simple living

9 Hard Truths About Clutter You Need to Hear

Growing up, my home was a collection of other people’s things.

My parents bought plenty of things new, but many of the biggest items in our home didn’t come from a store.

My dad made some of our furniture—the dining table of my early childhood, some side tables, and the patio furniture out front—on his woodworking bench in the garage.

Our couches? The white ones with oddly bright pastel stripes? Or how about the glass table and wicker-backed chairs? My parents took those off someone’s hands, and come to think of it, I don’t even know whose.

Even now, a tour of their home might highlight artwork from an old neighbor or china and decorative objects from my grandparents who have now passed away. I don’t remember where our piano came from, but I know it wasn’t ours first—and my parents still have and use it to this day.

My parents’ home reminds me that our belongings are never really gone. 

Once we’ve decided we’re done owning them, they don’t magically cease to exist. They may find their way into a loved one’s house or to a donation center. Belongings that go unsold at Goodwill may eventually make it as far as an underdeveloped country… or a landfill.

This brings me to my first hard truth about clutter, but it’s only one of many. I believe that clutter is keeping too many of us from living well. Let’s change that.

9 Hard Truths About Clutter You Need to Hear

1. Nothing you own is ever really gone; it will continue to exist… somewhere

I remember searching for a piano on craigslist. It turns out, there are pianos all over the place. Old pianos in people’s back rooms, sheds, even their gardens.

This truth is motivation for me to be judicious about what I buy.

2. The best way to clear clutter is to reduce what you bring in

It really is. Never start a decluttering journey without giving real thought to your consumption habits. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself right back in the same spot, over-cluttered and weighed down.

Set a goal to not only get rid of more but to buy less.

3. Are you shopping to escape your feelings?

Most of us have an unhealthy way or two (or three or four) of hiding from our feelings. We eat, drink, watch TV, or shop so that we don’t have to feel our truth in a given moment. We crave the dopamine hit we get from eating something sweet or making a purchase online.

Masking our feelings sounds so much more appealing than sitting with them. But I believe that real freedom comes when we begin to practice experiencing our humanness rather than running from it.

Shop less, allow yourself to feel your feelings, and live with less clutter. 🙌

4. There’s a dark side to donating

If the above weren’t reason enough to limit your consumption, how about this—

“By one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa.” The Afterlife of Cheap Clothes, Slate

“African textile industries are closing their factories and laying people off because they cannot make clothes as cheaply as those American items found in the bend over markets.” The Truth About Where Your Donated Clothes End Up, ABC News

5. Everything you own is something you have to take care of

A friend recently told me what it was that started her on a path to minimalism. She read a single paragraph in Zero Waste Home where the author said that every decorative item sitting on a table is nothing more than something you have to dust.

She realized in that lightning-bolt moment that everything you own is something you have to take care of, so she immediately cleared off most of the surfaces in her house and instantly felt like she could breathe.

Our time is so precious; who wants to spend it cycling mountains of laundry from washer to dryer, replacing dead batteries or buying replacement parts, and shuttling items from room to room?

“The things you own in life end up owning you.” Tyler Durden

6. Clutter has been linked to depression

Women, in particular, suffer under the weight of our family’s belongings. UCLA researchers—who conducted a nine-year, rigorous study of how 32 families interacted their belongings—found a correlation between high cortisol levels (read: stress) in women and a high density of household objects.

Source: Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors (affiliate link) 

Clutter accounts for a significant, unseen portion of your mental load.

7. The longer you keep something, the more attached you become

I recently heard Gretchen Rubin say this on the Happier podcast, and it rang so true for me from my own experience.

One by one, as my sisters and I approached adulthood, our parents gave each of us a cedar “hope chest,” a place to store sentimental items. I remember my older my sister jokingly warning me to be careful what you put in there, because if it’s there long enough, it starts to feel special no matter what it was.

It turns out, she was right! I now have a stack of papers (notes, quotes & letters) from my high school days that didn’t feel particularly significant at the time, but now that I’ve had them for 15 years, they feel hard to part with.

So… Consider yourself warned. 😉

8. Eventually someone will have to decide what to do with every item you own

Whether it’s you or one of your loved ones, every non-consumable item will eventually be handled, sorted, and kept, sold, or donated. Everything you buy increases this burden on yourself, and someday, you may well pass this burden on. Is that what you really want?

Less is more. 

9. Your stuff is getting in the way of the best stuff

While many of these truths are a little scary, like living with depression or dying and leaving your children to sort through your stuff, the one I actually find most compelling is the most hopeful.

Imagine what it would feel like to walk into your home and be greeted by belongings you love—and nothing more.

Imagine what you could do differently with your time if you’re spending a fraction of it managing your stuff.

Imagine yelling at your kids a lot less because they have half as many toys cluttering up your living space.

It feels good to imagine, right?

I promise—It feels even better to live it.


Need some support on your decluttering journey?

If this was the gentle kick-in-the-pants you’ve been needing, leaving you all fired up about decluttering (wahoo!), I have a new resource to help!

100 Things to Get Rid Of—To Simplify Your Home

Whether you’re relatively early on your de-cluttering journey or are a longtime proponent who just needs a few new corners to look in, I hope this list helps you live with less. 


Which of the 9 truths is most motivating for you? (#5 is probably the one that comes to my mind most often…)

49 Comments

  • Reply
    Debbie
    July 9, 2018 at 3:19 pm

    I will! Loved this piece!

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      July 9, 2018 at 6:27 pm

      Thanks so much for reading, Debbie! I’m glad you enjoyed it!

  • Reply
    Sunita
    July 11, 2018 at 2:55 pm

    Love it! Thank you.

  • Reply
    Rhonda Dee Vaughn Pruitt
    July 12, 2018 at 11:37 am

    Each point makes so much sense. Thanks for sharing!

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      July 12, 2018 at 10:21 pm

      I’m so glad they resonated, Rhonda Dee! Thank you for reading!!

  • Reply
    Friday Finds: Chocolate - Living Life Lighter
    July 13, 2018 at 4:05 am

    […] 8. “Less time managing your life means more time engaging with your life.” – Erica Layne in 9 Hard Truths About Clutter You Need To Hear. […]

  • Reply
    Jennifer
    July 13, 2018 at 5:04 am

    I went through a long (couple of years) decluttering exercise about 7 years ago. I got rid of so much stuff. The problem was that my husband and daughter did not. In fact, my husband celebrated my success by moving a load of gardening stuff into the space I had created. The book cases no longer reflected my tastes, they were full of my husband’s airport novels (I am a bit of a book snob). It felt like it wasn’t my home any more. As I have got back to reading (dropped off a little with mommy-fatigue), I have really missed the books. Our libraries don’t hold the titles and some are hard to find, even on-line.
    I am all for living in a peaceful, uncluttered environment and I agree that clutter contributes to anxiety. A friend once compared living with clutter to having an irritating noise in the background. Just be careful about the books!

    • Reply
      Barbara Parrish
      July 14, 2018 at 10:18 am

      I couldn’t agree more with your final statement. After a decluttering binge a few years ago, the only thing I regret is giving away so many of my books. The clothing, the linens, the kitchen utensils, even the cookbooks are probably used and cared about by the people who have them now. But, nobody loves my books as much as I did – and still do.

      • Reply
        Dora Bilton
        July 22, 2018 at 9:39 pm

        Totally agree about the books. Have never missed anything else–fabric, yarn, dishes, clothes, etc.– but have often re-bought books I thought I’d never read again.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      July 15, 2018 at 4:23 pm

      Oh my, that is TOUGH, Jennifer! I admire you for looking back on it with some humor. K, we’ll all think twice about our books! 🙂 🙂

    • Reply
      Wendy
      July 21, 2018 at 7:59 am

      Jennifer. I hear you!! And feel your pain. I’m in the same boat with a husband and one of two kids who seem more into accumulating (or at least hanging onto) extra stuff. It is very tough. I have also had the sensation of not identifying with the items in my home’s shared spaces as they do not reflect me. Although not ideal we have designated some of our spaces my spaces so if i clear an area it can stay clear (I have a bookshelf in the living room that has space in it and in top of it rather than being full…) and I can use these spaces to hold a few items I treasure. The other day my husband even mentioned he’s considering getting rid of some stuff he had been collecting and is no longer into so maybe my decluttering is having a contagious effect. I also regularly call a pick-up for donations and let everyone know so they can fill a bag before the truck comes. That seems to work sometimes. It feels like an uphill battle but I see some hope along the way. I do appreciate having a few spaces that demonstrate less clutter!!

      • Reply
        Erica Layne
        July 21, 2018 at 8:58 am

        I love that you’ve carved out those spaces for yourself! No matter what’s around you, you can always look to those spaces and feel a little bit of calm and satisfaction inside. And that’s a powerful thing! Like you’re showing through your actions, all we can really do is open the door, lead by example, and hope for the best. We can’t change how our loved ones think and feel about clutter, so it’s much more freeing to let go of control in this way than trying to control as much as we can. You’re doing awesome—Carry on!

  • Reply
    Ushara
    July 13, 2018 at 10:00 am

    I have TOO MUCH STUFF! I’m 67 and, yes, depression sets in when I try to figure out where to put all this stuff. I honestly wish, sometimes, that the house would just burn up so I don’t have to think about it. LOL! Inheriting stuff from my grandma, mother, mother-in-law and aunt, I seem to be buried! We moved to a smaller home from a much larger one, but didn’t get rid of the furniture from the “extra rooms. Now they’re in the basement, along with boxes of stuff I never even see, my mom’s old “good” dishes, my daughter’s books, etc. I am hoping your pdf will give me an idea where to start.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      July 15, 2018 at 4:25 pm

      Hi Ushara! I can imagine how emotionally draining this is! The PDF doesn’t tell you where to start, per se, so that might have to be a future blog post! That said, I suggest two books; both provide more of a “system” than what I’ve offered so far. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and Minimalism for Families. I hope they help! Best wishes!

      • Reply
        Julie
        July 16, 2018 at 11:29 am

        Some other great books areThe Year of Less, and Clearing the Clutter with Feng Shui. I forget the authors, but they were my inspiration before every clutter clearing project for me. This post is perfect timing for me as I empty my basement to remodel. I had to empty my garage to store the basement items!

        • Reply
          Erica Layne
          July 16, 2018 at 6:19 pm

          Thanks for these recommendations, Julie! Perfect!

        • Reply
          Kay
          July 21, 2018 at 3:41 pm

          Maybe you’re talking about Karen Kingston’s book – Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui – I love that one! I have it on audio book and listen as I’m decluttering. Very motivating!

    • Reply
      mary garvey
      July 21, 2018 at 4:30 pm

      i would call an antiques dealer or consignment person and have them evaluate the furniture in the basement. Tell your daughter you will not save anything for her..she should come and claim whatever..perhaps keeping it or perhaps taking over the selling of it and splitting profits with you . unfortunately, much treasured furniture, well built and beautiful, is not bringing what we had hoped for..but maybe not in your area. why do you have your daughter’s books? she can pay you to ship, or come get them,or have you recycle.

  • Reply
    Helen
    July 14, 2018 at 1:00 am

    just makes so much sense, and all that I am trying to achieve right now. Takes time, but your blog gives inspiration

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      July 15, 2018 at 4:26 pm

      It DOES take time, Helen. Just keep plugging away. 🙂 Sending love!

    • Reply
      Ann
      July 21, 2018 at 8:47 am

      I also loved Brooks Palmers Clutter Busting – great for dealing with all the emotions and a wonderful place to start. Great article and comments – I have been decluttering for years and have 3 teens. Some help, others hang on. I am still striving to get rid of things but soooooo much less depressed! Still taming the beast of bringing more in.

      • Reply
        Erica Layne
        July 21, 2018 at 8:55 am

        Congrats on your journey, Ann! It sounds like you’re doing awesome! And thanks for the book recommendation—I’ll look it up!

  • Reply
    Taking Back The House – dinosaur reverie
    July 14, 2018 at 11:51 am

    […] “Less time managing your life, means more time engaging with your life.” -Erica Layne […]

  • Reply
    Lorna
    July 15, 2018 at 1:23 am

    Thank you Erica. #6 and #9 – and all the rest.
    This is VERY helpful work – starting tomorrow – will post feedback (accountability ! )

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      July 15, 2018 at 4:27 pm

      Yes, please do, Lorna!! I am alllll for accountability; we want to hear about your progress! (Big or small!)

  • Reply
    Susan
    July 16, 2018 at 7:45 am

    I live alone and got rid of tons of stuff from forty years of traveling/moving and just putting stuff in boxes and forgetting it. Moved from a three bedroom house with 2 car garage to a one bedroom apartment with no garage. Now I see I still have tons more than I need but it is depressing to try and sort through so much stuff alone because it all holds memories.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      July 16, 2018 at 6:23 pm

      Yes, that IS hard, Susan. Others have suggested that you start with the least sentimental pieces so that you can build up your confidence in yourself (and experience those little doses of euphoria!) as you declutter. Maybe just set aside anything sentimental and save that section for later?

      • Reply
        gayle
        July 22, 2018 at 8:16 am

        I have to be careful that I don’t start amassing decluttering books, articles and ebooks to my piles of “stuff”!. Clutter in my living space is annoying. Getting rid of my storage units is paralyzing. Sometimes I open the unit and just stare at the contents, then close and lock it back up. I have gone from 5 units down to 2. I’m aiming for 1 unit that is half the size of my largest one. I know I can do it.
        Thank you for a great article!

  • Reply
    Tracy H
    July 16, 2018 at 10:23 am

    I am embracing the idea of simplifying so that I can live my life rather than manage it. My hurdle at this point is that the initial process of streamlining my life will cause what I most abhor – clutter somewhere else for someone else. Is this one of those times where you “suck it up”, get through it once and then make sure it doesn’t happen again? The guilt/remorse of this process is a bit daunting. Do you have a recommendation? Thanks!

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      July 16, 2018 at 6:22 pm

      Hmmm, interesting thought, Tracy! Do you mean that you feel like the clutter you get rid of—like the things you donate—are just clutter for someone else to sort through and deal with? I get that! It kind of feels like passing the buck. I think you’re right about just getting through it for now and then being really conscious of not getting back to this spot again. That said, I wonder if you’d feel better about it if you could give *some* of your unwanted things to people who could really use and appreciate them. Like maybe you have a stylish wardrobe piece that a friend would enjoy or an extra lamp that your mom could put to good use, etc. Maybe that would lighten the burden you’re feeling… Just brainstorming!

    • Reply
      Kim Domingue
      July 21, 2018 at 1:00 pm

      There are many women’s shelters that accept donations of, not only clothing, but furniture and other home goods. The women leaving the shelter are very often starting a new life with little but the barest of necessities. Your excess furniture, linens, appliances, lighting, cookware and kitchenware, etc could mean the difference in a bare existence and a somewhat comfortable existence. Even excess decorative objects might brighten up a home for someone who has no money for “pretties” .

      • Reply
        mary garvey
        July 21, 2018 at 4:32 pm

        someone i read recently said don’t ask does this spark joy for me but would it spark joy for someone else.

  • Reply
    Amy@easysimplicity.com
    July 19, 2018 at 3:55 pm

    Hi Erica,
    What a wonderful post. The part about clutter leading to depression is something I hadn’t heard about, but makes perfect sense. I actually have a dear friend who suffers from depression. She has so much that she’s not willing to let go of in terms of stuff and I think that is probably emblematic of what she’s not willing to let go of in terms of emotional baggage (disappointment, regret, past failures). I know I definitely feel more upbeat and energetic in an uncluttered, tidy environment. I think a key thing to remember is that you don’t need to do it perfectly and you don’t need to do it all at once. Even taking 10 minutes to declutter one area of the house can help lift my mood. Thanks for a terrific post!

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      July 21, 2018 at 9:00 am

      Absolutely, Amy! Baby steps. 🙂 Thank you for sharing this!

  • Reply
    Jean M
    July 20, 2018 at 8:13 am

    Do you have a more recent source about donating clothes? That article was written in 2006

  • Reply
    Taylor
    July 20, 2018 at 11:46 am

    Number 9 actually really spoke to me! I have items stored away in my home that I have no intention of using to decorate my house with (a few vases my husband has given me over our first few years of marriage that don’t match my color theme, signs I’ll never hang, suitcases I will never refurbish haha). It’s freeing to know I can let those things go.

  • Reply
    Gail
    July 21, 2018 at 6:37 am

    I especially like your thoughts about getting rid of something doesn’t mean the item is gone ( landfill or someone else owns) so be circumspect when making purchasing. If you don’t buy, you don’t have to concern yourself about possible future disposal.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      July 21, 2018 at 8:59 am

      Well said, Gail! Thank you for reading!

  • Reply
    Mimi
    July 21, 2018 at 7:44 am

    Definitely #5 and 8 for me. I had to rehome all my husband’s stuff after he died. He had lots of “collections” (for instance we had 7 vehicles when he died). It took me about 5 years to deal with it all. Shortly after, my mom went in a nursing home and I had to take care of hers. She had a lot of hobbies, with all the specialized equipment. Another 3 years to find appropriate homes for her stuff, which was all good quality and deserved to be used by someone who appreciated it.

    So I’m very cognizant of my own belongings and the fact that I don’t want to burden another person that way. I’ve been downsizing my own possessions for a couple years – I try to donate or give away at least a couple of things a week. I regularly go through books and cookbooks, clothes, shoes, scarves and jewelry to find just one or two marginal items.

    But the biggest factor to me is cleaning, dusting, maintenance. I had a major medical incident and was unable to do my own house cleaning for a couple of months and was shocked by how quickly all my systems broke down. That caused me to cut down on buying a GREAT deal. Anything that needs dusting or polishing is Prohibited from entrance.

    • Reply
      Erica Layne
      July 21, 2018 at 8:59 am

      Wow, your story is such powerful motivation, Mimi. Thank you for sharing.

  • Reply
    Clara Drummond
    July 21, 2018 at 11:20 am

    #6 is the stand-out for me. When I hear comments about clutter and depression, I look at my home and my life and say, “Yeah, that’s me.”

    #3 also struck me really hard. It’s what I do. I don’t shop, but watch TV, play computer games, indulge in hobbies and food.

    Thank you for poking me where it hurts. I’ll use it as it was intended, a prod to get me moving again in the right direction,

  • Reply
    debbi s
    July 21, 2018 at 11:58 am

    I’ve been trying really hard to declutter. A tip I read about buying clothes helps me keep my closet in check. The rule of thumb is, bring something in and take something out. I can do that with clothes. My weakness is shoes and purses, so I’m starting to work on that issue now. And the other rule is, if you haven’t worn or used it in over a year, consider that you don’t really need it. A last hint I read was, if it is something dear to you, take a picture of it to keep, then remove it.

  • Reply
    Jen
    July 21, 2018 at 12:09 pm

    All of the truths speak to me. I was one of those soccer moms, running to and fro, forever chasing my tail. I wished for a less busy life. With 3 children, I only dreamed of less mess, fewer toys and clothes to clean up, no batteries to replace. Oddly enough, I just didn’t realize it’s all a choice. That I didn’t have to do what everybody else was doing!

    Through chronic illness, and a house that harbored an unseen poison (mold), I was forced into minimalism as well as a less busy life. Which I am now so very grateful for! Now, I choose to be a clutter avoider. I choose to prioritize where my limited energy is given. I choose to place living my life over filling my life with stuff.

    To answer your question though, the truth that speaks loudest at this time in my life is #8. Both my parents and my husbands parents are aging, and have SO MUCH stuff! We have tried to get them to start going through and “rehoming” their mountains of precious items. We do not want any of it! But they have held on for so long, that they would rather die while still having it all, than to experience any loss while still here. I have promised myself that I will not do this to my children!

    Some wise person somewhere once commented that some people’s lives are just an example of what NOT to do!

  • Reply
    Harriett
    July 21, 2018 at 12:28 pm

    “Imagine yelling at your kids a lot less because they have half as many toys cluttering up your living space.” I can imagine this, and I bet it would be great…but what do you do when your husband is not on board, and insists on loading the kids up with gifts at Christmas and birthdays, even though our house is bursting at the seams? We are drowning in toys but every Christmas he’s running out buying more at the last minute because he doesn’t feel I bought enough. And he makes such a big deal about toys, and is always telling the kids as he’s giving them toys about the other ones at the store he saw for next time, that the kids too have come to share his belief that toys = happiness. I am so stressed by the state of our house but I don’t know what to do.

  • Reply
    Kim Domingue
    July 21, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    There are many women’s shelters that accept donations of, not only clothing, but furniture and other home goods. The women leaving the shelter are very often starting a new life with little but the barest of necessities. Your excess furniture, linens, appliances, lighting, cookware and kitchenware, etc could mean the difference in a bare existence and a somewhat comfortable existence. Even excess decorative objects might brighten up a home for someone who has no money for “pretties” .

  • Reply
    Own Less, Simplify More - alainajo.co
    July 21, 2018 at 3:14 pm

    […] know a million blogs exist about this subject – the greatest most recent one is from Erica Layne at the blog listed above and the owner of these quotes. For my own posterity’s sake, or maybe just to remind myself […]

  • Reply
    Karen
    July 22, 2018 at 7:50 am

    #8 Hits with me. I have lived in the same house for 22 years and brought a lot of belongings with me when I moved here, let alone all the stuff in the meantime with a husband and 8 kids. I also acquired several boxes of my mother’s things when she passed away. I have boxes and boxes of items that I haven’t opened in 10-15-20 years! What the heck do I need those for?! I don’t want to make someone else, probably one of my older kids, have to go through all of MY old memories that I don’t even look at myself! Getting rid of that stuff, stat! Thanks!

  • Reply
    Read the book and actually think about it
    July 22, 2018 at 2:11 pm

    The irony of a Tyler Durden quote on a background of curated sand and pine cones, with the hip table. Who wants to be owned by a little cup of sand? Oh, and you are not the car you drive, or the pine cones you own, to paraphrase another quote from the book. Durden would have chucked that stuff out the window a long time ago and shamed you for missing the point.

  • Reply
    The R’s – Meg's Sustainable Blog
    July 22, 2018 at 4:35 pm

    […] Erica Layne: 9 Hard Truths About Clutter […]

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