Clutter Defined, and 5 Signs of a Clutter Problem

How do you know if you should declutter?  What is clutter?

Let's try to figure that out.  Tell me if this sounds like a typical morning in your home.

  • When you wake up, the first thing you see is a messy bedroom, with lots of unfinished projects and items that don't belong in the room.  This immediately sets an unpleasant tone for your day.
  • You get up and can't find a wearable outfit in your closet.  Either nothing goes together, nothing really fits, an item you want is dirty and possibly buried at the bottom of a huge pile of other dirty laundry, a button is missing from your favorite shirt, or you dig through your overburdened closet rail and half the clothes fall to the floor.  In any case, you throw on whatever you can find and feel uncomfortable and unhappy.
  • You go to the kitchen, and one of your kids is frantically looking for her homework, which can't be found.  You're out of milk for breakfast, and all of the bowls seem to be in a dirty pile in the sink.  To top it off, your car keys are missing for the third time this week.  
  • You feel frustrated and angry, and your stress levels are soaring – and it isn't even 8:00 a.m.

We're all different, of course, and a house that looks like squalor and disaster to one person might be identified as "a bit messy" by another.  So deciding whether to simplify and discard is a personal choice.  But there are some indications that the situation is getting out of control.

5 signs of a clutter problem

1.  You see A LOT of stuff.

As you look around a room, there's definitely a lot of visual noise.  Things are piled on top of other things, and spread all over the floor.  Merely owning a large number of possessions doesn't indicate a clutter problem –.but it might.

2.  The stuff is out of place.

If you see a plate and fork on your desk or dresser, you know it doesn't belong there.  Dishes and silverware have a very specific home, and it's not on the desk or dresser.  A pile of clothes on the couch or the kitchen counter looks like clutter.  Cases of soda or toilet paper in the entry hall or on top of the washing machine look like clutter.

3.  The stuff is untidy.

A large shelf with dozens of beautifully arranged books doesn't look like clutter.  It looks like a loved and cared-for collection.  However, if the books are stacked haphazardly, piled on top of and behind each other, and covered in dust, then the whole situation starts to look like clutter.

4.  The influx of stuff is greater than the outflow.

This is a common occurrence for many of us.  There are so many occasions for which buying things is expected – holidays, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, graduations, baby showers, retirement parties, and more.  But we don't have comparable occasions for removing things from our homes.  Maybe during spring cleaning or yard sale season some of us do a partial purge, but it's not a regular routine.  And we almost never think about reducing the inflow.

5.  You justify keeping stuff because it was a gift, or because you don't want to "waste" it.

If you're worried that letting go of something you have no use for makes you wasteful, but you simply store the item and never find a use for it, then you haven't solved your problem.  As decluttering expert Peter Walsh says, "Creating a landfill in your home does not mean you're saving the environment.  You just moved the garbage!"

The same applies to gifts.  If you have no use for something, you should be able to declutter it without guilt.  An item that comes with obligations is not a gift at all – it's a manipulation.  A true gift is freely given as a token of affection.  If the object itself does not enhance your life, you should feel free to remove it, since it has already served its purpose as an expression of love.  But if you struggle with guilt or the feeling that you "betray" someone when you don't keep his gift, you may develop a problem with clutter.

How do you know you should declutter?

  • Your home is packed full of objects that you don't truly need, use, or want, but that you can't seem to get rid of.
  • You feel overwhelmed and out of control with your possessions.
  • Your mind isn't as happy, relaxed, and focused as it could be.
  • You regularly "lose" things and spend time searching for necessities (or you wind up replacing them because they remain buried somewhere).
  • The stuff you own creates tensions in your relationships and interferes with your family's well-being.
  • The stuff you own fills your living space, hallways, spare rooms, attics, basements, sheds, garages, and off-site storage.  In other words, it's squeezing you and everyone else out.
  • You simply don't know where to start making a change.

Here's help.

Look for my book, Uncluttered: How Minimalism Can Help You Thrive,* for practical strategies that help you discover and make room for the belongings and activities that really matter to you, while minimizing everything else.

* This is a reader-supported blog.  If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

And subscribe to this blog!  I'd love to give you my free printable, Minimalism for Beginners, with 12 First Steps to a Simpler Life.

Updated March 2023


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