Pick your battles and plan your campaign

I often get emails and comment from readers who are having issues getting other members of their households to conform with their newfound decluttering ideals. I can certainly understand their frustrations because they are trying so hard to bring order to their home while others are just not cooperating. So what can you do about this I am sure you are wondering. And the answer is continue to set a good example, gently communicate your wishes and be patient. And that sounds a lot easier that it is in practice.

Set a good example

This is the easy part because you are already doing this by continuing on with the decluttering you do have control over. For the time being just enjoy the difference you are making with your efforts. So long as there is clutter to be controlled that you have free rein over then you are making progress. Hopefully the benefits of that progress will start to be noticed by others and they will begin to come around to your way of thinking and start dealing with their own contribution to the clutter.

Gently communicate your wishes

You will notice that I say “gently communicate” not make demands. There is nothing like demanding for making the opposition dig their heals in. They will just get on the defensive and justify their mess, both to you and to themselves and this will only make the situation worse. Nagging or badgering is just a prolonged form of demanding and will only make you look like the bad guy. What you need to do is just let the others in the household know how important it is to you to make your home a serene place to be for everyone and how much of a drain on your emotions it has been living among the clutter for so long. Let the other members of the family know how pleased you are with the outcome of your efforts so far and why you feel it is important to continue on this journey. Try to find the words to explain simply and without judgment why you find the clutter to no longer  needed and what a burdensome weight it has become for you.

Be patient

I am not going to suggest for one minute that this is going to be easy but it is essential. You can’t change other people, only they have the power to do that. But you can be persuasive by your actions and your suggestions. Part of being patient may require learning ways to see the clutter but not let it affect how you see the clutterer.  It is so easy to equate the person with the mess and this can cause resentment and negative actions and responses. Remember that they most likely don’t see it as a problem.

Pick your battles and plan your campaign

By pick you battles I mean

  • Only try to implement changes on one thing at a time. You will receive more resistance if you demand too much change all at once. People often don’t notice little changes here and there but a sudden assault on all that they think they hold near and dear will surely put them on the defensive.
  • Like I suggest for any of your own decluttering, choose areas of change that you know aren’t to difficult to tackle. Leave the harder areas until you can detect a definite inclimation to conform readily in the other person.

Plan your campaign

First pave the way. As you are decluttering your own possessions be verbal about your thought processes so others begin to see the intent rather than just hear demands.

Discuss with your partner your wish to make your living environment more light and airy or cozy or whatever words describe your hoped for result.  You should also discuss your wish for a home easier to care for, etc.  If a partner knows you are looking for a particular result rather than thinking you are just “getting rid of things” you will have a better response.

Look for ways to get your partner’s cooperation without attacking them.  Ask them to be willing to help you with decisions but promise to only take a preset amount of time at preset intervals.  If they know they don’t have to “hear this over and over and spend ALL their time helping” they will be more cooperative.

There may be times when you need to actually show your partner how things should look. Devise and suggest solutions to the clutter areas of the home that you are most concerned about that are not within your control rather than demanding that the perpetrator cleans up their act. This may mean just asking if they are willing to let something go and taking care of the declutter method yourself. For example ~

  • Your partner has a habit of reading the newspaper everyday and then stacking them beside their lounge chair until recycling day. If you would prefer them to be gone after they are read perhaps you could just ask if it would be OK if you removed yesterdays paper when the new one arrives. One you establish the fact that the papers have only been stacked up out of laziness the next lesson might be to try to coerce your partner into becoming responsible for decluttering it themselves each day. This may seem a little pathetic but one step at a time is often a more successful approach.
  • Your partner has a basement full of “I might need it someday” items and you know that someday is unlikely if ever going to arrive. Instead of insisting that they get of their backside and deal with the “mess in the basement” try bringing one item up out of there each week and gently persuading them to let it go. Start with the item least likely to be of any use and work your way up until the basement is beginning to look more acceptable. Once they see the difference you have made perhaps they will join in the effort and begin decluttering independently.
  • You have a living room cluttered with pictures on the wall, “collectibles” on shelves, and various other “nic nacs” scattered around.  Rather than talking about decluttering the room, talk about taking everything out of the room so it can be rearranged.  Suggest that it doesn’t seem to be as conducive to the end result you are aiming for.  Then remove all the clutter, put back what you think “brings together” the result you want, and go through the decluttered items with your partner talking about why you don’t think it works and whether it should go elsewhere or should be sold/thrifted/discarded.

Today’s Mini Mission

Declutter something that you are keeping “just in case” you have grandchildren some day.

Today’s Declutter Item

Here is an example of clutter that I had no control over. As you may well have notice there have been baseball souvenirs and collectables vacating our home on a regular basis since my mission began. It was up to my husband to make the decisions on these and I have been happy to sit back and allow him the space and time to do this at his own pace.  With a little nudging here and there of course.

Albums of Baseball Cards

Something I Am Grateful For Today

Deb J who helped me put this post together. As I consider her the guru on this subject. She has gently guided her mother through the declutter process at least as long as I have been blogging and the change has been nothing short of miraculous.

“In daily life we must see that it is not happiness that makes us grateful, but gratefulness that makes us happy.” Brother David Steindl-Rast

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

Please follow and like us:
Pin Share

Continue reading with these posts:

  • Mini Mission ~ Friday 22Dec2017 Declutter a couple of old shabby shoes that you no long choose to use.
  • Mini Mission ~ Thursday 21Dec2017 Declutter your fridge of out of date items or by using up as much as possible before adding more. With the holiday season here you will likely need every inch of spare space.
  • Mini Mission ~ Wednesday 20Dec2017 Declutter by recycling some items. That mound ofused takeout containers, old newspapers and magazines, paperwork that needs shredding, glass jars you set aside in case you have a use for […]
About Colleen Madsen

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


  1. I think the most important thing to remember in this post is to set the example. It is easy to get after others about their things that are out of place, only to find out that you are also guilty of the same thing but in a different way. When you are doing what you should, then the patience and encouragement are the next step.

    • I agree entirely Spendwisemom.

      • Hi Colleen, hi Spendwisemum,

        Setting a good example ist crucial. Absolutely.
        BUT: if grown people (spouses, room mates, colleagues) use it against you that you don’t set a good example all the time/everywhere then a good thought is going wrong. Maybe I am too sensitive here but it seems I have always met people who rather picked at me for any (even the most minor) shortcomings and used them as an argument why they didn’t have to do anything (or why they were entitled to pick on me …). Then wanting to set a good example can become a trap. One needs to draw the line, I think, how good an example the others need (and deserve) before they should take action. I find the whole thing a bit hard to explain but I hope I am getting the thought across anyway: One doesn’t have to become perfect before others need to do anything. Everyone is entitled to ask others to look after their own stuff or help in communal space.
        Set good examples, put your own bar higher than that for others: Yes.
        But don’t let others use your behaviour as an excuse for their behaviour and make you feel guilty. You are not causing anyone to be cluttery or untidy. You are probably only not causing them to change – which is a big difference.

        • This is a very good point, Ideealistin – if the people in question are mature and open to change, a good example will likely lead them to follow. If they are of a more self-centered and selfish nature, it probably won’t have much effect. You have to know who you are dealing with, when deciding how much to lead and how much to push.

        • I was thinking more along the lines of living within a family situation where those around you ought to care about your feelings. Even in these situations one can fail. My daughter is a messy person and no amount of coercing would convince her to be other wise. Cohabiting with room mates could certainly be a different situation. In both situations you have the right to insist on people keeping the common areas in an orderly fashion but private spaces are just that. When my children were small I would insist they tidy their rooms but as they got older my authority dwindled. Kids leave home though and now only my son is here and I am happy enough if he clears the floor so I can vacuum it on cleaning day. He isn’t too bad though and puts his dirty clothes in the wash and keeps his bathroom tidy. In a cohabiting situation moving out is the only solution if people can’t comply with keeping the common areas clean. It is something I know I couldn’t tolerate.

  2. Spendwisemom, you are right. It is always best to model the behavior you want others to follow. It also really helps for them to understand why you are doing it. I will never forget that the reason I do many of the things I do today is because of the good example my parent were in many ways and how they explained why they did the things they did.

    • Good point Deb J. I did this with my children right down to teaching them to cook. There is no point in showing them how to cook something without explaining why there is order and a method to the recipe. Like making a rue for sauces, creaming butter and sugar or beating egg whites.

      I took my kids to a dentist when we first moved to America. They wouldn’t let me go in with them during their check up and then the dentist came out and told me my daughter needed four teeth pulled. When I asked why he told me “I wouldn’t tell you they needed pulling if it wasn’t necessary.” And that was his only explanation. Needless to say I changed dentists and oddly enough the next one didn’t seem to think that she needed teeth pulled. I dare say it was for cosmetic reasons. My children’s teeth aren’t perfect but they are happy with the way they look and so am I. The moral of this story is ~ if you want people to respect the way you do things you had better be forthcoming with an explanation.

      • You did right in changing dentists. If they won’t tell you a good reason why then it’s because they want money. I WILL NOT be the patient of a doctor who will not listen to me, tell my things and give good explanations. Just won’t.

      • Hi Colleen – good move swapping dentists.

        • The next dentist was a real treasure. The dentists here in Australia have commented more than once on what great fillings our one in America did. He got cancer a year or so before we left but when Liam went over there for a vacation three years later he was still there so he must have beat it.

  3. I found it useful to involve my spouse in decisions regarding MY stuff (Do you like this dress? Can you think of someone who could use this…?) It let him know what I was doing, and demonstrated that I was making thoughtful decisions not just throwing stuff away. By the time I used that tactic on ‘our’ stuff, he was already looking at his own things and asking me for help.

    • Great advice Wendy! I once read someone had a tactic where each year they were allowed to ‘veto’ three clothing items from their partner’s wardrobe. It meant it was the one time they could get those few hated items out (and it seemed to be super lazy clothes mainly, that were doing no one any favours!)

    • I do this too Wendy B. Especially if I am in two minds about getting rid of something. Not only does it let the other person into your decision making process and get them thinking about their own stuff but their input makes your decision making easier sometimes.

      I did this recently with my son. Not in relation to getting rid of something but about acquiring something. He wanted a new jacket but I think he has enough jackets and I explained to him why I was not comfortable with buying him another. The reason was not because of the money but because of the impact of buying stuff willy nilly has on the environment when it isn’t really necessary.

  4. This is such a timely post for me today! I think I need to find greater reserves of patience, and I don’t know how to do it. I have been asking my son to clean up his stuff since school finished six weeks ago, and yet the floors and every available surface of two rooms are strewn with papers, books, shoes, bits and pieces of junky little things, stuff which needs to be thrown away, no-brainer stuff. Some days I have said nothing, some days I have bribed or threatened to do it myself since it now seems to me that he really doesn’t care enough about it to look after it himself, sometimes like today I feel I have lost all my patience. My son just turned 18 and will be going to college in about five weeks. I don’t want to spend this time battling with him but at the moment we seem locked in a disagreement over how to deal with it all. He can’t seem to see why it matters. Ah well, maybe living in a tiny college room will force him to keep up with his stuff. Thank you for letting me go on here, it saved me from devouring a dozen chocolate chip cookies.

    • Hi Christine, my daughter is 23 and still can’t seem to keep her space tidy. Some just get it but some don’t. Here is my advice. Explain to him why it is important to you for him to clean up his mess. If that doesn’t yield results just wait until he wants something from you and tell him he can have it when he has cleaned up his room. If nothing else he will learn the in order to get what he wants out of life it pays to cooperate with those around him. Give and take is what it is all about after all.

    • I have to admit, I never cared about cleaning when I lived at home, but I took it up when I moved to shared living. At least for the shared places like kitchen, bathroom etc. there were rules (like: always do your dishes after cooking) and as these were also really needed (only two pots and one fry pan available), I was suddenly rather tidy at least in the shared areas – both to avoid fights and to avoid having to do dishes before cooking myself.
      There were still occassional slips, when the shared rooms looked okay but my room was a mess, but decluttering helped get a hang on that as well. (I’ll admit, there are still occassional slips, regarding dishes and clothes mainly, but it’s become far better)

    • Hi Christine,
      just picture your son in college, desperately trying to pick up a monstruous mess within minutes before a “study meeting” with some girl he likes 😉
      Keep calm, smile, it’s only a few more weeks.
      Make sure he takes all the junk with him if he can’t sort it out before leaving.
      Most of us (apparently just have to) learn the hard way that things don’t clean and sort themselves once we have moved out.

      • My advice is to ask him to tackle ONE area. Clean up your mess is too big and too daunting. One area = one shelf, one dresser surface, 1/4 of the floor, etc.

        • My 17 year old son, the messiest person in the world, has been very resistant to any kind of decluttering. Yesterday I decided on a different ploy. I told him exactly how much it had cost me so far to buy his driving licence, pay for his lessons and insure him on my car and suggested that he should perhaps do a little more to help around the house. As he hasn’t done anything approaching helping for about 3 years, he asked what he should do, and I suggested bring me one rock magazine and one Playstation magazine for recycling from his vast pile (it’s important here to say that he broke the PlayStation 3 years ago and now has an X-box). He brought ALL the magazines and was shocked himself at how much they weighed and at how old they were.
          So bite size jobs seem to have the desired effect with him.

    • Hi Christine – my son is 17 and quite happy to live under feral conditions. Fortunately he doesn’t like to own a lot of stuff but what he does what to keep he is prepared to dig his heels in, so I leave that alone. For him it is mainly dirty clothes and damp towels that cover his floor. I introduced a hamper which I clear daily. If it isn’t in the hamper its not my problem. I had to let him run out of clothes a couple of times to get the idea. Next he started this idea to put everything out at once but needing stuff back for the following day. So I made a point of it being wet on the line the next day. Picture him in his boxers with a blanket wrapped around him watching the dryer going around and around waiting for clothes and trying to finish a pair of jeans off with a hairdryer. So finally he’s getting the idea.

      • Thank y’all for the helpful advice and encouragement. I am so glad to have found this community, it reminds me of going to Twins Club meetings when they were small and feeling so much better after sharing other moms’ experiences and knowing that so many of us are going through similar things. I fully understand how daunting and paralyzing a huge mess is and did suggest just 20 minutes twice a day which by now would have made a huge difference. I think so many emotions get muddled in with the process to make it harder. On the up side, today I dropped off my third trunkload of donations at Goodwill in as many weeks, so my sons have been helping with a large part of that. I had to wait in line at Goodwill, the decluttering bug must be going around.

  5. Such a great great post Colleen and Deb J. It is spot on and mirrors everything I have been doing with my husband and I can also confirm that this approach does work in time, slowly and surely.
    Respectful of other peoples pace and anxieties is cruxial. Gentle requests and making it ‘no big deal’ ditto. And starting with the easy stuff helps built trust and confidence in yourself as the requester and in the process.
    And whenever I catch myself feeling impatient, I always turn it back on myself and make myself focus on my own remaining clutter. I find it easy to see his clutter and not see that dreaful mess in the corner of our living space that is my ‘creative corner’.
    I have just started tackling this corner, really getting to the root of what isn’t working and why I can’t keep it tidy…if I follow through all the way on my proposed resolution I will let you know: I have taken a ‘before’ picture 🙂

    • Great addition to the comment Katharine. You have done a remarkable job just like Deb J. I am so glad you took a before shot of the craft area. I would love you to do a post on it for me. Telling us how you worked out what didn’t work and what solutions you put in place to rectify this. I would love to here your hubby’s thoughts on what a great job you did too.

  6. My own thought is to communicate the reasons why you want to reduce clutter or the goal. Communicating the why is much less aggressive than pushing your significant other.

    By reducing clutter you also essentially reduce the amount of income needed by your family to live, thus giving you either more money or time. 🙂

    I know that may seem like over simplification, but the folks who are really good at reducing the “wants” can live on much less money and give themselves more time to do the things that matter (living).

    • You are not over simplifying it Larry ~ Less wants does equal less spending and what family couldn’t benefit from that. Less debt, less need for double income or long working hours, more time to spend with the family…

    • Hi Larry,I see ” by reducing clutter you also reduce the amount income needed by your family to live, giving you more money or time” slightly differntly, though we are essentially singing form the same hymn sheet 🙂
      It is stopping the materialist urges and the shopping as hobby and emotional bolster and need to keep up with societal expectations that will reduce the amount of income needed, rather than just decluttering.
      Of course the two processes often go hand in hand, but I see decluttering as quite different to reducing the wants and incoming stuff. Though of course one has to reduce incoming or the decluttering will never reduce.
      I would say since my husband and I got together we do live quite simply on a low income in a small house. The clutter we are tackling, is historical clutter from two adult lives with plenty of hobbies and past interests over 30 years of adult life. Tackling this does not affect our income needs at all.
      My drive to declutter is about wanting to live visually more simply, beable to find what I do own easily and to be able to keep the house clean and tidy more easily and most importantly, to not feel overwhelmed and to create more mental space in my life for other thing to happen.

  7. My hubby now considers himself a de-clutterer. The funny thing is that he doesn’t actually do any of the de-cluttering, apart from occaisionally being my muscle. The other day he questioned why I hadn’t sold his electric guitar yet. I reminded him that I needed the amp and cables to be put with it and that I don’t actually know anything about electric guitars to be able to list it on trademe. He gave me one of those “do I have to do everything around here” looks and went off to get them. Oh well, at least he is on side.

  8. Wonderful post, very helpful!

    I’ve been following Deb J’s posts all along, and I really applaud her for the results she has produced!

  9. Thanks a lot for this post. I can also conform that these are really the most important rules to stick to when decluttering with others.

    It’s funny to see that these rules are kind of universal. 🙂 Obviously none of us has yet tried her best on a really funded clutterer/hoarder who won’t give in. But maybe it is because decluttering really is a good habit?

    We are going to have a little guest over for a week in the end of July and I think, I should take up a little extra decluttering before she arrives. (I will empty out my wardrobe for her anyway, so I can as well go through my clothes again etc.)

    • Hi Sanna, I think we have some well funded not hoarders but keeping just in case kind of clutterers who have been slowly conformed by some of our readers. True hoarding though is probably a very difficult situation where professional help is required.

      I hope you enjoy your guest and make the most of the opportunity to declutter some more stuff.

  10. Dear Colleen,
    some time ago I told you about my blog idea where I wanted to re-publish my old online data base of declutter tasks… You asked me to inform you, when the new project is online.
    I still wanted to wait a little while, cause content is not where I want to have it. Anyway – when I red your latest post, I thought maybe the time has come.
    Cause one article I wrote deals with almost same problem.
    The bullet points are:
    – we like to declutter stuff from family members cause we do not have that strong connection to the items.
    – it’s easier to deal with other people’s problems than with your own ones
    – decluttering your family’s stuff will kill confidence and they’ll never be motivated to join your project
    – looking at other people’s belongings is kind of procrastination, no need to care for your stuff at that time…
    – when you ask your family for decisions, accept them!

    For the German speakers amongst us the complete essay : http://einfach-weniger.blogspot.de/2012/05/entrumplungs-kodex.html


  11. With Dan, initially he was resistant when I got near his things. I would ask in what I hoped was my most neutral and bland voice “Do you still want this?” and he would react badly. I would back off for a month or so and try again, all the while decluttering my own things and sometimes asking for his opinion on something I was getting rid of. Eventually, it got so I could ask “Do you still want this” and get a yes or no answer – no defensiveness or crazed look in his eye. Slow and steady wins the race.

    Colleen, you should see Audra’s room. She’s trimming out so many things that her room is becoming monk-like. She absolutely the most decluttered person in the house. It’s a little disconcerting at times, probably not unlike how our spouses or other reluctant partners feel about OUR decluttering efforts.

  12. It is great to read all the encouraging aka success stories from people who have slowly “convinced” their spouse of hopping onto the decluttering train. I get sooo impatient here as the reaction is always super defensive when I ask whether some excess could be decluttered and the excess is not mine (I let go of a lot of my things that would have been doubles when we moved together but kept the things that I liked better/are of better quality that are mine to try to talk about decluttering his item of the same sort at a later date. Apparently a couple of months is not “later” yet 🙁 )
    He is super supportive when it comes to decluttering MY stuff though (“yeah, through it out, why did you buy that S… in the first place?”) 😉
    Do I have to say he is driving me nuts? Thanks, all of you, for keeping me sane!

  13. Nothing like other people’s stuff to drive you crazy. This is what I’ve found to help at my house.
    -Honor the fact this is not your stuff, because you don’t know it’s value to the owner. Very important for domestic harmony, as the SO came from an abusive childhood, where cleanning was fraught with peril, and stuff was thrown away during random rages, with no regard to intrisic or emotional worth.
    -Divide your stuff out. As a visual person, I find it very hard to make decissions on my own stuff, when there’s something in there that’s not mine drawing the eye.
    -Schedule “go-thrus” (good for common areas). We agree on a space/area we are both up to going thru, and pull everything out. Only get rid of what you both can agree on. Trick is to do it every six months or so, because after the third or fourth time, the foot-dragger will realize that waffle maker is not getting used, dispite saying for 2 years that they are going to pull it out and make waffles. 🙂

    • Good advice Whisper. One really does have to respect the other person’s perspective especially in the situation you describe. It is all about give and take and if that can be done in this situation than it should be able to be done in any. If that isn’t the case for others then I think it is the relationship that needs work more than the clutter.

  14. Ideelistin, I thing we are married to the same man. I do understand exactly what you are saying. My husband always gives me the excuse that why should he pick up anything because I have way more junk and mess than he could ever have. He will walk by a piece of paper on the floor for 2 or 3 days and then say, why haven’t you picked that up. Well, I didn’t because I waited for him to do it. Or he has to remind me that I didn’t put a new roll of paper in the bathroom even if I am the one who has done it for 365 other weeks. It’s a control thing with him, he can find the tiniest things to pick at but never says a thing about all the other things I do. We have been married for 39 years so guess he is not going to change but I’d sure like to see some improvement. Anyway, my point is that decluttering for me is getting some space in the house so cleaning and picking up takes less time.
    Moni, I burst out laughing at your note about your son waiting for the dryer to finish his clothes. When my daughter lived at home, I can’t tell you the number of days she was standing at the dryer waiting for her “flag” costume to dry because she had practice that night. Or at college when she used white shoe polish on her white pants because she forgot to wash them from band practice and had to wear them for the football game so she put polish on the bottom where it was dirty. Now, she is married and keeps a wonderfully tidy and clean house. Much better than me. They do grow up and find their own way.