Home » Blog » When You Know What You “Should” Do but Can’t Follow Through With Decluttering [Episode 37]

When You Know What You “Should” Do but Can’t Follow Through With Decluttering [Episode 37]

If you know what you should be doing to declutter your home but struggle to follow through, it’s not because you’re lazy or unmotivated. Instead, you might be missing some important skills. Check out this episode of The Simply + Fiercely Show to fill in the gaps!

In This Episode:

  • what painting lessons taught me about decluttering
  • 3 essential steps to letting go
  • how we can work together in 2024

Featured In This Episode:

Subscribe to The Simply + Fiercely Show

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

When You Know What You “Should” Do But Can’t Follow Through With Decluttering

Hello everybody. It’s Jennifer here, and welcome to The Simply + Fiercely Show.

Today we’re going to be talking about decluttering as we often do, but specifically, I want to talk about this situation that I know lots of my clients and listeners often find themselves in.

They’ve read lots of blogs, they’ve read lots of books, they’ve been listening to this podcast, and they feel like mentally, they have the information they need to start decluttering, yet for some reason, they really struggle to follow through. Maybe they’ve done some decluttering, they’ve gotten a few bags out of the house, but they’re just not getting that ultimate result that they want.

So that is what we are going to be talking about today, I’m really excited. I have a lot to share in this episode.

Decluttering at different levels, it’s a progression

Okay, let’s dive into this puzzle, that’s what it feels like.

It feels like you have all the pieces, and you should be able to get results, but something is missing, and I have some opinions on why that happens.

But first I want to share an analogy with you. If you are new here, that’s just, I hope you like this style of learning because I love sharing analogies. It’s my favorite way to communicate new ideas.

Let’s pretend that you are thinking about painting. On a basic level, painting is so intuitive. I have kids, they are three and six, and they can paint. You gather your supplies, you put paint on your brush, and then you slap it onto a piece of paper.

That’s like with decluttering on this really, really basic level, it is very simple. All you have to do is go through your stuff and decide what to keep, right? Conceptually at that beginner level, it is very easy.

But if we are painting, and we want to go to the next level, then there are things that we can learn. If you were to hop on Instagram now, for example, search for painting tips, you’d probably find reels or quick tips that would teach you things like how to paint a flower, or what kind of brushes are best for certain products, etc. All these tips and techniques that make us feel like we should know what we’re doing.

Again, taking that back to decluttering. The entry level is that you’re just deciding what to keep. Then if you do a bit of research, you start hearing all sorts of hacks and tips.

Things like the really popular method where you turn your hangers around backwards and after a set period of time, whatever clothes you haven’t worn, you can declutter. That’s one example of little tip or a hack that you could do.

There are also different questions you can ask. We’ve all heard of, ‘Does this spark joy?’ Or you can ask yourself if you would I buy it again if I were in the shops. These are all tips and hacks to make decluttering easier.

That’s intermediate or level two, and I think that’s where a lot of people feel like they should know what they’re doing, and they should have all of the tools they need to declutter, because on the surface, decluttering doesn’t seem that complicated.

But in my experience, that’s not the case, there’s also a level three.

Let’s take it back to painting analogy.

I was actually researching before writing some notes for this podcast, and I was like, “Let me learn a little bit more about painting.”

If you were going to go to art school, for example, you’re going deeper. You’re going to learn about design principles, how to compose a piece of art. I don’t have these skills obviously, but there are things like the composition, a rule of thirds, color theory, etc.

When you say, “How do I paint?” You’re not necessarily thinking about those things, but that is what takes a painting from, ‘Oh, I’m just doing this activity’ to ‘Wow, now I’m creating a work of art.’

Obviously, I am oversimplifying this. I’m not an art expert, but I just thought that would help you think about decluttering from a new angle. Yes, conceptually, it’s very simple, and then there’s tips and hacks that you can use to make your decluttering easier.

But if you keep finding yourself getting stuck, and you feel like you’ve made that entry level bit of progress, you’ve cleared up the low hanging fruit, you’ve picked up the rubbish and you’ve gotten rid of things that you’re obviously not going to keep, but now you’re getting stuck with the hard stuff.

That’s because there is a missing piece of the puzzle. There’s a level three.

The way that I always try to describe it to other people is that there’s a difference between knowing how to get rid of things, like how to declutter, and knowing how to let go.

That’s the difference between painting and creating art.

That’s what I want to talk with you about today.

The importance of clarity in decluttering

The number one thing that a lot of people are missing is clarity.

We need to create clarity before we start decluttering, before you dump everything out of your closet or your drawers.

Before you start sorting anything into piles, you need to think intentionally about what you are creating.

Again, if we use the art example, I would argue that even if you’re creating abstract art, you probably have some kind of vision of what you’re creating before you get started. The same holds true to your decluttering.

When I say vision, I don’t mean the end result is, ‘Oh, hey, I want to have a clutter-free home.’ Or even going further, some people might say, “All right, well, my vision is that I want to declutter my home so I can spend more time with my family.”

That’s great, but I highly recommend that everyone get really specific. And to actually have a visual in your head with as much detail as possible. Don’t get too caught up in this to the point that it becomes an issue with perfectionism, but you want to have a vision of what you’re creating.

For example, if you were decluttering your closet, instead of going through every item one at a time and asking if you should keep this or not, it’s helpful if you think about your lifestyle. What are your needs? What kind of clothes do you like to wear? What’s your current personal style or taste?

Then think about if you were building a wardrobe from scratch today, what would that ideally look like?

And I’m not talking about winning the lottery type thing. I’m saying if you were going to create a new, reasonable everyday wardrobe right now and you didn’t own any of your existing clothes, what do you think that would look like? That’s where you can build in some intention.

Well, my lifestyle goal right now is to get outdoors. I want to spend more time with my kids. So maybe you don’t need 10 outfits for going to nightclubs, maybe you need more outfits for doing the things that matter to you. You create this vision in your mind.

Again, I think that might sound obvious as I’m explaining it, yet I know from experience that isn’t usually where people start because it feels like a little bit of a mental challenge. It takes a little bit of time to think about those things, and we’re so programmed to always be doing, right? You’re not productive if you’re not doing, thinking is not productive, and so people want to dive in and start sorting through things, but really you are saving yourself so much time if you start with that vision in mind.

It also removes some of that stress and overwhelm that you feel about starting. I read somewhere once that stress is not about what we have to do, it’s about how equipped we feel to do it.

So, if I say to you, “Declutter your closet,” and you have to go through 100 items and make random decisions about what to keep, that’s very overwhelming.

Especially, and I always say this with a bit of kindness as it can come off a bit harsh but I’m in the same boat, if you have a lot of clutter, you’re probably not great at making decisions about what to keep in the first place.

So if you’re like, “Well, I’ve never made great decisions in the past. I have an overflowing closet. I keep buying clothes I never wear,” and then I say, “Go through all those items one at a time and decide what to keep.”

It sounds simple, but mentally you’re like, “Oh God, I can’t do this.” What proof do I have? What makes me believe that this time I’m going to be able to do it, right? These are the kinds of things that keep us feeling stuck and unable to move forward.

Now, if you flip the situation and have a vision, you have and idea about what the end result will be. Whether that’s your closet, your bathroom, your kitchen, what do you want it to look like? How do you want to feel in this space? What is the purpose of this space? What would your ideal be?

As you go through your stuff and you’re decluttering, you have very clear guidelines is the best way to put it. When you pick up a dress, you’re not just thinking, does this spark joy?

I recorded a whole podcast about this. If you are anything like me, then you’re probably like, “Yes, I love stuff. Everything sparks joy.” I may be a minimalist, and I’m still very much a lover of stuff, which is why I need this intentionality in my life.

Does it spark joy doesn’t work. Would I buy it again? Well, again, that’s a tough one because you may say, “Oh, I would, I wouldn’t.” It’s really hard. If you are in the habit already of buying things over and over, then that question’s not really that helpful either.

But if you have a vision, you can ask yourself, “Hey, I’m thinking about this closet of my dreams. When I hold up this dress and I look at it, does it belong in that closet?” I find that a lot more helpful. It’s something so tangible, so practical, and that intentionality, there are so many layers to this.

For me, it’s more motivating, because if I have a vision of the closet I want to create or the home I want to create, or to take this even further, to the life that I want to create, that’s exciting. That provides the motivation to get started. It provides guidance, it helps you decide what to keep, and it helps you reduce decision fatigue.

This whole concept of taking intentional action, editing your life in a way that reflects your vision is my number two top tip for decluttering. If you’re feeling stuck, it’s probably because you are lacking this intention. Instead, you just have this whole jumble of stuff to declutter, and a whole jumble of tips that you’ve read on the internet, and you feel like you’re supposed to be able to do something with it, but you don’t know where to begin or what to do first.

Create that intention, get really clear on what your goals are, and I recommend that you start big. What is the lifestyle that you want? What do you want your home to be like? And then you can distill that.

If that is what you want from your home and life, then it can be something as simple, well, this is my bedside table. What kind of stuff would be on my bedside table or inside my bedside drawers if I’m living that life?

You can break that down as much as you need to. And as I said, that helps you get motivated, it helps you take action, but it also really impacts the results as well, because my experience, I hear all these people who are stuck in what I call a clutter cycle.

I used to be there myself where I would declutter, buy more stuff. Declutter, buy more stuff, and it’s because I didn’t know what I wanted.

It’s like that idea that when you don’t have your values and priorities clear, everything is important. It’s the same thing with stuff, but once you have a vision for your closet or your home and know what you’re creating, the end result is better.

You don’t just have a closet with less stuff, you have a closet full of clothes that you love, and you have a home that’s really functional, and you’re basically building brick by brick this life that reflects your values. So that is part two.

Exploring our relationship with clutter and taking intentional action

Now, having said that, I know that if you have been following me for a long time reading my blog or listening to my podcast, I’ve said those things before, and you might be like, “Yes, Jen, I have listened to this idea and I’ve tried to create a vision and I’ve tried to be more intentional with my actions, yet I’m still stuck. I’m still unable to get the results that I want.”

If that’s how you feel, then it’s because step number three of the decluttering process is the most significant and the most overlooked. That is exploring our relationship with clutter.

If you go back to that painting example, it’s things like the way that color can communicate to you, symbolism, certain objects, etc.

If you look at works of the great masters, they’re communicating messages or political stances or there’s so much that’s coming through that picture. And in a way, our stuff is like that, whether we realize it or not. What we have accumulated over our life is telling a story about who we think we should be or what we feel pressure to be.

I posted something on Facebook about this the other day, the list is infinite. It’s a reflection of your fears, your insecurities, hopes, dreams, current dreams or old dreams or unfulfilled dreams. It can be a million things, which is part of why it’s so complicated, and why it takes a lot of reflection to understand.

It’s important to know that your stuff is not just stuff. Your stuff is a reflection of you in many ways. And until you start to explore that, it is very, very difficult to let go. Even if you feel that you are a little bit self-aware, there’s always so many more levels.

I posted something on my Simply Fiercely Facebook page about this idea of getting to the roots of the clutter and understanding why it’s hard for you to let go.

Someone commented saying, “This is great. I know what keeps me stuck. And what keeps me stuck is that I have a hard time decluttering items unless they’re going directly to someone who I know will find them useful.”

I’m paraphrasing here obviously, but they were saying, “I really hate the idea of decluttering something and going to a secondhand shop and maybe just sitting there and nobody buying that.”

First, that’s a great realization. Any kind of aha moment you have about your behavior is a clue that’s going to help you declutter, and we can definitely work with that. If that’s you, then there are things you can do. There’s intentional action. You have this clarity about why you’re holding on. Now we can have intentional action and try to look at opportunities to connect with a charity.

For example, the one I always use here in Australia is called Give It. It’s a lovely charity that is like a matchmaking service. They’re like an in between for individual donors and lots of other charities who need specific items.

If you donate through them, you’re not just dumping your stuff at a Goodwill, or as we say here in Australia, more like the Salvos, but instead, you are passing your specific item to a charity who needs it. So while that’s definitely a valid concern, and there are ways that we can work around it.

Emotional factors why people struggle with decluttering

As someone who has spent the past 5, 6, 7 years deeply fascinated by our relationship with clutter, in my experience from my own journey and from working with hundreds of women, is that it’s almost never that simple.

Our brains tend to fixate on one reason why we can’t declutter that is neat and tidy, something that feels very, almost noble. This is a good thing. The fact that you don’t want to be wasteful, that’s good, that feels good. It’s also very easy to communicate to people.

For example, you might say, “I struggle to declutter because I might need things sometimes.” And again, that is a very valid concern, a lot of people struggle with that. But often, there’s more to it when you start poking around under the surface.

We tend to focus on the reason for our clutter that’s the most comfortable.

For example, one of the things that I’ve noticed is almost always a factor when people are struggling to declutter is shame. We feel ashamed of the mistakes that we made.

In this situation with the woman who wanted her items to go to a good home, if you feel ashamed that you have bought a lot of really expensive items and never use them for example, it feels almost like a relief to give it to somebody because it’s like that shame disappears. “Oh, it doesn’t matter if I did that because now it’s going to a good cause.”

It’s a lot harder to donate it to something or to give it to someone who’s not a good cause or where you’re not certain about where it’s going to go because now you don’t have anything to alleviate that shame. That underlying reason why it might be hard to declutter.

Another reason, again, and I’m just speculating, I’ve never met this person, but something that I’ve observed with past clients is people pleasing.

If you identify as someone who is the people pleaser, you are someone who always wants to make everybody else happy. It feels like it’s a waste to use your stuff and less you are using it to make someone else happy. And until you find that circumstance, you’re comfortable suffering.

If your home is overflowing with too much stuff and you are uncomfortable in your own home, but your mindset might be like, “Well, I can deal with it. I’m okay being put out as long as I am helping other people.” And again, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just understanding all these different layers for reasons why we might have clutter.

Jen shares her personal struggle with clutter which is insecurity

Or it could simply be a procrastination technique. Maybe there’s something even more difficult under the surface why this person is having struggled to let go.

And so it’s easier to say this surface level reason for their clutter, where in reality, let’s see, my own experience, if you’ve been listening, one of my huge reasons for having clutter was my insecurity.

I had a lot of insecurity throughout most of my twenties and younger about my appearance, about how successful I was, all of these different things. So I wanted to keep things because they made me feel better about myself. But saying that to you, makes me feel vulnerable and it feels kind of embarrassing.

You wouldn’t tell that to a friend generally, unless you’re like me, and then you tell everyone on the internet, right? But most people don’t feel comfortable even admitting that to themselves.

It took me a very long time to admit that to myself.

It’s much more comfortable to fixate on something else. “Oh, I’m going to wear those someday. I love them and I’m going to wear them someday.” Or, “Oh, I love having so many shoes.” That’s something I used to tell myself, or I’m going to declutter them. But just when I can find a good home for that.

As I said, I’m speculating, but my point is that our clutter is layered.

The analogy that I often use with my clients is that there are threads. There are these strings that are stories or fears or thoughts and beliefs that connect us to our clutter, and until you unravel them, it’s very hard to let go.

That’s why you can have all of these decluttering hacks, all of these tips, all of these things that you know are supposed to do. But if you can’t follow through, it might be that those threads are still tying you to your stuff. And until you identify the thread, you can’t unravel it.

To recap, if you are feeling stuck, if you feel like you know what you should be doing, but you are really struggling to follow through, these are the three things that you need to do.

One, work on your clarity. What are you trying to achieve? What is your end goal? And again, be specific. Don’t just say less clutter. Try to build some kind of vision in your head, even if you don’t have all the details, but give yourself something to work towards.

Then step number two is to take intentional action. You want to declutter in a way that it’s helping you achieve your goals.

Again, there are so many reasons for this. It’s good motivation. It also reduces the decision fatigue. It gives you some form of guidance for making decisions, and also it positively impacts the results.

The final and often most important step, I like to refer to it as compassionate curiosity, which is where we spend a lot of time in self-reflection.

Clutter is often a symptom. It’s the result of something, the results of my insecurity, maybe the result of something that happened to you as a child, the result to some kind of event that has happened to you in your life, and you have never gotten closure, and you’re still grieving it, right?

There are so many different reasons why we have clutter, but you need to do that work to identify those so that you can unravel the threads and release yourself.

If this resonates with you, I invite you to do some deep self-reflection.

If you would like some help, you are more than welcome to join me inside Clear Your Clutter.

Okay, thanks everyone for your time. Have a good week.

Sharing is caring!

Leave a Comment