The Life-Changing Magic of Being Totally Mediocre at Decluttering

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This photo was taken in the bathroom of the Airbnb that we stayed in during our recent trip to LA. It was perfectly clutter-free…because I don’t live there. 

Decluttering (and organizing in general) is a difficult thing when you are a mother of a toddler. Really, anything requiring more than 10 minutes of attention is difficult when you are the mother of a toddler.

Alas, it’s spring, a time when many of us get wrapped up in the hype of FRESH STARTS, #KONMARIMETHOD, GETRIDOFEVERYTHING spring cleaning mode—and I feel like I have the bug even more intensely this year. Between motherhood and starting work up again in January, I’ve been feeling so frazzled lately that my naturally high tolerance for clutter and mess has gone way down. I just CAN’T with all of the crap anymore. As Gretchen Rubin (one of my personal life gurus) says: outer order leads to inner calm. Which, conversely, means that it’s really hard to have a calm mind when you, say, can’t see the floor in your bedroom. Ahem.

Marie Kondo would say that I need to go through every item that I own, one by one, in a specific order, pondering whether every pair of leggings, mug, or magazine in my home brings me joy. But listen, that takes time that I don’t have. And also, I don’t necessarily believe that every item that we own needs to spark joy. Double A batteries don’t really spark any joy in me, but it would be really annoying to not have them in the house, right?

Rather than trying to decide which items in my house spark joy—sorry, Marie, but I JUST FEEL NEUTRAL ABOUT MY SOCKS AND NO, I’M NOT FOLDING THEM INTO LITTLE PINWHEELS—I’ve been coming up with a kind of decluttering-for-lazy-girls/moms-that-just-want-to-be-able-to-find-the-freaking-ibuprofen kind of #antiKonMarimethod that has nonetheless been making a pretty noticeable difference. Because sometimes, good enough just has to be good enough, am I right?

1. First of all, less may not be more for you—and that’s perfectly ok.

Back to Gretchen Rubin for a sec. Part of the reason that I’ve become such a fan of hers (check out her book Better Than Before and her podcast, Happier, if you’re not familiar) is that she loves to categorize people. Not from a judgmental place, but from a place of trying to understand ourselves or others better.

For instance, I am such a wannabe minimalist. Erin Boyle’s Reading My Tea Leaves blog is like my personal Xanax. Everything she touches is so simple, and so beautiful. Caroline Rector’s super-spare wardrobe that she documents on her site Un-Fancy thrills me to my core. Compared to these women, I feel like a total slob. But. But! According to Gretchen Rubin, I’m NOT a pig. I’m actually just an abundance lover. Doesn’t that sound so much better?

According to Gretchen, some people, like me, just really enjoy things like a full refrigerator, a full pantry and a full wardrobe. We like to be prepared; we like to have options. Whereas some people (like Gretchen herself) delight at empty space, like a spare drawer or an empty shelf. For simplicity lovers, less is definitely more. I genuinely like having stuff around. But for me, there’s a very fine line between abundance, options, and happy clutter versus PILES OF CRAP that are neither useful nor attractive in any way.

2. Get rid of the obvious NOs.

So, will I ever be an actual minimalist? No. However—and Erin Boyle touches on this in her book Simple Matters—most of us are surrounded by literal garbage, stuff that is of zero purpose in our lives, stuff that we actually hate. Forget sparking joy; these are those no-duh items that you KNOW just need to go. For an abundance lover like me, I don’t mind being surrounded by stuff I love, or even stuff I feel neutral about. But what does suck is feeling like you have drawers stuffed with things that you know you WILL LITERALLY NEVER WEAR AGAIN. Or gifts that you KNOW you will never use. Or freebie beauty products that have taken on a strange smell. Or tofu in the back of the fridge that’s way past its expiration date. This is probably way obvious to everyone but me, but I think that for awhile, I felt so much pressure to KONMARI MY ENTIRE LIFE that I just felt frozen. Like if I couldn’t do it ONCE AND FOR ALL AND MAKE EVERY DECISION ABOUT EVERY COASTER IN MY HOUSE that it wasn’t even worth trying. But I really don’t have the time to do the “ultimate tidy,” nor do I really want to. And I’ve decided that that’s perfectly fine.

3. Have your to-do list be a list—not a pile of crap on the dining room table.

Along with getting rid of the obvious nos in my life, I’m also working on not doing that thing where you leave crap in an obvious place, like your dining room table, in the hopes that it will motivate you to return that package, mail those cards, etc. etc. in a more timely manner. Listen, I’m a working mom with limited childcare. I will get those things done eventually, or I won’t, but it will most likely NOT be in a timely manner. No point in staring at those Amazon boxes until it happens. Put the item on the to-do list; stash the crap until you can deal.

4. Say it with me: it’s ok to put stuff aside to deal with later. Or never. 

Along those lines, many minimalism/decluttering gurus will tell you to never put something down—put it away. Don’t decide later what you’re doing with it—decide now. Well, listen. Sometimes I have things to do that take precedence over what to do with that charger that goes with the Dustbuster that you may or may not have lost two apartments ago. Things like preventing my son from diving into the toilet, or doing a backflip off of the couch. So, sometimes I just shove stuff in a drawer to deal with later. That’s ok. Decision fatigue is a term for a reason. And hey, if you’re semi-constantly, semi-ruthlessly trashing the “obvious nos,” you probably have extra room for the maybes, right?

Along these lines, I’m totally itching to go through ALL of Jack’s clothing and have some kind of amazing storage system that organizes all of his stuff by size and season so that when we have our next kid, I know exactly where, say, all of the 3-6 month outerwear is. But man, I’m lucky if I have the time to move Jack’s too-small stuff out of the way at all. So all of the too-small stuff gets shoved into an under-bed storage bag or two to be organized later/never. But hey, it’s out of the way, and it’s contained. Good enough, I say.

5. Decide to sell some of your nicer clothing and accessories.

This is another no-duh moment. Whenever I decluttered my wardrobe in the past, I tended to just dump everything at Goodwill, because I was so desperate to get it OUT OF THE HOUSE before I changed my mind. But, especially in my most recent wardrobe decluttering session, I realized that I have a decent amount of items that I don’t want or need but are in very good shape—especially the items that I bought last spring when I was a few months postpartum and a couple of sizes bigger. So, I decided to have my first foray into selling things via ThredUp (and possibly Buffalo Exchange. Gotta figure that whole thing out). And I found that I was actually much more inclined to be a little bit more ruthless in cutting things that are “just okay” from my wardrobe when I feel like I might get something back for them. Again…duh.

6. It’s ok to have multiples if they’re useful. It’s also ok to keep things that you haven’t worn in a year. Or to keep the shoes that you only wear to take out the garbage.

One of the “simple” and “easy” decluttering tips on a lot of the listicles that hit the internet at this time of year is as follows: if you have multiples of things, get rid of the extras. You don’t need two whisks. But, to this I say…what if one whisk is dirty? What if I gave one whisk to my toddler to entertain him and he shoves it in a corner never to be found again? What if one whisk melts in the dishwasher? Some critics of the Konmari/minimalism movement have pointed out that this whole discarding-perfectly-useful-things trend has an air of privilege. Marie Kondo argues that you’ll never miss something that you get rid of, and if you do, you can always just buy another one. But, that costs money. And it is also very annoying.

Before we moved into our current apartment, I tossed two things that I ended up missing. One was a pair of Birkenstock clogs that I had had since middle school. They were old, and ugly, with an inexplicable white paint smudge on one of them. They were my “taking out the trash” shoes. I didn’t think at the time that they brought me joy. I lectured myself that there was no point in keeping a pair of shoes just to take out the trash. But guess what? Having a warm, comfy pair of slip-on shoes is pretty clutch when you have a baby. This was something that didn’t necessarily occur to me in June, when I was moving and desperate to be “rid of stuff.”

Another item I tossed was the canopy attachment for our City Mini stroller that we use for travel. It was in a random pile of stuff, and out of context I was just like “what is this? Who knows! Get rid of it!” Well, guess what? I needed that thing, and I ended up having to pay 40 bucks to get another one from the company. Honestly, there are few things more frustrating than having to spend money on things that you ALREADY OWNED before you went on a decluttering spree. To me, avoiding that is kind of worth having some extra stuff around. So, if you’re not sure if you want or need something, consider this your permission to hold onto it. At least for a time.

7. If you’re not getting rid of everything you own, you might need to buy some organizational/storage tools—but buy slowly, and intentionally.

Marie Kondo and many other organizational gurus will say that you don’t need extra storage, you just need less stuff. Well, that may be true, but since minimalism is very, very far from my daily reality, I finally decided yesterday to just order some freaking organizational tools that I’ve decided that I truly need. I started pretty simply, and will add more later if I need them. I also bought items that I can different ways if needed in the future: four of these simple clear acrylic bins (two for my pantry and two for my fridge), and two sets of drawer organizer pieces (one for my bathroom drawer to house first aid supplies and my contact lenses, and one for the junk drawer in my kitchen). My thought process is that when I go to put these items into use, it’ll help me do an extra round of decluttering as I find more concrete homes for specific items. I’m also hoping that keeping certain items a little bit more visible and accessible will help me to avoid buying multiples of items, and prevent me from running out of things that I need. Like the freaking ibuprofen. 🙂

8. Commit to some time off from shopping.

This is a big one, right? There’s no point in decluttering and organizing if you’re just replacing all of the stuff you get rid of with more stuff. So obvious, and yet, so…difficult. So, I’m taking the month of March off from buying clothes for myself or for Jack. I figured this was a good month to do it, since it’s too cold to wear cute spring clothes, and I’m VERY over buying winter clothes. But man, not shopping is hard. And not fun.

The good news is, I’m pondering my future spring purchases very carefully. Decluttering my clothes has really helped me realize how extensive my wardrobe already is, and I’m excited to wear lots of items that I couldn’t last spring or summer because they didn’t fit or weren’t nursing-friendly. So, there isn’t a ton that I need, but there are a few key items that I really want. Maybe I’ll do a future post on spring items that I’m considering so you can obsess with me. 🙂

9. Accept that decluttering and organizing will be an ongoing process.

Marie Kondo claims that if you tidy/declutter once and for all, completely and in one go, that you will never revert to your old, cluttered, messy ways. Somehow, I find that really hard to believe. Because—duh—there is always more crap coming into our lives. Even when you try to be intentional about what you bring in. And it always has to be dealt with. And sometimes, life gets busy and you’re tired from wrestling a wild animaltoddler all day and dealing with the stuff is ANNOYING and overwhelming and you’d rather just NOT DEAL. Right?

But, the good news here (at least for me) is that accepting that I will probably be decluttering, organizing, and cleaning every day for the rest of my life is kind of freeing. No, I will probably never have my shit together and achieve minimalist nirvana, but that is very ok. I can be making small improvements all the time, and take a moment to appreciate the fact that, hey, I can actually close my closet door today! Or, hey, it didn’t take me an hour to find the FREAKING IBUPROFEN! It’s the small things, people. It’s the small things.

10. Sometimes, dumping your clothes on the floor and letting things pile up so you can live your damn life is perfectly ok—even necessary.

In conclusion, if you’re a tidiness underachiever like I am, and delight in throwing your clothes to the floor before putting on your pajamas at the end of the day, YOU GO RIGHT AHEAD. In my opinion, life’s too short to try to force yourself to be something that you’re not. And I am just not the kind of woman who will hang up her damn shirt on a hanger after wearing it. I’m gonna live my life, and sometimes, that’s going to involve not being able to see my bedroom floor…again. In this new season of working motherhood, I’m learning to strike a balance between pushing myself to be better and giving myself grace. So, if you feel like you need permission to let your clothes pile up to the size of a Sumo wrestler on the floor of your bedroom this week: you go, girl. I’m right there with you.

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