Report: What Stops People From Decluttering

So many people dream of living a simpler and less cluttered life. We love instagram images of minimalist houses and Pinterest pins of decluttering and organising methods. But the action required is often overlooked in favour of other things. What stops people from decluttering and creating an environment they want to live in?

We discovered that having “too much stuff” was the single biggest cause of stress in the home.

– The IKEA Life At Home report 2017 [1]

27% of people say lack of time is the number one reason why they have not decluttered their homes.

– Simple Days report, 2018

740 people answer "what stops you from decluttering?"

Why do we have so much clutter?

We all know that clutter makes us unhappy. Almost everyone you speak to will agree with you when you talk about organising and decluttering. They will often mention their own struggles:

Oh yes, I really need to clean out my garage/spare room/wardrobe…

If all of us know that clutter is bad, and so many of us have clutter to deal with, why don’t we clear it out and be done with it?

It turns out that clearing clutter is almost as hard as losing weight. And just like losing weight, even if you successfully manage it once, there is a good chance that it will all come back at a later date.

But why?

What is it about our stuff that makes it so hard to control?

Two reasons for clutter

Firstly, it’s as simple as availability.

First world countries have developed a throwaway mentality over the last few decades. Consumer goods are now cheaper in terms of our weekly or monthly wage than they have ever been. The irony is that their production is costing us more in terms of the planet’s health than it ever has. We’ve have cheapened resources and labour to fulfil endless economic growth.

Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.

– David Attenborough

Stuff flows into our lives daily: the food we buy and all its packaging (so much of which is thrown away, including the food), clothing, books, stationary, magazines, candles, cushions, furniture, storage containers, shoes, bags, coats, novelty toys, ornaments, mugs, pans, baking accessories, and much more.

This list is almost infinite. It’s a list that grows every day, with every new product on the market that is prettier, or more efficient, or more unusual than what has gone before.

And we buy it. Maybe not every item, but we buy almost every day. If you’ve ever tried to complete a no-spend week or no-spend month, you will understand how hard it is to stop the flow of money out and the flow of stuff in.

Clutter is emotional

The second reason is that we’re emotional creatures – and our stuff provokes emotion.

We imbue our possessions with our feelings. It’s that simple. We literally turn our things into our feelings about them.

There is a fascinating Ted-Ed animation [2] which talks about how children value their own objects higher than identical objects that aren’t theirs. Anyone who is a parent will have dealt with this frustration when siblings argue over two identical toys or treats!

Something happens in our brains when we take ownership of an item. We place a higher value on it than if we hadn’t been given it.

There is also a study that suggests that how loved we feel affects our feelings towards our things. We are more likely to place a higher value on possessions if we feel unloved or unworthy ourselves [3].

Combining these two things – ease of acquisition and emotional projection – makes for a clutter problem that most of us have a hard time letting go of.

What do people say about it?

I wondered what people would say if they were asked about the clutter in their lives.

I posted the following question in five decluttering/simple living facebook groups that I am a member of, and I recorded every answer that was given.

What’s the biggest reason that you haven’t decluttered or simplified as much as you would have liked to?

In total 828 people commented on the posts (excluding sub-comments), and 740 gave a definitive answer why they hadn’t gotten further on their journey.

Clutter eats time

The biggest reason people gave?

Lack of time.

27% of people cited this as their main reason for not sorting out their stuff.

In second place, at 14% of answers, was kids, which seemed to be both the cause of not having enough time, and another reason for so much clutter being in the house in the first place.

The irony of not having enough time to sort out your clutter is obvious. Maybe if there was less clutter (to store, clean around, use, and look after), there would be more time to get things sorted out?

I did wonder how many people wrote time as their main reason because it was the first thing that jumped to mind. In fact, we do find the time for things we want to do. We find time for TV, to cook (or at least order) food, to go to work, to shower and to be on social media. Perhaps we all tell ourselves that we have no time, when really the problem is deeper than that.

I was gonna say time, but that’s not true. Social networks is more accurate.

Posts like this on facebook!

So what else did people say?

Decluttering is hard

The next three items in the top five were:

a) a partner who wasn’t on board
b) complete overwhelm
c) health problems

These are thornier issues, and from the comments I read, it seemed people were really struggling. Many people were in relationships where their partner was less “minimalist” than they were. Clutter does cause arguments and it is difficult to address this kind of difference in personality. I think the best that can be done if you have a clutterbug in your home is to focus on your own things and to quietly lead by example.

Overwhelm was a common theme – something that I think all of us feel at some point or other in our busy lives.

I am overwhelmed and feel I just don’t know where to start.

Overwhelmed by how much crap I have

35 years of accumulation is daunting

Too big a task!

And sometimes we can’t physically manage it

Health issues were much more prevalent than I thought they would be. There were really heartbreaking stories of disability, disease and chronic pain. Our sense of community and closeness seems to have gotten lost somewhere along the way, and many of these people were alone with no one they trusted living nearby to help them. They were bravely doing what they could, when they could. But it was a physical task that was nigh-on impossible for them to complete.

Depression and anxiety was lower down, but had a similar theme. People were struggling with the basics of eating properly and taking care of themselves. Although they wanted the clutter gone it was a job they couldn’t face, making them feel worse and leaving them in a catch-22 situation with no means of escape.

Emotions run rife

As we move further down the list, deep feelings start to surface. Many people talked about sentiment and emotion. Grief was another reason several people mentioned.

I didn’t realise how emotional the journey of minimalism can be

Fear of letting go of who I was

Disposal of decluttered stuff was an important factor, as many people found this difficult or simply didn’t know what to do with it. There were also a handful of people who admitted they watched too much TV, or spent too much time on social media. Others mentioned the waste being a reason they didn’t like to declutter and the guilt at what they had spent on items they no longer needed.

It was a fascinating look into the lives of so many people who were actively trying to declutter (at least, I assume they were, as they were members of groups aimed at decluttering).

As many reasons as there are people

There were a lot of answers that only one or two people mentioned (not part of the 740 included in the graph above). Some made me laugh – here are some of my favourites:

10 reasons for not decluttering

Before I go, I was really impressed with the insight that some respondents had. Decluttering really is a process that will help you to get to know and finally to completely accept yourself.

I’ll leave you with my favourite answer:

I will probably spend a good portion of the next decade thinning my hoards down. I hope it isn’t my last decade on earth. But for my son’s sake, I will do it.



[2] (embedded below)


Report what stops people from decluttering

3 thoughts on “Report: What Stops People From Decluttering”

  1. Spiders 😆. Such a big part of this, I think, is that even if people declutter, they tend to buy more stuff and create more clutter. They haven’t really delved into WHY it is that they are buying, and just keep treating a symptom.

    • Exactly! Understanding (and liking) yourself and acknowledging your real needs is probably the single biggest step in making a permanent change.

  2. We relocated across the country from Pretoria to Cape Town so5uth Africa and the moving company charges an arm and a leg to transport 25 years of a family’s life. So we sold what we did not absolutely LOVE and use. Down to 12 x 80lt storage bins for the company to transport. Then our son moved out of home and we decided to scale down in our size flat from a 76sm 2 bedroom to a 30sm batchelor flat with limited storage space. So I practice Project 333 for my wardrobe and we sold some more items that we haven’t used in 3 years. It’s like being newly weds! Life has a cycle and you either adapt and live with what you really need or you leave a HUGE mess for your kids to sort out when you depart this life. I want my son to be able to celebrate our lives lived and not get stuck in dealing with the accumulation stuff of our lives.

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