I used to think being a messy person was just who I was, part of my DNA. I thought people who were clean were just born that way and I was doomed to live a life filled with clutter and mounds of laundry. After 4+ years of decluttering, I’m here to tell you that decluttering is a muscle. Just like you can build up your bicep muscles, you too can build the muscle to become a natural at decluttering and living in a clean and simplified home.

My messy habits are all on me. While my family loves the thrill of a good deal and is no stranger to thrift stores or yard sales, I’ve had a messy room since I was a kid.

In high school, the floor of my room was so cluttered you could barely see it. I had a pathway to get from the door to my bed. In college, I had to jump over my 3 foot pile of mess to get into bed. As newlyweds, my husband not only married me but my piles of paper on the table, my dirty dishes by the sink and my stack of random clutter on the floor of our bedroom.

Messy was just who I was. And then, I gave birth to my first child. Born at home during a peaceful, intimate birth, he came into my chaotic world of piles of laundry and produce left so long in the fridge, it grew it’s own colony.

One day as I was walking with my newborn who wouldn’t sleep anywhere but on me, I passed a house with clutter on the front lawn. There were broken chairs and old car parts. What disturbed me most was the array of old and broken toys laying around. If the front yard looked this cluttered, what did the inside look like?

My first thought was, “How could people live this way? How could they let their children live this way?” Then my compassion took over and I thought of all the instances that could lead to this: illness, disability, working two jobs, or caring for aging parents. Maybe they didn’t mean it to get this bad, but little by little, the stuff piled up.

On the walk home, I had an unpleasant epiphany: How could I let my son live this way? What would he learn growing up in a loving, but chaotic house with parents who often forgot to buy groceries until the fridge was bare or had to wash a pan with week old, crusted food residue just to cook dinner?

What lessons was he learning from the state of our house? I hadn’t grown up in a messy house, so I knew that this wasn’t the way most people lived. But would he? Or would he grow up into an adult who continued the downward spiral?

Decluttering: The 30 day fix

So I decided to change all my habits and decluttered my entire house in 30 days — Just kidding. If only it were that easy. I’ve been on this journey for four years and I’m still in a state of progress.

It’s a good thing that this journey has taken so long. You know why? Because decluttering and getting your house in order is all about developing new habits. Just like Biggest Loser contestants who gain back all their weight or New Year’s resolutions that are abandoned by Valentine’s Day, any habit that’s changed quickly requires a heck ton of willpower. When you run out of willpower, you end up abandoning that goal.

But what if each step of the goal was so tiny you barely even noticed them? What if instead of losing 40 pounds in five weeks, you lost it over the course of four years just by adding in an extra 20 minute walk per day? What if instead of extreme decluttering your house in a weekend, you did it over the course of five years?

“Declutter your whole house in five years.” It doesn’t make a good headline; it’s not going to sell papers or attract sponsors. But it works.

Building your decluttering muscle

Just like doing squats builds the muscles in your thighs, every item you decide to throw out or donate builds your tolerance for decluttering. It can be absolutely exhausting to decide whether to keep or get rid of something. As you make decisions to get rid of something, your willpower is depleted.

Spreading these decisions over the course of months or years doesn’t drain as much willpower all at once. On top of that, it allows you to experience what it feels like to live without the items you got rid of. In most cases, you don’t even remember what they were. This makes it easier to declutter future things.

Here are five tips for building your decluttering muscle:

  1. Start with something easy. Pick an area or a type of item that takes very little willpower or hesitation to get rid of. This may be old or broken items, expired food or duplicate items.
  2. Be mindful of what you bring in. Soo hard. When purchasing something, be honest with yourself if you have the time, skill, or capacity to use it at this season of your life. If you don’t, don’t buy it.
  3. Focus on progress, not perfection. Decluttering is a journey, not a one-time event. Every step — even tiny ones — is a step closer to your goal of a simplified and clean home.
  4. Get back on the horse. Let’s say you did a massive decluttering project only to find your home cluttered again a year later. This doesn’t mean you’re a failure. It means you’re human and live in a world with stuff, some of which will eventually find its way into your house. Get back on the horse and remember that decluttering is a journey.
  5. The more you do it, the stronger you get. Just like working out consistently makes you stronger, decluttering consistently over a prolonged period makes it easier to declutter. It may seem super hard at the beginning because you’re learning something new. This will get easier the more you do it.

So, what are you waiting for?

Set a tiny goal, like declutter and straighten up for five minutes every day. Or, every day find one object that can hit the road. Focus on progress, not perfection.

If you’re waiting for the perfect time to declutter, don’t. Perfection doesn’t exist and you’ll find yourself waiting to your grave. Every item that goes out your door is one less item in your home. Every item gone is one more step towards your goal.

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