Of pachyderms and clutter: The (white) elephant in the room

A guest post by Nicole V

“Garages are the elephant burial ground of the 21st century,” according to decluttering guru Peter Walsh. “Stuff goes in. Stuff never comes out.” Well, I don’t know about garages, but we certainly had a period of time when stuff definitely went into our storeroom, seldom to appear again. This was way before we began to declutter, in fact way before decluttering was even a twinkle in my eye. And looking back now, I realize that I’ve encountered a few elephants while decluttering, figuratively speaking, of course.

Our storeroom had way too much stuff, stuff that was nice and in good (if not mint) condition, but most of which we did not really need or use often. It was a motley group of too many items just hanging out together (and sometimes even jostling feverishly for elbow room) in too small a space, with many of them not earning their keep. And just like in the John G. Saxe poem about the blind men and the elephant, the disparate items in our storeroom could have been variously described as to-be-used-someday, duplicate, just-in-case and sentimental stuff, the sum total of which added up to clutter.

We had lovely coffee-table books, Christmas decorations, two different types of Christmas tree lights, an aromatherapy set, lovely coffee-table books, sports equipment, beautiful porcelain plant pots, crystal glassware and vases, home gadgets, tools, and … have I already mentioned lovely coffee-table books? In addition to all that, there was also a white elephant (or three) somewhere in there, all of which had been gifts. And mind you, these are only the items that immediately come to mind, I’m sure there must have been more.

We never had the chance to offload the white elephant gifts at a white elephant gift exchange party, although they did eventually leave our home without exacting any financial penalties, unlike a real white elephant. Apparently, the term can be traced back to the white (albino) elephants given by the Siamese kings in the days of yore, to any courtier that became a right royal pain in the rear, in the hope that this would lead to the latter’s financial ruin, due to the jumbo-sized (I bet you saw this one coming a mile away) maintenance costs involved. Since the white elephant was sacred, it could not be put to work and was a colossal financial burden to the recipient. The term later gained currency as referring to something that was useless and unwanted. Our white elephant gifts were of no use to us, but could have been useful to someone else, so we were relieved to send them ambling out our front door.

Luckily, all that stuff inside never became the proverbial elephant in the room for us. It can be easy for clutter issues to affect the family and interfere with relationships, causing underlying tension and stress. Family members might refuse to acknowledge or address the clutter, even when it is so obvious – like an actual elephant in the room would be.

Then there is, of course, the little joke that I kept coming across:

Q: How do you eat an elephant?

A: One bite at a time.

This always precedes advice on how to tackle a huge decluttering project, by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable tasks, so that you don’t get overwhelmed – sound advice, to be sure, and applicable not only to decluttering. If you have to clear a cluttered home and you start attacking on all fronts, it will likely leave you demoralized before long and you will probably give up. However, if you break it down and tackle the clutter room by room or by categories (books, clothes, paper, photos, etc.), it would be easier to attain your goal. With the storeroom, we began with the low-hanging fruit and tackled the easy stuff first – the unneeded, unwanted, unused and occasionally, even the unbelievable (as in “Why do we even have this?”) items. That led to a great deal of stuff going out the door, which brings me to the next elephant, um, I mean, point.

There is a quote by billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens – “When you are hunting elephants, don’t get distracted chasing rabbits” – which we applied to the s(t)uffocated storeroom, by decluttering first and then organizing what was left. While it might be tempting, when faced with a huge amount of stuff, to think that more space and more storage would magically solve the problem – and then get sidetracked into organizing clutter using chic storage solutions, instead of getting rid of it – unnecessary stuff in neatly-labelled colour-coordinated containers will not magically transform into useful items just because they now live in posh homes. The stuff in our storeroom did not need pretty containers or packaging or clever hiding places, it just had to go, as there was no point hiding clutter in style.

So, does Peter Walsh’s comment ring true for you – is there an area in your home that resembles an elephant graveyard or did you ever have such an area? And do you have any other linguistic associations between elephants and clutter to share? Have any of the above elephants lumbered onto your path during your decluttering journey or are you currently dealing with any of them?

Today’s Mini Mission

“If we do not feel grateful for what we already have, what makes us think we’d be happy with more?” — Unknown

Eco Tip for the Day

For a full list of my eco tips so far click here

It matters not how fast I go, I hurry faster when I’m slow

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About Colleen Madsen

Colleen is the founder of 365 Less Things and lives in Newcastle, Australia.


  1. Oh, yes! This is just what I needed. Over the past 6 months we have systematically decluttered our little cottage and now it is almost perfect. What a glorious feeling! Then we realized that an elephant lived just outside our back door. The dreaded garage! Everyday I would think, “Ok, this is the day. Let’s do it.” Then something else would (thankfully) get in the way. Everyday I “plan” to work in the garage. Yesterday, I even went out there — but quickly returned to the sanctity of the house. It was so overwhelming. It scared me. That darn elephant was just too big!

    Today, I am going to tackle just an ear. I can do just an ear, right? Here I go!

    • Hi Wendy and welcome to 365 Less Things. Yes, I think one ear might be very doable. Good luck out there.

    • Hi, Wendy. Speak softly and carry a big fork; you will go far (with apologies to T. Roosevelt). Take it one body part at a time … :-).

  2. For several years my clutter was neatly organized and out of sight. Once I recognized the organization as way to hide clutter I’ve working on reducing my clutter and found that I really don’t have a need for those organizational systems. Through out the process I’ve found many “why do I even have this”?

    • Hi, Calla. I’m sure at least a few of us would have organized stuff in the first instance, only to declutter later … which brings to mind the A.A. Milne quote: “Organizing is what you do before you do something, so that when you do it, it is not all mixed up”.

  3. One thing you didn’t mention, Nicole, was real elephants (or replica elephants, to be precise). Have you ever noticed that almost every household has an elephant in it somewhere? Somewhat akin to cats, frogs, pigs, and roosters, elephants seem to have a habit of showing up, and then mysteriously multiplying.

    • Hi, Wendy B. Now that is an interesting observation and a really good point … we don’t have any elephant replicas but I do remember a small pair in the family home when I was growing up. I’m eager to hear any comments regarding your observation from the other 365ers as well.

      • We actually have one, we did have 3 or 4 of them at one time that I have since thrown out because as the blog goes…. they were useless. The last one stands only because it actually is a candle holder and thus serves a purpose. 🙂

    • Wendy B – my mum had a few ornamental elephants in the house when I was a girl, and for some reason everyone decided to gift her with many, many more. She ended up with elephants everywhere and I dont think she actually set out to collect them.

      • I think you’ve just aptly described how many ‘collections’ unwittingly start, Moni. 🙂

        • Ian had just that kind of elephant ‘collection’ when we met. I don’t think he ever bought any of them. His ‘herd’ has been culled to one. I also have one, souvenir of the round-the-world backpacking trip in my youth. Both are keepers.

          We are known birdwatchers so people now give us bird stuff. Fortunately, most people have been cured of giving us gifts so we don’t get a lot, and we’re able to discretely dispose those we don’t want. On NOT discretely, in the case of pink lawn flamingos…

          • Speaking of pink flamingos Wendy B, check out the flamingo beer funnel (if you have the time) in “The ultimate white elephant gift guide: 60 extremely unusual gifts”. I laughed at the muffin top cupcake moulds and the bacon scarf but found the NC pillow covers creepy.

            And I found lots of pictures of elephant tattoos on Pinterest – I can just about imagine you rolling your eyes at this. 😉

          • Also good for a few more laughs: “White elephant gifts people will actually LIKE”. [Note to self: Check if the library has copies of Tim Federle’s “Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a literary twist” – sounds like a fun read (hic!) and F.L. Fowler’s (a pseudonym) “Fifty shades of chicken: A parody in a cookbook” … nothing like adding more heat in the kitchen!].

  4. Hi Nicole V, that was a fun post to read! 🙂

    Today I visited “Box Mountain” on our back porch. I retrieved a couple of my things from our daughters pile, cleaned them up and one (a piece of pottery) will go to my husbands room. The other was a set of (2) dinner plates that are pretty but too heavy and never used. Those will go to Goodwill. A couple of cardboard lids I was saving for donations became unglued and are now in the trash. I found 3 books to donate to our local library. The other books were divvied up to a box for our daughter and another box for us. I saw some unidentified old hardware out there, so asked my husband to figure out if we needed that. It’s in the trash now. A few of those zippered “baggies” that sheets come in are now with my collection of things in the garage to use for broken glass or other sharp objects that need to be disposed of. All the empty storage containers are now together in one corner of the porch. The porch needs much more work, but it’s more functional (room for my clothes drying racks) and looks a little better.

    • Hi, Peggy … and thank you! Wow, great job in tackling “Box Mountain” – I got a good laugh at the name … keep at it so that it never gets the chance to become “Mt Clutter-more”. 😉

  5. Nicole V, as happens quite frequently, I was working on the subject before I knew the subject! Ha!
    Yes, I really was working in the garage when I found your article.

    Thankfully, there are no big elephants out there! However, maybe a couple of babies. I have some leftover things from a yard sale 3 weeks ago that I’ve got to figure out what to do with. There’s a couple of small tables waiting to be painted, a couple of boxes going to the thrift store. And, there’s some collectibles that a friend will take this weekend for her charity. However…….

    The real problem is INSIDE the garage closet, which is under the stairwell going to the bonus room over the garage. It is over full and I can never seem to keep it organized. And there’s nothing in there to be gotten rid of! It is where I keep my canning supplies (jars, canners, lids, etc, ) along with emergency supplies. (camp stove, extra propane bottles, and things for when the electricity is off which can happen every winter here). There’s a food dehydrator. You get the idea. There are shelves to the ceiling which I try to keep organized. The closet is shallow and only a normal height right in front of the door. To the right, the ceiling is going downhill under the steps. It is a great use of the space but just not large enough for what I store. It is invariably one of those spots that things just get kind of thrown into when you are in a hurry. It is a twice a year chore to restore order in there. Sigh……………

    • Hi, Brenda … now that’s a happy coincidence and impeccable timing. 🙂 I empathize with you about the difficult garage closet … maybe the other 365ers could chime in with some good suggestions.

  6. I really enjoyed this post but first I will detour to tell a little story. My youngest daughter’s ballet class are a really fun bunch of girls and the class had stayed intact (less 1 or 2) for 11 years.

    They were about 7 or 8 and learning something tricky and moaning that they’d never get it, so their teacher said “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time” to which she got shocked silence. My daughter (usually the spokes person) asked? “Who killed the elephant?” another girl chimed in with “Is it against the law to kill elephants?” and another girl “who killed the elephant?” followed with “was it old and sick? My cat had to be put to sleep at the vets” another girl chimed in with that she had been to the zoo and seen a real elephant.

    The teacher tried to explain that the elephant wasnt dead, it was just a saying to explain how to do something in small steps, but the girls were on a roll and once again it was my daughter who asked “But why would you eat a live elephant? Wouldnt that hurt the elephant?” And from there it kept rolling, with further explanations from the teacher and further quandries and tangents from the class. One of the girls also chimed in with “Wont the elephant meat go rotten before you finish it?” And someone else asking were they allowed to cook the elephant or did they have to eat it raw?

    Fortunately the teacher hasnt encountered this kind of reaction to her favourite saying before or after, but to this day with this class she has changed it to “How do you eat a not-real purely philosophical elephant?”

  7. I guess my elephant room is the attached shed. While it isn’t too bad it looks it because of all the loose, thrown in boxes.

    • Hi, Deb J. Are you keeping those boxes for your upcoming move?

      • Yes, Nicole V, we are. I just can’t get Mom to break them down so they aren’t all over the place and taking a lot of space.

  8. Nicole,
    Awesome post 🙂
    I grew up on the mainland USA being taught that a “garage” was a home for your automobile(s) and perhaps a workbench and tool area. Garden equipment was kept in the small “garden shed”. Seasonal decorations like Christmas were stored in the attic.
    It amazes me how many people will leave a $40,000+ automobile in their driveway against the elements while their garages are packed to the brim with clutter.
    When we relocated to Hawaii 15 years ago, we found another garage elephant. It is a cultural thing here in the islands, but most locals use their garages as hang-outs, entertaining spaces.

    • Hi, Kimberley … thank you! 🙂 I was actually thinking of you when I asked my second question, so thanks for sharing that nugget of information.

  9. I so enjoyed your post, Nicole! Unfortunately we have several white elephant spaces, due to closing a business, a college student’s apartment contents, and a dozen years of too much work and too many family obligations. And a good part of the items aren’t mine to make decisions on. However, my husband and I are trying to tackle them together and have plans for some of the bulkier things. And I need to get working on the things that are just mine. I’ve had a major life change that will allow me the time to do that. My new mantra will be “One ear at a time” – ha ha!

    • Hi, Jo H. I’m glad you enjoyed what I wrote … thank you. Line those elephants up in the crosshairs and take it one step at a time. It’s great that you have the time, a decluttering buddy and mantra on your side.

    • oops – I meant one *bite* at a time 🙂

  10. My spare room! I’ve been dreading going in there to empty it before my move but I peeked in the door Sunday and realized half of it is filled with partial rolls of gift wrap and gift boxes saved from Christmases and birthdays past.
    My first giddy thought was that I’m not paying movers to move used gift boxes. My second more melancholy thought was that I would never have needed all those boxes even if I weren’t moving. They were all carefully flattened and bagged and piled up waist high. What was I thinking?

    • Hi, Joanie. Oh, to have a dollar for every single “What was I thinking?” moment … And it is easy for a dreaded task to build up to Herculean proportions in our minds, only to turn out less so when we actually get down to tackling it.

    • Joanie – I was thinking recently about how much per square metre that it costs for movers – and at what point do we compare the cost of the items in the boxes. I realise that there are a lot of logistics for value, cost of replacement, paying for truck space whether its used or not etc etc, but we did watch relatives rent a big truck (which also needed a professional driver) rather than a U-Haul type vehicle, because they insisted on taking junk with them.

      I also think of the packing and unpacking, carrying boxes to the truck and out at the other end. Unless of course, you pay for professional packers, but if you can reduce the amount of stuff that you have to physically carry on the day, that’s got to make the whole day a bit better.

      We’ve all had those “what was I thinking?” moments, so don’t worry, you’re in good company. I hiffed the last of our wrapping paper today, it appears the box it sat in had had something heavy dropped on it. Yay, finally the last of it is gone!

      Colleen gave a great suggestion earlier in the year, when out buying a gift, buy a gift bag at the same time, don’t stock them. I have done so this year and its been easy, cheap (because I don’t have money tied up in ones sitting around) and I have the item right there with me to pick the right size.

  11. Thank you Nicole V for your enlightening stories on Elephants, especially the white ones .

  12. Hi, Wendyf … and you’re welcome. So nice to hear from you :-).

  13. My basement is where the white elephant lives. That’s where I keep all the “stuff” I don’t seem to use.

    • Hi, Kayla. Apart from garages, I suspect that there are many white elephants roaming the ABCs (attics, basements and closets) of the world. You are definitely not alone. Do you have any immediate plans to tackle your basement?

  14. I can see my husband’s elephants, but mine are invisible.

    • Hi, Jay B. Selective clutter blindness … it does and can happen to the best of us. 🙂

  15. I used to have an Elephant’s Graveyard called the garage. It took many months chipping away at it get it under control. The problem was the entire garage floor was covered and the entire attic area above the garage was chock full too. There was stuff on the garage floor that needed to be put into storage, but there was no room above and I couldn’t bring down stuff from the attic to get rid of because there was no room to move stuff. As I said it took months and months. I can’t even remember what all the stuff was.

    As attic is on this week’ss Mini Missions, I plan to give it some attention this weekend. It has gotten untidy up there lately and I like to do a cull every six months or so, this is because stuff in storage gets forgotten about and stuff can pass its ‘expiry’ date (gone out of usefulness) while sitting quietly. I had to find something yesterday so I grabbed the empty gift wrap box (yay!) and a broken suitcase, both of which are now gone.

    • I like your “expiry date” comment, Moni. I’ve come across items that were way past their “usefulness” dates, that were “sitting quietly”, trying their best to blend into the surroundings. Sometimes, the quieter they sit, the longer their usefulness dates have passed.

  16. Other random facts about elephants, courtesy of Google: Elephants are also important in feng shui. They are used to attract good luck and wealth, and for fertility and protection, depending on where you place them, the direction they face and what they are made of. And upward- and downward-facing elephant trunks signify different things.

    Elephants also appear as lucky charms on bracelets and some people believe that wearing a bracelet made of elephant hair will bring them luck.

    They turn up in dreams as well. If you dream that you are riding an elephant, it apparently means that you are the family leader, with others depending on you. If you dream of elephants at a circus, it means that you might be indifferent towards a particular situation in your life.

  17. I’m late to this comment party, but great guest post, Nicole V! I didn’t know that about the origin of the term “white elephant.”

  18. Hi, Melanie … and thank you! I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  19. The “white elephant” around here is my husband’s shop/man room. I should say HERD of white elephants!

    The closer he gets to age 70, the more he realizes he simply has too much stuff, and he’s started thinning out, but wow–you’d be amazed at the amount he still has.

    I’ve offered to help him declutter many times, but he says I “throw out everything”, so he’s too scared, ha ha.

    • Hi, Becky. It’s good that your husband’s aware of the clutter in his man-cave and is doing something about it. Would he at least let you help him to deal with the stuff that he has decided he no longer wants, whether it should be donated, recycled, etc? That would allow him to fully concentrate on the task at hand.