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How to declutter other people's stuff

Updated: Jun 6, 2021

Claire Furner I New Leaves I 13 April 2021

It’s a common problem – you’re sold on the benefits of decluttering, but the other members of your family don’t share your enthusiasm.

As professional declutterers we understand the frustrations of wanting to declutter when not everything is in your control.

It’s especially difficult when the clutter you see around you isn’t even yours but belongs to other members of your family. It can be incredibly stressful when other people either resist your efforts or even actively undermine them.

Here are some tips from us to help you declutter when the people you live with are not on the same page.

Respect individual differences

When it comes to clutter, it’s important to remember that we are all individuals and have different ways of doing things. Some people prefer a more minimal, streamlined environment whereas other people just love a home that’s full of possessions.

It’s also important to remember that what one person considers to be clutter might be another person’s prized possession. This is often true of children who seem to be avid collectors of what adults might perceive as junk!

So when you’re decluttering, it’s important to be aware of these differences and not to assume that your views are going to be shared by the other members of your household.

Getting other people to understand what you are trying to do, and why, and involving them in the process is always going to be a more successful strategy than imposing it on them or trying to coerce them into doing it.

Co-operation works better than conflict

Let’s face it, when you choose to live with another human being there is always going to be some element of conflict and some need for co-operation.

Just as you need to decide what to watch on the TV, what sort of food to eat, and which side of the bed to sleep on, so you need to work out how the house is going to function and how it is going to be maintained.

Conflict can arise when there are different expectations about how a house should look, or how it should be taken care of. If one person likes it to be really tidy and the other is more relaxed, it can lead to arguments.

Hobbies and pastimes can also be a bone of contention between partners when it comes to how much space in the home is taken up by them. Home based activities such as craft, DIY, and gaming, or even sports like cycling, horseriding or golf all have the potential to generate an enormous amount of “stuff” which all needs to be kept somewhere.

Sometimes a compromise is the way forward, but at other times a middle ground is just not possible. If one partner loves to eat steak and the other is completely vegan, there is no real way of compromising on that in a way that satisfies both parties.

However it may be possible for a steak eater and a vegan to happily co-exist, so long as they can both agree on their expectations and boundaries.

So if you tend towards the minimalist, but your partner loves to surround themselves with “stuff” then you have to ask yourself if a compromise is possible.

Again, it may be possible for you to live together happily but you will need to work at finding a way to make it happen. For example, could you find a way to agree how shared areas will be kept? Or could you agree that certain areas of the home are to be kept the way you prefer, while your partner has other areas the way they want them?

You do you

We would also encourage you to start with the parts of the home that you have control over. It can be really hard to change other people, and sometimes the more you try to force the change the more they will resist. So nagging and controlling rarely if ever works - far better to lead by example.

So don't focus your mind on the state of the shed which is full of your husbands tools and clutter, or your teenagers bedroom which is full of clothes and damp towels (or at least my teenagers is!).

Instead focus on the things you can control - your own clothes for example, or your books, or your office, or whichever part of the home is mostly your domain. Once other family members start to see the benefits, they might get more interested.

Show, don’t tell

If you’re keen to declutter but your family members are not so keen, one way to get them on board is to show them that decluttering is not a scary proposition, but is actually something that can make their lives easier.

For example, it could save them time in the mornings by making it easier for them to get ready for school.

See if you can find a way to share with them what you are trying to achieve, and why. Show them the benefits of decluttering in a way that they will understand.

So for example a lot of teenagers these days are very environmentally aware so the sustainability angle might be quite interesting for them. You could suggest watching some of the many clutter themed documentaries on Netflix or You Tube such as The Minimalists. The new Stacey Solomon show "Sort your Life Out" would also be good family friendly viewing.

Another potential benefit would be the money you could save - perhaps you could have a family goal of saving towards a holiday for example, and money saved by not buying "stuff" could be put towards that goal.

Make decluttering easy

With young children in particular it’s important to remember that the idea of “tidiness” is an adult construct that has very little meaning to them. Young childrens brains have not yet developed the skills of sorting and organising that make tidying up easy.

So can you find ways to make it easier for them? For example by providing plenty of storage that is easy for them to use, for example big baskets that toys can be quickly tidied into, or clear boxes so they can see what’s inside. You can also rotate the toys that are on display to retain their interest and make their bedroom or playroom look less cluttered.

See if you can find ways to make decluttering and organising fun. Maybe set aside a family decluttering day one weekend with the promise of pizzas and a movie afterwards. Get the kids involved in the process, perhaps promise them that if they help you declutter and organise the playroom or their bedrooms they could redecorate them or choose a new duvet cover, or some other useful item they would like.

Younger children may be happier to let go of toys they have outgrown or never play with if they think they are going to a good cause, so explain to them how charity shops work, and maybe let them choose a charity they will donate to.

Alternatively you could motivate them by helping them sell things on ebay and allowing them to keep the proceeds.

Do offer to help…with caution

When you’re frustrated by someone else’s clutter, whether it be your teenagers bedroom or your husbands garden shed, it can be very tempting to offer to “help”. Our advice to you is to be very careful when doing this that “helping” does not become “taking over”.

If you can genuinely support someone as they declutter, offering positive suggestions and practical help, by all means do offer. Two pairs of hands does make light work, and decluttering with someone else can be more motivating than doing it alone.

However, always respect other people’s belongings – let them be the one to make the decisions about what stays and what to let go of.

And however tempting it may be to simply throw away or reorganise another person’s belongings, we strongly suggest that you don’t (unless they have specifically asked you to). Decluttering someone else’s stuff without their permission or involvement is a sure fire way to cause resentment and ultimately resistance.

Remember the mantra “people not things”

Although clutter can be a source of conflict, at the end of the day our relationships with the people we love are so much more important than how tidy the house is. Children grow up, things change, everything evolves.

Sometimes, for the sake of family harmony it really is better to let it go. If something is stressing you or causing you anxiety, ask yourself – does it really matter?

Remember that decluttering is a journey, not a destination. It doesn’t all have to be done at once, sometimes little and often is better and less likely to cause panic!

Focus on the things that bug you the most, pick your battles, and at the end of the day remember that you can’t change other people, you can only change yourself.

For more support

If you'd like more support on your decluttering journey, why not join our free Facebook group "Decluttering for Life"? Here you'll find lots of tips, ideas and plenty of encouragement to help keep you motivated.

Claire Furner and her colleague Sue Boatman run New Leaves, a decluttering, organising and homestaging business based in the Cotswolds.

You can find them on Instagram @newleavesinteriors or take a look at their website www.newleaves.info

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