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How to Decide What to Keep or Toss When Decluttering

Every item you own—from clothes and small appliances to paper and knickknacks—takes up valuable real estate in your home. It’s challenging to decide what to keep or throw out when going through the process of decluttering. 

I thought I was a minimalist, until we downsized! It made me appreciate just how much stuff we both had. Fortunately, I’m not a huge sentimentalist, so letting go wasn’t an issue for me.  But, for many of my clients, it’s a different story. They’re afraid those memories will be lost forever. Yet, items sit in boxes or closets for years, never being looked at, yet still being dragged to every new home.

Every decluttering attempt was slow and painful (and often complete failures) because they constantly faced overwhelming decisions and they didn’t know how to handle the conflict. So, back in the wardrobe, cupboard, garage they went.

I know from the many emails I get each week that you’re not alone in feeling this way. The number one questions I’m asked, time and time again, is how to decide what to keep?

I’ll answer this today by sharing what I’ve learned about decision making – and this goes well beyond decluttering; from your closet to your career, here are a few tips to make difficult choices easier.


The first and most important thing I do when I’m facing a difficult decision is to pause, take a deep breath and step back from the emotion. It’s easy to get lost in our thoughts and lose sight of the big picture.

For example, when decluttering I sometimes struggle with:

  • Guilt about past mistakes (ahem … like spending $200 on take out in one week!)
  • Letting go of items “just in case” – so I haven’t used the item like in forever, but…I might need it one day!
  • External obligations (feeling obliged to keep or do things because I don’t want to let anyone down.)
  • Deep emotions (letting strong memories overwhelm me and cloud my judgement.)

These feelings often make it difficult to think rationally and can turn simple decisions into difficult ones! (After all, deciding to clean out our closets or say goodbye to our junk jewellery should be easy … in theory.)

Pausing and taking a moment to remove ourselves from the emotion creates space to make rational decisions and to think about the big picture.


Speaking of the big picture, one of the most powerful things I’ve learned is to use a plan to help my clients make decisions. 

Let’s look at a home art studio declutter and organisation I recently completed. There were decades of collected mixed medium art from completed works, to current projects and reams of paper from her uni days. It was a massive challenge! 

It started with a plan. I sorted the items and categorised each art genre and kept everything she accesses regularly in the art studio, while other items she uses occasionally were organised in the under-house storage area that was easily accessible. 

Using the information during the Home Organisation and Declutter consultation, I knew ahead of time what things she no longer wanted or were to be stored.  

  • University papers completed artwork or art major works and old magazines.
  • Excess fabric, wool and other mixed media supplies
  • Shopping bags, household items, anything that wasn’t art related

I created a vision for her art studio and then used this vision to define a plan. 

Doing this takes the stress and emotion out of decision making, and it also helped with decision fatigue (the overwhelm we feel when faced with too many choices!)

This simple system can be applied to so many areas of your life. 

  • If you’re decluttering your bedroom, decide the purpose of your space and then define what belongs.
  • If you’re decluttering your schedule, ask what you want to get done and then define your priorities.
  • If you’re thinking of changing careers, ask why you work and what you want to achieve, then define your search criteria

With any decision, focusing on your vision and using it to define a plan can help you make better choices.


Even with your big picture in mind and clearly defined plan, you might still struggle to make decluttering decisions. When this happens, it’s often because there’s a fear that needs to be acknowledged and addressed.

Usually, this fear manifests itself as a general fear of ‘making the wrong decision’, but if we dig deeper, we can usually get more specific:

  • I’m afraid to get rid of my wedding dress because my daughter might wear it when she gets married.
  • I’m afraid to get rid of my extra dinner plates because I might have a party
  • I’m afraid to resign from my job because maybe after 5 years I’ll finally get that promotion.  

From the trivial to the important, specifically acknowledging your fear will help you make a better decision. Now that you know what’s holding you back you can address it. 

Consider the worst-case scenario.

Then the best-case scenario.

Then the likelihood of each scenario happening and what you can do to change the outcomes to suit your goals. 

Armed with this information, we’re better equipped to face our fears and make a decision. After all, acknowledging the worst-case scenario might be borrowing a dining set from your neighbour might give you the perspective you need to move forward.

Accept there isn’t always a right or wrong answer

Finally, when faced with a tough decision, sometimes we need to accept there isn’t a clear right or wrong answer. You might not be able to predict how many dinner plates you’ll need in the future, or if you’ll regret saying goodbye to your high school artwork, or if two sets of pillowcases are really enough.

But this isn’t a bad thing. Instead, we’re given an amazing opportunity to redefine ourselves. 

As the philosopher Ruth Chang tells us in her TED Talk:

When we create reasons for ourselves to become this kind of person rather than that, we wholeheartedly become the people that we are. You might say that we become the authors of our own lives.

To me, this means that when decluttering (or making any difficult decision), we have the opportunity to redefine who we are. Instead of worrying which pair of boots to keep, we can decide to be someone who throws any pair of shoes on her feet, on the way to new and exciting adventures.


We believe when people come together, great things can happen! That’s how the Harness Happy Facebook group started. With an emphasis on living clutter-free, you can join us and ask our community for support, access free downloads, attend Facebook Lives and attend exclusive workshops too!

We would love for you to be part of it! To get access to our group, click HERE.

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