We have this idea that if we just get those pretty cushions … that beautiful display … those decorative elements … then it’ll all be okay! We want what we see in the magazines! But the reality is that we’ve got two dogs and two kids – so those fancy cushions just end up on the floor!

Clutter-free living


by Tracy Carter

Does the inside of your house look like an inorganic collection DUMPSITE? If burglars broke into your home, would they be likely to think someone else got there FIRST? When unexpected visitors drop by, do you draw the curtains and pretend no-one’s home so they don’t have to see the MESS???

Decluttering is the new ‘in’ thing when it comes to home-decorating. Many people find that they’re drowning in STUFF – too many papers, too many toys, too many knick-knacks … lurking in corners, cupboards and drawers … spilling onto counters, coffee-tables and floors … creating havoc everywhere they look. And their overbooked schedules make it impossible to fit in the things that really matter. 

Ruth Soukup managed to dig herself out of her own ‘overstuffed’ house and calendar. And she’s shared her decluttering journey in a new book: ‘Unstuffed: Decluttering Your Home, Mind & Soul’. We caught up with her and asked how we can reduce the clutter in OUR homes – and OUR lives.

GRAPEVINE: Your journey to combat clutter came to a head following, of all things, a hurricane! What was it about that particular event that forced you to deal differently with your ‘stuff’?

RUTH: Before my husband and I met, we’d both lived on our own, so when we married we had to merge two houses into one. When the hurricane hit it turned everything upside down – we were already over-cluttered and then we had to deal with the mess and materials of construction.

While we were going through that process, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law died within a short time of one another, which meant we now had another two households of stuff added to ours. 

We also had two kids, and all the things that go along with that. Plus there was the stuff I was bringing in – because I was shopping a lot! It was just complete chaos – we were definitely ‘overstuffed’! I knew I needed to do something drastic, so that’s what led to my ‘31-Days to a Clutter-Free Life’ challenge.

GV: What was the most surprising thing you learned through doing the 31-day challenge’?

RUTH: When I started the challenge I put it out there on my blog, thinking that maybe a few other people might want to do this with me – and the response was crazy! Over 50,000 people signed up – they were completely into it! It was such an eye-opener for me to realise that I wasn’t alone in this struggle. 

So many of us feel our lives have become filled up with stuff that we don’t need and don’t want. It was amazing, and such a motivator, to get to that point of realising that I don’t need this stuff to control me anymore, and to understand how little I actually needed. 

GV: You mentioned that one of the reasons for your ‘stuffed’ house was all the shopping you were doing! But what about paper clutter and other things we haven’t actually bought? Things that end up on kitchen benchtops and in ‘junk drawers’ …

RUTH: For any area that’s a natural clutter collector, I recommend that people ask themselves: What’s happening here, and what’s the simplest solution I can implement that I’ll actually use? I think people get frustrated because they come up with some amazing system – like a filing cabinet with special folders – and it stays organised for about three hours … until the kids come home with another pile of papers from school, and it all ends up back on the kitchen bench!

If it takes 10 steps to file something away, then it’s never going to work for a busy family. Instead, having an inbox on the bench to collect things, and then going through those papers once a week, is simple enough to actually work. When my own kids come home with stuff from school each day, I look at their work and admire it with them, and then pop it into a basket at the top of their cupboards where it’s totally out of the way. Then, at the end of the school year, we spend an afternoon going through it all and deciding what to keep. 

When you’re going through a year’s worth of stuff it’s not quite as emotional – it’s easier for them to see what’s really special and worth hanging onto. 

GV: So you involve your kids and teach them how to choose what to hang onto instead of keeping EVERYTHING for sentimental reasons …

RUTH: Yep! What we tell our kids is, “If everything is special, then nothing is special.” We really have to pay attention to what we really care about and what’s just ‘noise’. We try to do regular little purging sessions where we say, “Okay – what can we get rid of? Let’s choose 20 things …” and then they have to decide. They’re getting better at making those decisions and discerning what actually matters to them – and what they don’t really care about.

GV: How about those of us who are older – how do you reckon we should deal with our ‘overstuffed’ houses?

RUTH: We need to spend time thinking about what we actually want our homes to be – to create a vision for our home. I love this quote by William Morris: “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” 

I think one reason our lives get so filled with stuff is that we buy things according to this ideal we have in our heads, rather than the reality of how we’re actually living our lives, what actually happens in our home, and who we share our home with. 

We have this idea that if we just get those pretty cushions … that beautiful display … those decorative elements … then it’ll all be okay! We want what we see in the magazines! But the reality is that we’ve got two dogs and two kids – so those fancy cushions just end up on the floor!

GV: Okay. So what’s the first step to take when we want to declutter?

RUTH: The first step is to be honest with ourselves. We have to accept that our home’s not going to look like it’s out of a magazine. We need to ask “How do I want our home to feel when I walk in the door?” Do I want it to feel cluttered, or do I want it to feel calm? Do I want to feel guilty if there’s a pizza box sitting on the bench, or do I just want to be able to relax and enjoy an evening with friends without feeling embarrassed about a little mess? 

It’s also good to ask “Who are the people that are sharing this home with me, and what do they want?” When we’re not being conscious of how we use the home, that’s when problems with clutter can happen.  We need to move past the ideal of how we think we should use our home to the reality of how we actually use it – and come up with solutions for that. And once we have solutions, we can work on developing the habit of using those solutions …

GV: So Step 1 is finding solutions – and Step 2 is getting into the habit of using them?

RUTH: That’s right. I’m a big believer in creating habits for yourself. Research has shown that we have only a certain amount of willpower every day, and once we’ve used up our reserve of willpower it’s gone. But, by creating habits (getting into a pattern of doing things on a regular basis), we actually start to use a different part of our brain – one that doesn’t take up mental energy and doesn’t draw on our willpower at all!

So, the more you can get into the habit of decluttering – of doing quick and tidy tasks – the cleaner your house will be. But, more importantly, the less worn-out you’ll be from having to think about doing those things! It’s those little things: like making your bed every day, cleaning the kitchen sink every day, throwing your junk mail in the recycling as soon as it comes in …

GV: So besides bringing less clutter in and being more habitually tidy, what else can you suggest to combat a chronic problem with mess?

RUTH: Well, once you have less stuff (if you can get into those daily tidy habits and you’ve pared down the amount of clutter) it’s way easier to keep clean. Also, I think it’s important to be okay with imperfection – which requires a bit of mental discipline! When you think about your vision for your home, do you want people to admire your perfect decorations when they come and visit? Or, do you want them to feel comfortable? 

People are never going to remember how perfect everything looked, but they will remember how ‘at home’ they felt in your house and how much they enjoyed spending time with you. It really doesn’t matter what things look like.

My husband’s birthday is a week before Christmas. It’s always crazy busy with work, the kids, and end-of-year stuff. On his last birthday, it happened to be our kids’ school concert – and the only thing I’d managed to do was bake him a cake. I hadn’t even had time to clean up the dishes afterwards – and the house was a complete disaster! But there were several friends at the show, and I knew we had this cake at home, and my husband loves having people over …

So on a whim I just invited everyone to join us! We ended up having about 10 people over. The house couldn’t have been any messier, but nobody cared. We had so much fun – and I think that was the first time I’ve ever been comfortable enough to say, “It’s okay that it’s not perfect – I don’t need people to think my house is tidy all the time, because I’m pretty sure nobody else’s is!” 

It was such an eye-opener for me – and I think it happened because I’d written this book and I’d given a lot of thought to what my vision for my home is … ‘a place where everyone would always feel welcome’ … so that was what I was trying to accomplish.

GV: We’ve grown up with that old adage, “Waste not, want not” – which doesn’t always seem compatible with a goal of decluttering. Isn’t it a waste to get rid of things that we might need later, and maybe even have to re-purchase?

RUTH: It definitely feels that way sometimes, but I really don’t think that it is a waste to get rid of things. We think we’ll use it ‘someday’, but we never do. I like to tell people when they’re working to get rid of stuff, “Keep only that which is currently useful, regardless of who gave it to you and despite how much it cost.” 

When decluttering, there are two things that really hang people up. One is when they’ve paid a lot of money for something. And two, when someone has given them something as a gift. But here’s the thing: 

That item you purchased? The money is already gone. So holding onto something that you don’t want or need, isn’t ‘not wasting’ that thing – it IS wasting it! But it ISN’T wasteful if you give it to someone who’d use it. And it ISN’T wasteful if you sell it and get some of your money back …

My response to the other hang-up – people feel guilty about getting rid of gifts – is this: Your responsibility when you receive a gift is to say thank you and to be gracious – but beyond that, what you DO with the gift is up to you. You’re not obliged to hang onto something. Yes, it’s a fine line sometimes, because people’s feelings are involved. If your mother-in-law is going to be terribly offended that you gave away a gift that she’d chosen for you, then it’s not worth getting rid of! But with a few exceptions, that rule should stand: “Keep only what is currently useful, regardless of who gave it to you and despite how much it cost.”

GV: In your book you describe how you got sick of nagging your daughters to tidy their toys and ended up just boxing everything up. What happened next?

RUTH: Yep, I was that mean Mum who took all my kids’ toys away! Well, it was a huge turning-point for us. What I expected was that my girls would be full of remorse, and that they’d be willing to keep things tidy from then on just to get their stuff back – but that wasn’t what happened at all. They weren’t even interested in their stuff. Would you believe they actually said, “Mummy, it’s great – now we can use our imaginations!” And they did! They’ve got great imaginations. 

They did get some of their stuff back eventually. And it’s been several years since that happened, so they’ve now got more things from Christmases, birthdays, grandparents’ gifts. There’s always stuff coming home, one way or another. It’s a constant battle with kids, for sure.

GV: That regular influx of gifts and treats is part of the clutter-challenge for lots of families – how has your family dealt with that side of things?

RUTH: We’re pretty strict about this. For birthday parties we very clearly request – almost insist upon – no gifts. We put it on the invitations: “Please, no gifts – your presence is your present.” It was hard at first, but by now our friends know where we stand, so they stick to it pretty well. With grandparents, of course, you want to be grateful, but we do try to reiterate our hopes! We suggest that they plan an experience or outing with the kids, rather than just giving them stuff. And the gifts we give our own kids are usually experiences, rather than physical objects.

GV: We’ve talked about a general approach to keeping clutter at bay, and how to get started. But can you give us a plan, a concrete approach, to the mammoth task of decluttering a very full and messy house?

RUTH: I talk about getting FREE of clutter: 
Fighting the flow
Ruthlessly purging
Establishing limits, and 
Emphasizing quality over quantity.

First you have to fight to stop the flow of clutter. You’ll never achieve that vision of your home if you declutter but then keep bringing more stuff in. So stopping the flow is the first step, and it’s crucial.

The next step is to reduce your possessions by ruthlessly purging (applying the rule I mentioned above to get rid of anything that’s not currently useful). 

The first ‘E’ of being FREE from clutter is to establish strict limits – setting actual numerical limits on things, especially things that you might struggle with buying too much of. You might set a limit on clothes, for example. I set a limit of 40 hangers in my cupboard and I have to stick with that. For kids you might limit the number of stuffed animals or Barbies. Establishing reasonable limits is key.

The last key is to emphasise quality over quantity

If you’re really committed to reducing the amount of stuff you have, you can be more selective about what you bring into your home. You can choose things that are higher quality, things that will stand the test of time, instead of just having a constant flow of semi-disposable junk that isn’t well-made and doesn’t last.

GV: It’s not just physical stuff that threatens to drown us, is it? Can you tell us about what you refer to in your book as ‘mental clutter’?

RUTH: Absolutely. With mental clutter, I think a lot of it is the stress of an over-filled schedule. In the same way that we fill up our homes with too much physical stuff, we fill up our time with too many activities. We can’t say ‘no’ to anything! It’s almost like a status symbol to demonstrate how busy you are. Instead of saying “I’m fine,” we say, “I’m busy.” We wear it like a badge and yet it’s not serving a purpose. It’s not filling us up or making us feel the way we want to feel. It’s the same thing that happens with stuff – we think that the busyness will give us meaning, but it doesn’t.

GV: Oh dear! How have we become so confused between fullness-of-schedule and fullness-of-life?

RUTH: That’s a good question. I think there’s always something we’re searching for – it’s part of the human condition. We’re very much ‘do-it-yourself’ oriented. We have this culture where we think that we can FIX ourselves, but at the end of the day we’re not meant to go it alone. The ultimate goal in becoming unstuffed is letting go of that need to do it all ourselves.
GV: How can we tell if our schedules have moved from ‘productive’ to ‘overcommitted’?

RUTH: I’d say if you’re feeling stressed all the time, then that’s a pretty good indicator you’re doing too much. Sometimes this can manifest itself by you getting sick all the time. You might suffer from recurring headaches or digestive issues. You may feel sad or stressed or angry for no apparent reason. You may struggle with relationships – arguing and fighting a lot with your family members or friends. Or you might find that your feelings hurt all too easily. 

A practical symptom might be that you’re missing deadlines, or that you’re dropping the ball all the time. If those things are happening regularly, it’s a pretty good indicator that you’re taking on too much.

GV: So what do you recommend we do to counteract the effects of stress?

RUTH: My number one tip for alleviating stress is: get enough sleep – it’s practically a miracle cure for almost all stress! It’s amazing how much brighter the world seems after a good night’s rest. So often we think we can get more done by getting less sleep, but, in reality, sleep is the number one thing we can do for our sanity, for our well-being, for our health. 
If you’re only going to do one thing after reading my book or reading this interview, do this: prioritise sleep!

GV: So a good night’s rest can make all the difference! What about during our time awake – how can we reduce stress during daylight hours?

RUTH: We also need to have down-time when we’re awake. It’s really hard to prioritise rest – especially if you’re a busy, productive person – because rest feels so unproductive. And yet it’s the only way to find balance in your life. A lot of times, again because of our DIY culture, we think we can schedule balance into our life: if we can somehow manage to schedule everything equally, then we’re balanced … 

But real balance only happens if we actually STOP and do something that’s completely stress-free and restful. 

It’s hard to do but it’s so important. You don’t even realise how desperately you need a break when you’re in the thick of it, but then when you get that break it’s like you can finally exhale. You have some room to breathe, and it’s fantastic. So rest is essential.

GV: You spend a whole chapter in your book talking about relationships. What’s the link between relationships and clutter or stress?

RUTH: Many of the issues we have with relationships are the same as the issues we have with ‘clutter’ in the rest of our lives: we fill our homes with too much stuff, we fill our schedules with too many activities – and sometimes we fill our lives with unhealthy or superficial relationships. Relationships that we think will make us happy but really aren’t adding anything to our sense of wellbeing. 

With people, however, it’s not simple – we can’t just throw people away! (I’m certainly not advocating that!) But I do think we need to be more purposeful about who we’re spending our time with. Social media has completely changed the game. We’ve traded real, meaningful relationships for these very superficial Facebook friendships. 

We need to ask ourselves: who are the people that we want to invest our time in? And instead of spending hours on, for example, Facebook every day, start investing in one or two meaningful friendships.

GV: You write: “It strikes me that the very process of decluttering our lives might cause us to uncover the things we have been valuing above all else.” Can you elaborate on that for us?

RUTH: Absolutely! I think a lot of times we focus on things like having a nice home, our kids, a busy schedule, a successful career … or even things that are less tangible, like having an elevated social status, feeling good about ourselves, or simply wanting to be happy. We place high value on those things – and yet what happens when all of that stuff fades away? What’s left for us, and what’s going to fill that space?

Ultimately, the only way to become ‘unstuffed’ is to stop doing it all ourselves – to find true balance and meaning in our lives. And for me, I find that through my faith. I know that I’m a mess – I’ll always be a mess! And yet grace is always there for me in spite of my messiness. 

Becoming truly ‘unstuffed’ is about more than just getting rid of extra possessions – it’s also about getting rid of the hold those material things have on you. Because only then can you understand how little you actually need.