Stuck with decluttering? We’ve all been there.
You start out full of enthusiasm, ready to tackle that drawer, wardrobe or cabinet, and after the first 15 minutes you find yourself staring at the same thing over and over, unable to make a decision about it.
Long-forgotten feelings surface. You think about the memories attached to it and although you really thought you didn’t need it any more, suddenly it seems important. It doesn’t belong in the room you’re in, but you aren’t sure where else to put it.
A nagging feeling eats away at you. You start to get bored with all this sorting out. It’s taking too long. Decluttering has stopped being fun and is now hard work.
What you thought was going to be an easy task, swiftly completed by your ruthless determination, becomes a headache.
An unfinished job.
Getting stuck with decluttering makes more mess
What do you do at this point?
Maybe you bundle everything back into the drawer or cupboard, slightly less junky than it was, but not finished.
Perhaps you leave it piled up somewhere to sort out some other day. Which only causes more mess and chaos further down the line.
Or you simply move it somewhere else and postpone the decision.
I have done all of the above.
Over many years of decluttering I have come to understand something that has really helped me:
When you get stuck on an item, you almost certainly don’t need to keep it.
Why do we get stuck?
The very reason we get stuck on things is usually down to some kind of emotion that is attached to that object.
You feel (and it’s ALL emotion), as though you should have used it more. Or that you should have looked after it better. Maybe it reminds you of something sad, or it’s the only thing left you have to remind you of Aunty Dora.
That difficult object that you are holding in your hand has soaked up an emotion and it’s the emotion you can’t let go of.
And that object that you are agonising over is bringing you down.
If you loved it, your immediate reaction would be something like this:
Oh, I love that, it’s so beautiful/useful/lovely, let’s wear it/use it/get it out on display.
When you don’t love something, your reaction is more like this:
Oh, I think I want to keep this. I mean, everyone keeps these, don’t they? Hmm, but where can it go? It doesn’t live here. I haven’t looked at it for ages, but I might want to one day. Or my kids might want to look at it when they are older. Where on earth can I put it? We really need more storage. I wish it was easier to keep things tidy in this place!
You search through your mind’s archives looking for the gut reaction that says you want to keep it, but it isn’t there.
Instead you find guilt.
So you think about it.
You um and ah over the pros and cons of keeping it.
You think about all the reasons why you shouldn’t get rid of it. But eventually you give up and move on, and the object remains.
By postponing the decision to sort something out, you are really saying to yourself:
I need to let go of this object, but I can’t bring myself to do it today.
There are hundreds of things around your house that will speak to you like this. These items are the reason that so many of us live with so much stuff.
I have realised that when I get fed up of decluttering, when I stop making progress, when it all feels like a ridiculous job that I can’t believe I am spending time on, when I get irritable and fed up because I tell myself there just isn’t enough storage space in the house, that’s when I know I need to let an item go.
This kind of decluttering decision is a big deal. It makes me feel a bit wobbly, worried, guilty, ungrateful and like I might regret it, but once the decision is made, I feel something else.
Each time I successfully navigate through that resistance to get rid of things that don’t make the sunshine come out inside my head, I get better at learning what I really do and don’t need in my life.
And with each layer of stuff that I peel away, I get closer to finding the real me underneath it all.
How to get unstuck
Method 1 – Wait It Out
The easiest way to deal with objects like this is to NOT deal with them. If it doesn’t belong in the room you’re in, and you don’t want it out on display or you aren’t using it, pack it away. The loft is a great place for things like this. It’s a good idea because:
- Decluttering gets much easier with practice. What you can’t let go of in your first round, you will find easier the next time.
- Going through the process of deciding to keep it stored away helps you accept that you really don’t need it (especially when you later realise you haven’t even thought about it, looked at it or used it in the last year).
- Sometimes you really do need space from an object. Things from loved ones that have passed away, and highly sentimental things that deep down you don’t really want, are not easy to move on from. There is a process of letting go that has to happen and sometimes it can’t be forced. To successfully declutter always go for the easiest stuff first. Leave the hard things for later.
- When you go back to this item – maybe in 6 months, maybe longer – you’ll find the emotion is less. You’re not so clingy. You can let go and move on.
Method 2 – Have it out
For the brave.
- Pick a time when you are alone and will not be disturbed. Set a time limit of around 30 minutes.
- Get the item out and spend your time with it. If it’s books or music, sit and enjoy them. For exercise equipment or DVDs, get your gym kit on and have a good go at them. When it comes to sentimental stuff, really explore every feeling and every memory. Get out the old the photos. Play the music that reminds you of this time. Make this a totally sensory experience where you re-live all the memories attached to this object. Cry over it, smell it, explore it with your fingers and feel the guilt or the anger or the upset or the joy. Really dig in, open yourself up and IMMERSE yourself in the memories. Suck the life out of these things you can’t throw away. Take your time.
- Now ask yourself:
Are you likely to ever do that again? Do you want this item in your life?
With books, hobby equipment, and other ‘cold’ items (i.e. those that don’t provoke big emotions), it is easy to see if you are still the person that needs these things. Are you really going to spend your time on this or are you done with it?
With sentimental things ask yourself if you need to experience those emotions again. And ask yourself if the emotions are in the object, or inside you.
You should find that after giving an object your unfocused attention its power over you diminishes. It’s almost as though you need to exhaust it’s influence on your life.
If Method 2 sounds a little woo-woo, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Do you want to know a secret? I have sat crying over things, clutching them to my nose to catch the faint smell of the past, with my eyes closed and aching inside with what they remind me of. And then I have then let them go.
The items themselves are not your past, your loved ones, or even you.
Have I ever regretted letting go of sentimental items?
To be 100% transparent here, I would be lying if I said no.
I once re-purchased a book I thought I was done with. I wish I hadn’t gotten rid of a soft toy that my son never, ever played with, but that he started asking for 6 months after I’d donated it. That’s probably about it. I’ve recycled, sold, donated and (where unusable) thrown away literally thousands of things in the last five years. Two items out of that lot is not too bad.
I was the biggest hoarder, so I am not coming from a place of never having had a great deal of attachment to things.
If I can do it, so can you.