3 Ways Clutter Steals Joy (And What You Can Do About It)

Heather Dessinger

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Tips to deal with clutter in your home and your life

I look at everyone else, and I think, ‘How on earth does she have the time to do all that she does?’

I look at my staggering, never-ending-to-do-list, the expectations heaped on my plate, the thoughts swirling around in my head like an unappetizing casserole I never ordered, and I think – this is not a way to live.” – Tsh Oxenreider, “Spend Your Days: How To Control Time With Rocks, Bullets, Chisels and a Boat”

Confession time: It is really hard for me to spend quality time with my littles when my house is a mess. We sit down to read Little House In The Big Woods, and everyone else is riveted. Me? I’m trying to ignore the pile of dirty dishes in my peripheral vision. “Good moms have sticky floors, dirty ovens, and happy kids,” I say.

“Good luck with that,” say the dishes. Breathing exercises ensue. 

And then there is mental clutter – the “I should” list. You know, the string of undone tasks that your brain’s PA System starts blaring in your head while you’re trying to snuggle your little one close?

If any of this sounds familiar, this post is for you.

How clutter stole my joy (and what I did about it)

I used to think that my desire for order was something that I needed to give up for my kids, and to a degree that’s true. Anyone that’s seen my kitchen after they help make dinner knows that.

But what if – WHAT IF – there was a way we could both be happy? What if they could have all the experiences that lead to sticky floors, and I could have a home that felt peaceful?

It’s possible.

A few years ago, my husband and I bought a farmhouse that was less than half the size of our previous home. Because I’m an optimist, I tend to think I can handle more than I really can. Homeschool, make meals from scratch, dive into homesteading with NO EXPERIENCE, write here on Mommypotamus, tidy the house and care for my (then) newborn along with my other two little ones? Sure!

Um, no.

Trying to manage too much landed me in adrenal fatigue, and in order to heal I had to reclaim my life from clutter – both mental and physical. Through that process I learned three things that changed the way I do things around my house, and I want to share them with you.

#1: Clutter Costs Your Relationships

Your short-term memory is not a USB drive. It’s more like a magnifying glass. This means you can think of only two or three things at once before you get distracted by your own mental load. A distracted parent is a parent who gets frustrated easily, forgets important things, and feels like she’s not doing anything particularly well.” – Kelly Holmes, “Never-Ending To-Do List: A One Hour Solution For Busy Parents Who Want Less Stress And More Fun”

As you know, having a low frustration tolerance is not a recipe for joyful parenting. Realizing how clutter was affecting my daily life motivated me to make some changes. I used the approach described in The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up to declutter my home and – after trying and quitting several methods – found a way to manage my to-do list that works for me.

You know what happened? Clearing clutter – both physical and mental – created space for a lot more joyful moments in my life. I began to enjoy time with my littles without feeling guilty about all the things I “should” be doing.

Is it a work in progress? Absolutely. As new opportunities or items come into my life, I have to decide what old task or item to let go of to make room for it. Instead of feeling sad about those choices, though, I feel relieved!

#2: Clutter Drains Your Wallet

Do you have clothes in your closet that you haven’t worn in years, but hang onto “just in case?” Sometimes these attempts to be frugal can end up costing us money in the long run. For example, have you ever:

Spent more money on storage fees than the items being stored were worth?
• Had to pay a late fee because a bill got lost in your clutter?
Forgotten about a doctor’s appointment and had to pay their fee anyway?
Held on to something because it would “come in handy” someday, only to find it was broken or too out-of-date to use later on?
Accidentally bought a duplicate of something you already owned because the original was lost in your clutter?

I have done all of these things, except the doctor’s appointment was a chiropractor’s appointment. Decluttering has helped me save money and given me the mental bandwidth to do things that were previously on the “someday” list that I never seemed to get to. (Like planning more family trips.)

#3: Clutter Sucks Away Your Time

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” – Annie Dillard

It’s tempting to think that if we just have enough boxes, bins and labels we can manage things, but constantly rearranging stuff we don’t need takes up a lot of precious time.

For example, before I decluttered my kids playroom it was a constant source of stress for us all. Sometimes it seemed like they spent as much time managing their toys as they did enjoying them.

When I worked with them to let go of items they no longer used, we got rid of more than half of their toys. They were resistant at first, but we talked about all the children who would love to play with the toys they’d outgrown and that seemed to help. The real clencher, though, was when they realized how much more time they had to play each day because cleaning up took so little time. They were overjoyed, and now cooperate happily every time we do a new sweep.

What worked for my littles applies to us as well. It’s time to spend less time managing stuff and more time enjoying life.

manage your clutter with these simple tips

Is my house always in perfect order?

Nope! I don’t strive for perfection, as you can see from the snapshot above. My goal is to able to find things quickly, not master the art of perfectly folding fitted sheets. Also, that thing about having a mental conversation with the dishes as I read a book to my littles? Still happens sometimes.

However, it’s pretty easy to get things back into shape now because I’ve already done the deep decluttering work.

Your stuff – whether it’s physical stuff in your home or stuff you need to do – is not the boss of you. You’re the boss of your stuff. Or at least, you can be.

All the books I’ve mentioned in this post except The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up are currently included in the Conquer Your Clutter Bundle that his happening right now. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a collection of e-books, e-courses and bonuses that have been put together to help you get organized. It’s valued at $658.53, but for a limited time you can get it for $47.

Now, I love The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up and highly recommend it, but at the time the author wrote it she wasn’t a parent. If you are, you know that’s a complete game changer. The Conquer Your Clutter Bundle includes some incredibly helpful resources that help with the mental clutter that comes with managing a family. Here are a few I found helpful:

  • Never-Ending To-Do List: A One-Hour Solution for Busy Parents Who Want Less Stress And More Fun by Kelly Holmes
  • Spend Your Days: How to Control Time with Rocks, Bullets, Chisels, & a Boat by Tsh Oxenreider (I really loved this one)
  • Freed from Clutter: Declutter Course by Becky Mansfield (Not exactly naturally minded, but there are lots of good ideas that you can use. There’s also a free Facebook group that you can join for encouragement.)
  • Motivated Moms Chore Planner (This is meant for moms but I adapted it as a chore chart for my littles. 🙂 )

Not every suggestion resonated with me, so I just took what worked and left the rest.

Life is messy, houses get messy, and that’s okay! However, it is possible to have great experiences – even ones that make big messes – and then default back to a peaceful, organized home.

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Heather is a holistic health educator, herbalist, DIYer, Lyme and mold warrior. Since founding Mommypotamus.com in 2009, Heather has been taking complicated health research and making it easy to understand. She shares tested natural recipes and herbal remedies with millions of naturally minded mamas around the world. 

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88 thoughts on “3 Ways Clutter Steals Joy (And What You Can Do About It)”

  1. This is so fitting. I just purged a whole closet full of stuff and sold a bunch of things I haven’t used in years on craigslist. Really satisfied on how de-cluttering my living space and repurposing old unused items is so rewarding!

  2. another great book about organizing from way, way back is called Organizing From the Inside Out- it offers great insight as to why people are disorganized and provides practical and EASY steps to organizing spaces

  3. Varagesale.com (there’s an app) is the newer, safer version of selling stuff on Craigslist. Check to see if it is in your area. Mostly Moms 🙂

  4. Clutter literally makes me feel sick. I can’t stand a messy house. We’ve been just shoving anything we don’t want to look at into our office, but that second bedroom is about to become a nursery so we are finally addressing it!

  5. Love your post! Any tips on helping the Mr. to be motivated to help out with de-cluttering and staying committed to keeping the clutter away?

  6. I can completely relate to the beginning of your article and glad to hear I am not the only one. I have a really hard time focusing on my kids when my house is unorganized, when there are pies of unfinished things to be done. Yes I KNOW the kids need to come first but my mind won’t let go of the pile of laundry. It is a constant struggle.

  7. I haven’t read the article yet but I’m already nodding my head. We purged to move into an RV a couple years ago. It took months and at every stage I felt lighter and better about pretty much everything. Same thing happens when paying off a debt. We’re back in our house now and I LOVE how much space we have and how little stuff. I’m taking my time deciding what objects can come into our house now.

  8. Thank you thank you for validating how I feel! I feel
    So out of control when things are a total mess. I can really devote my attention to my kids and husband when i am not staring at a mountain of dishes or laundry. Good moms CAN have a clean house!

  9. I am intrigued with your ideas about the clutter but I got hung up on the beginning of this post….your little kids listen to Little House in the Big Woods??? I would love to sit down and read that with the family but I never thought my 2 yr old and newly 4 yr old would comprehend it or stick with me. Do your kids just play while you read or are they actually into the storyline?

    • We read the whole series with our kids a few years ago and they loved it. I think the girls were barely 4 and 5 at the time. Our 2 year old son would not sit for that…
      I would give it a try. If it doesn’t go well try again next year.

    • I wondered the same thing! I can’t imagine my 3 year old having the patience to listen to a story without abundant pictures so I haven’t tried. I just re-read the Little House books regularly for myself cause they’re some of my favorites. 🙂

    • Katie grasps quite a bit of the story but Micah mostly plays quietly while we read. Katie loves to pretend so we sometimes “develop” the story a bit by pretending I am “Ma” and Daniel is “Pa.” Since we have real-life farm chores to do it works out pretty well.

  10. YEAH! I’m doing the 2014 in 2014 challenge that Robin at Thank Your Body is doing. (The author of the book) It’s really awesome and I feel like the motivation from the group really helps. BTW – I have the book too! Need to put it on my tablet though…it’s in one of my piles!! 🙂

  11. I started decluttering last year and I have discovered it’s easier to clean when you have less stuff. Kind of a duh moment but I learn by experience the best!

  12. Erica Dyer Monroe – I think it’s just the way some of us are wired, and that’s okay! Other moms thrive in a different environment. The way I see it, as long as everyone is thriving it’s all good. No need to compare or beat ourselves up, you know?

  13. SO TRUE….and it is costly…. rather buy it than try to find it!
    Try the fly lady web site….se is the queen of decluttering.

    • Agreed! Fly lady helps declutter and organize your home in about 15 minutes a day! She saved my sanity! And she even has an app now. So awesome!

  14. Working on this now. Going room by room. Every surface, wall, window, nook and cranny dusted. It’s amazing how much we “collect” when we have room for it! Feels so GOOD to get it gone!!

  15. I think I’m going to need to do this. We moved and I got rid of tons of stuff, but I’m still seeing so much stuff that we never use and it’s pulling me down.

  16. FLYlady.net. She has been teaching this since 1994. I bought Sink Reflections and read it. It contains many of the same ideas. You can do anything in 15 minutes!

  17. I’ve been decluttering this year and it feels so good! I’ve even been keeping up with cleaning my dishes, which does wonders for my state of mind. 🙂

    If you’re reading Laura Ingalls Wilder I highly recommend the podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class (free on iTunes!) to listen to while decluttering! One of their recent episodes was on her life, and the one right after was on The Long Winter, her book and the actual historical event.

  18. Clutter is a beast. A horrible, awful, soul-sucking beast. I’m chipping away at it, bit by bit, eliminating as much as as I can. Feels like it’s taking forever, but I know it will be worth it! 😀

  19. You are such a lovely and generous lady, I love your posts, all the things you so freely share with us…just wanted you to know how much I appreciate you and how sometimes you are the brightest thing in my day…thank you, Angel xxxx

  20. Massive clean up here has been going on since September. We’ve come full circle back to the study again but finally things are looking reasonable. As I know a few horders I try to keep my place neat.

  21. I started out our new home rather successfully in the clutter department – took as less things with me as possible and set a goal to have just one box of childhood memories or other things that I really need to hold on to.. Everything else I either took with me (and use all the time), gave to charity or threw away. Might still need the book, though.. just so I wouldn’t end up in organized clutter like in childhood home.

    And I know the feeling.. I can never completely enjoy myself if there is a mess in my home.

    And oh, what a lovely-lovely family photo!

  22. Thank you for reminding me that I have this book! It came in a bundle I purchased and interested me, but was forgotten. I’ve brought it to the forefront of my iPad reading list. Decluttering is one of my top 3 immediate goals!

  23. I have so many ‘organization’ books…
    I do much better by reading other people’s experiences through their blogs and then incorporating it.
    I would love for you to share YOUR experiences with the book and what works for you.

  24. Thanx for posting the link to directmail.com. I registered then I was living in Los Angeles, but since I’ve recently moved (Middle Tennessee), I needed to re-register since I am already getting so much junk mail. Love the family photo. Congrats on the newborn!

  25. I think what I am going to do is delete and unscrabscribe to everyone else that sends me all these emails about natural living and nourishing foods exept for the diy natural guys and just leave mommypotamus. Seriously, she is the only one i actually find every single article so useful and needed.that would improve my electornical junk for sure. I am about to make the spanish rice! I am not obsessed or anything like that she just somehow always writes stuff that happens to be exactly what i unknowingly need.

  26. I JUST reorganized my whole house! I feel so chaotic when things aren’t where they should be. Here’s to an organized 2014! [crosses fingers…]

  27. I have one bone to pick regarding the “just throw it away” mentality. It assumes that one can afford to throw it away. My husband lost his job more than 2 years ago and we live in an unfinished house. i often say that I am the only woman in America who lets her husband use the only closet pole while she keeps her dresses in a garbage bag. I am more flexible. I need to stash the clothes that are to big for my child. I may not have the money to afford them when she is larger. I also save some of the old clothes- thank goodness- when I needed a black dress for a funeral I had my very old dress that would have been thrown out when de-cluttered since I wear dresses on rare occasions. On the flip side, I buy very very little. I hope I can continue this lifestyle when we are in better economic times. I love your blog but I really wanted to have a little caution added here. I used to see women who would de-clutter and buy the same clutter back again. that is a very expensive habit and it isn’t really getting rid of clutter.

    • I resonate with this just a bit. I save a lot of the kids’ outgrown clothes because we hope to have more children and really can’t afford, even with the generosity of family to re-buy a complete wardrobe. There are less expensive ways to do it than buying name brand new but the least expensive is just to save what is still in good condition yourself and pull it out at the right time. I do this with maternity and regular clothes as well. This being said, it has worked really well for me to sort through things periodically and remove things that my lifestyle no longer requires. For example, I did go through my little boy clothes recently and pruned out perhaps a third to give away. My life has changed so that I do 2-3 loads of laundry daily now (we use mainly cloth everything–diaper, napkins, kitchen wipes, etc.) rather than 2-3 loads weekly as when he was born. So rather than needing 15 onesies I can get away with 6-7. I also realized recently that the way that my storage is set up and my family eats, using pint jars rather than quart jars for canning is what works for me. So I sold the quart canner and bought some more pint jars.
      The key for me has been having a good system for long term storage that keeps everything tidy and where I can find it when I need it but also out of the way so that it doesn’t disintegrate into just clutter. That is where the mantra that organized clutter is still just clutter doesn’t work for me.
      Although I will admit that I am a total sucker for cute teacups and I really should go through them and rehome the ones that I don’t absolutely love.

  28. I’ve been working on decluttering my house since I found out I was pregnant with our second child earlier this year. Our spare room was FULL of stuff we didn’t use or need but were hanging onto ‘just in case’. I have cleared out that room and am slowly working my way round the rest of the house. Getting rid of clutter is so freeing. On the flipside I am also challenging myself not to re-clutter, and not to buy anything new this year (or even second hand if I can manage without). It’s part of a bigger plan to simplify my life in all areas and find contentment from within rather than constantly chasing external sources of happiness.

  29. Clutter makes me tired and anxious. I have started working on one area at a time, which helps keep me from getting overwhelmed.

  30. 15 minutes a day. Using the The FlyLady approach. If I don’t love it, if it doesn’t make me happy, out it goes.

  31. Reorganize cabinets, drawers, and closets once yearly and donate or throw away anything that hasn’t been used in at least 3 yrs. Every year I can fill up 2 or 3 long folding tables with excess.

  32. For the junk mail: Avoid even bringing it in the door, if you can. Even if you put a trash or recycle container just outside, just for that. When I have lived where burning paper trash was the norm, it went straight into the burning barrel. When we lived in CA, it went straight into the recycle dumpster (the curbside pickup kind). Now we have a PO box, because we’re so far out that there is no rural free delivery, and we get almost no junk mail. And what we do get, we toss in the trash at the post office.

  33. I love open spaces, I detest junk, if I will not use it regularly ,I can do without so I don’t buy, sharing huge items like canning supplies with trusted friends and family also means that ya will have less bulky things.
    NEVER keep clothes that do not fit you,your kids or your pets,donate, cut up for quilts or burn.
    Shoes should be tossed if they no longer fit, do not donate those, as used shoes can hurt other kids foot development.
    Just basically quit hoarding junk.
    Keep the mindset that those that hoard or keep things they do not use are people that have something to hide, we do not want to be that type of person, a happy hearted person never hoards.
    toss, toss tosssssssssssss lol

  34. My philosophy, touch something only once before it goes to its home. One example: when I get the mail I take care of it immediately. It gets filed or shredded. Even my little junk drawer has everything in its place. I am sort of OCD about organization.

  35. I always have one garbage bag in a corner. As soon as I see something that we don’t need! want, like, fit.. It goes in there. When full I bring it to a thrift store. Out, out, out, space, space, space and peace.. Whenever I open a closet of drawer.. Hate unneeded stuff. Love clean open spaces.

  36. Goat! I so hope you are serious, I have a goal of having a yard so I can have chickens and at least a few goats! I fell in love when visiting a local farm and can’t wait until springtime when I can volunteer to feed the baby goats!

  37. How DOES one unclutter the mind? 😕 Any suggestions? I really want to be “present” with my children but finding it extremely difficult.

  38. I love this! Minimalism is something that I’ve slowly been introducing into our home and it is amazing how quickly you look back and say “wow how did I need all that stuff before?”. Clutter is a bad word now in our house.