Let me start off here by saying something that you need to know: when it comes to clutter, I. AM. NOT. PERFECT. In fact, I have made each and every one of these decluttering mistakes before.
It took me many (many) months of learning the best decluttering methods the hard way, through painstaking trial and error, and BOY OH BOY do I wish I’d had someone to guide me. If someone had been around to teach me how to clear the mountains of clutter around me, and what not to do, it would have saved me so much time. And energy. And rage-quits.
So here I am! I want to be that decluttering guide for you. (Also, hi – I’m Sara. It’s awesome to e-meet you.)
Now before we get started on the decluttering mistakes, I want you to remember this: be gentle with yourself. You are not a failure if you’ve made any of these mistakes. On the contrary, the fact that you’re on this page right now is a testament to how much you are a triggen inspiration. Why, you ask? Because you’re learning, you’re taking charge of your clutter, and you’re taking real action to transform your life. YOU ARE A TOTAL BADASS.
I want to help you in any way I can, so I’ve compiled all my favourite strategies to get you from clutterbug to clutter-free ASAP! You can find them in my free Ultimate Decluttering Guide. You can score your copy here:
Okay – without further delay, here are my top decluttering mistakes to avoid, so that you can clear your clutter more easily than I did!
1. DECLUTTERING ROOM BY ROOM
If your home is anything like mine used to be, you probably have magazines in multiple rooms of the house (back when I HAD multiple rooms – my partner and I now live in a 300ft2/28m2 studio apartment😅). There were the living room magazines, the food magazines in the kitchen, the magazines by my bed, the magazines in the bathroom (DON’T JUDGE now, we all do it!), the magazines in my desk (not even sure why they were there)… and the list goes on.
When I first started decluttering, I would go drawer by drawer, closet by closet, and room by room – but then I would end up decluttering magazines on like, eight different occasions! It was more time consuming, and used a shit ton more decision-making mental capacity. (Decision fatigue is a very real thing, and it’s best to “batch” your tasks when you declutter.)
HOW TO FIX IT: Declutter by category, not by area of the house. If you’re decluttering shoes, for example, grab all your shoes from around your home and gather them together before you start! Processing similar items all at once helps you make better (and less fatiguing) decisions about what to keep.
2. NOT GIVING YOURSELF ENOUGH TIME
One of the most common decluttering mistakes I’ve come across while helping others declutter is being too optimistic about how much can reasonably be accomplished in a certain amount of time. It’s natural to want to believe you can declutter your 4-bedroom house in a weekend, or your whole room in a couple of hours. But not giving yourself enough time means that you’ll likely have to abandon the project mid-way, leaving behind an even worse mess. AND, to top it off, it’s super friggen discouraging – and what motivates us less than feeling discouraged?!
HOW TO FIX IT: Double the amount of time you think you need for a specific clutter category. Or if the amount of time you have is pretty fixed, then cut the amount of stuff you’ll be sorting through by half. I know that sounds kind of extreme, but trust me on this, friend. In my experience, most decluttering tasks take twice as long as we figure they will. (And if it doesn’t? Sweet! You just scored yourself some more time to recharge, or to check out some of these motivational decluttering quotes.)
3. TRYING TO ORGANIZE BEFORE YOU DECLUTTER
Have you ever spent hours organizing, only to have the clutter return in a few weeks… or even days? That’s because organizing is a temporary solution – all you’re doing is shuffling the clutter around, and fitting it into little boxes. Besides, why spend hours organizing stuff that might not even make the cut anyway?
HOW TO FIX IT: Don’t even THINK about organizing until you know what you have left over to organize. Do not buy storage containers. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Repeat after me: “Declutter, then organize. Declutter, THEN organize.”
4. TACKLING THE BIG PROJECTS FIRST
When we tackle big projects first, it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll feel discouraged. It’s like running a marathon – you wouldn’t expect to be able to get out and run 26 miles without training first with shorter distances, right? And if you tried to run a marathon without practicing and building momentum first, you’d probably feel exhausted. And frustrated. And super bummed out. (And probably pretty sore, but that’s besides the point!)
The same goes for decluttering. For example, let’s say your biggest “problem area” is the garage. Well if you start with that, you’ll probably tire out quickly and get frustrated, which might even lead you to procrastinate from decluttering in the future.
HOW TO FIX IT: Start with “little wins” in categories that you use every day. Places like your cutlery drawer are awesome for this – it’s a small area, it can be completed relatively quickly, and you likely open it every day (so you can start experiencing the clutter-free benefits regularly). Gradually, as you become more comfortable with the small projects, you can increase the size and scope of your projects and build momentum toward the big ones.
5. NOT PROCESSING THE EMOTIONAL SHIT
Decluttering mistakes aren’t always about the strategies we us. Sometimes they’re about not feeling the feels!
If you declutter too quickly, you may not be giving yourself enough time to process the emotions that led to being clutttered in the first place. That’s problematic for a couple of reasons: one, it doesn’t allow you to deal with the emotional shit that’s been holding you back. And two, it’s a band-aid solution and can lead to relapse. It might help in the short term, but before too long your old cluttered patterns will likely re-surface.
HOW TO FIX IT: Take your time, and revisit the tough stuff regularly. How long did it take you to accumulate the stuff you have? Probably years – or even decades, right? Well during that time, you were developing your “clutter mindset” (your old thoughts and beliefs about your stuff). It’s going to take time for your new thought patterns to become second-nature – but decluttering the tough stuff in bite-sized increments, slowly but regularly, is the best way to “re-wire” your brain. Also, make sure you grab my Ultimate Decluttering Guide for ideas of what to do with the items after you declutter them!
6. THROWING EVERYTHING INTO THE TRASH
I understand the desire to be rid of stuff as soon as you’ve made up your mind about decluttering it. Trust me, I’ve been there. But it’s extremely wasteful to trash all of your perfectly good things (and unfortunately, donating to thrift stores really isn’t much better). I also believe that taking the time to re-home your items sustainably can be a great way to reduce the amount of new clutter you acquire in the future.
HOW TO FIX IT: Re-home your items responsibly. Decluttering sustainably can be complicated, but I made this detailed blog post to help break it down for you. In it you’ll find four straightforward steps and loads of tips to help you reduce the amount of waste you produce while decluttering!
Procrastination is a complicated subject, because there can be countless reasons for it. Usually if we’re procrastinating, it’s a sign that there’s something else going on – things like fear of failure, overwhelm, task aversion, or self-sabotage, just to name a few. So the mistake I’m talking about here is not the procrastination itself, but rather not addressing the root cause of it.
HOW TO FIX IT: Identify what’s causing your procrastination, and use strategies designed to help overcome it. This may involve breaking down big tasks into more manageable ones, setting goals (and holding yourself accountable), diving into a little introspection about your fears, or finding an accountability partner.
8. PAWNING OFF YOUR THINGS ON PEOPLE WHO DON’T WANT THEM
You might have the urge to “gift” your unused clutter to loved ones – possibly because it lessens the guilt of discarding it. It’s natural to want to see your objects getting a second life after they leave your home, but it means that your loved ones might feel pressure to take on clutter that they don’t actually want. Unwanted clutter = resentment, and that ain’t good!
HOW TO FIX IT: Ask people what they currently have a need for. Rather than offering your clutter to someone (where it might just become clutter in their home), ask them what they need – and then see if you have one of those items that you can part with. Now, I should mention that heirlooms (or things that may be sentimental to the person you’re offering them to) are a little different – I think it’s fair to ask first whether they would like them. But please make it clear that they’re under no obligation to take it, and once you’ve made up your mind about getting rid of the object, don’t let their response change whether or not you keep the item.
9. DECLUTTERING SENTIMENTAL STUFF TOO EARLY
Decluttering is like climbing Mount Everest. You need to train a bunch at altitude before climbing beyond Base Camp (i.e. you need to hone your mental skills for decluttering before you attempt the really sentimental stuff, which is basically the summit). Otherwise, you might leave feeling discouraged and overwhelmed – and distracted, because nothing derails decluttering faster than pictures of cute babies/puppies and jaunts down memory lane.
HOW TO FIX IT: Start with the least sentimental, and work toward the most. I’m willing to bet that you’re less sentimentally attached to your charging cables than your photo albums. Pick the easier categories first, and gradually build momentum toward the really emotional stuff.
10. DECLUTTERING OTHER PEOPLE’S THINGS
Obviously there are some reasons why you might need to declutter for someone else, or vice versa – for example if disabilities are a factor, or if the person has passed away. That’s not what I’m talking about here. If you’re able to declutter but ask someone to do the work for you, you’re missing out on the personal growth that comes from sorting through your stuff. And, worse yet, you might not have the opportunity to confront the mindsets that led to the clutter in the first place, and you’re more likely to rebound as a result. I don’t advocate decluttering for someone else for the same reason. They need to make those decisions for themselves – and doing the decluttering for them ain’t gonna help long-term.
HOW TO FIX IT: Only declutter your things. (Even shared belongings shouldn’t be decluttered without the other person there.) And as a general rule, please don’t get rid of another person’s shit without explicit permission.
11. GETTING HANDSY (A.K.A HANDLING YOUR BELONGINGS TOO MUCH)
The more physical contact we have with something, the harder it is to part with. It’s almost like tactile sensations can carry memory or emotions, which can create a stronger bond with the item. And if we become more attached to it by touching it, we’re more likely to keep it – whether or not our brains actually want to!
HOW TO FIX IT: If you think you’re prone to tactile sentimentality, try to avoid handling your stuff more than you need to. Hold the book, but don’t flip through it. Look at your sweater, but don’t sit there running your hand over the fabric for minutes on end. Over time, it’ll become easier to part with objects that no longer serve a purpose in your home.
12. NOT KNOWING YOUR “WHY”
You might feel like you lack motivation or willpower, but here’s the thing: we don’t have an unlimited supply. Willpower has a naturally ebb and flow – no one feels motivated all the time. So what keeps people pushing through a project, even when they don’t feel particularly keen? WHYpower. Without it, you likely won’t have the drive to keep up with a project when your motivation has inevitably dwindled.
HOW TO FIX IT: Figure our your “why.” WHY are you decluttering in the first place? Get super clear on how exactly a decluttered home is going to help you live a better life. (Pssst – my Ultimate Decluttering Guide can help you with this!! It’s not to late to grab your copy.) You’ll then need to recall this driving force when you feel unmotivated to declutter.
13. NOT TAKING ENOUGH BREAKS
I totally get the urge to power through decluttering, even when your body and mind are screaming “nope!” Clearing your home can be a powerful feeling, and hooo boy, once we start seeing results we just want to keep going! Here’s the thing, though: not taking breaks is a surefire way to burn out. And once you’ve burnt out, it’s real tough to regain any sort of momentum again.
HOW TO FIX IT: Step away from the piles of crap. If you need to, set a time for yourself so that every hour, you’re taking a short break to grab a snack, walk around the block, dance it out, or listen to a quick potty-mouthed meditation. You could even try one of these mindfulness activities that take 5 minutes or less. By pacing yourself, you’ll end up having more mental energy for the tough decisions, and you’re more likely to stick with decluttering long enough to see finish line!
14. NOT TAKING BEFORE PHOTOS
I can almost hear you thinking “why the heck would I want to remember this disaster?!” But listen. I honestly wish I had more “before” photos to look back on. When you declutter gradually (which I actually recommend!), it can be easy to get used to our less-cluttered space and forget how it used to look. Photos make an awesome record of what you’ve accomplished! And they’re also a great tool for when you feel discouraged by your clutter and need a little motivational boost.
HOW TO FIX IT: Take photos right now. Get up, and do a pass of your home. Open drawers, closets, cupboards. Take zoomed out photos of entire rooms. I promise that further along in your decluttering journey, those pictures are going to be pretty damn encouraging for you.
15. NOT KNOWING WHAT TO DO WITH YOUR CLUTTER ONCE YOU’VE SORTED THROUGH IT
I’m all for decluttering slowly, and taking time to re-home things responsibly. But in some cases, bags and boxes of clutter just sit around, never actually leaving the house. (Guilty!) Often that can be a result of not knowing where your clutter needs to end up.
HOW TO FIX IT: Do a quick Google search. It often only takes a few minutes to find somewhere in your community that could use your items. (You can find heaps of suggestions in my sustainable decluttering post. You may need to experiment a bit, but I recommend having an idea of where your items will go before you declutter them. Then you can label them and give them a designated spot by the door.
Tidying up our homes may not be easy, but it can be made simple. By avoiding the decluttering mistakes above, you’ll be able to sort through your things more efficiently (and with fewer headaches).