De-Cluttering: Managing Your Things so they don’t Manage You

De-Cluttering: Managing Your Things so they don’t Manage You
Dr. Judith E. Pierson, Delaware Hospice Family Support Center

Download Original Handout here

Got Clutter? You are not alone!

  • The storage facility industry is worth about $40 billion (Harris, 2021)
  • The "National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) reports that on average we spend one year of our lives looking for lost items. That’s over 8,700 hours looking for lost or misplaced things!" (Pickup Please, 2020)
  • Almost ¼ of adults pay late fees on bills because they have misplaced their statements. (Borsheim, 2012)
  • According to the National Soap and Detergent Association, ridding clutter would eliminate about 40% of housework in the average home. (Becker, 2010)
  • According to the National Association of Professional Organizer’s 80% of what we keep, we never use. Further, 80% of the papers we file, we never refer to again. (Simply Orderly, 2021)
  • The good news is that about 80% of the clutter in our homes and offices is due to disorganization, not lack of space. (Goodwill, 2012)
  • We wear 20 % of the clothes we own 80% of the time. (Simply Orderly, 2021)
  • Here are the top reasons Americans give for keeping items in their home that they don't use (Refined Rooms, 2017):
    • 63% - I might need it
    • 51% - sentimental reasons
    • 26% - to sell
    • 22% - I feel guilty
  • "In a recent study by IKEA, 31% of those surveyed reported more satisfaction from clearing out their closet than they did after sex." (The Maids, 2020)

How did this happen?

  • We are afraid that throwing something away is wasteful.
  • We are sure there is some way in which we can use this item.
  • We tend to be perfectionists and are fearful of making the wrong decision about what to keep or throw away.
  • We develop sentimental attachments to our items. Items may have belonged to or are associated with people who are no longer alive.  Or, they remind us of a time in our life when things were easier and we long for that feeling of ease.
  • The items give us a sense of identity. We fear throwing them away we will lose parts of ourselves.  For example, we want to be artists or crafters and we may fear if we toss out things we could use to make something, we will lose our creative side.
  • Sometimes our things make us feel secure. We feel safe in our nest of things.
  • The thought of throwing something out (or giving it away) creates anxiety or other strong feelings. For example, parting with the objects associated with a loved one may tap our grief.
  • Once we have accumulated lots of things – it is difficult to maintain the concentration and effort needed to sort through and part with these items. We start with good intentions but quickly get overwhelmed and immobilized.

Dealing with the emotional barriers to removing clutter

  • For many, the problem with clutter is primarily organizational. You are just overwhelmed and don’t know how to start and keep going.  However, for many of us, there are emotional barriers that need to be acknowledged and addressed.
  • If, for example, a heavy emphasis was put on being frugal growing up, you may need to really challenge and rethink your values. Is saving something you might use some day, in some way, really more important than living a life with less chaos?
  • Ask yourself, what is the higher value (frugality or freedom and calm). What price do you and your family pay for not throwing things out?
  • If you are worried about waste, donate things.
  • At a deeper level, a frugal family can also be a family where there is a “deprivation mentality” – an unspoken belief that there isn’t enough to go around – whether it’s food, attention, love, or praise, etc. Under these circumstances, things can become substitutes for a deep hunger, for love, for example, that material things will never fill up.  So you need to ask yourself, what do I really hunger for?  And how can I bring more of that into my life?
  • If letting go of things is hampered by perfectionism or a fear of making the wrong decision, you need to give yourself permission to be imperfect. Also, ask yourself, what’s the worst that could happen?  If I really find I need it, how much would it cost to get a new one?  Could I borrow it?
  • If you are having a hard time letting go of things that have sentimental value because they belonged to someone no longer alive, you may need to revisit this loss. Getting rid of things may trigger renewed feelings of loss, but you can stand it.  You can write about it, talk to a friend about it, or even talk to the person “in spirit”.
  • Take pictures of things, keep just a few, and then donate them. You are not throwing away your loved one.
  • If you are afraid you will be throwing away a part of your identity, think of other ways to maintain that identity. If it’s part of your past, perhaps a simpler time, take a picture and write about the memories.
  • If you want to be more creative, take a class. Do something to jump start that desire.  You will find this far more fulfilling than just having boxes of craft projects.
  • If your things make you feel secure, ask yourself what else could make you feel secure? Do you need more people in your life?  Perhaps you should volunteer somewhere or join a club or a discussion group.
  • If throwing things away stirs up anxiety or troubling feelings, sit down and listen to those feelings? What is still hurting or in need of attention inside?
  • If your inner critic kicks in when you try to declutter, try talking to yourself the way you would a friend. Or imagine someone loving encouraging you.  Do something for just 5 minutes if you become paralyzed.
  • If you really get an emotional boost from buying things, explore other ways to feel good. Broaden your techniques for self-soothing and satisfaction.  Or tell yourself, you can’t buy 1 new thing until you get rid of 5 current things.
  • You might also resent having to fulfill this responsibility. Perhaps you are angry that your partner won’t or isn’t here to help you.  If so, let yourself express this anger in a safe way.  It doesn’t matter if it’s irrational (or not!) you need to safely release it to move on.
  • If you find after learning techniques for organizing and de-cluttering, you still can’t get started, stop and listen to your heart. Explore the deeper roots of the issue.  You can do this even as you start de-cluttering in small steps.
  • The task of de-cluttering can feel overwhelming to anyone. The next step is to find a way to break it down into manageable “chunks.”

What can I do to get started?

  • First start in an area that will have an immediate impact on your day to day life. Stay with just this area until it is decluttered, don’t let yourself get off on tangents in other areas.  It is important to see some immediate improvement to keep yourself motivated.
  • Other organizers suggest just starting somewhere small – one counter, one shelf or one drawer. Success is motivating.  One of the biggest challenges of decluttering is not getting overwhelmed.  So, it is essential to stop looking at the big picture and refocus on something you can realistically tackle.
  • You can also just commit to doing something for five minutes a day. Small steps add up and help you get started, which is often the hardest part.  Find some suggestions for things you can do in a short time frame are listed below.
  • To truly tame the clutter beast, we must eventually develop new habits (such as putting things in the same place every day), create better organizational systems and stay on top of the problem by reducing the number of things we bring into our homes. But as you employ tactics for managing clutter, these changes will become obvious, routine and rewarding to you.  Just get started and the rest will follow.
  • If you are prepared to start tackling this problem now, consider the following strategy.
  • Create a timeframe and stick to it. For example promise yourself to declutter for 15-30 minutes every day.  It is best to pick a time of day that is when you’re “at your best.”  If you can’t stick to a commitment to do this daily, do it every other day.  But set aside a regular time and don’t allow any distractions to keep you from your promise because undoubtedly you’ll find lots of other things to do instead.  You can also opt to set aside 2 hours twice a week or over the weekend if that works better for you.  A commitment to doing this routinely is the key to getting it done.
  • Before you start you will need to do some prep work – get boxes or storage containers, trash bags, have something with which to label your boxes (stick on tags, duct tape you can write on, markers)
  • You might want to create a few cardboard boxes for each of your major categories and while you declutter an area, sort things into the boxes rather than stopping to put them away. You could have boxes for give away, sell, recycle, or relocate and a trash bag for trash.  Finalize a set of categories into which you will sort your items.  Here are the basic questions you need to ask:
  • Should I keep it or let it go?
    • If I’m going to let it go, which category:
      • Throw away
      • Recycle
      • Give away (going to a thrift store or other charity)
      • Sell (put it a box for a yard sale)
    • If I’m going to keep it:
      • What category does it fit into and where will I put it?
      • You might want to use categories & locations such as (Tolin, Frost & Steke, 2007) :
Mail & Misc. Papers File cabinet, processing system of trays
Magazines Books shelves or magazine rack
Photos Photo boxes or albums
Clothing & Coats Drawers, closets
Books & CDs/Tapes Shelves, CD Rack
Souvenirs / Decorations Display cabinets, shelves or storage
Future gifts Storage
Office supplies Desk drawer, top of desk
Hardware Garage or closet
Empty containers Cupboards (how many do you really need?)
Kitchen items Kitchen drawers, cabinets (keep only what you use)
Linens Linen closet
Toiletries Bathroom cabinet (give away what can’t fit)
Garden & recreation Garage, basement
Craft supplies Basement or one designated closet
  • After you have sorted for 20 minutes, spend the last 10 minutes putting items to be relocated in their proper place. If the areas where they belong is cluttered, don’t stop to clean them now, just put the items that belong there, in that area.  You will put them away when you reach this section to clean.

Other Tips for Decluttering

  • If you don’t have the need or desire to follow a systematic or more formal approach to decluttering, there are other strategies you might find helpful.
  • The webpage Fly Lady has a program of “baby steps” that guides you through a series of small but important steps. The author recognizes how easy it is to get overwhelmed and has designed a wonderful system to keep you moving forward without getting overwhelmed.  She developed these techniques using her own experiences.  If you feel too paralyzed to do anything, start here - http://www.flylady.net/d/getting-started/31-beginner-babysteps/
  • Give yourself 5 minutes daily to do something. Listed below are a variety of strategies (Babauta,date unknown) practice one of them.  Doing something for just 5 minutes will chip away at the problem and is better than doing nothing.
    1. Create a spot for all incoming papers. Paper accounts for a great deal of our clutter.  Designate an “in-box” for all papers that come into the house.  You can sort this at the end of the day or first thing in the morning the next day.  But be sure to stick it first in only one place.  Later you can sort into categories such as bills, health-related, action items that must be addressed within 1 week, within 2 weeks, or within a month.
    2. Create a filing system for your in-box. You can use a file cabinet, a file box or even a multi-tiered filing box that hangs on the wall.  You might also want to consider scanning and filing your documents electronically.  You can purchase a Brother ADS-1200 Document Desktop Scanner through Walmart for $179.99.  Or a Brother DS-740D Duplex Compact Mobile Document Scanner via Amazon for $119.98.
    3. Categories for a mail filing system might include:
      • Bills (put date to pay by on the front);
      • Log folder (a place for names and numbers to be added to your phone or address book);
      • To Do (with subfiles labeled “by the end of the week”; “by the 15th”; and, “by the end of the month”);
      • Pending file (you’ve taken the first steps toward completing an action and are waiting for a call back or something else to complete the task), check every Monday;
      • To be filed (must file contents regularly);
      • To read (cut out newspaper and magazine articles, newsletters).
    4. Learn to file quickly. Once you’ve got a quick filing system, learn to use it daily.  Do this when you’re at your best (early in the day, at the end of the day, etc.).  Force yourself to make quick decisions.  Recycle junk mail immediately and put remaining items in one of the categories listed above).
    5. Create a no-clutter zone. Again it can be a shelf, a drawer, or a 3-foot area around the couch.  Once you have cleared it, commit to keeping it clutter free.  Every day expand your no-clutter zones.
    6. Clean off a surface. This can be a counter, a table top, a small table or any flat surface.  Leave only essentials.  If your counter has appliances you really never use, either give them or store them away.
    7. Pick up 5 things and find places for them. Ideally pick things you really do use and find a regularly designated spot for them, such as a TV remote.
    8. Create a “maybe” box. If there are things you just can’t decide whether to keep or get rid of, put them in a "maybe" box.  After a select period of time from 1-6 months.  Go through the box, if you haven’t used the item, let it go.
    9. Select items for donation. Consider the possibility that your time with an item “is over” and now it’s time for someone else to benefit from its use.  Fill a box or a bag with things you are unlikely to use (Remember, according to the National Association of Professional Organizer’s 80% of what we keep, we never use.)
    10. Make a 30-day list. Clutter happens because we buy stuff.  Try creating a 30 day list.  When you want to buy something that isn’t essential (food is "essential"), put it on the list with the date you wanted it.  Don’t allow yourself to purchase it until it’s been on the list for 30 days.
    11. Go to your closet and pull out clothes you don’t wear. If they are seasonal items, that you really will wear, consider putting them in the storage bags you can compress by sucking out the air.
    12. Use the reverse hanger trick. Put all of your clothes on hangers facing in one direction.  When you wear an item and then return it to the closet, put the hanger in the reverse position.  After a month or two pull out those items you haven’t worn (you’ll know because they are still facing their original position.)
    13. Clean out your medicine cabinet. Get rid of outdated medicine, old creams or tired looking items.
  • Some other suggestions
    1. If you really want to pace yourself you can utilize the book, listed below, One Year to an Organized Life.
    2. Give away one item a day. "This would remove 365 items every single year from your home. If you increased this to 2 per day, you would have given away 730 items you no longer needed."  (Becker, 2017)
    3. Move quickly through you home for five minutes and fill one trash bag, with either give away, throw away or sell items.
    4. Make a list of areas you want to declutter. Start with the easiest and check off each area as you complete it.  This is one way to “chunk down” the overwhelming task of decluttering.  You can stop worrying about the big picture because each area is on the list and will eventually be tended to.
    5. Try the 12-12-12 challenge. You can pair up with a partner and make it a contest.  Find 12 things to throw away, 12 things to donate, and 12 things to return to their “proper” place.  (Rafter, 2020)
    6. Use your imagination. You can imagine things like “what would my home look like if it was the way I wanted it?” or “what is the worst that would happen if I parted with this item?”  “if I discovered I needed something I’d given away, how much would it cost to replace it? How much does it cost to keep it?”
    7. "Start at the corner by the door and move your way around the room, cleaning the superficial stuff first – surfaces, empty the bin etc. Repeat, but do more the 2nd time around – i.e. open the cupboards" (or drawers). (Babauta, date unknown)
    8. Pull everything out of a drawer. Just take the drawer out and empty it on a table. Then sort the drawer into three piles: 1) stuff that really should go in the drawer; 2) stuff that belongs elsewhere; 3) stuff to get rid of. Clean the drawer out nicely. Then put the stuff in the first pile back neatly and orderly. Deal with the other piles immediately!
    9. "Declutter one room (including any closets, desks, cabinets, etc.) before starting on the next one. Spending time in that room will feel *so* good, and it will be so easy to keep clean, that it will motivate you to do more!" (Babauta, date unknown)
    10. "Take before and after photos of a small area. Choose one part of your home, like your kitchen counter, and take a photo of a small area. Quickly clean off the items in the photo and take an after photo. Once you see how your home could look, it becomes easier to start decluttering more of your home." (Becker, 2017)
  • Keep in mind these 10 rules to Help You Live with Less Stuff from Courtney Carver (https://bemorewithless.com/decluttering-101/)
    1. Why is more important than how. Know why you want to live with less and why you want to make space for yourself in your life.
    2. One thing at a time. " This is a step by step, inch by inch, scarf by book by measuring cup process."
    3. This is not a race. Slow and steady gets the job done.
    4. If everything matters, nothing matters. " In some stages of decluttering you may feel like all the stuff is important, that it all has meaning and that each thing matters. Remind yourself that if everything matters, nothing matters. It can’t all have your love and attention. When you let go of what doesn’t matter you can give more of yourself to what does."
    5. Keep your eyes on your own stuff. Even if someone else in your life also needs to declutter, start with yourself.
    6. Small progress is still progress. Celebrate the baby steps and the small wins.  This will help you keep going.
    7. Less is not nothing. You don't have to give up all your things. Keep what truly adds value to your life and which brings you enjoyment.
    8. "Just in case" means never. All those things you keep just in case, will rarely be used and you might not be able to find them when you could.  Ask yourself how much it would cost to replace (or borrow) and what is costs you to keep it.
    9. Holding on is harder than letting go. " Letting go may feel hard, but holding on is harder. You have to hold on every single day. You hold on by paying for items with your money, time, attention, and emotion. You only have to let go once."
    10. This is love. " When you begin to declutter and live with less for reasons that matter to you, you understand that this isn’t about organized sock drawers or clean countertops. Simplicity is the way back to love. It’s the way back to people you love, work you live, and a life you love."
  • Utilize the resources available on-line and in books. See the list below.

Clutter is chaos.  It’s a suffocating presence that robs us of peace and joy.  - Unknown

My clearing has allowed me to rediscover things I had stopped seeing and put them in a place of prominence.  – Lisa Schultz

The best way to discover what you really need, is to get rid of what you don't.  – Marie Kondo

Having a simplified uncluttered home is a form of self-care.  – Emma Scheib


Babauta, L. (date unknown).  15 great decluttering tips.  Zen Habits.  On-line at: https://zenhabits.net/15-great-decluttering-tips/

Babauta, L. (date unknown).  18 five-minute decluttering tips to start conquering your mess.  Zen Habits.  On-line at: http://zenhabits.net/18-five-minute-decluttering-tips-to-start-conquering-your-mess/

Becker, J. (2010).  The statistics of clutter.  Becoming Minimalist.  On-line at: https://www.becomingminimalist.com/the-statistics-of-clutter/

Becker, J. (2017).  10 creative ways to declutter your home.  Becoming Minimalist.    On-line at: http://www.becomingminimalist.com/creative-ways-to-declutter/

Borsheim, S. (2012).  Organizing & time management statistics.  Simply Productive.  On-line at: https://www.simplyproductive.com/2012/03/time-management-statistics/

Goodwill (2012).  Clutter facts and organizing tips.  Amazing Goodwill.  On-line at: https://www.amazinggoodwill.com/living-amazing/bid/201877/Clutter-Facts-and-Organizing-Tips#:~:text=80%25%20of%20the%20clutter%20in,home%20and%20in%20the%20office.

Harris, A. (2021).  U.S. self-storage industry statistics.  SpareFoot Storage Beat.  On-line at: https://www.sparefoot.com/self-storage/news/1432-self-storage-industry-statistics/

The Maids (2020). These clutter statistics will shock you.  The Maids.  On-line at: https://www.maids.com/blog/these-clutter-statistics-will-shock-you/

Pickup Please (2020).  7 Organization stats you need to know.  Pickup Please.  On-line at: https://pickupplease.org/7-organization-stats/#:~:text=The%20National%20Association%20of%20Professional,for%20lost%20or%20misplaced%20things!

Rafter, D. (2020).  What is the declutter 12-12-12 challenge?  How to become a minimalist.  HITC.  On-line at: https://www.hitc.com/en-gb/2020/11/03/12-12-12-challenge-declutter/

Refined Rooms (2017).  Introducing the declutter tool kit.  Refined Rooms.  On-line at: https://www.refinedroomsllc.com/introducing-declutter-tool-kit/

Simply Orderly (2021).  Surprising statistics.  Simply Orderly.  On-line at: http://simplyorderly.com/surprising-statistics/

Tolin, D.F., Frost, R.O., & Stekete, G. (2007).  Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding, Oxford Press.


Mary’s Touch, Mary (moving, packing but also “assisted sorting, donation of unwanted items”) https://marystouchmoving.business.site/ or  (302) 745-1272

Top 100 Organizing Blogs, Websites & Influencers in 2021 - https://blog.feedspot.com/organizing_blogs/

Fly Lady – a webpage by a woman whose approach to cleaning and organizing is “Make it fun, it will get done.”  http://www.flylady.net/

How to Declutter Your Home: The Complete Guide.  On-line at: https://www.budgetdumpster.com/resources/how-to-declutter-your-home.php

45+ Decluttering Resources for Getting Rid of Physical, Mental, and Other Types of Clutter! - https://reducereuserenewblog.com/35-decluttering-resources-for-getting-rid-of-physical-mental-and-other-types-of-clutter/

Reading List

Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving and Hoarding,  D.F. Tolin, R.O. Frost, & G. Stekete.  Oxford Press, 2013.

The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own, Joshua Becker.    WaterBrook, 2016.

The Sentimental Person's Guide to Decluttering, Claire Middleton.  Cardamom, 2019.

Decluttering at the Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-Ending Battle with Stuff, Dana K. White. Thomas Nelson, 2018.

The Holistic Guide to Decluttering: Organize and Transform Your Space, Time, and Mind, Michele Vig.  Fairwinds Press, 2020.

Put That Stuff Down: Coping with PTSD Through a Decluttering Journey, Valerie Huard & Jean-Michel Tetreault.

Decluttering For Dummies, Jane Stoller.   For Dummies, 2019.

Decluttering Your Home: Your Simple, Step-by-Step Guide to Declutter Your Home and Live a Clean, Healthy, and Minimalist Life, Abbey Lincoln.  Independent Publishing, 2019.

The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life, Francine Jay.  Anja Press, 2010.

One Year to an Organized Life, Regina Leeds.  Da Capo, 2008.

Clutter Busting Your Life: Clearing Physical and Emotional Clutter to Reconnect with Yourself and Others, Brooks PalmerNew World Library, 2012.

The Minimalist Home: A Room-by-Room Guide to a Decluttered, Refocused Life, Joshua Becker.  WaterBrook, 2018.

Getting Rid of It: The Step-by-step Guide for Eliminating the Clutter in Your Life, B. Talbot & W. Talbot.   CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.

Unstuff Your Life!: Kick the Clutter Habit and Completely Organize Your Life for Good, Andrew J. Mellen.  Avery Trade, 2010.

It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life with Less Stuff, Peter Walsh.  Free Press, 2007.

It's All Too Much Workbook: The Tools You Need to Conquer Clutter and Create the Life You Want, Peter Walsh.  Free Press, 2009.

Border Hoarder: Organizing Tips to Declutter Your Home, Shannon VanBergen.   CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.

If I'm So Smart, Why Can't I Get Rid of This Clutter?: Tools to Get it Done!, Sallie Felton.  Journey Grrrl Publishing, 2011.

Clutter Rehab: 101 Tips and Tricks to Become an Organization Junkie and Love It!, Laura Wittman.  Ulysses Press, 2010.

One Thing At a Time: 100 Simple Ways to Live Clutter-Free Every Day, Cindy Glovinsky.  St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004.

4 Weeks To An Organized Life With AD/HD, Jeffrey Freed & Joan Shapiro.  Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007.

ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life, Judith Kolberg & Kathleen NadeauRoutledge, 2002.




De-Cluttering Worksheet

  1. What are some of the reasons you think you find it hard to let go of things?
  2. What role might family history, past experiences or feelings play in your problems with clutter? (Check all that apply)
    • Grew up believing it was important to be frugal and not waste things.
    • Grew up feeling there “wasn’t enough” love, attention or affection to go around.
    • I’m fearful of making mistakes I will regret.
    • I often find it difficult to make decisions.
    • I think “I’m going to use that someday.”
    • I enjoy looking at all my things.
    • I don’t want to get in touch with feelings of loss or grief.
    • I feel like throwing away things that belonged to a deceased loved one is like “throwing them away” or betraying them.
    • I don’t want to give up parts of myself that still need expression, such as being creative, reading more, or pursuing some other interest.
    • I am holding on to memories of an easier time in my life.
    • Having things around me makes me feel secure.
    • I have anxiety when I consider letting go of something.
    • I didn’t have money when I was younger, and now, I like to make up for that by buying whatever I want.
    • I get overwhelmed when I try to clean out or organize things and just quit.
    • My inner critic kicks in and makes me feel bad about myself when I try to declutter.
    • When thinking about cleaning up, I feel like I’m not in control and I just get paralyzed.
    • I love to shop, it brings me happiness.
    • When I see something I like, I “lock on to it” and find it hard to stop thinking about it until I buy it.
    • When I try to clean out my clutter I find it hard to stay focused, go off on tangents and am easily distracted.
    • I find it hard to create categories for my things and sort them when I try to get organized.
    • When sorting I make too many specific categories and not enough general ones (ex. rather than “books” I feel I should sort them by author or topic.)
    • I resent having to do the work required to get rid of my clutter. For example, I think “I’m retired, I shouldn’t have to do this” or “why won’t my husband/partner help me!”


  1. Thinking of the suggestions you have heard when you get home (or tomorrow) what is something you can do for 5-15 minutes to just get started?
  2. What kind of time frame is realistic for you to de-clutter on a regular basis? – for example, 30 minutes every other day; 15 minutes a day; 1 hour twice a week…
  3. Where would be a good place to start?
  4. How would de-cluttering improve your life?


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