11 Frustrating Decluttering Mistakes You Need to Avoid for Success

Decluttering isn’t easy, especially if you have a big clutter problem. Check out which decluttering mistakes you’re probably making and the best way to avoid them.

Decluttering is a big deal these days and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. It’s a journey, and like any other journey, it’s a lot easier if you can avoid some of the most common mistakes most people make.

Why is Decluttering So Hard?

Decluttering is tough for many reasons. Despite your best intentions, you might have unrealistic expectations of the decluttering process. You might have emotional attachments or other decluttering blocks that make it difficult to let things go, just to name a few.

By definition, decluttering is ‘removing a mess or clutter from a place’.1

It can get confusing because Marie Kondo2 teaches decluttering to tidy up your home, some people teach it in regards to simplifying life, and others like Joshua Becker3 teach it as part of a minimalistic lifestyle.

I fall somewhere in the middle. I don’t subscribe to a simple living or a minimalist mindset, but I despise excess clutter. Truth be told, I just hate to dust and clean, but I function better in a clean home!

I’m also a bit lazy, so having fewer things makes it quicker to dust and clean my home, and easier to avoid some common cleaning mistakes. To that end, I’m always looking for ways to make decluttering and cleaning easier.

Decluttering Mistakes: What Not to Do When Decluttering

Here are some of the top decluttering mistakes people make (in no particular order) and how you can avoid making them.

white plastic organizing baskets that are too small and overflowing with stuff

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1. Don’t Start a Major Decluttering Project Without a Plan

Benjamin Franklin said ‘A Failure to Plan is a Plan to Fail’, and it couldn’t be truer when doing a major decluttering project. Starting a major decluttering project without a plan leaves lots of room for distraction, frustration, and ultimate failure.

How To Avoid Decluttering Without a Plan:

Set yourself up for success and create a decluttering plan that keeps you working through the room in a logical pattern. It’s a good idea to break the room into separate small areas or smaller projects so you can start and stop easily if you’re interrupted during the process.

Always start with smaller areas and quick decluttering tasks to help you gain momentum and make the mental shift before you decluttering tougher areas or an entire room.

2. Not Using a Sorting System While Decluttering Causes Frustration

Whether you’re doing a quick declutter or tackling an entire area of your home, leaving the space to ‘put stuff away’ is a surefire way to get distracted, which will ultimately derail your decluttering session.

You need to stay put and stay focused on the task at hand.

How to Avoid the Sorting System Mistake:

Set up a sorting system before tackling your decluttering project. One of the most widely used is the 4 box method where you label 4 boxes as follows; Trash, Put Away, Donate/Sell, and Store.

I use the 4 box method but instead of just boxes, I use a garbage can for the Trash, a large storage basket for collecting the Put Away items, a cardboard box for the Donate/Sell stuff, and a clear plastic storage bin for the Store Items.

AVOID THE COMMON DECLUTTERING MISTAKES OTHERS MAKE!

decluttering mistakes printable guide

Join thousands of VIPs for cleaning, decluttering, and organizing tips sent straight to your inbox. As a welcome gift, we’ll send you this FREE printable Decluttering Mistakes Guide that tells you exactly what NOT to do when decluttering.

3. Hanging On to Donate/Sell Items Too Long Can Cause a Relapse

One of the secrets to decluttering success is getting the items out of your house quickly and permanently.

Setting unwanted items in the garage in a box waiting to take them to a donation station or have a garage sale is not decluttering, it’s just rearranging!

It also hazardous to your progress because it gives you the chance to bring the items back into the house.

How To Avoid Keeping Clutter Too Long:

Get rid of these things immediately or make sure it’s scheduled in the very near future.

If you’re donating things to a charity, put the boxes in the trunk of your car to drop off the next day. Just don’t forget about them.

Place a sticky note by the speedometer of your car, and a note on your bathroom mirror so you remember to leave extra time in your schedule the next day.

If you’re planning a garage sale, box similar items together, then tape the boxes closed and write the likely date of the garage sale on them. If the date has passed and you don’t have a sale coming soon, just drop the boxes at a donation station.

4. Don’t Try to Organize Before Decluttering

This is the biggest decluttering mistake I see. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard somebody say ‘I’m so excited to start my decluttering, I stopped by Dollar Tree and bought all of these amazing baskets’.

If you already bought storage baskets, you’re not decluttering, you’re organizing your clutter! Womp, womp! It’s one of the worst things you can do because they typically end up being the wrong size and just contribute to the clutter.

pastel plastic organizing baskets

How To Prevent Organizing Instead of Decluttering Mistake:

STOP – Do Not Buy ANY Organizing Baskets or Storage Containers!!!

You can’t possibly know what types, shapes, and sizes of baskets you’ll need until you have a clearer picture of WHAT you actually need to organize.

Remove the clutter first, place your things in the area you want them, then live with it for a bit before you create an organizing plan and start buying organizing baskets or systems.

5. Stop Trying to Declutter Everything All At Once

Decluttering is a process, and a very tough one if it isn’t one of your regular habits. Trying to do it all at once will lead to frustration and overwhelm and can be the one blunder that makes you hate decluttering altogether.

How To Stop Trying to Declutter All at Once:

When creating your decluttering plan, break things into smaller projects, then schedule them out.

If you have an entire weekend to devote to decluttering your entire house, that might be the best way. But if you’re like the rest of us and can’t spare that much time at once, divide everything into 20-30 minute increments with 5-10 minute breaks in between.

Need some help with time management, read more about the time blocking Pomodoro Technique.

6. Getting Wrapped Up In the Sentimental Items is a Rabbit Hole

Get ready, because this one’s a biggy! Sentimental items are the most overwhelming clutter you’ll probably deal with. The emotional attachments to those family photo albums and your kid’s toys can take you down memory lane and keep you there.

Sentimental stuff will be one of the biggest decluttering roadblocks you’ll face and can cause you to stop decluttering completely or keep you from getting started at all. They can also have a deep emotional effect.

vintage sentimental items including a basket ball, baseball, bat, and tricycle

How to Start Purging Sentimental Items Even When It’s Hard

Leave sentimental items for last and try some tricks for dealing with the sentimental and emotional attachments.

When you begin your decluttering journey one of the best things you can do is build momentum with quick wins. If you leave the sentimental items for last, you’ll have made a mental shift and will be more equipped to deal with and declutter the sentimental things.

7. Attaching a Monetary Value to Your Clutter is Misguided

I used to be super guilty of this decluttering misstep. It’s human nature to associate the purchase price of an item when you start considering disposing of it.

This makes it particularly difficult to part with expensive items even if you no longer use them and they’re just in your way.

How To Avoid the Money Trap Mistake:

Change your mindset! Instead of thinking about the money you spent on it, think about the money you’re wasting by storing it.

Come to terms with the fact that the money was gone the minute you made the purchase. The only monetary value the item has now is the money it’s costing you to store it in your house.

8. Keeping Things Just In Case Can Lead to Overwhelming Clutter

You hang on to things ‘just in case’ you need them.

I think the only people not guilty of this mistake are the truly extreme minimalists. Not a minimalist? I’ll bet you can look around the room you’re currently sitting in and spy at least one thing you’re keeping ‘just in case’ you need it.

Can you say ‘skinny clothes’?! This is one of the most obvious examples and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m super guilty.

I have a clear plastic storage bin with 5 pairs of jeans, 5 pairs of shorts, and 12 blouses tucked under my bed waiting for the day they fit again.

And that’s progress. I actually started out with 3 full hanging racks in an extra bedroom that I turned into a walk-in closet. I decluttered that room about 3 months ago and got rid of a bunch of those clothes that I don’t think I’ll wear again.

In another 3 months, my plan is to get rid of the rest. If I manage to fit into those sizes again, I certainly deserve some new clothes!

packing the skinny clothes in a box for the day they fit again

How To Avoid the Just in Case Decluttering Mistake:

This is another mindset thing. If you haven’t used it in 6 to 12 months, ‘just in case’ isn’t likely to come in a timely manner.

Think about the item and what you might need it for. Identify how often that’s likely to occur. Figure out if you have something else you could use in its place, or is there some way you could rent or borrow it if you do happen to need it.

9. Avoiding the Room Bothering You the Most is Counterproductive

I’m all about quick wins, but if you declutter a drawer in the bathroom and what bothers you the most is the kitchen counter, chances are the joy and momentum of your accomplishment will be short-lived once you walk into the kitchen and see the same old mountain of clutter.

Most people need to see positive progress to stay motivated and on task. I know I certainly do.

How To Avoid the Easy Way Out Mistake:

Start with the room that bothers you the most, but make sure you break it into smaller areas and manageable tasks. If the thorn in your side is those kitchen counters I mentioned, start with those to make the biggest and quickest impact and get your quick win there.

10. Decluttering Other People’s Stuff is the Worst Thing You Can Do

Want to start an argument or fast-track your frustration, this miscalculation will get you there fast. Just try to declutter for your family members and let me know how that works out for you.

You can’t make those ‘keep or toss’ decisions for somebody else. At least not without consequences.

These are personal decisions and regardless of what they say, people have hung onto things for a reason. They need to work through those reasons.

woman decluttering the closet

How To Avoid Decluttering Other Peoples Stuff:

Offer to help them, encourage them to declutter, but don’t force them or do it for them.

Helping can be as simple as sitting there and keeping them company while they’re sorting through things. It can also be as complicated as helping them deal with some pretty deep and raw emotions with each item.

I do make one exception to this. Clutter from the loss of a loved one. Don’t ever do it without consent, but if someone asks you to take care of it, don’t hesitate.

Sometimes that kind of clutter keeps a person neck-deep in their grief. If you find yourself helping with this, I suggest boxing the things up, taping the boxes shut, and placing them in the garage.

After a predetermined period of time, donate those boxes without revisiting what’s inside of them.

11. Not Maintaining Your Clutter-Free Home

Decluttering is a process and needs to be maintained. Don’t just declutter once and think that you’re finished, that’s a mistake you can’t afford to make.

Clutter will reappear and continue to collect until you create, and stick to a system for preventing it.

How to Avoid Letting Clutter Pile Up Again:

Create new habits that help keep clutter at bay. Create systems for dealing with and preventing clutter.

If the mail always piles up on the kitchen counter, create a command center system for dealing with it as it comes into the house.

making the mistake of buying organizing baskets before decluttering the pile of clothing

Ensure Your Success by Avoiding Common Decluttering Mistakes

Before you begin any decluttering project, set yourself up for success by avoiding some of these common decluttering mistakes.

Create a plan and sorting system to move you through the process. Make sure that plan includes how and when you’ll dispose of decluttered items, what you’ll do when you get stuck associating a cost to things, getting sentimental, or ‘just in case’.

Start with the room that’s bothering you the most, don’t make the mistake of decluttering somebody else’s stuff.

Adopt some new habits to help you maintain your new clutter-free state.

What Decluttering Mistakes are You Making That I Didn’t Include Here?

Leave a comment below and share any decluttering mistakes I might have missed and how you go about avoiding them.


1 Declutter – Dictionary.com

2 Konmari Method of Tidying UpMaria Kondo

3 Becoming MinimalistJoshua Becker

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42 Comments

  1. Totally enjoyed reading everyone’s comments. Am hoping this will kick start my journey with decluttering. Thank you.

    1. Loved your Article. My problem is papers papers everywhere and clothing do you have any advice for that can’t wait to read your next article

      1. Thanks Cyndi! You can check out my article on Paper Clutter here, and the clothing article is in work. I’ll pop back in here and update the comment with a link when it’s done.

  2. All of these ideas will help me, thank you! Another place to take children’s clothing, is daycares and schools. I didn’t realize that they need spare clothes, including underwear. I had picked up my great niece from daycare a couple of times and she had had an “accident”. They always need underwear. If you can buy a package I’m sure they would appreciate it!! And also the school secretary had said they always need winter coats, gloves and hats for children who are less fortunate.

  3. Thank you! Reading your suggestions and other people stories have been inspiring. Do you know if clothes can be recycled instead of just thrown in the trash, if they are too worn to donate? I get stuck in my decluttering process because I want to make sure things get recycled in the right way.

    1. Absolutely. I suggest you check Recycle Now for a drop off near you. Sounds like a good idea for another article. Stay tuned!

  4. I am currently cleaning/organizing/decluttering my craft room. All of your advise had been very helpful and a lifesaver! Thank you!!

    1. Happy to hear that Cindy! You’ll have to let me know how it all turns out and if you have any specific tips for craft supplies.

  5. Mary Bennett says:

    Just a reminder: Before donating purses, wallets, check the inside for small items such as credit cards, jewelry, etc. I bought a bag at Good Will, where my daughter works as a processor, and found someone’s “thumb-drive” inside. I returned it to the manager. Hope they were able to locate the original owner! My daughter has also told me they’ve found credit cards.

    1. Great Reminder Mary, Thank You! A good friend of mine once ‘donated’ her mothers’ pearls in a jacket pocket.

  6. I’m having a problem going through my dad’s stuff. My mom isn’t physically able to do it, and since his room will eventually become my sons room I really need to do it. I started, but I swear it looks worse now than when I started. He passed away in March and I do get caught up with the sentimental things because he was my best friend. I’m hoping to take some of your advice, maybe it will help.

    1. Denise,

      I’m so sorry for your loss. It sure does make decluttering more difficult. That’s totally normal, as is creating a bigger mess before it gets better.
      I always suggest leaving sentimental items and paperwork for last. They are the 2 things that can completely derail a decluttering project. Clear a space in the room (or another room) where you can set aside those sentimental items as you come across them.
      Remove any obvious garbage and items that are easy for you to make toss or keep decisions. Once the decisions start getting harder, try sorting what’s left into categories. Sometimes seeing that you have 7 similar items makes it easier to let go of 2 or 3 of them.
      Here’s a list of questions you can ask that will help you declutter, and several suggestions for when you get to those sentimental items.

    2. Stephanie says:

      Everything feels sentimental when a person you love dies. My suggestion would be to remove all items in the room and place them into categories. Even box them. As if you are moving the entire room. Personal items (watches, cuff links, cologne, etc) in boxes. Photos and papers in boxes. Set aside to go through later in another room. Clothes- out all at once and then sorted. (Now with clothing, just do yourself a favor and pick the items you saw him in most. That you picture him in your mind wearing. Just donate the rest. Shoes clothes jackets etc. Unless they are immediately usable to another person at that moment get rid of them. Take items like jeans or shirts to a seamstress you trust Immediately and hire out a quilt or pillow or Christmas stocking/skirt made from the items, or teddy bears for others. Or box them and label them with the intention to make it yourself if you see. Look at the amount of items necessary for the project you want and keep that much) now furniture.

      Going through your parent’s items is hard. First get it out of the original space so it doesn’t feel so emotionally overwhelming.

  7. Can you tell me how long to keep paid bills, paperwork, IRS stuff….?

    1. Hi Ruth,

      Paid bills can be discarded as soon as they clear your bank. IRS info 7-10 years. Paperwork depends on what it is – major medical and military service records indefinitely. Here’s a post on paper clutter that goes a bit more in-depth on how long to keep various paperwork. If you’re searching for something that’s missing, let me know and I’ll add it.

  8. kelli hubbard says:

    We are a 3 (sometimes 4) generation household. My husband and I moved in with my mother after 20 plus years of not living at home. My brother was also here due to a divorce. This was 5 years ago. Since then, we now are raising a grandson, and at different times there have been my kids (plus significant others), a nephew (again with significant other) and every now and then,someone I’ve never met, ” camping” for a few days. This is a five bedroom house with a full basement and garage, and 40 plus years worth of clutter.You can barely walk through the laundry room, can’t park one car in a two car garage.My mother uses two bedroom closets for her clothes.both upstairs bathrooms for her stuff, two hanging racks in the laundry room FULL of clothes she will never wear again, and constantly nags about getting the house cleaned and organized.That’s why we moved back here. To help her with that stuff. But she refuses to get rid of anything! I’m sorry if that’s too much information up front, but I am at my wit’s end. Now she says she’s just going to sell the house because no one will help keep it up. I am past depressed and totally non motivated and angry all the time because I can see things that would be at least a start, but can’t get her to budge. I mean, how many vacuums do you really need? Children’s toys for little ones that are now teenagers, etc. Please give me some advice. I apologize for such a long comment. Didn’t realize I was writing a book till just now. Thanks and wish me luck

    1. Kelli,

      It’s really hard to help somebody who isn’t ready to be helped. Try presenting it in a different way. Instead of telling her that she needs to get rid of stuff and downsize, tell her you’re rounding up clothes and household items to help a local women’s shelter (they’ll be thrilled to have the donation). Also, try to gather like items all in one place. It’s entirely possible that she doesn’t realize how much she really has because it’s all spread out. I had a male friend at work who always fought with his wife about all of the clothes she owned. He made the women’s shelter suggestion and to his surprise, his wife agreed to put all of her clothes in one place and donate some. She donated about 4 times the amount of stuff he expected. She was passionate about the cause and it motivated her to clear out even more. Some children’s toys can be donated to local daycares and doctor’s offices. Here’s an article with several suggestions of where you can donate various stuff. With the current pandemic, I’d suggest contacting the organizations before gathering the donations as they might not be able to accept some stuff they normally would. Good luck and feel free to reach out if you need to try a different approach.

  9. I have MS and I am in an electric wheel chair, it does help being able to move more things a little faster. Yet that being said, I fell 22 years ago, so my my back, shoulders, & the left side of my neck hurt so much after bending over and picking up heavy things. So after two hours I am ready to crawl into bed, but I keep pushing myself to keep going & going til I can barely move. Of course I am then laid up for now a week or so. I have no one to help me, I live in an Senior Assisted Living House, once my housekeeper helped me for an hour. It was great, but it got hard again as the second housekeeper quit a year ago. Nobody else will stay more then a day or two. LOLOLOL, some of these Seniors that live here can really drive the housekeepers insane. I know I will been here 15 years on November 20th. All of this being said I’m going to see if my daughter can give me at least an hour or two when the kids get back to school, if she hasn’t gotten a job yet. It is hard for her as my granddaughter has heart problems and has had 2 surgeries an she is only 8. Then both her and her 9 yr old brother both have ADHD, him worst then her. She is smart as a whip, is a reader just like me. He is smart also, but just can focus well. Sorry for going on so long, it has been a tough ride since this virus hit I was rushed to the hospital as I couldn’t breathe, scary time. I tested negative on four test now but get tired faster some days. Our building has been on lock down since the beginning of March. So I am going a little cuckoo in my small studio apartment. I know you are having crazy issues too…. I have to say you have given me hope that there is a light at the end of of my mess & clutter(light at the end of the tunnel. LOLOLOL. Thank you so very much. Stay Well & Stay Safe. 😊

    1. Dar, so sorry to hear about your struggles. Don’t give up, your spirit is still strong and that will get you through. Just remember that even one tiny step forward is still a step forward and all of those little bits of progress will add up to a big cumulative bunch of progress. Let me know if there are any specific struggles I might be able to help with. tanya@tidylifehappywife.com

      1. Dar- I also have MS though not your other challenges. (Sorry to hear about them.) I tire physically very easily due to the MS – just washing dishes for 5 minutes can wear me out. So I stick to 5-minute bursts of activity, one per hour. Alternatively I watch a movie/show with ads, and do something useful on the ad breaks. I find it all adds up. I am also following a declutter programme which encourages 15-minute sessions. If a session is tiring I see if I can move the things I am sorting to a chair so I can keep going. The programme has also given me the framework I wasn’t finding on my own! Good luck.

  10. If I’m on the fence about if I should keep an item or not I ask myself “If my house were to burn down would I go out and repurchase this or not?” If yes, then keep … If not, then get rid of it (yes, it’s a harsh thought but it actually works). And the way that I keep from over buying items that I use daily / weekly (best system I have for closets and pantries) make a master list of everything in it and laminate it this is so you can use a dry erase marker and mark off when you have gotten / used a new bottle of shampoo, conditioner, toilet bowl cleaner, soap, sauce, cereal etc. And you will know at a glance what you have. Yes, it takes time to clean out whatever area you are working on but it saves so much time in the long run.

    1. Be sure to hang the list in the closet or pantry with the dry erase marker so that you can mark things going in and out as you are using or restocking the items.

      1. That’s a great tip Char, now if we can just get the spouses to actually mark something off right!

    2. Thanks, Char, that puts into perspective what we really need and what we don’t. I always suggest taking pictures while decluttering. The before pictures give you perspective of how far you’ve come, and the after picture showcases the accomplishments.

  11. Great tips! I’m trying to work up the courage to face all of my recently-returned college son’s dorm stuff. He’s the ultimate sentimentalist. Thank you for the inspiration!

    1. He sounds like a great kid Joni. Think Shadow Boxes, Time Capsules, and Memory Quilts. You’d be amazed at what you can have transferred to a piece of fabric!

  12. . One way to get rid of some things would be to take a picture of them and then let them go. For instance: crafts, quilts, creative things that you’ve made, souvenirs from trips, family keepsakes that no one wants anymore.
    . Also instead of keeping photo albums, take out two or three of each specific trip and save only those.
    . If you’ve got some vintage clothes, consider giving them to a theater group, high school drama club, etc. Also some pocketbooks and shoes can go to play areas at your church, day care.

    1. Great tips Lucretia! I never thought about giving the pocketbooks and shoes to the churches and daycares.

  13. Great tips in here! I’m guilty of leaving the room and then getting sidetracked. It’s so important to stay focused until the project is finished.

    1. Thanks Jen! It’s amazing how much difference one tiny little habit can make.

  14. Do you have this in a printable format? I’d like to print this off rather than writing it all down if I could. Thanks!

    1. Sorry, Mimi, we don’t currently have a printable for this one.

      1. On an iPad, there are 3 tiny dots in the upper left corner, click , then click, open in Safari, you can print from Safari. Works for me!

  15. I decluttered my clothes closet and dresser drawers nearly 3 years ago. It has been a snap to maintain and changing clothes from season to season is a snap as everything is organized and folded. I maintain as I do laundry each week.

    It took over 2 years before my husband would do his half the closet. Finally, it is looking fabulous!
    Now to get the kids with the program.

    1. That’s awesome Monica! My husband took a couple of years to come around too. Not sure how old your kids are, but if they’re old enough, try making them do their own laundry. Sometimes they just don’t realize the issues until they experience it themselves.

      1. I taught my children to cook and do their laundry before they were teenagers. We had a laundry chute and EVERYONE’S clothes landed in the basement laundry room. My kids started to just do their OWN laundry and I nipped that in the bud right away. Haha Haha. I need to toss or donate clothes. I, too, have the pile of “small” clothes with the hope of getting into them. I just need to purge them. Plus sentimental things are also my mental block.

      2. Patty, that’s awesome that you taught your children early on. I’m constantly amazed at how many young adults have never cooked a meal or done a load of laundry. I’m grateful to my mom for teaching me early on. I guess Child Labor was a thing when I was a kid 😂, but it was sure worth it. Get rid of those small clothes. When you fit in that size again, you deserve new clothes and styles! Leave those sentimental items for last. They’re usually the most difficult and often slow decluttering momentum.

  16. Buying things and bringing it home not realizing I already have it

    1. LOL Carolyn! I know exactly what you mean. My family has a running joke about ketchup because I couldn’t remember if I had any and kept buying more.

      1. Stuff “grows” on me. That special time called “One Day” … l’ll use, need, finish, make, fit into … it!

      2. I know what you mean Janet. I started putting stuff in a box in the garage with a date on it. If I haven’t retrieved something out of that box in a certain amount of time, I get donate it without ever opening it. I haven’t regretted it yet!

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