Do You Fall for Any of These Common Clutter-Clearing Myths?

Every Wednesday is Tip Day (or Quiz Day or List Day).
This Wednesday: Do you fall for any of these twelve myths about clutter?

This post is back by popular demand.

One of my great realizations about happiness (and a point oddly under-emphasized by positive psychologists) is that for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm. More, really, than it should. After all, in the context of a happy life, a crowded coat closet is trivial. And yet over and over, people tell me, and I certainly find this, myself, that creating order gives a huge boost in energy, cheer, and creativity.

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 get rid of stuff.

Myths of Cluttering:
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 linen closet,” not “a closet.”) However, this impulse can become destructive: if you’re spending a lot of time alphabetizing your spices, creating eighty categories for your home files, etc., consider whether you need to be quite so precisely organized.

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. Be very wary of the urge to “store” something. Except for things like seasonal clothes and decorations, if you’re “storing” something, that’s a clue that you don’t really plan to use it.

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 know that you’ll be 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, or if you really want to move your ex-stuff in multiple directions, create some kind of rigid system for moving it along quickly. We have a thrift shop two blocks from our apartment where we send a lot of stuff.

5. “I can’t get rid of anything that I might possibly need one day.” How terrible would it be if you needed a glass jar and didn’t have one? Do you have gigantic stores of things like rubber bands or ketchup packets? How many coffee 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 buy 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 in the past gives you a big happiness boost in the present. But ask yourself: do I need to keep all these t-shirts to remind me of college, or can I keep a few? Do I need to keep an enormous 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. It’s funny; people often ask me, with open suspicion, “Gretchen, do you still have an empty shelf?” Yes, I do! Want to see it for yourself? Watch here in the behind-the-scenes-of-Happier-at-Home video; the shelf appears at 6:40. (Gosh, it was fun to make that video.)

12. “Yay, it’s free, I should take it!” Be very, very wary of accepting something because it’s free. It’s so easy to take that water bottle or tote bag, then realize that you’ve just brought more clutter into your house.

What other clutter-clearing traps have I overlooked? Do you fall prey to any of these?

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.

  • peninith1

    One of the most favorite ‘sayings’ I’ve learned in recent years is this: ORGANIZED CLUTTER IS STILL CLUTTER. While I will probably have too much stuff forever (I’m an abundance person not a minimalist) this saying reminds me to just get rid of stuff.

  • peninith1

    I’m in the 21 Day ‘Know Yourself’ project, and just read your Alchemist / Leopard post. Here’s what I’ve observed. I excused myself for many years from feeling or being competent in some difficult areas of my life by saying ‘that’s just the way I am.’ When I made attempts to change, I was able to do at least enough alchemy to attain some basic competence in areas where I thought I would ‘never be any different.’ In overcoming and working with two of the personality issues that have always been hard for me, worrying and procrastination, taking the alchemist’s way has helped me more than I can say. To me, choosing the ‘leopard’ path would mean I’d be stuck with some pretty unattractive spots on my character. I’m glad I’m an alchemist although I often overreach and fail.

  • I’ll add a few that I’ve been learning as I go. 1) You don’t need to keep every drawing your kids bring home! I get an influx of 3 new pieces of art/day, conservatively. I rotate my favorite 2 in cheap IKEA frames, take phone pics of a few more, and let the rest go. 2) Scan important documents as they come in. If they are truly important, they are worth scanning. If not, they are not worth filing at all. I shred them and use the paper in my compost.

    • gretchenrubin

      Great suggestions.

    • Wendy

      The Lone Home Ranger and Gretchen,
      My son saw some of his scribbled art in the recycle bin that was send home at the end of the school year.. he finished kindergarten and he was disappointed. I do keep the really good ones in a folder in the file cabinet. I have been looking into “Scan It”. Scanned art doesn’t give me the warm and fuzzy. What would you recommend.

    • Diane Wyatt

      I suggest you take photos of your child with some of the projects, so you can see his/her age at the time & remember how they looked when they brought the item home. I so wish I’d done that!

  • abby

    “I have to de-clutter all at once.” No! In fact it’s better if you don’t spend a whole lot of time de-cluttering. Five minutes here, ten minutes there, fifteen minutes max. Your decision-making muscles get tired and unable to work effectively the longer you make decisions about what to keep/gift/throw out.

    • gretchenrubin


      I have a lot of strategies like this: “Suffer for 15 minutes” the “20-minute tidy-up” “Go shelf by shelf.”

    • Allison

      I am SO trying to work on this,doing de-cluttering in small pieces. It is a good way of taking care of so many kinds of projects. Like Gretchen says about suffering for 15 minutes – once I have that frame of mind I get energized by the bits of daily progress. Also, I try to keep in mind a saying (maybe I got it from Gretchen?) “Clutter is simply a decision delayed”

  • Nancy

    Many of these sound right up my alley. In fact, I am very good in cluttering my home and my fiance is too. Which I really want to change, because I see it affects our happiness (and especially my fiance’s happiness). Sometimes our house gets organized but it’s something we need to keep on working on because we are both very easy in letting things clutter our house. And in the end… it’s worth working for because it’s very important for our happiness.

  • Mary

    Yes! And to those who think we who hate clutter are over reactive neat freaks…it does increase stress, please don’t keep insisting that we need to relax, ignore it and lighten up. Please just put your stuff away and throw your own trash away. Clutter is visual noise.

  • Christy King

    I am in the process of gradually decluttering – I tend to avoid big projects, so gradually is the only way I get anything done.

    With respect to no. 12 – If you have the willpower to actually do it, go ahead and take the free stuff (assuming it’s useful). But instead of putting it with your stuff, put it in a designated bag or box. When you have enough, donate it to a shelter.

  • mia

    I mainly have clutter because I’m too nostalgic. Even when someone offers help in sorting out my clutter, I turn them away because somehow my clutter 1) makes sense to me… I know where everything is, and 2) I’m too nostalgic and cannot bring myself to throw things away. I also found some other myths that I actually thought were quite interesting:

  • A Place of Gratitude

    The ‘need to find the perfect recipient’ for each thing I’m trying to get rid of just about sums me up. Thanks for making me conscious of that!

  • Sharon

    Gretchen, I laughed when you mentioned the glass jar saving. I still find it hard to throw out a ” cute” jar, but last week I got rid of two of them that have been sitting on my counter for over a year. Now to tackle the pull out drawers in the kitchen that have perhaps a dozen more.
    Another great feeling is throwing out old bills. I have never had a problem with paying my bills on line but would always keep the paper copy, ‘just in case’. Now I save them for a few months and then clear the batch from my desk file. It feels so good.

    • Pamela

      Have the companies send you e-bills instead of paper bills. Then you can “store” them on your hard drive, by month/year, and discard them when no longer needed. Some of ours have to be kept for 7 years for tax purposes as my hubby has his own company, but other than that, one year should be good enough!

  • Wendy

    If you buy something new, get rid of something.

  • Sarah

    I love the empty shelf concept. Although I just realized that for the past 11 years I have been doing something similar. I refuse to store anything under my bed. So many people claim that it is the perfect place to store sweaters or extra blankets but for some reason (and it may be my fear of spiders and a subconscious conviction that if there is no clutter then no spiders will want to live there) I refuse to store anything under my bed.
    My “laziness” for not wanting to rotate winter and summer clothes has also forced me to get rid of any clothes that don’t fit in my closet. When it gets too full I have to donate things I don’t wear or are getting too old.
    Paper is my nemesis – where does it all come from. How do you deal with all the paper?! I thought this was the digital age – why is there so much paper!

  • tika

    I believe it goes deeper that just clearing space, minimal living/denying self of tiny pleasures is just a harmful as over whelmed & buried in too much. We need to ask ourselves how does it make us feel, & are we trying to push our selves into someone else’s expectation? I enjoy the ease of open space but in time my desk gets filled with little bits & project piles. I enjoy the feeling when everything is organized & has a place but, when you move into another home the utter chaos almost drives me crazy until it is tamed again, (containers helped me) but there are months/yrs of layered guilt that sucks energy until it is done. Sometimes the looming project is weightier over time than just nibbling it in bits. What works best for me is to create two lists – little 5-15 min. projects and 2nd list for huge projects that are the broken down into 1/2 hrs steps, then do something everyday – either assign a task to your daily schedule or pick a task daily. Doing just ONE little step is 365 at end of the year!Do it it first thing before turning on the computer, cell, or evening TV. Eat the frog 1st! When you have a few minutes here & there free, do something more. When you use something put it away clean, & everyday clean or organize some little thing; this rule goes for everyone in the house not just mom! If you have 24 matching jars for 10 years, craigslist it allow another the joy of using it, to make that jam or create those dry recipe gift jars. 30 yrs of photos to organize, work on it a few hours each week or a specific day, each time results tiny steps further than yesterday. It isn’t overnight, in 20 years I have finished & added and lists get shorter! We all worry about what we aren’t, should be, when we could be taking baby steps to our own goals not what others tell us. Some people say they want to be XYZ but it really doesn’t bring them comfort, the real value of WHY it is, is something they need to answer.

    • glass

      the problem is when someone is assigned the daily task they take stuff and dump in a box to be addressed later and then never does the job so the boxes get bigger and there are more of them, then it goes into bags. This is just mail, mind you. Fundamentally I cant do everything, but how do I fix passive aggressive and procrastinating behavior and get people in the house to do things they are supposed to do without killing myself by trying to do it all, which is great for the other person but not for me. Either way I am the one suffering and I want a solution. Yeah, tried discussing it, but then I become a nag.

  • Courtney

    I was going through an old desk last weekend and there were so many different types of knick knacks and crap. Do I put the assorted toys and things in a box and donate it to Goodwill or throw it all in a trash bag? I feel really guilty about throwing it all away. Doesn’t it end up in landfills?

    • glass

      try Goodwill will not take VCR tapes, yet I dumped 300 on freecycle. A gal got them as her mom still uses this tech to record her soap operas. I dumped a used cat tree on free cycle-picked up by a gal with one kitten, because my 2 18 pound cats are too big for it.

  • tika

    Another resource I have found very helpful …; Beth Dargis provides an free annual calendar to simplifying your life one day at a time as well as weekly email/blog. One year she focused one room each month, doing just one surface, one drawer, one shelf and another year is was mixed up by week, and she repeats areas toward the end of the year bec it doesn’t stay clean just bec it was done in January & it is now November 😉 I print the calendar annually & work on those that apply.

  • BKF

    I have trouble discarding anything that was expensive even if I haven’t used it. Somehow it assuages my guilt at squandering the money if I reason that I will use it someday. I think Peter Walsh refers to this as throwing good space after bad money. I also fall into the finding the perfect recipient syndrome (among others.) I found the 21 day decluttering project very useful. Thanks, Gretchen. Slowly but surely moving in the right direction.

    • BKF

      As an over- buyer, It helped me to read in one of your books that once things come into our houses and become familiar, they are harder to let go of. That is so true. i also read -wish I could remember where- that if you lived forever, sure, you could one day use ” x.” if you have lived for a while in a poorer country where people recycle everything, it’s really hard to toss things out. But when I quote the above to myself, suddenly it’s easier to toss the twenty glass jars I am hoarding. 🙂

  • miskit23

    We moved across the country and I could not believe how freeing it was to eliminate all the unnecessary stuff we were holding on to for the wrong reasons!

  • Vero Salisbury

    I had these thoughts the other day, when I had to go buy a box to make a Halloween costume–how many perfectly sized boxes I had recycled in the past year! But I am living with the philosophy to let the store store things I might need, and not to keep things “just in case.” Getting rid of all those boxes was worth the $ and the trip it cost to buy a new box. Another thought, in the exception that proves the rule, I just used a bread machine that had been in my cabinet for the first time in 7 years to make pizza dough, and it was actually quite wonderful.

  • Terri Clingerman

    I have a file box in the closet of my spare bedroom where I put things that I think I no longer need and every few months I go through it, and if items are still there because I haven’t gone looking for them, the items are things that I know I don’t need and they get donated. I rarely regret getting rid of items that are gifts if they are not right for me. Gifts shouldn’t come with guilt. I use my Nook to reduce gathering more books on my bookshelves. Some things that I loved, but don’t need anymore (stuffed animals, mugs, nick-nacks), I photograph so that I can use them as screen savers on my phone or computer, so I can still enjoy them while they take up minimal space.

  • Stephanie

    love this post. when I am given something that is “free”, if I can’t think of when I will use it, I decline. Every few years, I go through my house and clean out all of the closets. and I do use the 6 months rule, if I haven’t used it in 6 months and it is not seasonal, I am not going to use it or will forget I have it when I need to use it.

  • jowill

    I mostly keep a very orderly home, and thought that I didn’t have much unused ‘stuff’ in cupboards. An injury recently saw me off work for a couple of days, and there wasn’t much I could do. But I was being drawn to tidying and streamlining which were quite achievable. Was I amazed at the amount of drink containers, tablecloths, food containers, pretty toiletries bags, and books that I didn’t enjoy, that I had kept! All have now gone to charity.

    Interestingly, this all came at a time where I had a big decision to make regarding work. I felt overwhelmed by this and couldn’t face it, but I could happily tidy and de-clutter for hours. The consequences were that I realised I was ‘creating space’ – clearing cupboards gave me the clarity I needed to make my decision. Gretchen I totally agree that ‘outer order contributes to inner calm’.
    Thank you also for the’ Know Myself Better’ 21-day challenge. I found the ‘how well do you know yourself’ questions and the ‘five fateful questions’ particularly helpful. I enjoyed spending some time in contemplation through this challenge – a practice I aim to maintain.

    • gretchenrubin

      Very glad to hear that you found it useful!

  • awesomegertie_r

    Recently I was really, really low on cash and debts were eating me from all sides! That was UNTIL I decided to make money on the internet! I went to surveymoneymaker dot net, and started filling in surveys for cash, and surely I’ve been far more able to pay my bills! I’m so glad, I did this!!! – ateW

  • Miss Clutter Monkey

    My biggest myths is number 10 – I am always paranoid that people are scanning my room looking for their gifts! I also have a problem getting rid of presents from people I love and feel guilty about passing them on. When this happens I have to remind myself that the joy is also in the giving!

  • Pingback: 123: Good, Bad, Yummy: Toxin-Free Sunscreen, Clutter & Chocolate Cherry “Nice Cream” | On Air With Ella()