11 Decluttering Questions to Ask to Help You Let Go of Stuff
Updated: Mar 1
In this blog, you'll find 11 questions to ask yourself when decluttering items. Whether it's a large category with dozens of items or just one item, decluttering can feel difficult. Decluttering drums up emotions like guilt, shame, and regret, but it can also provide endorphins.
Decluttering is a two-stage process. First, the decision to part with something is a mental step. Second, the physical act of releasing the item from your life completes the process. This is often done through donation, sale, give away, or trashing.
(Repurposing an item in your life is not decluttering as you are not removing it from your home, but it's a great option for the planet!)
Dopamine Brain Boost
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made in the brain. When we expect a reward, dopamine is released and acts at the brain's "pleasure chemical" in that moment. Dopamine can also released when focusing on one thing at a time, improving our focus even more. Read more about the psychology of decluttering in this article.
Decluttering an item physically - even just the anticipated happiness of removing it from our homes - can release dopamine in your brain. Shopping also gives this boost, and I'm constantly mindful of that now as a minimalist.
Before minimalism, I often felt a dopamine high from frequent shopping, but it was soon followed by anxiety about stuff, financial guilt, and ultimately depression. I lived in this cycle for decades before discovering minimalism. During that time, I had accumulated more than $60,000 in debt. Anxiety stemmed from clutter, the financial guilt, and the indecision that came from not even knowing HOW to declutter plagued me before discovering minimalism. After becoming a mother, I fought depression for years because I was overwhelmed by my past decisions, clutter, motherhood, and life. I started living "Life On Purpose" slowly, one day at a time, and changed my life.
Decluttering by Category
Many of us look at a pile of items within a category and attempt to figure out what to donate, sell, trash or giveaway. I've often felt stuck with using this mindset or approach, even paralyzed by the decision making of it. When we invert our thinking about the category, we can take a second look at the pile and decide what to keep from it instead.
Watch this video for inspiration to view a pile of items and decide what to keep instead:
Greg McKeown discusses this thinking as an "Effortless Inversion" in his book, Effortless. He also wrote the popular book, Essentialism. In Effortless, he tackles the tasks deemed essential in our lives and offers ways to make them easier. He breaks it down between Effortless State, Effortless Action, and Effortless Results. Read more about this book in this blog post: How to make it easier to do what matters most.
This leads us directly to the first question:
Question #1: What do I wish to keep from this pile?
Inverting our thinking can help hurdle you through decluttering. Instead of cherry-picking what to get rid of, think about what you truly want to keep in your life. Francine Jay said it best: "Decluttering is infinitely easier when you think of it as deciding what to keep, rather than deciding what to throw away."
But there are still some big steps to take after you've decided what to keep from a category, pile, or drawer. First, the chosen items need to find a home in your home. Designating a particular place for each and every thing helps build habits that control clutter.
Reading Francine Jay's quote actually provided a pivotal moment in my own minimalism journey. I had struggled with the hundreds of boxes in our basement before reading her books. That day, I wrote my first minimalism mantra: Decide what to keep. Ask why. Let go of the rest.
The remaining pile of items not chosen need to be physically removed from your home. It's important when you declutter items you previously held onto to recognize why you wanted the item so you do not buy it again later. Addressing the larger picture emotions helps you live with less in the long run.
That leads us to question 2: Before today, why did I keep this item?
Addressing why you kept an item will help you recognize clutter, control it, and aid in future shopping. Maybe it was a gift and you felt bad getting rid of it at first. Maybe you bought it on an impulse? Maybe it once served a purpose and served YOU well, but it no longer does.
In deciding what to keep, you invariably decide what to purge. There is a wrong way to trash certain items. There's an inherent vulgarity in the word "trash" when decluttering. Keeping things out of the landfill unnecessarily is important, but your mental health is important, too.
Question 3 asks: Is this item trash?
Certain medicines and cleaners have a specific waste procedure. Asking your pharmacist or trash company may provide answers for this. Certain plastics or food containers cannot be recycled in my area, but can be recycled in others. Most trash companies and governments will provide a free printable detailing what is allowed in your areas.
I mistakenly did not give thought to disposing of certain items in my manic purge fest in the beginning. Medicines? Right into the trash can. Cleaners? Recycled. I didn’t realize the impact the method of disposing would have on these particular items. After posting my linen closet declutter onto my YouTube channel, many commented about the improper disposal of medications. I immediately felt guilty and remorseful. However, it was knowledge I didn't have before, and I'm grateful to have it now.
Decluttering can feel like a loss. As humans, we are generally "loss adverse" and feel guilty trashing an item. This is a sensitive question for many of us.
If you suffer from hoarding, depression, and/or anxiety and you are processing the emotions and struggles associated with these disorders, it can be debilitating to ALSO have to struggle with the guilt of trashing items. As a YouTuber, I live a life on that platform that I choose to share with millions of eyes. My channel has had 6 million views in the last two years, and it's come with plenty of kindness, support, and judgement. That said, I've built up a thick(er) skin and some decluttering muscles along the way and I've come to learn that sometimes trashing an item (or 25) is better for my mental health and my journey of stuff than spending hours saving an item from the landfill. Case in point: journals.
In this video, I shared my struggles with keeping journals and processed the need to let them go. They were clutter but I hard time decluttering them, even after all this time. I had to make the decision to trash 10 or so of them because it was part of my process on that day. If I were to have kept them and spent hours (which turns into weeks) keeping those half-used journals to find new homes, it would have held me back and contributed to more anxiety stemming from clutter. If I would have kept them for my kids to use, they would have ended up scattered throughout my house - more anxiety. If I would have tried to find a doctor's office, shelter, etc. (as suggested without kindness in video comments) for those items, they would have sat on the floor of my bedroom for weeks while I researched and waited for responses from organizations. Is it worth my time? Maybe on some things or when I have the mental capacity to do that. However, it's one step - one day - on a long journey of dealing with stuff and I've spent loads of time researching, driving hours to donate or give away, other items. It's about balance, and on that day I needed those items removed from my home. Sometimes trash just needs to be trash. It's not great but I try to balance it with other small decisions to improve my impact on the earth.
Moving onto question #4: How am I going to use this item if I keep it?
A chosen item does not need to be useful to keep it. Maybe you love it or simply need it. But consideration given to how you going to use it in your life is part of the decluttering journey. You've decluttered other items and chose to keep this item. Where does it live in your home? Designating a specific home for each item will help you control clutter in the future.
Designating a home for every single item in your life takes time. You are curating a home filled with items you love, use, or need one day at a time. Time is that one resource that I never seem to have enough of in my life.
Question 5: How much time do I have to declutter today?
Time is that precious non-renewable resource that we always need more of, and ensuring you spend your decluttering time wisely will make a difference in the outcome. You could set a timer. If you know a particular category is hard, use a few quick decluttering methods to jumpstart your motivation.
Question 6: Should I sell this item?
Selling an item can feel scary and intimidating. For smaller items, you could meet in a public place for the exchange. Or you could leave on your porch and request a contactless sale by having the buyer leave cash in an envelope under your front door mat.
Always, always, always consider your personal safety first as you are interacting with strangers. If the anxiety of the exchange is too much, it's probably not worth the few dollars you are going to earn with a sale.
Therefore, ask yourself Question 7: Should I donate this item?
I am perpetually editing and curating items in my home as my interests and my family interests change. The question of "should" often pops up. There are many ways to donate an item, even if it's stained or torn. Read "29 Ways to Declutter" for ideas collected from viewer comments and suggestions from my YouTube videos.
Question 8: How do I donate this item?
Organizations like Purple Heart will come to your home and collect your donations. You can schedule a contactless pickup via their website. You can search GreenDrop locations on their website, and PlanetAid bins are all over the US to collect used - even stained - clothing. They repurpose it!
Question 9: Why do I feel guilty?
Guilt can stop you in your decluttering tracks. Emotional guilt from letting go of an item that was gifted to you. Financial guilt from money spent on an item that once served a purpose but now is clutter to you.
Addressing WHY you feel guilt can help you learn how to see clutter in advance. I have become better at saying "no, thank you" when someone offers me an item. Not a direct gift, but an item they do not want and think I might want. When it comes to gifts, I let the natural process occur. Giving gifts is a love language for some people, and how they say "I love you." If I receive a gift I do not like or want, and do what I teach my kids: say thank you with enthusiasm. Maybe you could repurpose the item into something else.
Question 10: How can I repurpose this item?
I love reading posts about the clever skills of repurposing. Turning an old shoe into a planter. Turning a jar into a water glass or decorative vase. Using an old shirt as a cleaning cloth. I have a hobnail jar that I adore. It sits on my desk and holds pens for me and brings me a little bit of joy when I see it. I collect unique hobnail decor and I'd buy it again. Leads us to the last question!
Question 11: Would I buy this item again?
This is a powerful question when decluttering. Gets you questioning the current purpose of an item and reflecting on the value it brings (or brought to you previously). If you answer yes, but you want to declutter it, then honoring the purpose it served will help bring closure to your heart about getting rid of it. Knowing you would buy it again helps you appreciate the value of the item. Knowing you wouldn't buy it again helps prevent you from buying it again in the future by recognizing that financial guilt pain.
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