Decluttering Your Living Spaces
This page will help you to get started on the process of decluttering your material possessions, with practical guidance on your approach to the task. It will also give you ideas on how to overcome some of the mental barriers associated with letting go of your belongings.
We also address some of the benefits to your wellbeing that can be gained from a less cluttered living or work space.
Our page on decluttering your life looks at how to begin streamlining a hectic lifestyle and calming a busy or over-active mind.
What does decluttering really mean?
The dictionary definition of decluttering is the removal of unnecessary items from an untidy or overcrowded space.
Decluttering is not simply the process of ‘tidying up’. It also involves consciously considering each item of ‘clutter’ and deciding whether or not it needs to stay in your life.
These items can be tangible physical items in your home or workplace, such as books, furniture and clothes. They can also be intangible things, such as negative thoughts and worries that might be cluttering up your mind. Even having too many commitments or demands on your time and attention, can be considered ‘life clutter’.
An Uncluttered Environment is Good for Mental Wellbeing
Stress in our lives is not only caused by major life events or pressure in the workplace. It can also be caused by our environment. Our surroundings can have a profound impact on our mental health (see our page on understanding stress for more information). ‘
Stuff’, regardless of whether it is a physical possession or the contents of your inbox, demands attention and takes up time (e.g. cleaning it, taking care of it, responding to it, worrying about it, looking for it). The process of decluttering, in both the tangible and intangible contexts, is well-documented as being a cathartic or therapeutic process. The rewards can be manyfold and include the relieving of emotional tension and restoring a sense of calm.
For countless families and individuals, living without psychological and physical clutter is an important factor in maintaining mental wellbeing. Some choose to live a fully minimalist lifestyle, with possessions pared down to only the bare essentials. However, you don’t need to go that far if you don’t want to. Even the process of restoring order to an otherwise disorganised living environment can have a significant impact on lowering stress and anxiety.
Perhaps you are always hunting for your keys in a panic before you leave the house? Or maybe you can’t find essential paperwork before an important meeting? Less clutter and more organisation is the solution. There is much truth in the old adage ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’. If you don’t have a place for everything, then you probably have too many things.
Ask yourself ‘why’ before tackling ‘how’.
For many people, the process of decluttering can be difficult to tackle and may seem overwhelming.
You may already understand the benefits and want to reap the rewards of a decluttered life, but getting to that point seems like a mountain to climb. Or you may not really want to declutter at all, but are having to reduce your number of material possessions due to a change in circumstances, such as a house move.
Asking yourself why will help you focus on the end goal.
Is your living space currently a big storage container for years of accumulated possessions? Is it disorganised and untidy? Have you found yourself buying more storage to hold your stuff (in which case perhaps you just have too much stuff)?
If you want to think of your home as somewhere to nurture relationships, for happiness and laughter, pleasure and calm relaxation, make more room for more of these things.
If your workspace is your decluttering focus, you might want to visualise a place where you can concentrate in peace with a clear mind, or somewhere in which you find inspiration, motivation or creativity. Make more space for these things.
Have a vision of what you would like to achieve at the end of your decluttering process. Make sure your vision doesn’t include acquiring more stuff to replace what you relinquish!
Set aside some time
The amount of time you will need to spend will depend on your end goal and the magnitude of the task. It will also depend on how you work best.
Do you lose motivation if a task seems too big and overwhelming? This is a normal reaction for most people. If this sounds like you then set yourself small goals.
For example, each day you could:
Spend a finite amount of time (e.g. 30 minutes) tackling a particular room, then leave it alone until the next day.
Tackle one small area each day e.g. one drawer or one shelf a day.
Aim to throw out (recycle or donate) a small number of items each day (e.g. 3 items of clothing each day for a week).
Or are you the sort of person that needs to tackle a task head-on and keep going until it is finished? You could plan to spend a weekend or take some time off work to tackle your decluttering project. Remove all your usual distractions from your space (such as your phone), wear comfortable clothes, stock up on your favourite snacks, put on some music and get stuck in!
Do you feel overwhelmed at the thought of tackling your tasks and distract yourself by checking your social media, heading to the fridge or ‘popping out’ to the shops? You aren’t alone. It can feel like an enormous amount of mental discipline is needed to tackle something we don’t want to do. Some ideas for overcoming procrastination are:
Set yourself an end goal (see above), then you can make a commitment to yourself to achieve that goal. Keep that goal in your mind to help you through any slumps in motivation.
Share your goal with friends or with somebody you know who is tackling a project themselves. Post before, during and after photos on your social media. Encouragement from friends will boost your motivation. You could invite a friend to help you declutter and tell them not to let you postpone to a different time.
Don’t focus on everything all at once. Even if you want to tackle your project in one go over a long weekend rather than in small daily chunks of time, it is still important to split the job into smaller tasks. You will be more efficient if your mind is only concentrating on one small area at a time.
Reward yourself for each small achievement. This is so important. Even a tiny step is a step in the right direction. It might have taken a seemingly disproportionate amount of mental strength to make that step, but you made it, so celebrate it.
For more on this, see our page on avoiding procrastination.
Track your progress for mini dopamine hits
Tracking your progress could be as simple as making a list of all the smaller tasks and checking them off when they are done. The feeling of success with completion of each task will give your motivation a boost.
Dopamine is the body’s ‘reward’ hormone and is triggered by things like praise, positive outcomes, winning, and food. It gives our body a reason to keep going back for more.
Instead of having to wait until you have completed the whole project, each time you check off a mini task on your list you are giving yourself a little hit of dopamine, which makes you feel good.
Start with the easy stuff
Some items will be much more difficult to relinquish than others. So start with the easy things and build up to the more emotional challenges. Easy things include:
Out of date items such as food, medication, cosmetics, and household products. Begin writing the date on items when you open them, such as tubes of sunscreen or bottles of salad dressing. That way you can easily see when things become out of date and should be thrown away.
Duplicate items, such as kitchen utensils (do you really need five wooden spoons?)
Items of clothing that don’t fit or that you don’t feel happy or comfortable wearing. Ask yourself, how do I feel when I wear this top? If the answer is ‘less confident’ or ‘uncomfortable’, then let it go.
Books, CDs and DVDs can be downloaded or streamed, meaning that the physical items no longer need to be stored in your home.
Items you haven’t used in years. If you have items stored away that haven’t seen the light of day for a long time, then in all likelihood you no longer need them. This is often complicated by the fact that these are sometimes of sentimental value (see below), but a simple way to start would be by asking yourself ‘does it bring me joy?’ If the answer is no, then let it go.
Things you are keeping “just in case”. The chances are, if you do actually end up needing it one day, you won’t be able to find it! You will most likely be able to borrow or buy one in the future, so there is probably no need to keep it now.
Old paperwork such as receipts, bills and bank statements. Consider what the documents are needed for, when in the future they might be required and how easy it would be for you to get a duplicate copy if you don’t have the original.
Records of income and expenditure for business owners
If you are self-employed, check with your tax authority or accountant regarding how long you should retain your paper records for tax purposes. For example, in the UK, it is usually five years.
Letting go of sentimental items
Many of us feel an emotional attachment to ‘things’. Teddy bears, love notes, ticket stubs, travel souvenirs, tee shirts, jewellery, birthday cards….. the list is endless and completely unique to each individual. Each item has a link to a specific and significant memory. You might feel that by letting go of the item itself, you are letting go of that link to the past.
Don’t rush it
You might not feel brave enough to tackle the decluttering of these items, collected over a lifetime and stored in your attic or in boxes under the bed. If it is likely to be a painful process, don’t rush into it. Professionals recommend ‘practising’ your decluttering skills on things that don’t carry sentimental meaning. This will strengthen your ability to ‘let go’.
Record your memories
When you are ready, start by making a record of the items that you have kept. Take a photo of them and tell their story.
For example, if you are holding on to your Grandmother’s recipe book because it reminds you of the time you spent cooking with her, take a photo of the book, record your memories of those times and make a note of your favourite recipe.
Perhaps you have kept a t-shirt that reminds you of your first pop concert. Photograph it, write down your memories of that experience and reminisce with the friends that you went with.
Once you have tackled a few items like these, you will begin to realise that it’s the significance of the memory that is important and not the item itself. A scrapbook or photo album of memories takes up far less space than the items themselves and has the added benefit of being a written and visual record of your life story.
A Lap of Honour
Another way of helping yourself to let go of something you have an emotional attachment to is by using it a one last time – giving it a lap of honour. It is a way of honouring the memory and your relationship with that item, or emotionally re-connecting with the person that you received the item from.
For example, arrange a party with old friends and wear your prom dress one last time.
Cook your mother’s favourite stew recipe in her old casserole dish that you couldn’t bear to part with, and serve it to your family with the honour it deserves.
Read a paper novel one last time.
This approach is about using a physical link to the past to bring joy into the present. By giving an item its final lap of honour, you are also recording a new memory to carry into the future.
Donate, sell or re-purpose
The final ‘letting go’ of your decluttered items can be made a little more painless by considering what happens to them after they leave your possession.
Donating clothes to a homeless charity, toys to a toddler group or books to a care home, allows other people to benefit from the items that you no longer need. The fact that they will be able to share the same pleasure and experiences from using these items that you did, is a much happier feeling than having your possessions gathering dust in the attic for ever more.
If you are parting with items that are worth a lot of money, try selling them. You could use the money you raise to pay for a night out at the theatre or put it towards a holiday. Try not to spend it on more ‘stuff’!
Finally, for items of sentimental value that are particularly hard to part with, try re-purposing or upcycling them.
For example, cut out the applique design from your daughter’s party dress and sew it onto a tote bag. Turn your grandmother’s earrings into a pendant that you can use. Transform the scarf your friend gave you into a cushion cover. Or put a string of fairy lights into the empty champagne bottle from your wedding day and use it as a lamp. The internet is full of creative ideas that you can try.
Don’t lose sight of your end goal.
Keep your newly decluttered space tidy and organised. Get into the habit of putting things away when you have finished using them. Create a routine of tidiness, doing little jobs throughout the day, so the clutter doesn’t start to accumulate again.
Decluttering is about eliminating the unnecessary so you can focus your time, energy and finances on what really matters.