Why “do I use it?” is the wrong question to focus on when decluttering

You’ve probably seen the meme: “Turn all your clothes hangers backwards. Whenever you wear something, turn the hanger the right way. In six months/a year, donate every piece of clothing still hanging on a backwards hanger”.

I know you’ve probably seen this because my mum told me about it. My test for viral is if my mum knows about it. Anyhow, she was very enthusiastic about giving this a try. I didn’t want to rain on her parade, but I don’t think it’s very good decluttering advice.

This meme is a simple and catchy application of the “do I use it?” approach to decluttering. There are two reasons why I think focusing solely on “do I use it?” isn’t helpful.

Reason 1: It puts too much pressure on you to declutter sentimental items

A blunt application of “do I use it?” equates everything you don’t use in an arbitrary period of time as clutter. You begin decluttering by looking around your home for stuff you don’t use, with some of the most obvious being sentimental items, but just because you don’t use them, doesn’t mean they’re easy to declutter. 

Sentimental items are incredibly difficult to declutter. If you start with sentimental items, you’re likely to come to the (unfounded) conclusion that it’s all too hard and this decluttering business isn’t for you. 

The fact is, the energy-to-benefit ratio of decluttering sentimental items isn’t very favourable. On a day-to-day basis you’ll barely notice the benefit from two hours spent weeding through a box of dusty school memorabilia. Spend two hours on your Tupperware cupboard and junk drawer and you’ll notice the difference every day.

Reason 2: It gives you a false sense of how much you need

Back to Mum, when I helped her declutter her kitchen, she had around a dozen serving platters (mostly gifts). Did she use them all? Yes, she used them all, at least occasionally. But how often do you use something just because you happen to have it?

This is the classic trap of the hanger test. If you had 23 shirts and turned around the hangers on 11 of them, you used 11. But that doesn’t mean you need 11 shirts. Maybe you could get by just as well with only five shirts. “Do I use it?” confuses using something with needing it.

The most life-changing benefits of decluttering come when you start to realise how little you actually need. To get there, you have to go deeper than simply asking “do I use it?”.

What to ask yourself instead

I’m not saying you should never ask, “do I use it?”, but it’s only part of the story. Useful questions to guide your decluttering include:

  • Would I keep this if I moved?
  • Would I buy this again today if I didn’t already own it?
  • Is there something else I own I could use instead of this?
  • What is the minimum number of these I could get by with?
  • Am I only keeping this because I don’t want to waste money?

How do you approach decluttering? What’s your biggest struggle with decluttering?

2 Replies to “Why “do I use it?” is the wrong question to focus on when decluttering”

  1. I understand this process for clothes only as a way to start. People have way too many clothes in my opinion, but this sort of question for household items doesn’t really suit. There are times when you have something that you use rarely but you have nothing else that will fit the bill. Do you get rid of something then need and have to go out and buy it again? I have serving pieces that I have gotten rid of because I do not entertain the way I used to, but I still hold onto things that are only pressed into service once or twice a year. I find de-cluttering a very personal trip that a person needs to determine the direction themselves. One size never fits all.

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