Decluttering: Make Three Piles, And Ask Three Questions

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Decluttering by sorting everything into three piles.

Are you having trouble decluttering? It is actually rather simple. Just start by sorting everything you own into one of three piles.

Make one pile for what you know without a moment of hesitation that you need or want to keep.

Make a second pile for what you know is still good and useful, but which you do not really need or want.

Make your third and final pile for what you neither want nor need anymore, and for what you could not reasonably or helpfully give to someone else.

The First Pile

The first pile should be comprised of things you could not easily replace. It should also contain the things you do not want to replace, either because they are rare or valuable.

When I went through my closet recently, I realized I only really needed three pairs of shoes for the next few weeks until we move to Colorado.

Work requires that I wear steel or safety toe footwear as part of my PPE, or personal protective equipment. So I kept one pair of DeWalt sneakers for driving, and one pair of Red Wing boots for when it rains and I need to tromp through mud and rain puddles.

I also kept out my favorite pair of personal shoes, some Timberland hiking boots which I have now bought three or four times over the past decade. Each time one pair wears out, I buy another just like it to replace. I wear them in the yard, around the house, when I go to the store, when we go to church – just about everywhere except for work.

While going through my closet, I found a few pairs which had been given to me by my grand mother, but which I never wear. These went in the bag to donate to Good Cents, our local thrift store here in Sidney, Montana.

Then there were two pair of Bates combat boots which had been my go-to work footwear back when I was an Operator for ConocoPhillips. Why had I kept them? I cannot now say. Well worn, however, they went in the garbage.

The rest – a couple pair of sneakers and dressier shoes – I packed into a box to be unpacked in our new home.

The Second Pile

Moving up to my clothes, I found an absurd number of shirts and pants to donate.

There were so many medium button-downs. I am not a medium anymore, and I feel somewhat ridiculous and undignified trying to squeeze my torso into those.

And when was the last time I fit into a 30/32 anyway?

But there were a lot of clothes in fine shape, and I could not in good conscience throw these away even though they are now useless to me. So I tossed them into the donate bag. Surely someone else could get more mileage out of them, and would be glad to find decent clothes at a discount.

Given the quantity of items to be hauled off to Good Cents, I hesitated. Perhaps I should keep these. They were in fine condition. And maybe I should just get back into working out again, and stop eating food bought at gas stations, and stop drinking soda, and drink more water. And maybe if I did all that, these clothes would fit again, so perhaps I should hold onto them.


Into the donate bag they went, and there they stayed until I dropped them off at the thrift store.

If ever I can fit into medium clothes again, I will cross that bridge as I come to it.

Yet it occurred to me in this moment that this was why I had kept a lot of things that were no longer so useful as the free space they were taking up would be to me and my family. And how much else in life besides clothes had I held onto with a similar mindset?

‘This might come in handy someday’ is a responsible sentiment. But only to a point. The dose makes the poison.

The Third Pile

Holey socks, Batman! And pants, and shirts, and shoes.

And just like the two pair of Bates boots that had been sitting on the shelf in the back corner of my closet for years, there were several other items I had squirrelled away with dubious reasons at best.

The socks were the easiest to discard. Holes and worn places which will soon enough become holes made those easy to toss.

But there were also broken mementos, and faulty electronics.

For some reason, I got it in my head a while back that I would save all my failed and obsolete electronics for some future date when I might take the time to learn enough about computer science and small, household appliances to repair or jerry-rig them together again.

‘Maybe I’ll find some free time to repair these someday,’ I thought to myself each time I put one of these in a box on the shelf instead of the trash.

Yet in reviewing them after a passage of time, and on the cusp of an 800-mile move, I enjoyed more clarity.

Sure enough, I might be able to make them usable again. I could take the time to learn how to repair them, and then do that very thing. But had I factored in the opportunity cost? And would the return on my investment of time and attention be worth my not doing something else?

No. That would not be the best use of my time.

I needed to narrow my focus. Prioritize. There were too many things I wanted to do with my hypothetical free time. It was time to discard the thought of repairing or tinkering with these things, and to discard these things too to make room for more useful pursuits.

The Pursuit of Clarity

Nothing helps to clarify what is and is not essential quite so well as an impending move. And a house full of the accumulated belongings of 9 people – my wife, myself, plus seven children – provides a daunting logistical challenge when coupled with a deadline of a few weeks to transport everyone to a new land three states away.

Decluttering is an oddly liberating experience, though. Sort everything you own into three piles. At a certain point, you will find yourself asking whether you own your things or whether they own you.

This is not, I assure you, a lead-up to some denouncement of consumerism or materialism or American excess. Rather, it is a reminder to not put carts before horses.

When we are living according to wisdom, we should choose what to acquire, keep, and maintain based on two, or at most three simple questions.

  1. Does this thing aid me in honoring the Lord my God? And does it represent good stewardship of the resources I’ve been blessed with?
  2. Does this thing enable me to love those around me better? And do I own this to serve others?
  3. Do I need this thing in order to be a healthier, happier, and more productive person?

If we cannot answer in the affirmative to each of these about what we own, then why get a thing in the first place? And why keep it if we already have it?

Follow Garrett Mullet:

Christian, husband to a darling wife, and father to seven children - I enjoy pipe-smoking, playing strategy games on my computer, listening to audio books, and writing. When I'm not asking you questions out loud, I'm endlessly asking myself silent questions in my head. I believe in God's grace, hard work, love, patience, contemplation, and courage.