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by Susan McCarthy
I was teaching a class about decluttering the other day and one of the participants pointed out that I seemed to be using the words ‘organizing’ and ‘decluttering’ interchangeably. Oops. And, I know I do this when I write articles about decluttering.
Decluttering and organizing are different actions – and thought processes – although there will be times when you’ll be doing both actions together.
Decluttering = Getting Rid of What You Don’t Want or Like
Decluttering is eliminating things that you don’t – or can’t – use (and don’t foresee using in a year) and don’t like.
Although this sounds simple, decluttering becomes challenging when it gets caught up in thoughts like, “It was so expensive,” “It was a gift,” “It was supposed to help me be _____ (healthier, more productive)” – and emotions such as guilt, shame, and embarrassment.
That’s a lot of negativity stuck to things like a vegetable shredder, books you never read, a pair of pants that fit 15 years ago, and a pair of snowshoes.
To get rid of physical items, you need to view the items without being attached to the thoughts and emotions stuck to the items. Even if you like something, you may realize that you no longer need to hold onto it – maybe a photo or scanned image will be enough for you. (Then, you may feel guilty releasing something that you like!)
How to Release Thoughts and Emotions Stuck to Your Clutter
The simplest way to do this is to move items to a ‘holding box(es)’ where the item is moved out of sight for three-to-six months. If you don’t go looking for the item, you know you don’t need it. And, if you haven’t given its absence a thought, chances are that you aren’t as emotionally attached to it as you thought.
What if you do go rooting through the box for an item? That’s fine. It just means that now isn’t the time to get rid of the item. You can try again in half a year. And, if you pull everything out of the box?
Start out with some journaling or talking to a good (nonjudgmental) friend to see if you can figure out why you are attached to the items. If that doesn’t move you forward, you may want to consider talking to a therapist, particularly if the clutter in your home is so overwhelming that it prevents you from wanting others to come into your home.
Organizing = Give Everything a Home
All those bins, boxes, rolling carts, drawer organizers, cubbies, et al. aren’t supposed to put items out of sight (which is how they often get used), but to give the items a home. Giving an item a home means that when you go looking for the item, you know where to find it. And, when you put the item away (which you have to do, or the item becomes clutter), you know where to return it.
Pinterest is full of fun ways to organize, well, everything. Before you get caught up in color-coordinating and labeling a single thing, always consider if the organizing system makes it easy for you (and everyone in your family) to find and put the items away.
Oh, and an item’s home doesn’t have to be positioned to the millimeter. Knowing that’s the shelf where the mugs live, or this drawer is for your workout gear or that bin is where the kids can store their play food is home enough.
Where Decluttering and Organizing Overlap
You have only so much space in your home. If you cram things into every available storage space, your eye will never have a place to rest and you’ll end up feeling overwhelmed. You don’t need great swathes of empty space; however, you want to give your stuff some “breathing room.”
For example, when you put books on a shelf, you can only fit so many books. Yes, you can try to squeeze more in and perch them horizontally on top of the upright books, but when you go to take out a book, all the others will shift. And, it won’t be easy to return a book to its space, which means you might not put it away.
The same thing happens if you have one more mug than will fit on the shelf dedicated to mugs. Where does the extra mug go? On another shelf? Now, it’s no longer clear where mugs belong. Although that may seem extreme, one exception leads to another which leads to another. Soon, you aren’t organized.
When you decide where an item or group of similar items will go, you are also establishing boundaries for how many of that item you can keep. If you can fold and fit fifteen tee shirts in a drawer, then you are limited to fifteen tee shirts and you need to declutter the excess. The same with everything else in your home.
So, how to work through the process of decluttering and organizing? Declutter first and then organize, decluttering more items if necessary. Avoid the temptation of first figuring out how many items will fit in a space. Decluttering items should leave you with the items that will help you do the things that you want to do in your life, extra stuff that you don’t need sends conflicting messages about where you want to focus your time and energy.
And, don't worry about decluttering or organizing the "wrong" way. Your goal is to get the job done so you can move onto more interesting things. Figure out what method works for you and realize that as you progress through the process, you'll be tweaking those methods.
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Hi, I’m Susan
I’m the chief (and only) Organized Squirrel at A Less Cluttered Life. In these articles, I meld my nearly 30 years as a teacher with my new career as a professional organizer to show you how to clear your cluttered home and schedule to create the life you want.