Changing Habits That Create Clutter

Learning how to get rid of and organize our clutter is useful, but clutter is really just a symptom, rather than the root, of the problem. The real issue is how to stop the pattern of accumulating clutter in the first place! As long as we have too many things in our lives we will always be caught up in an endless cycle of organizing our “stuff.”

Dealing with our stuff takes a tremendous amount of time and energy – whether we’re cleaning, repairing, or organizing – taking care of our stuff takes time. Oftentimes, the stuff in our lives keep us from focusing on what really matters, prevents us from enjoying the present moment, and robs us of enough time for the essential, fulfilling things in life like our relationships and experiences.

While I was clutter clearing and organizing the other day, it occurred to me that no matter how streamlined my systems and how perfectly labeled and neat my storage containers are, as long as I have all this stuff, I would be spending time dealing with it again and again and again. The only way to end the cycle, was not to have the stuff in the first place. I needed to simplify and stay simplified. I began with creating habits and developing a mindset that does not create clutter in the first place.

The first step in developing this mindset is awareness. We need to figure out, and take a good, honest look at how much of our valuable energy and time is spent being a consumer. Take a moment to think about how much time you take out of your day that involves your material life. An easy way to do this is to look at your to-do list and see how many of those tasks involve being a consumer. How much time and energy do you spend thinking about what you want to buy, researching products and prices, buying, returning, or exchanging, learning how to use, organizing, cleaning, maintaining, fixing, storing, dry cleaning, or altering…. your stuff?

The next step is to ask yourself- is it worth it? Once we understand that every thing we bring into our homes and lives is a commitment of our time and energy, then we can begin to be selective about what we choose to bring in. Like it or not, we are in relationship with all the things in our home and relationships take time and attention. So each time you go to buy something really ask yourself, is this something I want to start a relationship with?

The solution is simple, live with less stuff. Less stuff equals more time and energy. And make sure the stuff you do choose to buy, is worthy of your precious time and energy.

Below are fourteen steps that will help you maintain this new awareness by outlining new habits to keep you from creating clutter in your life:

Fourteen Steps for Changing Habits that Create Clutter

1. Really think before you buy. Before you buy something, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can I afford it?
  • Do I already own something that can fulfill this same purpose?
  • How much of my time will this require? (Keep in mind the time it takes to learn how to use it, install it, clean it etc.)
  • Do I have the time?
  • Do I need someone else to help me set it up- how much of their time or my money will this take?
  • Will I use it?
  • Do I love it?
  • Will it last? Is it high quality/ timeless in style?
  • Is it healthy for my body, my home, and the earth?
  • Do I have a place for it?
  • Is it beautiful?
  • Is it functional?
  • Will it replace something? Do I have time to find a home for what this is replacing? (i.e. drive to the charity/ mail it/ recycle it, etc…)
  • What kind of project might this lead to?
  • Could I borrow this from a friend instead of buying my own?
  • Is this something I want to be in a relationship with?
  • Is it worth the investment of my precious energy?

2. Keep a “to-buy” or “wish” list. When we write down what we would like to buy we often satisfy the need to have it. We sort of “trick” our subconscious into feeling like we already have it.  The feeling of “I have to have it” subsides because the act of writing it down makes it seems like it will happen. We are then able to be more clear-headed when we make a choice at a later time.  Part of our desire to have things has to do with control – we want to be able to have it more than we actually want to have it.

3. Try to wait a month before buying an item. Place it on your list. It is amazing what becomes irrelevant and unnecessary after a month. You may even find yourself forgetting why you felt you needed it in the first place and why the need to buy it became the focus of your attention, and therefore, energy.

4. Use your intuition. Your body knows when you feel good about a purchase or not. Do you feel a sinking regret as you leave the store or are you completely satisfied?

5. When you bring something new in your home, try to give something similar away – that way you will always maintain a clutter-free equilibrium.

6. Have a designated place for everything.  Make sure it is easy to access. You will not be motivated to use something, or put it away again, if it’s not easy to do so.

7. Know what the end result is – what is simplified for you? How much or little stuff works for you? How much time are you comfortable spending taking caring of material possessions versus focusing on your inner life, relationships, or experiences? Don’t look to magazines for what “organized” looks like, or what you think it should be, but rather be self-referential – use your inner-state-of-being as your guide. What works for you? What is comfortable and livable for you? An over-organized home with too many systems and too many containers can feel “cluttered” too. Your definition of clutter-free may change as time goes on.  With young children it may not be worth the compromise of spending less time with them to have the kind of organization we may have preferred pre-children.

8. Complete unfinished tasks or at least “put them off” in a conscious way.  In other words, if you are not committing to completing a task now- do so consciously so it does not weigh on you. For example, rather than leaving random photos all over the house, group them together in a box labeled “photos to put in albums”. You will feel complete.

9. Make a choice. Get clutter at its source by dealing with things as they come up. Do not just put things off for later. When your child brings something home from school decide if you are keeping it and where it will go. It may require further action steps – you do not need to complete the entire task, but you do need to decide what your next step will be and where you will keep it now.  Alternatively, you can even create a designated place for things that are “undecided.” In this case, you still have made a choice, a choice not to choose

10. Make clutter clearing a daily or weekly habit. For most of us, no matter how simplified we get, there will still be things coming in and out of our homes that we need to take care of. Start with ten minutes a day or an hour a week. The more of a routine and practice it becomes the less time you will need to spend.

11. Process your “mental clutter.” Mental clutter refers to all those items on the to-do list in your head. Get in the habit of writing down whatever is on your mind. We often feel overwhelmed not because of the amount of stuff we have to do, but because we do not know what it is we need to do. There is a lot of anxiety caused by thinking we are forgetting important things. Unburden yourself by writing it down and paper so you can decide what is truly important and needs your attention and energy and what you may choose to do later or not at all. (To learn more about processing refer to David Allen’s book Getting Things Done).

12. Keep your storage systems simple. Don’t let your organizing systems become clutter. An overly-organized home with too many complicated systems, labels, and containers can feel like clutter too.

13. Don’t look for things to buy, instead let them come to you. Trust that your needs will be met on time and in time, whether your need is information, a service, or product. Avoid stockpiling information or stuff because you may “need it someday”. Don’t go to a store or look at catalogues unless you have a very clear intention of what you are looking for. Avoid reading and saving online information until you really have a use for it. (Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Workweek has great suggestions for a “low information diet.”)

14. Keep your attention, energy, and focus on things that really matter. Ask yourself what will matter more six months from now… having some new, great item and a perfectly ordered space or having accomplished a meaningful goal, or spent quality time with your spouse or children, etc.?


Sit down with a pen and paper and take a fifteen minutes to write down everything that is on your mind. How much of this list involves being a consumer or taking care of your stuff?

Look at your daily to-do list for the week, then calculate the percentage of your time you spend being a consumer. Is that the percentage of your life energy you want to spend on stuff rather than on the things like your family, friends, hobbies, travel, or personal goals? If not, then start simplifying!

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