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Decluttering: How to Decide What to Keep?

Do you struggle to decide what to keep when decluttering? Here are some tips that will help you let go with confidence.

Lying before me on the floor are 3 pairs of winter boots.

Each pair is tempting me—my trendy ankle boots, my timeless black booties, and my coveted vintage riding boots. Practically I know I only need one pair … but how do I decide which one to keep?

Maybe I should keep them all …

This was me a decade ago. I was just getting started with minimalism and I knew my life would be better with less stuff, but I was struggling to decide what to keep and what to let go of.

My decluttering attempts were slow and painful (and often a complete failure). I was overwhelmed by all the decisions and I didn’t know how to handle it.

I know from the many emails I get from readers that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. One question I’m asked, time and time again, is how to decide what to keep?

I’ll try and answer this today by sharing what I’ve learned about decision making—and this goes well beyond decluttering. From your closet to your career, here are a few tips to make difficult choices easier.

Do you struggle to make decluttering decisions? From your closet to your career, here are my tips for making decisions about what stays and what goes.

To Keep Or Not to Keep?

One of the most challenging parts of the minimalist lifestyle is knowing what to keep and what to let go. But learning to make thoughtful, intentional decisions is always worth the effort.

Step 1: Pause and create space to reflect

The first and most important thing to do when faced with a difficult decision is to pause and step back from the situation. This is because when we’re facing tough choices (about anything—not just clutter) it’s easy to get lost in our thoughts and lose sight of the big picture.

For example, while decluttering I’ve struggled with:

  • regret about spending money (ahem … like spending $200 on a dress I’ve never worn!)
  • self acceptance (believing I’m beautiful because of who I am and not because of my extensive shoe collection)
  • external obligations (feeling obliged to keep or do things because I don’t want to let anyone down)
  • deep emotions (letting strong memories overwhelm me and cloud my judgement)

These feelings make it difficult to think rationally and can turn simple decisions into difficult ones. (After all, deciding to declutter your closet or clear out your junk drawer should be easy … in theory.)

Pausing and taking a moment to remove ourselves from the situation creates space to make rational decisions and view the big picture. When we better understand why our lives are busy and cluttered, we become empowered to do something about it.

Step 2: Define boundaries

Speaking of the big picture, one of the most powerful things I’ve learned is that I can use boundaries to help me make decisions.

Let’s look at my wardrobe for example. When I decided to embrace minimalism, my closet was my first challenge—and what a challenge it was! I was using my entire second bedroom to store my huge collection of shoes, handbags and clothes.

Decluttering my closet felt like an impossible task and at first, it was. I made several attempts and failed over and over again … until I decided to change my approach.

Instead of haphazardly making decisions as I went, I decided to step back and decide what I wanted most for my wardrobe. I looked at the items I loved and wore most often for inspiration, and I took note of patterns. I loved neutral colours, I preferred a skinny silhouette, and I always chose to wear comfortable and low maintenance pieces.

Using this information I decided ahead of time what things I would no longer keep, including:

  • maxi skirts and flared jeans
  • anything too delicate or dry-clean only (I’m not good at taking care of my clothes)
  • bright colours (I feel more ‘me’ in neutrals)

In other words, I created a vision for my wardrobe and then, used this vision to define boundaries. Doing this took the stress and emotion out of decision making, and it also helped with decision fatigue (the overwhelm we feel when faced with too many choices!).

This simple system can be applied to so many areas of your life.

  • If you’re decluttering your bedroom, decide the purpose of your space and then define what does or doesn’t belong.
  • If you’re decluttering your schedule, ask what you want to get done and then define your priorities.
  • If you’re thinking of changing careers, ask why you work and what you want to achieve, then define your search criteria.

With any decision, focusing on your vision and using it to define boundaries can help you make better choices.

And if you’d like to learn more about how I use this approach to decluttering, I invite you to get your free copy of Mindful Decluttering by subscribing below. Learn step-by-step, how I decluttered my home and life. (It also includes practical advice, personal stories, and a troubleshooting guide to help you overcome your decluttering challenges!)

Step 3: Acknowledge and address your fears

Even with your big picture in mind and clearly defined boundaries, you might still struggle to make decluttering decisions. When this happens, it’s often because there’s a fear that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

Usually, this fear manifests itself as a general fear of ‘making the wrong decision’, but if we dig deeper we can usually get more specific:

  • I’m afraid to get rid of my black jacket because I might need it to put together an outfit.
  • I’m afraid to get rid of my extra dinner plates because I might have company over.
  • I’m afraid to quit my job because it might mean I can’t get another one later.

From the trivial to the important, specifically acknowledging your fear will help you make a better decision. Now that you know what’s holding you back you can address it.

  • Consider the worst case scenario.
  • Then the best case scenario.
  • Then the likelihood of each scenario happening.

Armed with this information, we’re better equipped to face our fears and make a decision. After all, acknowledging the worst case scenario might be borrowing a dining set from your neighbour might give you the perspective you need to move forward.

Step 4: Accept there isn’t always a right or wrong answer

Finally, when faced with a tough decision, sometimes we need to accept isn’t a clear right or wrong answer. You might not be able to predict how many saucepans you’ll need in the future, if you’ll regret saying goodbye to your high school yearbooks, or if two sets of pillowcases are really enough.

But this isn’t a bad thing. Instead, it’s an amazing opportunity. When there is no ‘best’ decision, we’re given an opportunity to redefine ourselves.

As the philosopher Ruth Chang tells us in her TED Talk:

When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives.

To me, this means that when decluttering (or making any difficult decision), we have the opportunity to choose who we are. Instead of worrying which pair of boots to keep, we can decide to be someone who throws any pair of shoes on her feet on the way to new and exciting adventures.

More Decluttering Tips + Advice

As you’ve hopefully noticed, I believe that decluttering is about so much more than owning less stuff. Instead, it’s the doorway to a new way of thinking and living. When you’re intentional with what you own, you also become intentional with what you do—and this changes everything.

If you want to learn more about my style of decluttering, here are some of my top tips and resources:

What are your top decluttering tips? Or what are your biggest challenges when making decisions about clutter? Let me know in the comments!


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13 thoughts on “Decluttering: How to Decide What to Keep?”

  1. I like the things you have to say. There are some similarities with our journeys in life. I wish you the best as you move ahead.


  2. Yay, a new post! 😀 This is a great one btw; I love how you talk in more detail about defining boundaries. You already mentioned it while describing decluttering your closet but the idea behind it is clearer now. Thanks for sharing!

  3. My biggest challenge when decluttering is gifts. You know those times when someone gives you something and the moment you open it you know you’ll never use it, so it ends up sitting at the back of a cupboard because you feel guilty every time you try to give it away, but it doesn’t fit into your style/life/interests? Yeah, those. I think that setting out a vision for my wardrobe/kitchen/decor *before* I start trying to declutter might really help with that kind of thing, as I can make a decision about it before I go and actually pick it up and start second-guessing myself (“Oh, but it was so *thoughtful* of her to give it to me in the first place, I should really try to wear it.”). Thanks for the idea!

      • That’s a very good point about the true point of gifts being to bring joy! Holding onto something out of guilt or feelings of obligation is certainly not in keeping with the desire behind the gift. Thanks for the advice!

  4. My biggest challenge when cluttering is sentimental stuff. Stuff that lives in boxes in the garage and never gets pulled out. But when I go through I end up keeping it all so that it can spend another year in a box in the garage. How do you tackle items like this?

    • Hi Jacqueline! I’ve actually just updated this post to include a mini guide I’ve written with tips on a few major decluttering hurdles (including sentimental items!) I’ll be sending it out to my existing list shortly – but if you’re not signed up just pop your details in for instant access 🙂


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