Home » Blog » 3 Reasons Why Most Decluttering Advice Doesnt Work [Episode 17]

3 Reasons Why Most Decluttering Advice Doesnt Work [Episode 17]

Does it ever feel like you’ve read all the books and blogs, tried all the decluttering advice and hacks … yet for some reason, it’s just not working? If so, know that it’s not you.

There are three reasons why most “typical” decluttering advice doesn’t work (at least not in the long run), and there’s a good chance it’s what holds you back from achieving your goals.

If podcasts aren’t your thing, scroll down for a transcript (edited for clarity).

In This Episode:

  • why most people have an all or nothing mindset when it comes to decluttering
  • the difference between decluttering and letting go
  • how being more specific can help you make decluttering decisions

Featured In This Episode:

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Note: this is not an exact transcript and has been edited for clarity.

3 Reasons Why Most Decluttering Advice Doesnt Work

Hello, everybody, it’s Jen here, and welcome to The Simply and Fiercely Show. 

In today’s episode, I want to talk a bit about why some “traditional” decluttering advice doesn’t work. And before I go into all the nitty-gritty details, I want to make a few disclaimers. 

First is that, obviously, everyone is different. If you’ve listened to this podcast or read any of my other work before, you’ll know that minimalism is not one size fits all, and what is clutter will be different for everyone. 

What is enough is also different for everyone. For example, in my own life, I went through a stage where I was ultra-minimalist, living in 140 sq ft, and I even travelled around the world for eight months with carry-on luggage. 

But … now I have two kids, and I live in a two-bedroom apartment. It’s still small, only about 660 sq ft, but I’m definitely nowhere near as “minimalist” as I was before. 

I bring this up because when I say that certain decluttering advice doesn’t work, of course, there are going to be exceptions! Some of you will say, “Oh, that worked for me”, and I’m not denying that. 

But I think that if you get to a point where you’re feeling a bit stuck and now you’re struggling to gain any traction, you might need to try something other than what’s widely accepted as decluttering advice. 

It’s like that expression–what got you here won’t get you there–and that’s been my experience with decluttering as well. 

Ok, so keep that in mind. I’m not recording this episode to put anyone down. Instead, my hope is to give you some insights into why you’re struggling and why what you’re doing might not be working.

#1 An “All or Nothing” Mindset 

So, let’s get started with point number one: I think that a lot of the traditional decluttering advice encourages an “all or nothing” mindset. 

And what is an “all or nothing” mindset? 

It’s something I’ve struggled with my entire life. It’s when as a kid, if I didn’t have time to clean my entire room top to bottom, I didn’t want to do anything. (If my mom is listening, she will vouch for this!) She’d tell you that my room would be a mess most of the time, but when I felt like cleaning, it would be absolutely spotless. 

I’d spend, 8,10, 12 hours, I’d stay up all night and clean every corner of my room, and I feel this is how many people approach decluttering. 

After all, I’ve had lots of conversations with people who tell me, “I’m going to declutter it, but I’m putting it off until I’ve got a few days off work, and I’ve got three solid days to do absolutely everything.” 

And look, if that works for you if you’re happy with that, then go for it. But for me, I’ve noticed that because I have this all-or-nothing personality, it’s really not healthy, and there are a few reasons why. 

One is that time is precious, and it’s hard sometimes to find three days, or however much time, when you can do nothing else but declutter! So what happens? You keep putting it off, right? 

It’s one of those things that you want to do, one of those projects in your home, that just keep getting pushed into this someday pile (because “someday” you’ll get it done). 

But you know how this goes, right? One day becomes another; weeks pass, and then months pass, and nothing happens. And in the meantime, you’re just sitting there dealing with the challenges of having too much clutter

So that is one of the problems with an “all or nothing” approach to decluttering, but it goes beyond that. Let’s say that one day, you finally find the time to get started. 

What have you been taught to do? 

Pull everything out, empty your drawers, and dump it all on your bed. You need to see everything, which makes sense, but again, you know what happens. 

You get halfway through, and it’s overwhelming and exhausting, and then you look around at the stuff covering every surface … and think, “ What have I gotten myself into?”

Right? I don’t know if any of you have ever experienced that, but I definitely have. And while I’m joking about it now, but at the moment, it’s not very funny. 

I can remember sitting on my floor crying because the overwhelm would get to me, and it led to a negative thought loop where I genuinely believed I was never going to get the job done. 

Then, when it would all get too much, I’d just scoop everything back up, shove it under my bed or back in the closet. And the problem with this is not only did I not get the job done, but now I’ve had a really negative experience with decluttering. 

This means the next time I try to get back into it, I procrastinate–because nobody feels excited about doing something that feels horrible. So I would struggle to start, and then when I finally got myself going, I’d be more self-critical, and it became this disastrous negative thought loop. 

So, what I would like to suggest is a better way to approach decluttering. 

It does not have to be a massive project like a spring clean. Instead, let’s normalise working on a little bit at a time. 

Because really, when I think about decluttering and minimalist, and when I teach it–it’s not about aesthetics or having the cleanest home. Instead, it’s a skill, a way of making decisions, a mindset, and when you take this approach, you don’t have to drag everything out in order to decide what to keep. 

You can look at things and realise that “Hey, this no longer serves me.” It doesn’t support my vision for my home and life, so this doesn’t belong. 

And I’ll circle back to this when I address the second problem with most decluttering advice, but to sum things up: you don’t have to drag everything out and set aside hours to get started. 

To be fair, there’s a time and a place. Seeing “everything” is generally more important with practical items. For example, if you’re decluttering your kitchen and you have ten mixing bowls, but you only need three, well, you may not realize that you have ten until you have everything laid out. 

But once you’ve moved past that initial decluttering of low-hanging fruit, most people move on to more challenging items (I call it sticky clutter). This is things like emotional clutter, sentimental clutter, stuff that you don’t know what to do with, things you might need one day … 

All of this is “sticky”, and when you’re dealing with it, it’s not as necessary to see everything. Instead, dealing with it all at once is more likely to overwhelm you, and it’s really not necessary because the kind of decisions you’re making are independent of everything else. 

#2 How to Make Decluttering Decisions 

Moving on – the second problem I have with typical decluttering advice isn’t there isn’t a lot of guidance about how to make decisions.  

For example, a lot of decluttering advice refers to Marie Kondo’s famous question, “Does it spark joy?” or it’s more practical such as “Have you used it in the past six months?”

And again, this isn’t bad advice. In fact, you probably found it helpful at the beginning of your decluttering journey. 

But, if you’ve now reached a point where the decisions are more challenging and you keep getting stuck, then I would argue you need to be a bit more specific. Instead of broad advice, you need to be more intentional with your decisions. 

And I’ll just quickly say that I could talk a LOT about this. I cover it in my program, Clear Your Clutter, and I think I’ll probably going to record another podcast about this. 

But for now, what I’ll just quickly say is this when you are decluttering, I encourage you to think of it as editing or curating your home. Thinking about the end results: what do you want your house to look like, and beyond that, like, what do you want your life to be like? 

Once you start answering these questions, you can use decluttering as a tool that leads you to this final destination. You don’t want to be randomly going through things; Instead, you want to ask yourself, “Does keeping this item help me create the home and lifestyle that I want?”

Then you can drill down even further and create more specific criteria. A really simple example is my closet. When I decluttered, if I was led by the question, “Does this bring joy?” it would have been very hard for me to decide what to keep because I loved everything!

This might surprise some of you because I identify as a minimalist, but I love clothes, and I love stuff–which is why these generalised questions didn’t work for me (and side note: if you’ve read my story, it took me years to make any progress with decluttering). 

It was only when I became more discerning and more intentional with my decluttering that I made any progress. And here is an example that illustrates a simple way to do it:

When I was decluttering my closet, one thing I noticed is I love the colour yellow on other people–yellow is always so beautiful, right? But I never wore it because when I put it on, I didn’t like the way that it looked against my skin. 

And it’s not a debate. I don’t need any fashion advice, thank you. But for me, personally, I knew that if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t wear it. 

So I used this information to become more intentional, and moving forward, it wasn’t just, “Have I worn this?” or, “Does it bring joy?” 

It was more structured, and this ties back to our discussion about all-or-nothing decluttering. When you have specific criteria about what you do or don’t want (in any area of your life), then you can easily purge without taking everything out in a few minutes at a time. 

So I think that’s something that’s really important to think about. It’s not just what you want to keep, but also what purpose does it serve? And what’s really fantastic about this is not only does this method make decluttering easier, but the results are also better. 

Because … how do I put this. 

If you were good at making decisions about what to keep, you wouldn’t have so much in the first place. The same gut feeling that makes you want to keep everything is the same gut feeling that makes you want to buy everything, and the result is a flood of stuff that has no rhyme or rhythm to it. 

But when you’re intentional, when you have some guidelines that you create for yourself, it makes letting go easier, and the end results are more cohesive, right? 

It’s about beginning with the end in mind. We want to think about what we’re trying to achieve, what we want from our homes and lives, and then we use decluttering as a tool to help us get there. 

#3 The Difference Between Decluttering and Letting Go 

This brings us to number three, and this is something that I am very, very passionate about. For those listening who are in my program, Clear Your Clutter, you’ll know that this is what we spend the vast majority of time our talking about.  

Most decluttering advice tells you how to declutter, but it doesn’t tell you how to let go–and in my experience, there’s a huge difference. 

And I tell you this from my own experience. 

When I was first attempting to declutter, I found that I was reading a lot of advice that told me to get rid of things–get rid of things I haven’t worn, get rid of things I’m not using–and in my brain, I was like, yes, I know I should get rid of things!

But then I would pick something up, knowing that I shouldn’t keep it … but there was just something holding me back, almost like a web. Logically, I knew what I should get rid of, but emotionally it was very hard. 

So what happened? 

I looked for advice, and it just wasn’t there. (Of course, it might be; obviously, I haven’t read or watched everything about decluttering!) But for the most part, this was the step where things got vague, and it was frustrating because it’s where I needed the most help. 

So I embarked on my own journey, which is a cheesy thing to say, but it’s true, and what I found is that I had to do a ton of emotional work in order to get to a place to let go. 

There is so much to it, so much more than I could cover in one podcast episode. But if I had to sum it up, it’s this: in order to let go, you need to understand your relationship with clutter,  which is unique for everyone. 

There are reasons why we hold on to things that are rooted in our past, our insecurities, our thoughts, our fears, all depending on your lived experience; things that happened when we were a child, things people used to say to us – there are SO many of these thoughts and beliefs and most of the time, it’s what keeps you holding on to your sticky clutter. 

You probably don’t have this depth of connection with, let’s say, mixing bowls, which is why it’s easier to let go. Although you might, everyone is different, and this is why you have to dig deep. 

Your relationship with clutter is the key to changing everything, and it’s not a quick or overnight fix. But knowledge gives you something to work on. 

It’s like when you have a bad cough. Over-the-counter medicine might help, but not if there’s something more serious going on. In order to fix that, you need a diagnosis because then and only then can you figure out the treatment plan. 

So this is the work I do with my clients; over the years, I’ve identified some common themes, and while everyone is different, I can help you with your own diagnosis. 

We look at your relationship with clutter–why do you hold on to things–and once we figure that out, then we can do the work that will help you can let go.

Okay? And as I said, I just think I’m so passionate about that, and I think it is something that’s not mentioned enough. 

(And I will just quickly go on another tangent because, again, regular listeners, you will know I love tangents!)

There’s Nothing Wrong With You, and Struggle Is Normal

I think it’s so important to acknowledge that there’s this relationship with clutter going on behind the scenes because if you don’t, do you know what happens? 

You blame yourself. 

I know this because it happened to me. You read popular advice which is full of statements like “Your memories are in your heart, not in your stuff”, and, of course, it makes sense!

But if you’re like me, and you can’t follow through even when you know you should–well, you think, “Something is wrong with me. I’m an idiot. Why can’t I just declutter?”

I struggled with this for years until I realised there was nothing wrong with me. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do it, there was just another step to the decluttering process that nobody talks about. 

And I call that step compassionate curiosity. You get curious about why it’s hard for you to declutter, and you do it with compassion, then – and only then– can we unravel the threads that keep us stuck. 

Okay, so I hope you found this helpful. These are three things that you could work on if you are decluttering and find that traditional advice just isn’t working for you anymore. 

Or, if you want more hands-on support, I’m hosting a free training series called Prep School from 16 to 20 July. We’ll be going back to basics and learning the foundations of decluttering (although they’re probably not the foundations you’re used to hearing about!)

If you want to learn:

  • Why you struggle to follow through with your decluttering plans
  • My #1 secret for decluttering success
  • How to finally break the clutter cycle (for good!)

Then click here to reserve your spot! (Again, it’s free, but you must RSVP to get your invite.)

Also, just a reminder, my group decluttering program, Clear Your Clutter, will be open for enrollment from 20-29 July. Doors are only open twice a year, but you can get on the waitlist if you’re reading this before the 20th. 

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