The Real Reason You Can’t Keep Your Home Clutter Free

If you’re like a lot of decluttering expert Tracy McCubbin’s clients, once you finally your home ends up even worse just few months later. She shares tips for decluttering once and for all and for letting go of our emotional ties to our possessions. 

cluttered white kitchen with piles of mail

Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images

At least once a week I arrive at a new client’s house to find the same scenario: in an ambitious moment they agreed to host some kind of event at their house, the next PTA or Book Club meeting, or maybe even Thanksgiving—and now they are staring down the enormous overwhelm of getting their clutter under control. The back of the couch has become a weigh station. The entryway is where backpacks and shoes go to die. The kitchen counters have the Leaning Tower of Junk Mail on them. The closets are so stuffed, no one can get out the door on time without completely stressing out in the mornings. And asking themselves if their kid’s cleats “spark joy” is not solving the problem.

What I’ve found over 10 years I have been helping people get their homes—and their lives—back under their control is that excess clutter is a lot like excess weight. Maybe you are someone who can say, “Oops, I hit the buffet a little too hard on that cruise, let’s up the leafy greens for a few weeks,” and easily hit your target. You are probably then also someone who can empty your house based on a "joy" system and then keep it that way. But what most of my clients find is that even if they can purge based on that system, within a few months their house is a disaster again. And they don’t know why.


The answer is that for most people the clutter comes in and piles up because they are up against one of what I have identified as the 7 Emotional Clutter Blocks. We have all hit up against them at some point in our lives.

Making Space, Clutter Free: The Last Book On Decluttering You’ll Ever Need

Photo courtesy of Tracy McCubbin

Photo courtesy of Tracy McCubbin

Tracy McCubbin writes about the 7 Emotional Clutter Blocks in her forthcoming book, Making Space, Clutter Free: The Last Book On Decluttering You’ll Ever Need, due June 4, 2019.

Stuck in the Past

Let’s take your kid’s artwork. When you look at the old turkey hand from kindergarten, you immediately remember when they were little. Now, they’re deciding on which college they want to attend, and you want to keep everything to keep their childhood alive. So many of my clients have attics or garages filled with every single piece of clothing their child ever wore, every toy they played with, every object they touched. They’re drowning in clutter.

But once they confront that being stuck in the past is a clutter block they can embrace that letting go of toys that no one has played with in years in no way erases childhood. Instead, keeping a few cherished things will not only keep those memories alive, but will enable a better future.

Avoiding Handling Grown-Up Stuff

How about the mail piled up on the kitchen counter? Does that letter from the IRS make anyone happy? Certainly not. That’s why my clients haven’t opened the mail in weeks and it’s piled up with all the other things they’ve been avoiding. It's a clutter block.

It’s a fact of life that we all have to deal with the paperwork of being an adult. Ignoring it and not dealing will not make it go away. In fact, it will just make it worse. Face your fears and open your mail.

My Fantasy Stuff for My Fantasy Life

How about the kitchen? Is yours stuffed with all kinds of fancy, expensive gadgets that you bought to “eat clean” or “go keto?” Do they bring you joy? Not necessarily, but I find clients think, “Wow, I spent a lot of money on this stuff, and even though I’ve never used it … maybe ... one day ... I might.” This is another clutter block, My Fantasy Stuff for My Fantasy Life. It manifests as buying aggressively for something that hasn’t happened yet—a promotion, a new relationship, making all your own canned goods, a tennis practice. But if you haven’t used something (or worn something) by now, there’s a really good chance you won’t ever. And that thing you are hanging on to has now become clutter.

And while everyone makes decluttering look easy, if it’s difficult for you, there are likely very good reasons. It’s hard. It’s emotional. And we throw up all kinds of blocks to hang on to the stuff we don’t need.

What I love about watching people release their emotional clutter blocks is that now that they truly understand why they bought and kept and maybe never put away that object, they don’t do it anymore. Which frees them up to us their home as the tool it’s supposed to be to support the life they want to be living. So look a little deeper at emotional meaning you have imbued your stuff with and when you realize you are in control, it will be a lot easier to let go.

About our expert

Tracy McCubbin

Photo courtesy of Tracy McCubbin

Photo courtesy of Tracy McCubbin

Tracy McCubbin is a decluttering expert, founder of dClutterfly, and author of Making Space, Clutter Free: The Last Book on Decluttering You’ll Ever Need, due June 4, 2019. You can read more about the 7 Emotional Clutter Blocks there.