How to break the decluttering cycle

When it comes to decluttering, one of the biggest mistakes people make is to go hard and fast. You decide that you’re going to take a certain amount of time, and rush to get it done. Making space can be exhilarating, but what happens next?

At some point, you might find yourself backsliding. You’re not able to maintain the results for the long term. Piles build up, surfaces crowd, and you’re back where you started.

Knowing how much stuff you just purged, you feel uneasy about shopping and bringing more into your space. Some people give up at this point, and decide that decluttering doesn’t work for them. Others find themselves stuck in a cycle of “declutter and re-fill.”

I found myself stuck in a cycle of “declutter and re-fill."

The story begins on a breezy spring day, about nine months after moving into my first apartment. I cracked open the windows, rolled up my sleeves, pulled out an oversized bin of beauty products.

This bin had been in my childhood bedroom since middle school and when I moved away from home after college I brought it with me. None of my favorites or everyday products were in there, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it contained items I might want to use at some point. You never know, right?

Wrong. As I sifted through the bin, I realized this was where my beauty products came to die. Pots of glitter and Lip Smackers from the 90s. Beat up makeup compacts. Perfume samples. Hotel soaps. Half empty bottles of shampoo and body wash. I tossed it all in the trash, proud of myself for finally taking the leap. 

About a year and a half later, it was time to move. Well, I didn’t have a gigantic 10-year-old bin of beauty products like last time, but I did notice that I’d accumulated a beauty product graveyard once again.

I didn’t really have a lot of money to throw around on beauty products. It really bothered me that I’d spent my money on dead ends, when I felt so much lack in other areas of my life. 

I resolved to change my ways, but I didn’t know how. A year and a half later, I moved again and faced down the beauty product graveyard again. And I beat up on myself again. And I resumed overspending on dead-end beauty products again.

I lost track of how many times I repeated this cycle, but the last time, I did things differently.

Rather than rush through tossing things out of my bin, I took some time to get to know this difficult category and understand my relationship to it.

Before, I was asking myself questions like: How long have I had this item? When was the last time I used this item? Will I really use this item again?

…and then I would decide if it’s clutter, and stop there.

This time, before I threw things out or put them away, I took inventory and collected data by asking myself questions like: Why did I acquire this item? Under what circumstances did I acquire this item? Why do I/don’t I use this item?

You know that saying that “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything”? All this time, I had no idea where I stood when it came to beauty products. What products I needed, what products I enjoyed, what kind of look I was going for, how much I wanted to spend. And on a bad day, I was vulnerable to “treating myself” inaccurately. 

This pattern always left me unsatisfied - but once I understood what was happening, I became empowered to change my ways. 

I’m happy to report that when it comes to beauty products, I have shifted my pattern from “declutter and refill” to “finish and replace”. My system maintains itself, apart from occasionally straightening it up, which is a quick, straightforward task. I haven’t had to deal with a beauty product graveyard in years, and my wallet thanks me for it. 

In addition to saving money, I’ve also saved a lot of time and energy. Because I spent a little more time up front getting to know this category and my relationship to it,  I’m a lot less preoccupied with shopping for beauty products, and can easily filter out the hype. My shopping experience is easy, pleasurable, and accurate.

Next time you find yourself inspired to declutter, I encourage you to slow down and give yourself the chance to really get to know a category. Even though this means taking a little more time at first, it will save you so much more in the long term.

With Love + Gratitude,