"Compulsive Decluttering" Is A Very Real Thing — Are You Doing It?

mbg Contributor By Tracy McCubbin
mbg Contributor
Tracy McCubbin is a decluttering and organizational expert who has spent the last decade decluttering over 1,200 homes around the country. She has a bachelor's from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and most recently authored Making Space, Clutter Free: The Last Decluttering Book You’ll Ever Need.
Sideboard table in dining room with record player, brass candlesticks, and plants

Image by Lauren Edmonds / Stocksy

As a personal organizer and declutterer, a big part of my job has always been telling people to let things go. Clients pay me to stand over them and insist that they have to part ways with the things they don't use, need, or even really want.

But lately, I've been coming across another type of person—the type who, when I tell them what I do for a living, says, "Oh, I don't have a problem with clutter. I throw EVERYTHING away." And while this reaction may seem like the pinnacle of minimalism, I think it illustrates a new type of emerging problem. This person is what I like to call an "ODC," or over-declutterer. 

The problem with "over-decluttering."

Think about it this way: When we throw something away, where's away? Well, more often than not, it's a huge landfill filled with waste that is slowly decomposing and emitting harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming in the process. So again, when you throw something away, where's away?

Donating your clutter instead of tossing it isn't a perfect solution either since some large donation centers are so overrun with low-quality stuff that they end up shipping it off to be resold in other countries (again, emitting harmful greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming in the process) or tossing it in a landfill. We can't use donating as a justification to keep buying more.

Returning stuff is another increasingly popular way to get it off your hands. On January 2, 2019, UPS collected an estimated 2 million packages to be returned across the country. And that's just in one day! At this rate, holiday returns are expected to increase by 26% compared to 2018. This is a problem because, in many cases, it can cost a company more to make sure an item is still in resellable shape than to just throw it away. So there's a chance that your returns just get tossed too; One study from Research Dive found that up to 5 billion pounds of them do a year.

Moral of the story: Constantly clearing stuff out of your home is unsustainable, and it's probably a sign that you're allowing too much into your space in the first place. Just as we need to think critically about what we throw out, we need to think about what we're bringing in.

If a constant need to audit your space is keeping you from feeling restful, calm, and happy at home, then it's time to reconsider your habits—always. If you only buy what you truly need, want, and use, that itch to declutter should fade. 

If you fear you might have ODC and need some guidance on what to toss and what to keep (yes, a pro declutterer telling you to keep something!), here are four questions to ask yourself:

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1. Do I use it on a semi-regular basis?

By semi-regular, I mean once a year or more. The large platter that holds the turkey at Thanksgiving every year? It stays! But the old sleeping bags that haven't been on a camping trip in 10 years can go.

2. Is it making me money?

Do you use the item at your job, or does it help you generate income somehow? More than likely, that's something that should stay.

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3. Can I buy it again for a reasonable price or borrow it?

Is it costing you more to store it or fix it than it would be to buy it again? Or is it something everyone has and it would be easy (and free) to borrow from someone you know? It can go.

4. Do I have a place to store it?

Have something that's useful and have a place set aside to store it? Great, then it stays. But if it always ends up shoved on a closet shelf and falling on your head, it's a sign that it might not be that useful after all and can go.

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