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Reactive vs Intentional Decluttering [Episode 18]

What does it mean to be reactive vs intentional with your decluttering? If you’re not sure, this episode will change the way you make decluttering decisions. And if you want to learn more, be sure to check out Clear Your Clutter, my group decluttering program. (Current session open for enrollment from 20-29 July 2023.)

In This Episode:

  • what it means to be intentional (with decluttering and in life)
  • small changes you can make to the way you declutter
  • how to use decluttering as a tool to create the life you want

Featured In This Episode:

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

Reactive vs Intentional Decluttering

Hello, everybody, it’s Jen here and this is the Simply and Fiercely Show. In today’s episode, we’re talking about intentional versus reactive decluttering. 

This is something that I’ve been practicing in my own life with my own decluttering for at least the past 10 years. But until recently, I really didn’t have the language to describe what I was doing. Then a few months ago, I was scrolling on Instagram and saw this post about intentional versus reactive communication. 

When I read it, I thought, “Aha, this is it!” These are the words that I need to really drive home what I believe and what I teach about decluttering. 

It was exciting because I think that when I frame it this way, it will help you have that aha moment, and look at your decluttering through this new perspective.

An Example Of Reactive And Intentional Responses

I really want to start with an example. So let’s say for example, you’re at work, and you get an email from someone who is criticizing something that you’ve done, maybe criticizing your work on a project. 

We tend to naturally respond in a reactive way so you might find yourself reacting with anger. Before even thinking about it, you shoot off a really angry email.

Alternatively, you might find that the way you react is by questioning your own self worth. So you get that email, and you might be thinking, “Oh, my God, this means that I’m a failure at my job”. You might start leaning into imposter syndrome. 

And then an extreme example might be that you quit or give up on what you’re doing. Those are all examples of reactive ways of responding. 

The alternative to being reactive is to be intentional. 

What that might look like, is first, you still allow yourself to have those emotions because emotions are normal and everybody has them. But instead of responding from that emotional place, you create a little space to think. 

Then you might want to start by identifying the emotions that you feel. Are you angry? Are you self-deprecating? Whatever it is, you want to use words that express the emotion. Then you want to question the stories that you’re telling yourself. 

I know, personally, I’m highly sensitive. I could get a very normal email from someone giving me some genuine criticism in a kind way and I would read it completely wrong. My highly sensitive system would be to either get angry or burst into tears. When it’s really not necessary. 

That’s just me reading that email, and then processing it through a filter of my own internal fears and insecurities. So instead of replying to the email right away, if I take five minutes to have a coffee and just process what I’ve read, I might have a completely different outlook. So that is part of having an intentional response. Pausing and really looking critically or objectively at my stories. 

And it even goes beyond that. It’s also about thinking about the big picture. 

So let’s say that this email was really crappy and even if you took some time away to think and reflect you realize that this person is just being really rude. You still might not want to shoot back an angry email because if you think about your long term goals within that company, you might want to respond in a different way. 

For example, if your goal is to become a manager one day, do you want to have this angry email on your record? Or do you want to have a different kind of email where you still stick up for yourself, but maybe you handle yourself in a different manner? 

And I’m not saying what’s right or wrong. But it’s important that before you just shoot off that email, you think about what your goals are, and what you want to achieve. You want to make sure that the actions that you take are in alignment. 

I think that’s a pretty good example of a reactionary versus unintentional response. And I think we can apply that to all things in our life. 

For example, if you feel a craving for food or a craving to just scroll social media, it’s not that those things are necessarily bad, but they can come from a reactive, almost like a mindless place. 

If you’re just scrolling social media and the next thing you know an hour has passed, that’s quite reactive. Versus intentional, where you say “Okay, I’ve got a half hour or 15 minutes, and I am choosing to spend 15 minutes of it scrolling”. That choice is intentional. It’s in alignment with how I want to spend my day.

The Reactionary Way Of Responding To Clutter

The same reactional versus intentional concept can apply to the way that we declutter as well, and I don’t hear enough people talk about that. Instead, the way that we usually approach decluttering is very reactionary. 

Think about it, you dump everything out and then you go through everything one at a time. You’re supposed to make a gut decision about what to keep by asking yourself “Does this spark joy?”

“How do I feel about this?”

“Do I want to keep it?” 

And I get it, it’s one of those things that sounds really logical in theory, but in my experience, when we declutter that way, it’s very reactionary.

I am a highly sensitive person so when I’m decluttering from this reactionary place, I don’t want to get rid of anything. I love everything and everything sparks joy. 

I’ve practiced this a lot over the years but early on my brain would go down that path thinking “But I’ll need this someday.” 

Or I dealt with emotions like guilt or shame and that would make it very hard for me to declutter when I was doing it from this reactionary place. 

Beyond that, it’s not just the emotions, it’s thinking about the big picture. Have you ever had that experience where you’re decluttering your closet and when you are done decluttering, you look at your closet, and you still don’t really love it? There’s less stuff, but it doesn’t really feel cohesive. 

What you might find then is that you rush out to the shop to buy more, and then this whole cycle begins again. 

All of that is the result of reactional decluttering. It’s hard to get rid of things but then when you do get rid of things you might find that you’re not really happy with the end results.

Part 1 Of Being Intentional About Decluttering

So what is the alternative? It’s intentional decluttering. 

There are 2 parts to intentional decluttering. One, when we’re going through things, and thinking about what to keep and what to get rid of, we still allow ourselves to have those initial reactions of “I could never get rid of this”, or “What if I need it someday?” or “This is my great grandmother’s and it means so much to me.” 

You’re still allowing yourself to have those thoughts, but you don’t stop there. What you do is you create a bit more space to allow yourself to feel those emotions and then you ask, “What are the stories that I’m telling myself that are creating these emotions?”

For example, when you’re decluttering something and your reaction is “I can’t let go of this because I might need it someday”. That is the initial reaction and the story you’re subconsciously telling yourself is that it would be a big problem if I needed this someday and I didn’t have it. 

But if you’re intentional, you can just pause for a moment and think, “Okay, what would I do if I needed this someday and I didn’t have it?” You’re allowing that thought to go to completion and then you’re making a decision from that space where you have all the data. 

And I’m not saying that you’re always going to get rid of things but you might realize that those initial fears, those initial worries that you had, are actually not very valid. It was just an emotional response that you were having. 

There’s so much work that can be done with this, which is what we do in my program, Clear Your Clutter. It’s my group decluttering program, which is only open for enrollment twice a year. I’ll tell you a little bit more about it later in this episode.

But anyway, there are so many different stories that we tell ourselves, and there are so many different emotions that we feel when we are confronted with the thought of decluttering something. 

It’s just like with that email. Sometimes those thoughts and fears are valid but sometimes it’s a response that comes from an old hurt or an old trauma or insecurity. There’s all these different pieces of us. Our stories, our past, who we are, etc, it’s almost like a mirror and it can reflect back on whatever we’re trying to declutter. 

But when we’re intentional, we can really break it down and look at these thoughts and beliefs, and ask ourselves, is this true? Is it as big of a deal as I’m making it out to be? And in my experience, and with many of my clients, you can often realize that you can declutter things that your initial reactive response was to keep. 

So that’s part one of how we can be intentional with our decluttering.

Part 2 Of How To Become Intentional About Decluttering

But then beyond that, if you remember the career example when we are decluttering we should also be thinking about the end result. What do you want to recreate? And that can be either a really, really big picture like how would you want to be living your life, or it can be something as simple as your personal taste or style. 

Let me just preface this by saying that I am not an interior designer, I know so little about home decor. But the way that I used to shop for things was when I was in Ikea or Target and I thought “Oh, that’s pretty”, like shiny object syndrome. I would feel drawn to things that I liked, but then when I got it home I’d never like it as much. Things never seemed to work as well in my house as they did in the shop.

What I eventually realized was that I was trying to embrace too many styles. So I might like something in a classic style and then try mixing it with a foreign house style, and then a modern style. I’d have all these pieces that were individually nice to look at.

And this is something I hear all the time from people, “Oh, I love all my stuff,” I did too. I loved my stuff, but I didn’t really love it altogether. 

So before I could declutter, what really helped was to get an idea of what was the end result that I wanted. What was the style? Even if you don’t label it, I totally didn’t label it, but I got a bit more clear on how I wanted my home to look. What I did or didn’t want there. What colors or styles?

There were certain things that I could admire in other people’s homes or in magazines, but I didn’t necessarily want them in my living room. So once I started to create that clarity for myself, I could use that to be intentional when I was decluttering. 

Now that I can see what I’m trying to achieve, that gives me direction about what I need to get rid of. So I’m not just being intentional about looking at my emotions but I’m also being intentional about creating a specific result with my decluttering. 

It’s like when a sculptor is dealing with a big rock, and they’re chipping away pieces because they want to create a face. What they’re doing is not just randomly chipping away rocks and hoping that what’s underneath is going to look attractive or look beautiful, like a piece of art. They’re thinking ahead, “This is what I’m trying to create, so I need to be intentional about removing these specific chunks of rock.” 

In the same way, we can be intentional when we’re decluttering our homes. What am I trying to be? What am I trying to achieve with my home, my wardrobe, my life, my schedule even, or my spending? And then how can I start to chip away at the things that are not helping me create that end result? That’s how we can be intentional. And the result is really powerful because what it did for me was that it broke the cycle when I’m intentional with decluttering.

With The Intentional Process, You Create Self Awareness

The whole process really is different. I learned more about myself and I created more self awareness, and that self awareness stopped the clutter cycle. 

Over the years, the more and more that I practice this, the more clarity I get about what I’m trying to achieve. I don’t have to declutter as much. I’m not stuck in that cycle of buying, shopping, and decluttering constantly, because I am working towards a specific goal. So that’s the difference between reactive and intentional decluttering.

About the Clear Your Cutter Program

If you want to learn more about that it’s one of the cornerstones of what we do in my group decluttering program, Clear Your Clutter

I launched it in 2019 but I’ve been running it live for the past three years and it makes such a difference. We have eight Zoom calls where a small group gets together, and we talk about our decluttering struggles, and we get really vulnerable. And I think that that’s so powerful. 

One thing that I’ve noticed with decluttering is that it’s very lonely and there’s a lot of shame. If you go back a few episodes I recorded a whole episode about the morality of minimalism and clutter. And that’s really linked to this. 

There’s so much shame where we beat ourselves up about why it’s hard to declutter. So being in a group where there are other people like you, where we share stories, along with these techniques. 

I really break down this whole concept of intentional versus reactive decluttering, how to work through your stories, and how to implement this in your life. 

If that’s something that you would like to be a part of, go to simplyfiercely.com/clearyourclutter. The cart is open until the 29th of July so you’ve got until then to register. If you have any questions, you can contact me at jennifer@simplyfiercely.com. Or you can hop into my DMs on Instagram at simplyfiercely.

I really hope that whether joining Clear Your Clutter is an option for you or not at the moment, you take this concept of reactive versus intentional decluttering on board. You go and you look at your stuff differently, and you start to apply this in your life.

I think that you’ll find that it’s a whole fresh approach to decluttering. That you’re able to break cycles and that you’re able to create a home and ultimately, a life that supports your values and priorities.

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1 thought on “Reactive vs Intentional Decluttering [Episode 18]”

  1. Reactive decluttering is when you declutter in response to a trigger, such as a move, a new job, or a life change. This type of decluttering can be helpful in the short term, but it can be difficult to sustain long-term.


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