The One Question That Helped Me Declutter My Closet (Hint: It's Not 'Does It Spark Joy?')

Photo by Jesse Morrow / Stocksy

In my dreams, I own a capsule wardrobe of ethically made, tightly curated pieces that always mix and match well. But alas, my closet tells a different story. While it's probably (hopefully?) not the messiest wardrobe you've ever seen in your life, it doesn't exactly scream minimalist fantasy either.

Over the last few years, I've slowly but surely decluttered my apartment, but my closet has largely escaped unscathed. Clothes have always been a difficult category for me since I fall victim to the whole "Oh, maybe I'll wear this one day—when I'm on a beach wedding in Nantucket and need a checkered shawl" mentality. And I'm not the only one. According to some not-at-all-scientific estimates, the average person uses only about 20 percent of the clothes in their closet, and shoppers in the United Kingdom collectively own about £10 billion ($12.75 billion) of clothes they never wear.

To ring in the start of sweater season, I set out to finally get my closet under control, armed with the advice of some adept organizers and home experts. Here are the tips that helped me the most.

First, think about the image you want to portray.

I picked up this one from Tara Button, the founder of mindful shopping site BuyMeOnce and author of A Life Less Throwaway: The Lost Art of Buying for Life, a few months back, and it's stuck with me: When you're decluttering, first establish a vision for the kind of life you want to call in, and then make sure your surroundings reflect it. Button likened it to what art curators do when choosing pieces for a gallery, saying, "They pick each individual piece of art to go in an exhibition, but they've also thought about what they want the entire exhibition to look like and mean to people."

I've used this mindset tweak to set the stage for my closet cleanup. Before I got started, I sat down to visualize the type of vibe I wanted to give off with my wardrobe choices, narrowing the look I was after down to a few words (things like: polished, confident, cozy). I wrote them down to keep me accountable during the sorting process, and it made it easier to discern the pieces that were the most me vs. the ones I was just holding onto "just in case."

Don't be too hard on yourself.

When I told Kyle Quilici, a professional organizer and the author of New Minimalism: Decluttering and Design for Sustainable, Intentional Living about my wardrobe woes, she had a simple and smart piece of advice: Chase progress, not perfection. "Find your version of a capsule wardrobe," she told me. "If you go so extreme, it might bounce back and be too much." In other words, if you set out to pare your wardrobe down based on a beautiful capsule of 30 pieces you saw in a magazine, you might end up with something that feels too stripped down for your lifestyle. Be realistic about what you can stand to get rid of.

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Ask the golden question: Does being in this garment make me smile?

There's a reason that Marie Kondo's advice has struck such a chord in the decluttering world: Joy is an emotion worth chasing!

It's one that is intimately familiar to Ingrid Fetell Lee, a designer and author of the new book Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness. She's fascinated by the science of joy and how we can all use it to create spaces that look and feel amazing.

Her top tip for creating a closet that induces joy instead of a wave of anxiety? Try every last thing on. "I like Marie Kondo’s question about whether something sparks joy and often use it myself. But I disagree on one point: I think you have to try on your clothes to know if they bring you joy. What's really important is how a piece of clothing feels once you're wearing it," she says. If you slip something on and it makes you feel like smiling, it's a keeper. "But if you feel a little uncomfortable or insecure or just blah, then that item is probably going to sap your natural joy—it's taking away from you rather than adding—and it should go."

During closet purges past, I had only tried things on if I was unsure whether they still fit. But taking the extra time to actually put every garment on before I made a decision about whether I would keep it was a game-changer. Once something is on your body and you're looking in the mirror, it just becomes about following your intuition about how you feel in that moment—not trying to ask and answer a ton of "what if" questions in your head about the item in your hand.

While my wardrobe still isn't quite as edited down as I want it to be (hey, progress not perfection!), I now have a better idea of my personal style and the pieces that fit into it. And that's definitely something to smile about.

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