The Essential Decluttering Decision: Keep or Toss?

Sometimes it's hard to discard things – even long after they've served their purpose.

I gave away a box of books this week.  They were all books I've read and enjoyed, so it was a little hard to let them go, even though I doubt I'll read them again.  The very fact that I bought them and gained some benefit from them made them hard to donate.  Yet I wanted room on my bookshelf for something new.


Feelings that make us hesitant to declutter

We might list several reasons to keep things we own:

  • We spent good money on them.
  • They were gifts, and we feel guilty about getting rid of them.
  • When we dig them out of storage, they remind us of happy times or people we loved.
  • They're still usable, and we might want or need them someday.

These feelings are pretty common among people who start to declutter, making the process harder and more frustrating.  Unless we can approach the task with some practical strategies and a no-nonsense attitude, we may not be successful.

So if you've been wanting to declutter and experience all the benefits of a simpler life, ask yourself these questions to help you decide what to keep and what to donate or toss.

10 questions to give you clarity

1.  Is this item something I actually use?

Use the 12 Month Rule:  If the item is something you haven't used in a year or more, it can probably go.  Unless it's something like a baby stroller, still in good condition, that you plan to use for another child in the near future, there's no reason to hang on to what you clearly don't need.  Seasonal items like a barbecue, a snow blower, or your rain coat will have been used within a year, so even if they're currently in storage they are worth keeping.  But items that sit idle for longer than 12 months are just taking up space. 

2.  Is this item something I love?

If you're keeping that sweater your dear Aunt Faye gave you for Christmas five years ago, but you hate it (or it doesn't fit) and you never wear it, please don't keep it out of guilt.  A gift is meant to bring happiness, so if it's not right for you it's not even fulfilling its purpose.  You have permission to dress or to decorate your home the way you prefer, not the way someone else has chosen for you.

Additionally, if you're keeping something you don't like because it fills an otherwise empty corner or wall, stop worrying about a little emptiness.  You can always rearrange the furniture or artwork you do enjoy if the empty space bothers you.

3.  Am I keeping this item for sentimental reasons?

Memories and loved ones are not embodied in things – they stay in our hearts and minds.  And if those sentimental items are just shoved into a box that you never open, then they aren't even available to inspire memories.  They're just filling up your basement or making it impossible to park your car in the garage.

Take a picture of the item, or if there is one thing you truly like out of a pile of mementos, display that one thing and enjoy the memories it triggers.

4.  Am I keeping this item "just in case?"

Maybe you have future plans for an item that never seem to materialize, or you fear that you'll need it after you give it away or trash it.  First of all, if it's trash, throw it out!  And if it's been sitting around for years because you think you'll need it someday, get real.  In the rare event (extremely rare, in my experience) that you do actually need the whatever-it-is, you can borrow, rent, or (if necessary) buy it again.

5.  Do I have multiples of this item?

If you have seven saucepans and only four burners, at least three of those pots are duplicates.  If you have five pairs of scissors or a dozen vases, some of them are unused and unneeded.  Try donating at least half of your stash.

6.  Could someone else use this more than I do?

Letting go of something you never use isn't a waste.  Yes, you spent money acquiring it, but if you give it to someone who will use it, then it's not wasted.  Letting it sit in your attic because you might want it someday?  Now that's a waste.  Ten or twenty years from now it will be there, damaged by time or so out-of-date it's of no use to anyone.  Donate it today.

7.  Is this something I would buy right now if I didn't own it?

If you wouldn't spend your money purchasing this item again, then it obviously doesn't bring much value to your life.  If it broke, or was lost in a fire or flood, and you wouldn't bother to buy a replacement, get it out of your home.

8.  Is this something I would pack up and move if necessary?

If you wouldn't want to go to the trouble of carefully packing an item and paying someone to move it (or lugging it around yourself), does it really belong in your current home?

9.  Is this item worth the time I spend cleaning and maintaining it?

Your time is valuable and irreplaceable.  If you spend it caring for things you don't need or love, that might be even worse than wasting money!

10.  When I wear this, do I feel confident?

If you're keeping clothes that don't make you feel good about yourself or your body shape, get rid of them right now.

  • Those jeans that fit 15 pounds ago.
  • The shirt that always gaps, or the one that won't stay tucked in.
  • The dress or suit that's such a bad color on you.
  • The tie that's stained.
  • The bra that has stretched and no longer provides good support.
  • The shoes that give you blisters or corns.

If it doesn't fit or flatter, there's no reason to keep it.

Easier decluttering

It won't be so hard to declutter if you imagine your house filled only with things that:

  • you use and love
  • bring you comfort and convenience
  • benefit your life instead of making it more difficult and messy

These questions can help you get there.


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