Do You Find Yourself Falling for These 12 Familiar Myths about Clutter?

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or Quiz Day, or List Day.
This Wednesday: Eleven myths of de-cluttering.

One of my Secrets of Adulthood (and a point oddly under-emphasized by positive psychologists) is: Outer order contributes to inner calm. More, really, than it should. Why does making your bed make such a difference?

But as much as most of us want to keep our home, office, car, etc. in reasonable order, it’s tough. Here’s a list of some myths of de-cluttering that make it harder to maintain order.

1. “I need to get organized.” No! Don’t get organized is your first step.

2. “I need to be hyper-organized.” I fully appreciate the pleasure of having a place for everything, and perhaps counter-intuitively, I believe it’s easier to put things away in an exact place, rather than a general place (“the third shelf of the coat closet,” not “a closet.”) However, this impulse can become destructive. If you spend a lot of time alphabetizing your spices or creating eighty categories for your home files, consider whether you need to be quite so precisely organized. I find this particularly true with toys – I’ve spent hours sorting pretend food, Polly Pockets pieces, and tea sets, only to find everything a jumble the next day.

3. “I need some more inventive storage containers.” See #1. If you get rid of everything you don’t need, you may not need any fancy containers.

4. “I need to find the perfect recipient for everything I’m getting rid of.” It’s easier to get rid of things when you’re giving them to someone who can use them, but don’t let this kind intention become a source of clutter, itself. I have a friend who has multiple piles all over her house, each lovingly destined for a particular recipient. This is generous and thoughtful, but it contributes mightily to clutter. Try to find one or two good recipients (including a place like Goodwill), or if you really want to move your ex-stuff in multiple directions, create some kind of rigid system for moving it along.

5. “I can’t get rid of anything that I might possibly use one day.” How terrible would it be if you needed a shoe box and didn’t have one? Do you need a giant backlog of ketchup packets? How many mugs does one family use?

6. “I might get that gizmo fixed.” Face it. If you’ve had something for more than six months, and it’s still not repaired, it’s clutter.

7. “I might learn how to use that gizmo.” Again, face it. If you’ve had a gizmo on the shelf for a year, and you’ve never used it to make gelato or label a sugar jar, it’s clutter.

8. “I might lose a ton of weight and then I’d fit into these clothes again.” If you lose a bunch of weight, you’ll want to wear a new pair of jeans, not a pair you bought seven years ago.

9. “I need to keep this as a memento of a happy time.” I’m a huge believer in mementos; remembering happy times gives a big happiness boost in the present. But ask:  do I need all these t-shirts to remind me of college, or just a few? Do I need to keep a desk to remind me of my grandfather, or can I use a photograph? Do I need fifty finger-painted pictures by my toddler, or is one enough to capture this time of life? Mementos work best when they’re carefully chosen – and when they don’t take up much room!

10. “I need to keep this, because the person who gave it to me might visit my house and be hurt when it’s not on display.” Is that person really likely to visit? Is that person really likely to remember the gift? Will the person really be upset by the lack of viewing of the gift?

11. “If I have any available space, I should fill it up with something.” No! One of my Secrets of Adulthood is:  Somewhere, keep an empty shelf. I know where my empty shelf is, and I treasure it. This creates a bit of an issue with my husband, who likes to plunk something down on an empty shelf; he also likes to start using the new toothpaste before every bit of toothpaste has been squeezed from the old tube. He has his flaws.

12. “I might need this.” If you haven’t needed it so far, maybe you won’t need it in the future. And you can probably get it, if you do need it. A friend with acquisitive tendencies told me, “I remind myself that I can store things at the store. Those things will be at the store when and if I need them. I don’t need to keep that stuff in my house.”

How about you? What myths of clutter do you resist–or believe?

  • Yvonne

    today we realized that multiple packets of tea bags weren’t useful or immendiately visible in a giant glass cookie jar – so my helpful husband found an old wooden case that held a fancy liquor bottle and Voila! a great presentation box for teas – just like in a fancy restaurant! ;~) – reduse, reuse, recycle!

    • Wendy Green, Prof. Organizer

      I love this idea. I have had professional organizing clients with hoarding tendencies who struggled with getting rid of boxes like this. Now I have a great suggestion for them -if they drink tea! Thanks!

    • gretchenrubin

      SO satisfying.

  • Leslie Rieger

    All good tips! I have certainly used all of those excuses at one time or another. Getting rid of clutter can be really hard. Getting rid of clutter is hard, but we have a two year plan to pay off the rest of our debt and save for a house down payment, so that’s how long I have to get rid of it – I am not moving all that stuff!

  • peninith1

    I am pretty good about all of these BUT keeping clothes I hope one day to wear again . . . even though I have learned on previous downswings that I usually re-wear ONCE then discard or donate because it’s not any longer right for me or in style. My personal vanity really dies hard! I do tend to keep fabric down to the last scrap . . . because I DO use it. Everything else is disposable SOME way.

  • haha No, I don’t fall for these myths. But reading this sounds like exactly what comes out of my mouth talking to my husband about his clutter!

  • Rachel

    Number 12 is how I approach books most of the time. I can store books at the library. This is especially true with classics that will always be available somewhere. And, yes, Gretchen, I read both of your happiness books by borrowing them from the library. 🙂

  • Jae Pea

    I find #5 the hardest to resist. I am the one who saves every (non-junk) email I’ve ever received, old paper files dating back 25 years, and yes, lots of shoeboxes. At least the emails dont take up physical space. The bad thing is that I do go back and use these things, maybe once every 10 years or so, just “proving” the myth true. So now all my colleagues, friends and family clear out their space and call me if they need something! Ugh.

  • Andrea Wilson

    Having a place for everything and everything in its place is very comforting for a slightly OCD person such as myself. I have several rules that I adhere to about clutter including always saying yes when a charity calls asking for items that I can donate. I will always find something to donate and it helps me re-evaluate what I really need to keep around. One great de-cluttering tip that I developed years ago was boxing up all of my kids toys except for a few. Once a month or so we would trade in those toys for a new set of toys that
    had been boxed and put away. Trading in a new set of toys for the old set of toys was like shopping and very exciting for them. They had forgotten about what had been put away and so the toy exchange was all new and fun for them. They were happy and I had much less clutter to deal with.

  • Lori D.

    Gretchen – I am really having a problem with #10. What if the answers are yes, yes, and yes? How do you get rid of gifts without hurting someone’s feelings when you know they will ask?

    • gretchenrubin

      Do they really ask? If so, then maybe you do need to keep one or two at the ready, for a visit.

    • Gayle

      My mom has this problem with my SIL. She used to give her hand-me-downs, but hardly ever does any more, b/c they will be gotten rid of soon. Now she is careful to ask before giving something that might not be wanted. Mom doesn’t care for this trait in my SIL (though I admire it); however, she has learned to appreciate other fine aspects of her character, and they get along pretty well.
      So I think it would work the same in most cases. You can usually retain the pleasant relations with a smile and other kindnesses, and they will forgive you for giving their gift away.

    • crankyotter

      Lori, shortly after my mom (gently) berated me about some clutter, she asked about a present she’d given me 7 years prior. After having worked diligently with an organizer to get rid of years of lovingly selected gifts that no longer suited, I finally had the courage to say, “you can’t ask me about any gift more than 2 years old, particularly if you’re on my case about clutter.” she realized the sense in that and has mostly stopped asking. For some, I can say, “I used that for the longest time, but of’s helping someone else now .”

  • Lori @ In My Kitchen, In My Li

    Here, here! Imagine the TRAGEDY if I had to buy a new $10 __________ after not having to work around for the last decade…

  • Oh, if only I could get 5 and 6 through to my father. 11, too. But 4 is definitely something that affects me personally. It’s not so much hoping I’ll find the right recipient for something as hoping that someone will buy it on ebay, but the principle (and result) is the same – a pile in my closet, a pile by my shelf, all things that bug me to look at and I really should get rid of. Last month I resolved to reset ebay ads twice and, if they didn’t sell, trash those items, but I’ve yet to actually go through with that.

  • peninith1

    p.s. I LOVE the very true saying ‘organized clutter is STILL CLUTTER.’

  • For a few years I was a “good” consumer. Bought lots of stuff and stored it in extra rooms/spaces/wherever. Then in 2009 I got rid of everything that didn’t fit in a 32 liter backpack. (I proceeded to live out of said backpack for a couple years.) It’s a bit extreme, but boy did it help getting “organized.” (not much stuff to organize!) Nowadays, most of my stuff still fits in a backpack (it’s 36 liters now) though I did settle down a bit and now own a blender, a guitar, and some board games.

  • Laura Vanderkam

    Hmm…I find that when I’m tempted to declutter, it’s because I’m avoiding something more important (a work deadline or dealing with a family issue). About 18 months ago, we moved from a city apartment to a suburban house, and while there are trade offs, one of the nice things is not constantly having to purge things. At least for a while there is room for it all…and in a few years my kids will be older and I’ll have more mental space to deal with getting rid of things.

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes! Working (e.g., clearing clutter) is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.

  • Julia

    My responses to #10: More likely than not; Definitely; Maybe.
    One of my friends gave me a popcorn popper for christmas. This would be a PERFECT gift for me, if I hadn’t quit eating starchy vegetables (including corn) this past October (she doesn’t know that). I think it will bother her if I let her know it’s useless to me, because I could see she was really impressed with the gift I got her family. I know how she thinks – she’ll feel guilty. I don’t want her to feel guilty. Don’t know what to do 🙁

    • gretchenrubin

      Can you just not tell her you don’t want it, and give it to someone else? If she comes to your house, will she be surprised not to see a popcorn popper in evidence?

      Very important also to “Respond to the spirit of a gift.” It was a thoughtful and loving gift, even if it turns out that you don’t eat popcorn.

  • outtahere78

    I love this. Seriously. I’m getting ready to move at the end of the month and am using it as a great excuse to declutter.

    I think I rather upset some family members when I opted not to keep old furniture and antiques that had been passed down. Really, they just weren’t me and had little value to me. I chose other things to keep to remind me of my loved ones.

  • Carly

    I’ll add another – “I paid good money for this!” Not coincidentally, this one is my own personal clutter-contributor. I have outdated clothing, useless gadgets, ugly greeting cards, collectibles, all manner of flotsam that I have a hard time getting rid of simply because it represents an investment of money at some point in the past.

    • I hear you. Sometimes one only gets a fraction of the price one paid if one tries to sell one’s children’s toys at a garage sale. Craigslist is better. I try to choose more personalised charities to donate good-condition things now, like “Birthright” (to help poor or young women who have decided to keep their baby), “the New Westminster Family Place” (a drop-in for the working poor with families – sure helped us when we were there), “Women in Need”, etc. These places are very grateful and give grass-roots help.

    • anjali

      I read somewhere that holding onto things because you paid good money for them just means that every time you see those things you feel bad because you’re reminded of the money you wasted. Since then I try to just get rid of whatever it is and instead think twice about buying something next time.

  • Jayme Wagner

    Honestly, when I lose weight, I find it rather rewarding to be able to again wear the pants/shirts/whatever I bought when I was skinnier. Granted, I don’t keep them in my closet (they’re in a rubbermaid in a storage closet), but I know they’re there for the day I can possibly wear them again.

    I fully advocate for your solution of #11. I live in a small apartment, and i’ve found that moving my quilt rack out of sight so I have some empty space is really comforting. I have some empty space, so I don’t feel as closed in or crowded.

  • Wendy Green, Prof. Organizer

    Great tips! I love “you can store stuff at the store”, and can’t wait to use that with my professional organizing clients. Experience tells me the rebuttal will be another common clutter defense, “But I spent $___ on it!” Some people will even go further, and get indignant or act insulted, saying they that just don’t have the money to re-buy the same things over and over. I point out that (1) re-buying is a “what-if” scenario, not likely to occur (2) asking the cost of the object, if low, (3) if the cost is high, I pointing out the ongoing costs of storage and loss of use of space, and (4) reminding people, you own the thing, the thing doesn’t own you. Did you really mean to commit to its care and maintenance for the entire rest of your life when you bought it? Probably not.

    • Phoebe H.

      Even though I don’t have a lot of money, a lot of the time I decide that my time/mental state is worth more than the cost of having to replace something I bought that I didn’t use and that now makes me feel stressed out every time I see it. So I throw things out or don’t save them.

      That said, there are some things I know that I use (the shampoo and hair stuff I always use, expensive razor blades, skin care products, aspirin) that I will definitely stock up with when it’s on sale and keep around. I only ever do that with things that I use every day (or almost every) though – never with something that I “might” use. Even if it’s on sale, it’s cheaper not to buy it at all!

    • I hear you. Sometimes one only gets a fraction of the price one paid if one tries to sell one’s children’s toys at a garage sale. Craigslist is better. I try to choose more personalised charities to donate good-condition things now, like “Birthright” (to help poor or young women who have decided to keep their baby), “the New Westminster Family Place” (a drop-in for the working poor with families – sure helped us when we were there), “Women in Need”, etc. These places are very grateful and give grass-roots help.

    • Sorry, I commented in the wqrong spot above! I DO also love “you can store stuff at the store”! Haven’t heard that line before but will say it to myself often now! Thanks.

  • Valerie O

    “I need to keep this as a memento of a happy time.”– I struggle with this, because in my high school and college years I was a huge tshirt fan, and many of them hold great memories. I really wanted to make a tshirt quilt out of them, which is something I would both use and enable me to put them on display. However it’s been years now and I haven’t found the time for a project so large, and probably never will. I found Project Repat, which makes the quilts/other items for you, and luckily there was a Groupon going on too, so it was half the price. I was willing to spend the money because I knew it was something that would both take a nagging task off my mind, and make me happier when I had the finished product.

    • A seniors’ centre might also be willing to offer this service.

  • JoanJ

    This is the best organizational advice yet! Just finished “decluttering” a couple of rooms and wish I’d had this earlier….especially #3 – we bought some storage containers BEFORE sorting – and then found that after sorting and tossing we didn’t need half of them! Everything else is so true. I would only add that the sense of peace and serenity that follows major decluttering is the biggest payback.

  • Goldberry

    Thanks a lot for great tips – in the post and in comments!

    It may help to realize and emphasize that de-cluttering creates more room for current and future life, new projects, etc. Also, ask yourself: if I lost this item in a fire (or by any other means out of my control), would I really miss it?
    (the above ideas are based on a chapter from “Live the Life You Love” by B. Sher)

    And now a question: how to dispose of things in a respectful way? I am thinking of items that have a highly sentimental value for me and only for me, are not useful to anybody, and are not paper. For example, my late-father’s prescription glasses. I’ve hold onto them for some time, but now I want to let them go. I just feel bad about throwing them into garbage… Is there a good, respectful solution? any ideas?…

    • Jen Hunter

      Many opticians will take prescription glasses and send them to developing countries to be reused.

    • MizLoo

      The Lion’s Club collects eyeglasses to distribute to those who need them.

    • Goldberry

      Jen Hunter and MizLoo – thank you both for great ideas!

  • SarahHP

    Oops I’m with Jamie on the tooth paste thing (I just love squeezing it out of a full tube instead of battling with a near empty one). I’m the same with new shower gel (excited to try my lovely new fragrance) and anything in the kitchen that involves annoying scraping

  • Marie Louise

    I always miss good advice to my problem: My husband and I often disagree when it comes to clutter. I do not think it is good for my marriage to get rid of things that my husband want to keep. And he wants to keep… everything. It drives me crazy some times.

  • Sometimes, in a world that feels out of control, it feels good to put something in order, like making one’s bed. It takes no decision-making, just a few seconds.

    • gretchenrubin

      SO true!

  • djm

    Dear Gretchen Rubin~
    You are like sunshine: a hope-giving, lighthearted, really sensible, funny, engaging, ray of light and life. I just felt the need to say so for all the times a tip or idea or questions or story you share makes me laugh right out loud. An for the all of the a-ha! moments. Just – thanks!
    Some one who {really} needed what you are doing on the planet

    • gretchenrubin

      Awww, thank you! So happy to hear you find my work useful.

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  • David Bloom

    A messy house irritates me and gives negative vibes. I spend every Friday brainstorming whether something is worth throwing. Your myth busters have helped me a lot. Thanks!

  • janey

    storing it at the store– great comment, I know tons of people who pay storage fees on stuff that they will never see again, and never use again. I also take issue with the people who have their garage so full of stuff they never get to put their car in it.

  • My biggest problem is collections, including a large (over 100 each) collection of cat figurines, mermaid figurines, and unicorn figurines. In the past, I managed to finally divest myself of a large goddess figurine collection. I also have a large “collection” of framed prints. It started off modestly with a few, and now I own over 100 framed prints of various sizes and value, and because I have a small house, limiting wall space, 90% of them are in storage, i.e., my basement! I’ve spent real money on some of them, and even if they only cost me $20, there are 100 of them. The thought of the effort to sell them on E-bay is daunting. But I don’t want to just give them away. As much as I love my eclectic taste, I feel burdened with maintaining a very private and cluttered museum!

    • crankyotter

      The difference between collections and clutter is curating. If you don’t make time to curate your collection and properly store the pieces, it’s bad for the thing you profess to care so much about. I’m still working on curating my clutter into collections, so I’m not going all holier than thou, just sharing the thought process that helps me. So if you give up part of your collection to save the pieces from neglect, there are people who will sell stuff on eBay for you. They need to take a chunk to make their nut after expenses, but 60% of something is more than donating it – or if it’s not more, then donate it. Don’t pay to store something you don’t want.

      Once I realized I had 12 hoodies but only wore one a few times a year, I was able to give up my fifth thru twelfth favorites. (ok, #7 went in the box of sentimental things). I find I wear the remaining four more now because I thought thru the occasions where they would be useful that made me want to keep them. And, choosing one is no longer a guilt trip about which one is worthiest.

  • Laurette

    I love posts about decluttering. If you are having a hard time getting rid of things, you can ask yourself: will I forget my _____ if I don’t have this object? Probably not! On the other hand, if you are keeping negative objects (I call them objects with ghosts) you will ALWAYS remember the pain and hurt someone caused you. I lived with the bedroom suite I had in my first marriage for 20 years because it was such beautiful furniture and I knew I could never afford to replace it with anything as good as it was. I was still living in my ex-husband’s bedroom. The minute I recognized that, the stuff was out of the room and in the trash. The new dresser from a thrift shop is much more beautiful than anything I’ve had in that room!
    The only way to have a larger house is to get rid of stuff!

  • Lisa

    I think what is true about this is there is a level of organization that we all gravitate to. If I try to keep everything organized perfectly it makes myself and my family miserable. It becomes too much work and takes away from the laid back nature of who I am. My organizational nature is more type “b” and going against what is natural for me tends to take away from my happiness. Where as, someone who needs the structure of everything having a spot is more content with a more strict regiment. The point is we need to all find what works for us individually.

    • gretchenrubin

      Very well put.

  • i work retail and I daily see sweet old ladies sometimes men who say but you uses to carry it ten years ago. They swear up and down we must still have it somewhere. I wish we had a bag of holding where the item from your childhood or early marriage that you just broke apeared but we don’t if no one buys an item a new trend takes it spot. The store can’t hold everything for you maybe the internet. we can try and find somthing like it or that will do but settling is not something they normally want to do.

  • #5, #8 and #12 are always my dilemma but the good thing is that I have #4. I always wanted to be organized but unfortunately my housemates are not very keen to keeping our house organized. What can I do to educate them without hurting?

  • msps

    I love FlyLady for her support in dealing with clutter. Very folksy, but also loving.

  • anjali

    I don’t know why, but I love reading about clutter clearing.

    You might like this tip from Deepak Chopra – every time you buy something, give something away. 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      I find it energizing just to READ about clearing clutter!

  • New Leaf

    I used to be a “comfort shopper” and would buy things that I didn’t truly need but justified it by saying “it wasn’t that expensive” or “I have room for it even if I don’t use it that much”. Three years ago I decided to simplify and my new life motto is “Use it up, Wear it out, Make do or Do without”. At the same time, I too always say “Yes” when a charity calls for donations– all that extraneous stuff goes to a good home and stays out of the landfill and I have yet to be sorry to have let anything go after the fact. Win-Win-Win!

  • Holly

    I followed a couple of links to get here and for the first time in weeks I have had real deep belly laughs. They were because you called me out so directly on all the lies I tell myself so I can continue to live in chaos. I WILL start to declutter my life tomorrow but for the moment I just want to say a big ‘ole thank you for lightening my mood – you truly are the bringer of happiness! xx

  • katie

    5,8, and 9 I’m definitely guilty of for sure!!!

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  • Mike

    I love this so much. My life has been plagued by things I keep for whatever reason. In recent months I’ve slowly tried to clean my living space up. I’m getting there slowly. Ironically, I’ve kept this tab open in my chrome to keep reminding me. Hopefully soon I’ll be able to close it. 🙂

  • karen

    As far as the old shirts go…whether it’s from high school, college, or ALL the things your child has been in over the school years….cut the front into a big square and using any color fabrics you want between them, make a blanket out of them. I use a brand new good quality sheet for the back of it. You no longer have a ton of shirts and now, you have ONE useful item that you can see, use and it’ll bring back memories all the time.

    • Bronwen

      Love this idea Karen!!

  • Eva

    I agree fully with every point! And practice most of them … most of the time …

    Just cleaned out my mother-in-law’s house – and have 40 bags/boxes for Value Village, 15 bags recycling, and a dumpster full of garbage – without the furniture! I don’t think they ever threw anything, and all drawers, closets etc. were full and stuffed with jumbled letters, photos, junk etc. etc. Someone is getting a neat Hallowe’en costume from Value Village – pristine mink coat or sable coat!!

  • Lee Davy

    Hi Gretchin,

    I got divorced several years ago and am now remarried.

    I realized that I still owned lots of articles of clothing that my ex wife bought for me. I don’t know if I was holding on to them in order to hold on to some essence of that past, but I decided to ditch them and replace them with clothes bought either by me or my new wife. I felt much better for it.

    I also like to work to the new rule: for everything new that I buy something old has to go. This way my clutter never gets our of control as I am slowly maintaining balance along the way.

    I hope that little insight into my mind helps some of your readers.

    Lee Davy
    The Needy Helper

  • Sell All Your Stuff

    We hear “I might need this” a lot, it’s surprising how many people keep something just in case. We are big fans of taking photos of mementos before getting rid of them, then we make those photos our screen saver as a slide show so we can enjoy them as often as we want.