by Susan McCarthy
Are you struggling to decide what stays and what goes when you're decluttering your home? The answer isn't to be found in lists of essentials or items to declutter. Instead, these decluttering questions can help you provide your own answers.
While decluttering may seem to be the act of tossing stuff in trash bags and hauling things to donation centers, it’s really about decision making. What should you keep? Will you miss that thing if you get rid of it? Can you get rid of that sweater your mother gave you and that you’ve never worn?
And if you do decide to get rid of something, do you give it away to a friend? Donate it? And where? Sell it? How?
Just writing those paragraphs, thinking about all the decisions I didn’t even mention, has left me exhausted. So, if decluttering leaves both your brain and body feeling like it’s pushing its way through molasses, know that’s perfectly normal.
How to Make Decluttering Decisions
First off, you want to be careful about what you consider a decision. See, when you pick up an item and think, “Should I get rid of this? Should I keep it?” you create tension. It’s a bit like your thoughts are playing tug-o-war.
The degree of tension is a matter of all the thoughts you call up about the item. These could range anywhere from how much the item cost you, who gave you the item, how often the item’s been used, and even how you thought the item would improve your life.
A decision is, “I’ll keep this.” Or “I’ll donate this.” What isn’t a decluttering decision? “I should hold onto this just in case.” “I should keep this in case someone needs it someday.”
Why don’t those count as decisions? Because you haven’t really decided how or when you’ll use the object. But those phrases feel like decisions since in essence, you’ve chosen to keep the item. Your thoughts sigh in relief as you return the item to its shelf or cabinet.
But, if you’re trying to bring order to your home, viewing too many items as “maybe” items mean nothing is really leaving your home.
You want to make decluttering decisions based on your use and enjoyment of an item while being willing to let go of the things that don’t add to your life.
How Do You Decide What Goes and What Stays When Decluttering?
The best place to start when decluttering is by getting clear on why you are decluttering. And your answer should go deeper than, “I’m tired of looking at a pile of junk on the dining table.” Instead, think, “If the dining table was clear, how would I use that space?”
This line of questioning, considering the benefit of a more organized space, can help you connect to a more emotional reason that will inspire your decluttering efforts. Thinking of decluttering as yet one more chore on your to-do list isn’t particularly motivating.
Also, knowing why you’re decluttering a room or space within a room helps to answer the question of what stays and what goes. If you’re decluttering the dining table so you can enjoy more family meals at the table and deepen connections, then that clarifies that the table shouldn’t be used as your desk.
So, before you begin decluttering your closet, bedroom, kitchen, or garage, consider how you want to use the space. If an item occupying the space doesn’t support that use, it either belongs someplace else in your home, where it can be of use…or it doesn’t belong in your home at all.
Beware Decluttering Decision Fatigue
Researchers have learned that we can only make so many decisions throughout the day before we become fatigued. This is why you’re likely to break your diet in the evening than in the morning…after a day of making both big and minor decisions, we’re too depleted to rationally choose between carrots and ice cream.
When it comes to decluttering, every item you pick up requires a decision. If you’ve ever pushed yourself to declutter for hours, in the final hours, you may have found yourself struggling. You could have ended up at the extremes of either tossing everything just to save yourself from making the decisions…or you held onto everything.
It’s natural that long decluttering sessions will lead to decision fatigue. How can you counter decluttering decision fatigue?
The Benefits of Deciding Before You Decide
That final tip about making a decision that covers numerous items is all about deciding before you decide. When you’re decluttering, making as many decisions as you can early in the process can smooth the clutter clearing process.
You don’t have to make every imaginable decision before you do anything. And these decisions go back to knowing why you are decluttering a space. In fact, where things are stored in your home can clue you to decisions you’ve already made. For example, if you’ve moved your old jewelry making supplies to the garage because you no use them, then you’ve already made a decision about all those items.
Decluttering Questions to Ask Yourself
If you know you want to keep or get rid of something, don’t bother asking these decluttering questions, you’ve already made a decision.
Also, it isn’t necessary to run through all these questions, even for an item you’re struggling to decide about. And avoid hunting down more decluttering question in other articles or resources…that will lead to decision fatigue.
If fact, you might just want to read through these questions and allow the information to marinate in your mind. When you declutter, you may find one of these questions, or your own question, coming to mind.
Is it out of date?
This question can apply to food as well as fashion and information. Do you truly get use and enjoyment from your childhood encyclopedias? Will you really use that six-month expired can of black beans? Will shoulder pads really come back to how they were used in the 1980s?
Yes, money was spent on these items. Do you really need to punish yourself for not using the item by forcing yourself to use it past its time?
When was the last time I used this?
Remember, a useful item is only useful when it gets used. How long between uses is acceptable is up to you. The dress you wear once every year or two, but is your only fancy dress, is likely something you’d hold onto. The cookie cutters you use once a year at Christmas are also another likely keeper.
The kayak you’re convinced you’ll use someday but haven’t used for four years hasn’t added to your life. Is it really worth holding onto it while feeling bad that you aren’t using it?
How often do I use it? If I don’t use it very often, could I borrow, rent, or improvise the times I might need it?
Going back to the example of the dress you wear once every year or so. You might decide that if you didn’t have that dress that you could ask friends if they had a dress you could borrow. You may prefer that option because then you won’t wear the same dress to every event.
If you didn’t have those serving bowls that you use once a year, could you borrow from family? Could you use soup bowls as serving bowls?
While things that get used all the time are obvious keepers, things that get used infrequently can be more challenging. Does the space the item takes up worth the number of times it gets used.
And if you haven’t used this item in ages, do you really feel that it is something you use?
Do I value this item?
Are you keeping this thing out of a sense of obligation? Look at how the item is stored for clues to how you value it. What does it say about your feelings toward that family heirloom or item you inherited if it’s packed in a box and stored in your attic or garage?
If the idea of looking at the items is emotionally difficult, do you value the pain associated with these things? You can still love the person associated with the items without clinging to items that bring up painful emotions…particularly if you pack these items in a dark space in your home.
Obviously, you can keep whatever you want to. Consider how you value the item and what it adds to your life.
If I didn’t have this item, how would that affect my life?
This question applies more to items with a sentimental or emotional connection…even if the things are useful – dishes, linens, books, clothing, and so on. Would your life be easier if you no longer had these things?
Am I keeping this out of a sense of obligation?
Is guilt a worthwhile reason for keeping something? Whether it was a gift or an inheritance, does keeping this thing create a burden? The same goes for things that cost a lot of money but weren’t used as often as you thought. And do you feel obligated to hold onto things connected to past interests in the hope that someday you’ll return to that interest or activity?
This question ties closed to, “If I didn’t have this item, how would that affect my life?” Letting go of items that carry a sense of obligation not only frees you from the items but also the activity associated with them. Once you give away that rug hooking kit you barely started, you’re no longer obligated to try and finish it.
Could I easily replace the item?
This question isn’t about getting rid of items for the sake of decluttering. I remember speaking with a woman who asked questions about letting go of items that could become useful someday. Her example was about a pitcher that she’d put into a box years’ earlier with the intention of donating the items in the box. But she never got around to donating the boxes.
Years later, she wanted a pitcher and went digging through those boxes in her basement to look for it. This was her reasoning for not getting rid of anything…it obviously could get used in the future.
I asked her how much the pitcher cost. It wasn’t an expensive item. I pointed out that if she’d donated the item, then, potentially, it could have been used by someone during the time it sat in a box. And also, she wouldn’t have been burdened by those boxes that took up space in her basement.
The Minimalists have something they call the 20/20 rule. If you can replace something for less than twenty dollars in twenty minutes, is it worth holding onto something that you aren’t using?
How to Decide Whether to Keep It or Let It Go
What if with all of these considerations, you still feel that you should hold onto something that you don’t use or enjoy or cherish? These items are occupying a “maybe” pile.
A common bit of advice is to put the items in a box, close the box, and label it with a date sometime in the future (six months is often advised). The idea is that if you don’t go looking for the item before the date on the box, you won’t miss it if it isn’t in your home.
The problem is that these boxes often stay where they’re stored. Although you don’t miss the items, you haven’t really decluttered them from your home.
To counter this, put the date in your digital calendar so you do return to the boxes and donate them.
For items that don’t get used, like items you have on display, consider shifting them to a new location for a month (that location could be a box) and see if you miss seeing them. This also helps you see if you appreciate the empty space that comes with shifting the items.
How to Use Decluttering Questions to Declutter Your Home
One, connect to the benefits of decluttering a room or space. How could you use the space if it wasn’t cluttered? When you encounter an item that doesn’t fit into your envisioned use of the area, you know that item doesn’t belong.
Two, beware of decision fatigue. If you’re trying to declutter for too long or too big a space, you may be making it too difficult to make clear decisions.
Three, decide before you decide. If, for example, you’ve changed your diet, you could decide to donate all the cookbooks that don’t support the way you’ve been eating for the past year. This decision could also include kitchen items you used to use. One decision covers other scenarios.
Four, question the item’s place in your home and life. Is your life better for owning this?
Remember, decluttering isn’t just about getting rid of things. Instead, it’s about clearing away the things that are distracting you from what is important to your life.
More Resources to Help You Decide What to Do with Your Stuff
Hi, I'm Susan
I'm a former teacher who became a professional organizer (and not because I'm a natural-born neatnik). I live with my husband and fluffy cat on a river in Massachusetts. I crochet, make handmade cards, and love reading young adult novels. Learn more about my decluttering journey here.