Do you ever feel drained, or discouraged, or even easily frustrated with decluttering? When you’re sorting through your stuff, do you sometimes only make it through half a pile and then suddenly lose steam? Well then, my friend, you’ve probably experienced decision fatigue.
Keep on readin’ to learn my ten favourite strategies to declutter with less overwhelm and more mental clarity!
WHAT’S DECISION FATIGUE, ANYWAY?
Now, you might be thinking… “Huh? Decisi-what?“
If you’ll allow me to be a little nerdy here (what else is new!), there are a few things you need to know about the brain in order to understand decision fatigue.
At the risk of oversimplifying some very complicated neuroscience, a key player in decision-making is your prefrontal cortex (the area of your brain just behind your forehead). It’s also responsible for a lot of planning, social functioning, other complex mental tasks. And it can get tired when it’s overloaded. Reaaaally tired.
The prefrontal cortex also tends to become less active (or as I like to say, it totally fucking shuts down) when another part of your brain – the amygdala – takes over. It’s a process called the amygdala hijack, which totally sounds like the name of some Vin Diesel movie. But basically it just means that during a stressful AF situation, your amygdala jumps in with your fight/flight/freeze response and overrides your prefrontal cortex’s logical thinking… including your decision-making.
SO… WHAT DOES ALL THIS HAVE TO DO WITH DECLUTTERING?
Well, decluttering is basically just a series of decisions that you have to make about your stuff. And if you’re anything like I was when I first started decluttering, you might have a LOT of stuff (a.k.a. a buttload of decisions to make). If you reach decision fatigue while decluttering, you’ll probably find it extra tough. In fact, you might…
- end up mentally drained before you make it through a certain room, closet, or category of stuff
- find yourself exhausted and foggy-brained
- get frustrated more easily and become a bit of a crankypants with loved ones
- become discouraged, and then feel bad about yourself for “failing” to declutter, which would then make you less motivated to declutter in the future, which would make you feel worse… vicious circle, right?
The good news is that decision-making is kind of like a muscle, and it can be strengthened. Your brain is constantly “re-wiring” itself (in a process called neuroplasticity) and over time you can become more resilient to decision fatigue. To help you along, here are ten ways to reduce decision fatigue while decluttering.
1. PLAN THE NIGHT BEFORE
Each evening, decide what category of stuff you’ll declutter the next day (see tip #5 for more on decluttering by category). Gather the items from around the house, and plop them in your designated decluttering area (see #3). I know some people who use this strategy with exercise – they set out their sneakers and workout gear the night before, which reduces the decisions they have to make in the morning (like “where the heck is my water bottle?” and “do these shorts match this shirt?”). Basically, it’s one less barrier between them and their workout, and makes it that much easier to git ‘er done without excuses. The same goes for decluttering, my friend.
2. DECLUTTER IN THE MORNING
As we learned, the more decisions you make, the more pooped your brain gets. So if you wait until the evenings to declutter, after a day full of decisions about work, kids, what to wear, how to not lose your cool during your commute even though you’re frustrated as all hell… you’ll probably be too drained.
“BUT I’M NOT A MORNING PERSON,” I hear you cry. “I HAVE TO GET UP AND GO TO WORK IN THE MORNING!” “BUT I HAVE KIDS!” And I hear ya, my friend. I really do.
But I have to tell you that goals don’t lead to success – habits do. You can have the best plans and goals in the world, but unless you find a way to troubleshoot and schedule your decluttering when you have more mental energy available, it’s going to keep causing you frustration. I don’t mean you have to wake up at 5AM to declutter, necessarily – but whenever you normally get up, try getting up just a little bit earlier so you can factor in your decluttering while you still have the mental energy to be mindful.
3. PICK A DESIGNATED DECLUTTERING SPOT
If your space allows, designate a room – or a corner of a room, or even a particular chair or nook – your official decluttering area. After time, your mental association will kick in and help you get into the decluttering frame of mind. Plus, you’ll have somewhere to put all the stuff you gathered each evening (as we talked about in #1).
Pick a spot that’s comfy (you might be there for hours at a time), with good lighting and few distractions. Since my partner and I live in a studio apartment with no couch, we usually turn the Murphy bed into our decluttering zone – but in a pinch, our dining table or the floor will also work. Feel free to get creative!
4. REDUCE DECISIONS IN OTHER AREAS OF YOUR LIFE
Some CEOs wear a “uniform” – meaning, the same types of clothing items every day. Mark Zuckerberg has his grey t-shirts and hoodies. Fashion designer Carolina Herrera has her white button-ups and black a-line skirts. It’s not just a fashion choice – it’s actually a way to reduce the number of decisions they make each day. Basically, it means more mental energy to put toward all the important business decisions each day. (I mean, you could also just wear leggings and a t-shirt each day and sound super fancypants by calling it a uniform!)😉
Of course, you may not want to fully commit to a uniform, but here are a few options you could try:
- create a capsule wardrobe (pick out 15-30 items that you already own, and that all go together – and wear only those things for a month)
- eat the same breakfast every morning (one less thing to decide every day!)
- batch cook and eat leftovers more often, to reduce decisions like “what the heck should I eat for dinner?”
- implement a weekly routine for things like chores, opening mail, groceries…
5. DECLUTTER BY CATEGORY, NOT BY ROOM (OR DRAWER, OR CLOSET…)
At one point, I had outerwear in four different places in the house… you know, because Canada. There were the coats in the front hall. The jackets in my closet. The ski suits in the basement. And some stuff in the spare room closet because I had run out of room in the other places. That meant I was decluttering outerwear on four separate occasions. And each time, I would have to think about what other items I already had, whether I needed it, and whether the item I was holding was better than the one in another room. It was exhausting. (And don’t even get me started on the number of places in my home that I kept hair elastics!)
Do yourself a favour and make a trip around your home to collect any “like” objects. Then declutter them all in one go, to save your mental energy.
6. TAKE BREAKS
Okay, I will say that there’s a fine line between breaks and procrastination. But if you’ve reached the point where you’re mentally drained, trying to push through and declutter anyway is only going to frustrate or discourage you. Take some time to grab a cup of tea, meditate to an awesome potty-mouthed meditation, dance it out, take a cat nap, or check out these awesome decluttering quotes.
I also recommend that you make a note of what caused the decision fatigue, so you can pace yourself better in the future. Grab a pen and paper, and answer the following questions:
- How much you were able to declutter before you reached mental exhaustion?
- What emotions are arising for you?
- How did you sleep the night before?
- What else happened that day to drain your mental energy?
- Were there disruptions, and what were they?
After a few experiences of decision fatigue, you may start to notice patterns. You can then use those to formulate a decluttering plan that’s less fatiguing. Maybe it means tackling a smaller category of stuff next time, changing your environment, or incorporating more mindfulness and rest into your day.
7. STOP MULTI-TASKING
Okay, get this: the brain can’t actually multi-task. It’s not a thing! It can flip super quickly between tasks, but it’s still only processing one task at a time. This is why I don’t actually recommend listening to music or podcasts while decluttering.
Now, don’t get me wrong – music makes for a great dance break. So feel free to get up, shake it like a polaroid picture, and refresh. But I suggest using it sparingly. Same goes with multi-tasking like cooking, cleaning, writing emails while decluttering…
Repeat after me: ONE. THING. AT. A. FRIGGEN. TIME.
8. AVOID INTERRUPTIONS
Interruptions are similar to so-called “multi-tasking”, because it involves your brain flipping its attention back and forth between tasks, which can be hella draining for it. So silence your phone. Ask your roomies or family for some time sans interruptions. Get a babysitter if you can. Or find a time when you’re otherwise undisturbed, in an area of your home with the fewest distractions possible.
9. GET MORE SLEEP
If you’ve got a big decluttering project, then your brain could be perpetually tuckered out for quite a while. And the best way to recharge? You guessed it – sleep.
Remember all that stuff about the brain earlier? Yeah, a lack of sleep can cause the amygdala to have a heightened fight/flight/freeze response to negative stimuli, like… you know… the stress of sorting through clutter. And the prefrontal cortex (a.k.a. decision central) doesn’t perform nearly as well when it’s tired, either.
I try to set an alarm for an hour before I go to sleep to start wrapping up the day, powering off my electronics, and do a little meditating to wind down. (But obviously I still fail sometimes and end up watching TikToks until midnight!)
10. REMEMBER YOUR “WHY”
Willpower can come and go from day to day, or week to week… so it’s crucial to have a vivid reason WHY you’re decluttering in the first place to carry you through. It’s so important to the process that I designated a whole section of my step-by-step Ultimate Decluttering Guide to walking you through it! That way, you can develop a “whypower” strong enough to keep you motivated, even when your willpower is drained.
Decision fatigue can make it really difficult to declutter. But by implementing the strategies above, you can help to prevent mental exhaustion, and make the most of your decision-making ability while decluttering!