Today, I’m sharing what is (in my personal-turned-professional opinion) the absolute worst decluttering strategy ever.
Don’t separate those two things. The thing about it being the absolute worst, and the part about it being the worst for me.
I finally started making real, lasting, bigtime decluttering progress when I stopped crying about how “methods” didn’t work for me, and decluttered anyway. Imperfectly.
As I decluttered, I figured out the best way for me to declutter. As I made mistakes, I learned how to avoid them.
But this post is about what I have found to be the absolute worst decluttering strategy for me. And just so you know, in case you landed here as a newbie, this strategy has turned out to be the worst ever for a whole lot of other people whom I have encountered here on the internet.
Are you ready?
The absolute worst decluttering strategy ever (for me) is pulling everything out of a space as the first step of decluttering.
Or as any step of decluttering.
And yet, this is the step I always heard was the most obvious one. I still hear it. Things like, “Y’know, pulling everything out is just what you have to do.” Or “Well, everyone knows you have to pull everything out to be able to declutter.”
Or (and this is the most common): “Unfortunately, things have to get worse before they can get better.”
I say nope.
Nopity nope nope nope.
The above statements simply aren’t true. And I’ve proven this in my own home. Again and again and again.
I’ve taught you how to declutter without making a bigger mess. I have shared my strategies for making visible progress (and only progress) in any amount of time. I’ve written books about all of that.
But for this post, let me just explain why the “pull it all out” method doesn’t work.
I’ve had the “opportunity” to experience and observe and consider this problem over the past few months while we had work done on our house. We had our popcorn ceilings professionally scraped, walls painted, and floors replaced.
If we only needed to paint, we could have simply moved things around within the room, but new floors meant every single thing had to leave the room. All at once.
I was forced to pull everything out.
And as I tried to take advantage of the decluttering benefits of this situation, I confirmed that it isn’t good as a decluttering strategy for me.
Oh, there are advantages for sure. We totally benefited from seeing the open spaces and evaluating whether certain things needed to go back in at all.
But the problem happens when reality happens. And I have to let reality win over the ideal way of doing something.
In decluttering reality, exhaustion hits.
Moving furniture is physically exhausting. Moving every item out of one room into another room and then maneuvering in the double-stuffed room is ultra-exhausting.
All that is obvious. No one is going to argue about the special-kind-of-tired caused by moving furniture.
But even when I was well-rested . . . I immediately felt exhausted again when I saw the sheer chaos of the space where I’d stuck everything I’d pulled out. Thinking about all the decisions to be made drained my energy.
This is the same thing that happened when I used to pull everything of a space I was decluttering. I glanced at the empty closet and felt happy. Then, as I took a step back, I tripped over the pile of stuff I had just removed and scowled as I looked down at the mess. The mess, now outside the space where it was formerly shoved and hidden, was completely overwhelming. I felt my heart drop and all my energy drain out through my big toe.
I felt exhausted, even if the heaviest thing I removed from that closet was a bag full of feathers. (<- not an exaggeration of what I once might have found in my home).
That kind of exhaustion makes me angry. I look at the mess and want to walk away. I pick and pull and shift a few things around, and then decide I don’t have the time or energy I thought I did right now and either shove it all back in or leave it out in the floor.
Either one of those means my home is worse off than it was before, and I’m in a bad mood. And I’m definitely not motivated to keep decluttering.
Even if I was having a good day, be-bopping and scatting through decluttering decisions, once I got to the point where only hard decisions remained, the leftover mess overwhelmed me.
This is what happened in our garage. We moved things out there for the remodeling, moved things back in as we needed to, and then just stared at the rest. And I got madder and madder (and felt more overwhelmed) every time I looked out there.
Once the definite keepers were moved back in, we were left with things to go through. As life barreled on, I avoided the hassle of dealing with all the extra stuff. And so it sat. And attracted more clutter. And I kept avoiding.
I adjust to cluttered spaces way too easily.
A big perk of my personality and a big fault of my personality is that I adjust to my environment quickly and easily. I can walk the twisted, narrow path through my garage to get to my driveway without ever thinking twice about how un-ideal this situation is until I’m mad that my windshield is frosty because I can’t park in the garage.
While I’m enjoying having less in the original space, I just pretend the space where I shoved everything doesn’t exist. And the longer I pretend and ignore, the more jumbly the mess gets and the more clutter is magically attracted to it.
I could blame the fact that we had legitimately difficult circumstances like my husband’s final walk through his childhood home. I was legitimately sick on that day and couldn’t go with him to talk him out of bringing home things we’d already decided to not bring home.
Now emotional stuff has been added to the piles in the garage, and the desire to pretend that space doesn’t exist has increased.
“I Dids” work better than “I’m Gonnas” for me.
When I started this (originally anonymous) public journal of my own deslobification process back in ’09, I stopped making excuses. I reported exactly what I did and didn’t do. I didn’t make big declarations of how things were going to change or what I was going to do, I just did it.
And finally, after years of big declarations and big failures, I made real progress.
That’s how my decluttering strategy developed. Making final decisions item by item, with steps that help me make a big visual impact quickly, means I only make progress.
When I pulled everything out of a space, I created big piles of “I’m Gonnas.”
When I work steadily, eliminating the clutter as I go by acting on every decision immediately, I see a space that makes me smile because “I Did.”
I did declutter.
Since I learned again and again to not trust my own “I’m Gonnas,” “I Dids” are so much more satisfying and spur me to keep going.
Again: Pulling Everything Out is the Worst Decluttering Strategy FOR ME
If you only have a little clutter, and don’t really know what I’m talking about when I say things like “never decluttered successfully before” go for it. Pull everything out.
If you have the kind of personality that won’t let you sleep in a home with an unfinished decluttering project, even if that means you stay up all night, make those piles!
But, if you’re like me and adjust too easily to a mess or purposefully ignore things you know will cause you angst, listen up. There’s a better way (for us).
Don’t pull everything out.
Make a decision about each item as you pull it out of a space. Put it in the trash (immediately), take it to its home (immediately), or put it in the Donate Box.
It’s really that simple, but I know it isn’t simple. Not for the person who feels overwhelmed by their stuff and has never decluttered successfully in a way that can last.
I’ve written hundreds of blog posts, two books, and recorded almost two-hundred podcasts explaining the ins and outs of the mindset changes needed and the step by step strategies to make all this happen successfully.
But the point of this particular post is to let you know that if you fail and end up paralyzed when you follow the most commonly assumed and given (by people other than me) decluttering strategy, you don’t have to do it that way.
You do not have to pull everything out.
Did you know my newest book, Organizing for the Rest of Us: 100 Realistic Strategies to Keep Any House Under Control, is releasing on January 11th? Pre-order any format anywhere, and then fill out the form here and you’ll get a printable decluttering flow chart NOW which walks you through my decluttering process. If you want to more about the book, read this.