of. Leave things in your cart online for a day before hitting that buy button. Consider using a clothing rental company or borrowing something from a friend instead of owning something new. Get into the habit of returning items where they belong. Set timers at the end of the day to clean up the living room, kitchen, bathroom, or the “chairdrobe” in your bedroom. The more you practice the art of decluttering and getting and staying organized, the easier it’ll be and the more natural it’ll feel.

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