Twenty Questions to Clear Your Clutter

In your quest to declutter, sometimes a good interrogation is in order. If you caught a trespasser on your property, you’d likely question their presence—why not do the same for your stuff? That way, you can determine whether it truly belongs in your household, or needs to be escorted off the premises.

To that end, here are twenty questions to ask of your clutter:

1. What are you? Let’s face it—if you have to ask, the item under scrutiny should already be halfway out the door. It might sound like a ridiculous question, but I’d wager that most of us have plenty of unidentifiable bits and bobs in our junk drawers and garages.

2. How did you get here? Determine whether you invited the item into your life (by purchasing it), or if it snuck in by some other means—like in the form of a gift, freebie, or heirloom. If you didn’t intentionally acquire it, you may have little incentive to keep it.

3. What do you do? If the answer is “not much,” it may be time to give it the boot. You don’t need any freeloaders in your household. Things that perform more than one function, on the other hand, get extra points for versatility.

4. When did I last use you? Good answers: a few hours ago, yesterday, last week. Bad answers: sometime in the 1990s, when my grown children were babies, I haven’t the slightest idea.

5. When will I use you again? Good answer: soon. Bad answer: perhaps in some as-yet-undetermined situation in the unforeseeable future.

6. Would I miss you (or even notice) if you were gone? If its absence would be a non-issue, you might as well send it on its way.

7. Do you have a twin (or close cousin)? Space is at a premium in our minimalist homes; there’s no sense in keeping duplicates, or two things that do the same job.

8. Could I re-acquire you if necessary? This question may spare those out-of-print books, but can effectively eliminate those seldom-used, might-need-it items that can be picked up easily and inexpensively if the need arises.

9. Can someone else make better use of you? Instead of hoarding stuff you might need someday, give it to someone who needs it now.

10. Are you more trouble than you’re worth? If something takes up too much of your time, money, or energy (like for maintenance, repairs, and insurance), it may bring you much relief to let it go.

11. Do you belong to my fantasy self? Sometimes, the only use an item gets is in your daydreams (of being a socialite, world traveler, high-powered executive, etc.). Release it, and make space for your real life instead.

12. Are you valuable? If a little-used item can bring a nice chunk of change, consider selling it on eBay, Craigslist, or in a consignment shop. The money may do you more good than a dust-gathering object. Conversely, if it has no value or use, don’t feel compelled to provide it a home.

13. Would I rather have the space you take up? Every item you own takes away a little bit of your space. Decide what’s more valuable to you, the stuff or the space it occupies.

14. Can I return you? If a spontaneous shopping spree left you with some ill-considered purchases, see if you can take them back. Many stores offer generous return policies (sometimes several months) on unused, unworn, or unopened merchandise.

15. Are you a stand-in for a memory? Our memories don’t need physical objects to contain them. Things can be broken, tarnished, or taken away—yet our memories live on in our minds.

16. Can you be digitized? Turning your music, movies, books, photos, and documents into intangible bits and bytes can free up a significant amount of space.

17. Can you be miniaturized? This is a great question for those hard-to-part-with heirlooms. If the purpose of something is to evoke memories, consider if the same memories can be evoked by a smaller piece (like a single square from a quilt, or one plate from a set of china).

18. Did I forget I owned you? If so, feel free to declutter it without regrets. Chances are, you’ll just as likely forget about it once it’s gone.

19. Do you belong to someone else? If so, and they’re a member of your household, turn it over to them for action (keeping or purging, putting it in the proper place). If it belongs to someone external (a friend, a neighbor, a grown child), make arrangements for its return.

20. Do you make me smile? An item may fail all your other criteria (practicality, versatility, etc.)—but if its presence truly brings you joy (the lei from your honeymoon, your child’s first drawing), it has a rightful place in your household. If it doesn’t bring a smile to your face, make room for something that does.

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

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