Breaking the Clutter Cycle

I love to have all the things in my home neatly organized. It gives me happiness beyond belief to open a closet door and see carefully sorted clothing hanging neatly on the rod or perfectly folded towels and sheets. Whether or not you share my peculiar affection for organization, you no doubt feel happier and more peaceful when your home is tidy and in order. In fact, research reveals the benefits of cleanliness and organization run through many facets of life, including mental healthphysical well-beingability to sleep well, and even productivity and on-the-job success

I know firsthand how hard it is to get things done when you’re surrounded by clutter. Given my prior neat-freak confession, you might find it surprising that for many years I struggled with keeping things tidy. In fact, for quite a while, ours was not an orderly home despite my best intentions. I was in an endless cycle of declutter – organize – clean – declutter – organize – clean. There was always just too much stuff. And the more stuff there was, the more I had to work at managing it. I felt drained by it all. Every little task took longer than it should have. I began to realize that I was wasting an enormous amount of time rummaging through stacks of paper, sorting toys, and cleaning things that really didn’t add any value to my life. 

We’ve all seen the television shows, blog posts, and Pinterest pins that show how to declutter and organize our living quarters. But if you’re like me, the problem lies not in the actual process of decluttering, but in the reality of maintaining that state throughout the months and years moving forward. It has taken me a while to discover these rules for keeping my home tidy after the declutter process. Hopefully they can be of help to you as well!

Rule 1: Don’t Just Declutter

One of the first things I learned about why I kept falling into this cycle is that if I have a shelf or cabinet that is half empty, I’m going to keep collecting things to fill up that empty space. It might be that I fall to the temptation to go buy things to put in that space, or it might just become a catch-all for random odds and ends that find their way into the house. Either way, my house becomes more filled with things that I don’t need and that then require my future effort in cleaning, sorting, and probably eventually eliminating. Instead, I’ve realized it’s easier not to have that shelf at all than to go through the process of organizing and decluttering it time and time again, not to mention time spent dusting and polishing. And here’s a plus! Bookshelves, cabinets, and other furniture sell great at yard sales or on local Buy, Sell, Trade sites.

OK, here’s how to do it. Once you’ve purged all the toys, paper piles, picture frames, and tchotchkes from any given room, take a look and see which spaces in that room can be consolidated. Could the remaining items on that bookshelf in the corner be tucked neatly away inside that cabinet over there? Or could they be relocated to another area of the house? Maybe now is a good time to reconsider why you held on to those few items. Are they necessary for the proper functioning of your home or family life? Do they make you happy on some level? This then brings me to my second point . . .  

Rule 2: Consider the Happiness Factor

When I first married my husband, I had four bookshelves, each filled with books I had collected mostly during college. I loved my books. I really loved my books. But as I moved into a new stage of life, I certainly didn’t need most of these books. After moving four times in two years, I began looking through my hefty collection with a critical eye: which of these books would be useful in the future, and which brought me joy? If a book didn’t fall under either of those categories, it didn’t deserve a place on the shelf and it definitely didn’t deserve a place in the next set of moving boxes. Once I began to pare down my book collection, I realized the extra stress managing so many books had caused. Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t lay awake at night with anxiety about my books. I did, however, spend a lot of time dusting those book cases. And because I’m a chronic rearranger, I spent too much time trying to figure out the best places for those bookshelves and the best organization for the books themselves. 

Maybe books are not your thing. Maybe for you it’s knickknacks on your mantel or magazines on the coffee table. Whatever the item is you’re contemplating, consider the happiness factor. Does that vase, picture, mug, chair, or pillow bring you happiness (or add to your quality of life) or is it simply one more thing to clean and clean around? Are you holding on to that stamp collection your grandfather left you out of a sense of duty, or does it genuinely make you smile every time you see it? Just because your beloved family member cherished an item doesn’t mean you must. If it doesn’t serve a purpose and causes you any feeling other than happiness, it might be time to part with it. 

Rule 3: Realize Helpful Necessary

Case in point: kitchen gadgets! The first time I realized there was a gadget designed to dice an onion and save my eyes from watering, I knew I had to have it. And for about a month, I used that chopper relentlessly. Over the years, I collected lots of other kitchen gadgets with similar uses: slicers, mincers, shredders, all designed to save time cutting. Today, they’re all gone from my kitchen. I pull out my trusty chef’s knife and cutting board, spend a few minutes slicing, dicing, and mincing whatever we’ll need for dinner and for snacks for the next day, and then I just have two simple tools to clean and put away when I’m done. This has greatly simplified not only the items in my kitchen arsenal, but the process of prepping food as well. As an added bonus, less cluttered drawers and cabinets allow you to find what you’re looking for more quickly.

I’d venture to say that most kitchens have an assortment of gadgets and small appliances that could be eliminated if we just went back to the basics, but to what other areas of the house could this be applied? From my experience, this can relate to just about every part of life that requires any sort of tools. How about cleaning supplies? A broom, mop, vacuum, scrub brush and bucket, some microfiber cloths, and a few simple cleaning products are all most houses need for a good cleaning. Take a look at your toolbox. Do you really need five levels, seven hammers, and that grabber tool you always forget you have when you could actually use it? The answer might be yes to some of those if you’re an avid DIYer, but if not, consider the time and space required to organize and store all those tools you will likely never use. Ask yourself: If the situation arises in which I could use that tool, is there anything else I own that could do the job just as well (even if it takes an extra minute or two)? Now what about your beauty supply stash? yard equipment? office supplies? Even your pantry contents can be examined and assessed in this light! 

Inventors and advertisers spend a lot of time and energy thinking of products and how to market them to make us think life will be simpler with their newest must-haves, but having more stuff to manage doesn’t make life simpler. If you do stumble across a product that seems like a real time saver, think about which item(s) you already have that could be replaced by that new product. Are you ready and willing to give up those items, or is the new product simply going to add to them? If you’ve been living happily without it, chances are you can continue to live happily without it. 

And speaking of living without things . . . 

Rule 4: Beware the Organizers

Believe me, I know just how tempting that isle in Target is with all those cute baskets and bins and organizers. And I’ll admit, for my own good, I completely avoid Ikea these days. What is it about organizational products that makes them so attractive? Honestly, I think they trick our minds in much the same way as get rich quick schemes or snake oil potions. It seems so simple! Buy this product and all that clutter will be a thing of the past. In actuality, though, it still takes extra time and energy to keep things organized, even when you have personalized bins and embroidered totes. 

If you’re tempted to buy an organizational solution, consider the source of the organizational problem. In this stage of life, the biggest clutter headache for me is our playroom. There’s just no getting around the fact that kids can’t manage the number of toys in the typical American household. In our home, toys become a source of stress for the kids and for me when there are more toys than they can manage to keep put away on their own. And because we live in a consumerist society, our children today end up receiving so much stuff throughout the year from birthdays, holidays, and those “just because” gifts from the grandparents.

Rather than fighting the toy battle over and over again, think about how many toys your kids can manage on their own. Does your five-year-old really have the skills and patience to sort those toys into both of the 16-cube organizers in the living room? If you have an attic, basement, or other out-of-sight space for storage, think about separating toys into two groups, then cycling toys in and out of the play space every few months. Your kids will be very excited to have “new” toys, and they will be much more successful tidying up after themselves.

Does the bathroom counter chaos cause your clutter headache? Consider whether that over-the-toilet cabinet will help manage the mess more than simply editing out unnecessary products. Maybe your mess stress is in the utility room. Will new cabinets and shelving simply be an invitation to accumulate more duplicate cleaning products? When it comes to storage spaces and organizing products, the old adage is often true: less is more. And it’s always cheaper too!

Change Your Home, Change Your Life

If you need more evidence to be convinced of the need for limiting and eliminating some of your possessions, head to your local library to check out a copy of Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors by a group of researchers from UCLA. You can also take a peek at some of their findings in their corresponding YouTube episodes

Thanks to the abundant research conducted over the past 20 years, we all know we can lead healthier, happier lives when our homes are clean and our stuff is manageable. Not only is clutter elimination a life-changing skill for you and me to conquer, it is also beneficial for our children. Just like every other skill, it takes practice and determination to master it, a life-long commitment to maintain it, but it is well worth the effort once we’ve finally broken the clutter cycle and freed up time, energy, and even financial resources to pursue the parts of life that truly bring us joy. 

Now, please excuse me as I’m off to mark things for our yard sale.

Sources and Linked Content:

Arnold, Jeanne E., et al. Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors. UCLA Cotsen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2017. 

Boyles, Salynn. “Want to Sleep Better? Make Your Bed.” MedicineNet, 26 January 2011, Accessed 11 May 2021.

Dunifon, Rachel, Greg J. Duncan, and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn. 2001. “As Ye Sweep, So Shall Ye Reap.”American Economic Review, 91 (2): 150-154, Accessed 11 May 2021.

Latham, Saundra. 22 Home Organization Products That Are a Complete Waste of Money. 10 May 2018, Accessed 11 May 2021

Saxbe, Darby E, and Rena Repetti. “No place like home: home tours correlate with daily patterns of mood and cortisol.” Personality & social psychology bulletin vol. 36,1 (2010): 71-81. doi:10.1177/0146167209352864

“Tidier Homes, Fitter Bodies?: IU News Room: Indiana University.”, 2012, Accessed 11 May 2021