What is Clutter? Identifying Clutter so We Can Eliminate it.

Inside: You can’t eliminate what you can’t identify. Here you’ll learn three ways to answer the question, “What is clutter?”

The other day I swung by our local thrift store to drop off a box of things my kids had outgrown. I rang the doorbell at the donation door and stood there with my box of goods until someone opened it. As the door opened, I couldn’t help but peer past the woman taking donations to the endless piles of donations inside. There were bags upon bags, and boxes upon boxes everywhere. I’ve donated stuff here for years, and never have I seen their donation area so full.

Before I said a word, she kindly informed me that they were limiting donations right now by accepting just five boxes per person. She explained that donations have been on the rise. “Since everyone is home more these days,” she said, “people were finally getting around to decluttering their homes.”

What is Clutter?

I get it. I know firsthand just how suffocating it can feel to be at home, surrounded by too much stuff. My introduction to minimalism came just over a year after I quit working to stay home full time with my kids. Working outside the home had been giving me the reprieve from our clutter that I didn’t know I needed.

I used to think I was just an unorganized person. That our stuff felt like too much because I was incapable of managing it all. Turns out I was focusing on the wrong problem. Yes, I was unorganized, but it wasn’t an organizational problem. It was a too much stuff problem. Organizing is really quite simple once you get rid of the clutter.

what is clutter?

But what is clutter?  According to some, it’s the stuff in your home that doesn’t “spark joy.” However, as a mother of three, my minimalist home is full of plenty of stuff that doesn’t spark joy because it’s not my stuff. Identifying the clutter and knowing what to keep and what to ditch isn’t always so obvious. Here are three ways to know if what you’re holding on to is clutter.

It Might Be Clutter If…

1.  …You’re Keeping it for “Someday.”

It’s one thing to keep maternity or baby clothing when you’re not quite done growing your family, or even Easter baskets to reuse each year. It’s quite another thing, to hold on to every cord, bolt, lid, gadget, article of clothing or thingy-majigy, because maybe you’ll need it one day.

Clutter is the “just in case” stuff. It’s the stuff you’re holding on to for no good reason whatsoever. It’s that 4th, 5th or 11th mixing bowl. It’s the cord to your first cell phone, the toys your kids haven’t touched in months or maybe even years. It’s the pants you hate wearing and the top that itches. It’s the puzzles with missing pieces and the kitchen gadgets that are more work to assemble and use, than the benefit they provide.

But you hold on… just in case because…what if? What if you need it someday?

  • What if it comes back in style?
  • What if this random cord actually goes to something important?
  • What if my three other whisks all suddenly break during a Saturday morning homemade waffle tragedy?
  • What if you finally find a dress that pairs perfectly with those shoes you’ve never worn.


messy minimalism

2. …You’re Keeping it Because Everybody Else is.

Just because something is trendy, isn’t a good enough reason to own it.

From fashion trends to home decor, we feel obligated to update what we own as fast as the fast fashion industry can turn out new tops. Ever wonder why nothing seems to stay “in style” for more than a couple seasons? It’s because these “trends,” more often than not, are being manufactured by companies with solid marketing campaigns in order to make us buy new things.

Even right now there’s a supposed push to eliminate skinny jeans. I keep hearing about how Gen Z wants the world to know that skinny jeans are out.

But I’d bet anything it isn’t actually Gen Z trying to convince millennials to ditch their skinny jeans and side parts. I can’t imagine Gen Z cares at all what Millennials do with their hair or wear on the lower half of their bodies. What we likely have here is a push from the fashion industry gearing up to force us into updating our wardrobes. It’s called perceived obsolescence. In order to get us to buy stuff we don’t actually need; they first have to convince us that what we own is no longer relevant. Trends that stick around for too long are bad for business.

If you’ve bought a trending item and come to realize that in fact, it doesn’t actually pair well with your real life, it’s clutter. It’s taking up valuable space in your short and precious life. Let it go and own what you love. (Long live the skinny jean).

3. …You’re Only Keeping it Because it is Special to Someone Else.

From gifted items to family heirlooms, if you’re holding on to “treasures” neither you nor the people you live with care at all about, it’s clutter.

From Christmas gifts, to hand-me-downs, to family heirlooms, often times we keep items we’d rather not simply out of obligation. We feel the pressure to hold on to an item that holds little to no meaning to us and serves no purpose. All in an effort to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings.

If you’re holding on to an item because you’re afraid someone else may be upset if you let it go, it’s clutter. Now, I recognize that letting go of gifts, antiques and heirlooms can be complicated. It’s not always as simple as, “just let it go.” Nor do I believe there is an exact formula for how and when to go about letting go of such items.

For more on letting go of gifted items read:

How to Tactfully Decline Hand-Me-Downs and Gifts

It’s important that your home serve you and your family. If gifted items are getting in the way of that, you don’t need anyones’s permission to let them go.

Let it Go

In my experience, clutter isn’t typically the stuff sitting out in plain site. That’s often the stuff you use. Clutter is the stuff filling your cabinets, closets and storage bins taking up space and rendering your regularly used items homeless.

You can’t eliminate what you can’t identify. Name what is getting in the way. Call out what is holding you back and get it out of your home. If you want to live a more organized life, stop organizing your stuff and first get rid of the clutter.

Need Some Serious Decluttering Motivation?

Sign-up for the, FREE 3 Day Email Series, Unstuck.

Here we will tackle 3 common decluttering obstacles so you can let go and get uncluttered for good. If you’ve ever gotten started and then gotten stuck, this FREE resource is for you!

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