Finding the Motivation to Really, Actually Declutter

Finding the Motivation to Really, Actually Declutter

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Out with the old, in with the new – It’s time for spring cleaning and decluttering!

Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

I don’t know about you but I get so much satisfaction out of looking around a freshly-cleaned house, smelling the lemony smell of freshly-mopped floors and the bleachy smell of a freshly-scrubbed bathroom. My problem is that while the surface looks clean…  if you open any drawer or closet, you run the risk of being buried in an avalanche of stuff. Why is it SO HARD to find the motivation and the energy to really, truly clean my house and get rid of all of the extra junk?!

The Security of Stuff

Out stuff gives us a false sense of security. How many times have you looked at your clutter and thought, but I might need this someday? I’m sure that you – like me – have a box full of mystery cables stashed somewhere and a junk drawer full of odds and ends. However, when was the last time you actually needed one of those cables? The “someday” that you may need it is more likely never.

The Fallacy of Sunk Cost

Related to this is the fallacy of sunk cost. The fallacy of sunk cost means that we make decisions based on how much we have invested in something rather than how much that something is benefitting us, even when that thing might be harmful.

The best example of sunk cost fallacy is making the decision to break up a long term relationship. Breaking up is often so hard because we think about all the time and energy we put into the relationship and decide to stay even when the relationship has become toxic to us. Similarly, when we look at our stuff, we remember how much we paid for the item and don’t consider how much the item is actually worth now. This most affects us when we’re looking at things that are broken or beyond use, we think about what we spent and try to justify that someday we’ll fix the item or find a way to use it again.

The Idealized Self

Another way that our stuff gives us a sense of security is that we see our self in the stuff. Sometimes we see “me” in the object. For instance, I am a person who loves to read and I really struggle to let go of the books we have in our overflowing bookshelves and boxes. I have a whole room stuffed with more craft supplies than I could possibly use in the next few years.

I also have a fancy elliptical machine/exercise bike because I’d really like to be a person who exercises more frequently. Sometimes we keep clutter and stuff because it reflects our idealized self. The problem the elliptical is that I’m really not a person who exercises frequently and the machine takes up a huge amount of space in our mudroom and serves as a really awkward coat rack.

One of the reasons it’s so hard to declutter and spring clean is that it’s actually painful to let go of our possessions. Brain research shows it is getting rid of stuff activates the same regions of our brain as feeling pain. While the brain activity is most pronounced in people suffering from compulsive disorders and hoarding tendencies, it helps us understand how decluttering impacts all of us.

The Benefits of Decluttering

Decluttering is an effective way to improve your mental health and mood.

When you’re surrounded by clutter, it contributes to depression and anxiety. And when you’re depressed and anxious, it’s really easy to be too overwhelmed to declutter and clean. It creates a vicious cycle – your clutter is making you sad, anxious, and overwhelmed and you’re too overwhelmed, anxious, and sad to declutter.

Finding the motivation to declutter, even a little bit at a time, can help you feel better. The progress you make in decluttering gives you a sense of productiveness, improving your self confidence. Cleaning is a great way to reduce anxiety because humans positively respond to organized, clean spaces. It also is a physical activity and we know that physical activity improves your energy, brain chemistry, and mental clarity.

How to Get Started Decluttering

  • Overwhelmed? Start small. The idea is to just start, once you start it’ll be easier to keep going.
    • Pick one room and divide the room mentally into quarters. Work on one quarter at a time.
    • If a room at a time is too much, start with a single shelf or a drawer.
  • Sort into piles – keep, trash, give it away (only if it’s worth giving).
    • As you sort, ask yourself these questions
      • Have I used this in the last year? (No? Give it away or trash it.)
      • Am I going to use this soon? Is this something I would want to give to another person in my will? (No? Give it away or trash it.)
    • Put your “give it away” stuff straight into a box so it will be ready to go out of the hour.
    • Put your “trash” stuff straight into a big trash bag so you can take it right out to the curb when it’s full.
  • Set a timer and work for 20 or 30 minutes. Then take a short break and get back to it. You can do this! You can do anything for 20 minutes!

Tips for Decluttering

Photo by Jamesthethomas5 on Unsplash

  • Invest in a closet organizer! This is my number 1 tip. A wide open closet begs to be filled with junk. You can get a really good quality, custom closet organizer on Amazon for around $100 if you are willing to install it yourself. Installation is usually quick and easy, taking under an hour if you have an electric screwdriver or wireless drill. More expensive options exist from IKEA, the Container Store, etc. In any case, a closet organizer will give you additional shelf space and racks for hanging items. A closet organizer makes space for bins and baskets so you can sort items to make finding thing easier. Here’s the closet organizer I have and the basket bins for the shelves!
  • Make decluttering a family activity. Put some music on, dance while you work. Sorting items into piles is a great activity to build your child’s cognitive processing and critical thinking.
  • If having the kids involved is too much, you can get them out from under your feet. My absolute favorite trick for this is to put on the Barefoot Books music video playlist on Youtube. The songs are super cute and catchy. The animation is charming. It completely transfixes my kids, even my 6 year old. By the time half of the playlist is over, I can have the kitchen and bathroom pretty clean!
  • Have a thing that you just CAN’T let it go? Take a photo of it to keep forever.
  • If you haven’t touched the thing in the past year, get rid of it. If you have unopened boxes from the last time you moved, put them on the curb. If you haven’t needed it in the last year, you don’t need it now.

While it can be really overwhelming to start spring cleaning and decluttering, there are so many benefits. As with most things in life, the most important thing is to just start, even if you start with one drawer for 20 minutes at a time, start. You’ll feel so much better once you do! I know you can do this!

Have you decluttered recently? Did you notice any impact on your mood or feelings? Share in the comments and let’s inspire each other!

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I’m Amy. My husband, Keith, and I have two littles – David, age 6, and Avonlea, almost one, plus 2 cats and an old lady dog. I’m a school district leader and recently finished my EdD in school improvement and educational leadership. When I’m not working, I love to read, cook, and spend time with the family.

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