Here we are. It’s March, and we’re about to hit the one year mark of living in a different world.
For a lot, this has been a year of being at home more than ever before. For some, this has been a year of working harder than you ever imagined possible. For too many, this has been a year of unimaginable loss.
For all of us, “essential activities” have been redefined.
Is your home perfect? Would you have assumed it would be if someone had told you a worldwide pandemic would remove the vast majority of your outside commitments and distractions?
There’s a reason decluttering wasn’t easy for some of us in this unique world situation, and there’s a solution.
Being stuck at home (even if only on a rare day off of work) didn’t make decluttering easy because the biggest resource we subconsciously believe we need to be able to declutter is emotional energy. Specifically, decision-making energy.
A pile of stuff feels like a pile of decisions to be made, and since I don’t know what is at the bottom of the pile, I imagine that they will be hard decisions. Hard, emotional decisions.
Most of us are emotionally exhausted.
Living through a worldwide pandemic means everyday decisions become life and death decisions. From sending your kid to school (or not) or finding a safe way to celebrate a birthday or getting your washing machine repaired, everything is harder and comes with considerations and repercussions that didn’t exist in 2019.
Even if you don’t realize it, even if you keep reminding yourself of the truly life-altering loss others have endured and the perspective that brings to your own situation, you’re emotionally exhausted.
You’re tired of making decisions. You haven’t tackled certain piles because you can’t stand the thought of making one more decision you don’t absolutely have to make, so it feels easier to leave the pile sitting there.
I’m here to acknowledge that the past year has been emotionally draining, and to give you the good news that it is possible to declutter without draining yourself more.
I used to put off decluttering because I felt overwhelmed and wanted to avoid feeling feelings I wasn’t in the mood to feel. Meanwhile, my clutter piles grew, and I felt more overwhelmed. When I finally hit rock bottom and had to (literally) dig my way out of my clutter, I learned ways to get rid of my clutter without depending on having emotional energy.
I ask myself fact-based, instinctual decluttering questions that don’t require endless analysis or lists of pros and cons. Following my decluttering steps lets me get stuff out of my house using minimal emotional energy.
I do not use emotions to declutter because I am emotional. I’ve written (and talked) in depth about my decluttering process, and I’ll share links at the end if you want to really grasp my strategies. But for now, I’ll give you my three best tips for making decluttering progress when you don’t have emotional energy to spare.
Start small. Start visible. Set yourself up to be able to stop at any point.
When you’re emotionally exhausted and already suffering from decision fatigue, getting started is legitimately the hardest part.
Throw away trash. Obvious trash. Put trash in your trashcan or recycling bin and call it decluttering success.
If you think, “But trash isn’t clutter, it’s just trash!” while you leave trash sitting on your desk or kitchen counter or coffee table, stop thinking so much and go ahead throw the trash away.
I define decluttering success as stuff I don’t need leaving my house. Starting with trash helps me get moving and improving my home. The only emotion I feel toward trash is irritation that it exists, so getting rid of it is decision-free and has an immediate positive impact on my home.
I prioritize decluttering projects according to visibility. I need a definite prioritization strategy. Otherwise, I spin around looking at all the things I could and should be doing in my home, and I waste valuable time.
I start decluttering in visible areas because when I do that, I make visible progress. I have something to show for my efforts to myself and to anyone who happens to be in my house. If I start by decluttering a random shelf in my garage, I don’t experience the impact of my work, functionally nor visually.
If I improve a space I can see, seeing it makes me feel good. I like feeling good. Feeling good about a space inspires me to do more decluttering. It gives me decluttering energy. For all the reasons I shared in the beginning of this post about exhaustion, a surefire way to perpetuate my decluttering energy is gold.
Set yourself up to be able to stop at any point.
I believe we’ve all had a year-long lesson in how thinking we can control our situation is a delusion. This struggle is at the core of each panicky thought that has awakened me in the middle of the night over the past year.
While you may need to unpack this frustration with God and your therapist, I’m here with the decluttering answer.
My decluttering steps let me make progress and only progress. If I get through the first one, the space I’m working on is better. If I stop in the middle of my third decluttering step, the space is better. I never put myself in a position where the space is worse off than it was before I started decluttering.
The beauty of this is that I can declutter without knowing when I’ll have to stop, or when I’ll want to stop.
I can work on a space, knowing that if at any point I get distracted or exhausted, I can stop and the space will be improved. I won’t have anything hanging over my head, waiting to be done.
Here is the short answer for how I do that: I make a single decision about each item as it comes out of the space, and I act on that single decision so I never have to make that decision again.
If my emotion-free decluttering questions tell me where something goes, I take it there right then. If it needs to leave my house, I stick it in my donatable Donate Box that I’ll never go through again.
The hardest thing about the daily life-and-death decisions we’re making these days is that as soon as you make one, another comes along. Let decluttering be different from this. Make final decisions and act on those decisions so you never have to make them again. Ever.
It is possible to declutter even when you’re emotionally exhausted.
These are the basics that will let you declutter even when you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to make one more decision. But People Like Me need more words, more explanation, more help. I have all that available, and I’m linking to helpful things below.
If you want the whole plan and all the answers to your decluttering hangups, my book, Decluttering at the Speed of Life will talk you through the whole process and all the mindset shifts that will help. It’s available everywhere in all formats. Lots of people like to listen to the audio version while they declutter.
If you sign up for my free newsletter here, you’ll get exclusive access to a video in which I teach the process.
I recently talked through my five step never-make-a-bigger-mess decluttering process in a podcast.
Other blog posts that may be helpful to you:
Why (and How) I Don’t Use Emotions to Declutter
How to Declutter Without Making a Bigger Mess
The Worst Decluttering Strategy Ever
Want to Declutter But Can’t Donate Right Now?
Dana your strategies are so good. The other day I was looking for something in my donate box (don’t worry, only to pair it with the other half of the item that I found – by following your strategies!) and I immediately started second-guessing whether i wanted to get rid of certain things in there.
Yikes! I shut the lid and walked away. I have made those decisions. Bye stuff. It’s just waiting until drop off reopens. But it taught me what a gift a DONATABLE donate box is. I don’t want to see that stuff again because I will start thinking about it again and the joy of making a final decision right away is that you NEVER have to think about that item again. Thank you for all you share.
I’m finishing it really hard to get rid of certain clutter, by this I mean stuff that’s perfectly good just for someone else but it’s too much for me, good furniture an excessive amount of brand new Tupperware boxes, I am waiting for the charity shops to open in April so I can donate these things.
There’s also emotional clutter, stuff I got when my brother died some I have found homes for in the house some of it just needs to go.
I also feel a sense of urgency in decluttering as I have a progressive illness so it will never get easier, the last thing I want is to leave all this stuff for my family to deal with once I’ve gone. X
Ellen Zuckerman says
This was just what I needed to read today. It’s been an exhausting year.
Thank you so much. The most important line for me was NEVER putting oneself in a position where decluttering could make things worse. My perpetual downfall! So very glad you shared this and that I got to read it.
Great and timely!
Peggy Turchette says
Thanks once again, Dana. Through your books, this blog, your podcasts, and now your fantastic course, “Take Your House Back” I have accomplished things in my house this past year that I never could have imagined I could do. Things that I thought I would miss terribly (a Fiestaware teapot, three dolls, artwork that no longer hangs on any wall in my house, and so much more) guess what? I don’t even miss them at all, and now things fit in my closet, in my kitchen, and everywhere else in my house. This has been an awful year in so many ways, but it has also taught me that it’s not the THINGS in our homes that bring us joy, it is always the people: family, friends, and soon (hopefully) visiting loved ones in other parts of the country. God bless you for sharing your gifts with the world.
First, thank you for your candid view into my life! Yes, I am emotionally and at times physically exhausted, but the idea of just throwing away trash (real honest to goodness-wrapper-left-bottle-emptied-nobody-wants-items) is empowering.
Second, my biggest frustration is dealing with the mess makers. These grown monsters have become uncontrollable and unwilling to participate except to produce another “tetris” piece to my already unorganized pile…and some days they come so fast I just pause my game of life by headed back to bed.
What are your solutions to help me keep my sanity while I not only decanter the old mess, but deal with the new messes made daily?
Thank you from this emotionally exhausted mom of 3 grown-never-leaving-home-mother-made-monsters.
Amy Beckel says
Thank you, Dana, and thanks to all your wonderful “peeps” who share their encouragement here as well. My Mom and I had a lovely “Dana says…” talk this morning and we each shared such joy at our learning and our improvements over the past couple of months. God bless you!
This was just what I needed to read right now. I have been kicking myself because in five days it will be a year since work was shut down because of the pandemic, (work started again in July of 2020), and I’ve been beating myself up because I had this utter gift of time to tackle everything that bothers me about my home, and it looks the same if not worse. Last spring, I emptied my parents’ house of almost 50 years to get it ready to sell after their passing, and had a cancer diagnosis and surgery (all is well there). I am bogged down with “should haves” and guilt here, and now I also have boxes from my parents’ home here, too! WHY CAN’T I DO THIS?!
Ellen, you wrote EXACTLY what I was going to!
Doesn’t Nona come through precisely at the needed time and with the right words and encouragement !?!
Peace, Love, Blessings, Health and Happiness
to everyone and their families –
and Prayers that COVID will soon be GONE!
Stella Lee says
This is incredibly relatable right now.
I am exhausted, physically and emotionally. Last year we had to move out of our old house that was falling down around our ears, we were going to demolish and build. Finding the right house and builders was exhausting. We moved to a rental, which was really energy consuming. Then the building costs blew out by well over a $100k from our original budget. We could not afford the build and we would have to buy an established house instead.
Our pets had major issues with moving which was exhausting to deal with. Looking for a new home was exhausting. All this during the pandemic, also draining. We find a home and there were delays getting finance which was stressful.
Then a bushfire threatened the home we were trying to get finance for. Stressful. It took out some of the fence posts and which the owners had to replace. A week later another bushfire threatened the rental we were living in, more stress. The structural report on the new house needed further investigation, super stressful because structural issues were the reason we had to leave the old house and we absolutely did not want those problems again but the thought of having to start over to find a new home for a third time was horrifying. Then a third bushfire went through halfway between the rental and the new house and if the wind changed either could be in danger. Both houses were just streets away from the evacuation zones. The fire raged for days and took 71 homes. Then a month after the original settlement date we finally get the keys to our new home and the movers are booked. The next day we go into lockdown and we cannot move house.
Eventually we got to move. The dogs aren’t sleeping, so we’re not sleeping. Tired is our new normal.
The new house is smaller, much smaller and we have waaay to much stuff.
But I am unpacking. Exhausted, physically and emotionally I am successfully unpacking and decluttering. Why? Because of everything I’ve learned from you. Because I would just start with obvious trash, and there is loads of rubbish when you start unpacking stuff, all that padding and boxes and stuff.
Start small. Put the obvious things in the obvious spaces, plates where you would expect to find plates, that sort of thing.
Start visible. There’s boxes everywhere, but start with the ones that are half opened, on top of the pile, on the kitchen bench and in doorways. Do it again tomorrow.
Just taking away all the rubbish makes things better, makes unpacking feel less overwhelming, makes it feel more like progress.
Thank you Dana. I cannot even imagine how hard this whole process would have been if I hadn’t found your site a few years ago when I began my own decluttering journey. I am so very grateful for your wisdom and your sharing that with us all.
Stella Lee (and Dana),
I remember seeing many of your comments (on Dana’s site) from earlier years, and actually recently, I was wondering how you were doing.
Oh.my.goodness. I feel for you, and all that you have been going through. You are a much stronger person than I am, and even when exhausted, you seem to have a great attitude. You WILL make it through this, too. I hope things are much smoother going forward, and that you are able to make this house the home you would like it to be. Take care!
Dana–what a difference you have made for sooo many people, sharing your struggles AND your solutions (that work for you, in your unique home/situation). 8 ) I, for one, am grateful. Thank you!
Thank you so much for this post. I really needed these reminders.
Not long ago I had to sort through some old family pictures. What a mess I made! I took things that weren’t visible and covered the dining room table and living room couch. Talk about emotional exhaustion! It was definitely the wrong time to do all that. The pictures are back in boxes until I get through to Easy stuff, the Duh clutter, and the easier steps.
Darlene H says
This post really hit home for me. We finished a massive declutter just before selling our house about four years ago and moving into the first (of three) successively smaller apartments. We had been patting ourselves on the back for the progress we continued to make, and then the pandemic happened and we severely backslid. Not in all areas, just in one main one, stockpiling supplies, but that’s huge in our tiny rentals, and it really affects us. Suddenly we were trying to keep a large supply of things like toilet paper as well as bigger supplies of groceries and other consumables. We were doing this so we could avoid not being able to get them when we need them and also to minimize shopping trips.
The problem for us is that while I have a tendency to hold on to too much of other things (mostly under control, thanks), my husband would gladly be a full fledged hoarder of exactly this type of stuff. So I’ve been trying to talk him down from that and trying to help set reasonable expectations for how much is enough, against a lot of uncertainty and his strong tendencies. That’s been exhausting. Here it is, everything else starting to get back to normal and still we’re fighting that battle.
Where have you been all my life!?!? I’ve spent $$$ on organizers to help me over the years and after listening to your book over and over, I realized all they did was organize my clutter! 4 bins of reusable bags?? Come on! Your strategies have absolutely helped me get control over my home as we prepare for a move next year. I simply put on my AirPods and listen to your book as I work through the clutter. It keeps me in the groove. I was wondering if have a blog or post about TEENAGERS. I have listened to a few things about kids but teenagers are a whole different animal. You could probably write a book on them. If there is a podcast or post I have overlooked specifically about teenagers, can you please send it my way.