11 questions to a meaningful declutter

Clutter is anything which gets in the way of you and your goals.  Physical clutter takes up space and distracts from the possessions which do matter to your life.  There are lots of decluttering guides out there, ranging from the emotionally-based “Does it spark joy?”, to the purely practical “Have you used it in 6 months?”.  This one, however, in my opinion, hits the sweet spot between the two and actually provides a meaningful and adaptable guide to dealing with clutter in any situation.

Q1. Does it spark joy?

This is the question famously asked by Marie Kondo and it’s a good starting point for a declutter.  If an item genuinely sparks joy in you and thus enriches your life, then it makes complete sense to keep it for as long as reasonably possible.

Q2. Is the item mainly practical or mainly decorative?

An item may be a combination of both, for example, attractive storage containers, but an item can only have one main purpose so you have to decide here if the item is mainly practical or mainly decorative.  If it’s practical, move to Q5.  If it’s decorative, move to Q3.

Q3. Was the item a gift?

If you bought a decorative item yourself and it does nothing for you, then just get rid of it.  If it was a gift, move to Q4.

Q4. Is its absence likely to be noticed?

I’ve seen many decluttering guides, which advise people to ignore whether or not an item was a gift when they’re deciding whether or not they want to keep it.  Personally, I’d say that was fine in theory, but sometimes rather impractical in the real world.  If an item was a gift and, left to your own devices, you’d like to get rid of it, then ask yourself whether or not its absence is likely to be noticed by anyone.  If the answer is no, then get rid of it.  If the answer is yes, then my suggestion would be that you keep it for now and start thinking about how to move it on in a tactful way.  We can talk about this in another blog.

Q5. Is it still fit for purpose?

If an item is meant to serve a practical purpose but has stopped being able to serve that purpose effectively, then it’s time to move it on, even if that means accepting the fact that it’s now waste.  Hopefully that will only happen in a small number of cases and even then your waste item may have parts which can be recycled.  In many cases, an item which has stopped being fit for the purpose for which you bought it may still be very useful to someone else.  For example, if you bought yourself an entry-level musical instrument when you first started to play, you may now need a better one, but someone else would probably love your starter instrument.  If an item is still fit for purpose in your eyes, move on to question 6.

Q6. Is the purpose still relevant to me now?

Life moves on and lifestyles change.  Possessions which were once “must haves” become just “haves”.  Realistically, the majority of the possession you keep should relate to the person you are now.  You should only keep possessions which relate to the person you were if they actually spark joy in you and you should only keep possessions which relate to the person you want to be if you actually have a concrete plan in place for becoming that person and you are confident that those possessions fit into that plan.  If the purpose of the item has ceased to have any relevance to you, then move it on.  If you think the purpose does have relevance to you, then more to question 7.

Q7. Is there a better way of serving the purpose?

Once we actually have an item which serves a purpose, it’s easy to stop thinking about whether or not it’s still the best way of serving that purpose.  So, when deciding whether or not to keep a practical item, think about what other options there are for achieving the same end.  A standard example of this is digitizing old memorabilia so you keep the memories without the objects.

Q8. Could I feasibly need this item at short notice?

In the context of this question, need means need, rather than want.  It covers items such as safety equipment, which may go unused from one year to the next but is worth keeping because you literally never know when it is going to be needed.  When there is a reasonable possibility that you might need an item at short notice, it’s generally worth keeping because when you are pushed for time, you want to make your life as easy as possible and having something to hand is typically easier than having to go out and buy it again (or borrow it from someone).  If, however, you’re unlikely to need the item at short notice, then move to question 9.

Q9. Have I used this item in the last year?

By this point, you’ve identified items which you’re keeping for a specific reason, e.g. they bring you joy or you might need them at short notice.  You’re looking purely at items which need to earn their keep in some way.  If you can remember using the item in the last year, move to question 11, otherwise move to question 10.

Q10. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how difficult would it be for me to replace this item?

In my opinion, this is where quite a few decluttering guides give impractical advice, like “If it costs less than $20, get rid of it.”.  That’s fine if $20 is comfortably within your budget and you know you can just pop to the shops and buy a replacement.  It’s less fine if $20 is a lot to you and/or it would be hard for you to find a replacement at all, let alone quickly.  With this in mind, I’m suggesting that you look at your situation and rank the difficulty of replacing the item on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high).  If it’s 1 to 5, I’d suggest you get rid of it.  If it’s 6 to 10, I’d lean towards keeping it.  When considering this question, remember to think about replacing the item with alternatives you already have as well as buying, hiring or borrowing a new one.  For example, if you’re looking at a pair of jeans you last wore over a year ago, think about what other clothes you could wear instead.  Frankly, if the last time you wore an everyday item of clothing was over a year ago (and if you’ve reach this far along the decision process it should fit you), then that’s probably a good sign you have alternatives.

Q11. On a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), how much use do I get out of this item?

If you do remember using the item in the last year, then, again on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high), ask yourself how much use you actually get out of it.  If your score is 1 to 5, go back to question 10 and if it’s 6 to 10 then it’s a good indication that the item does have a place in your life.

This may seem like a fairly gentle guide to decluttering compared to some of the alternatives out there, but in my opinion, decluttering is like managing your weight.  You can try going on a crash diet, but if you do, you’re at a high risk of seeing the weight pile straight back on again as soon as you come off it (which you must because the nature of crash diets is that they’re only suitable as a short-term approach if at all).  The reason for this is because crash diets teach you nothing about managing your nutrition.  In the same way, doing a vast declutter may feel good, but unless you learn to manage your possessions properly, to control what you buy and to store it effectively, you’ll probably wind up right back in a clutter mess before too long.  What’s worse, if you find that you’ve thrown out something which is truly meaningful to you, you may become even more reluctant to part with your possessions.  If you declutter steadily and learn to manage what you have and think about what you bring into your life, you’ll be much more likely to have a long-term and meaningful solution.  

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