Asking the better question

Reader Diana recently e-mailed her process for deciding what stays and what goes when she is uncluttering. Simply stated, she asks:

Does this make my life better?

If the answer is yes, she keeps the object or routine or whatever it is that she is examining. If her answer is no, she gets rid of it.

“Does this make my life better?” is a simple question. However, it’s important to think about what the question isn’t asking.

The word does is in the present tense. Diana isn’t asking if the thing did make her life better at some point in the past. She isn’t asking if it could maker her life better in the future. Nor is she asking if it should make things better based on other people’s perceptions. All she is asking is if it does make her life better, right now.

So often we hold onto things because they were once meaningful or because we think we might need them at some undetermined point in the future or because we worry about what other people will think if we get rid them. Asking the straightforward, “Does this make my life better?” allows you to avoid these cluttering scenarios and instead focus on the present.

Great advice, Diana. Thank you for the tip!

31 Comments for “Asking the better question”

  1. posted by Julia on

    Great idea. I intend to use it, not only in uncluttering, but in selecting food, an area where I’m making major changes.

    In fact just about any choice I make can be better evaluated with the use of this question. I’m going to write this one down – in several places!

  2. posted by Cheryl on

    This brings to mind a question I’ve wondered about a lot in the past but never seems to filter to my conscious mind while I’m reading Unclutterer: have you ever gotten rid of something about which you later regretted making that choice? What was it? If it’s happened more than once, what object or person or habit was most regrettably gone?

  3. posted by Dawn F on

    This question could apply to relationships, too!

    *Does this (relationship) make my life better?*

    Toxic people can certainly cause unwanted mental clutter in your life.

  4. posted by Sean on

    Ah, but how do you define “better”? Will the better feeling we get from purging our clutter be just as fleeting as the better feeling we got from buying it? How do we value “better”? If I feel better keeping something in a box, unseen and unused, than I would throwing it away, is that a lesser “better”? This is the kind of emotional trap that makes decluttering so difficult. Simple bromides will only take you so far.

  5. posted by redneck on

    Ah used this very question on my first wife and now am happily deeevorsed. Yeehaw.

  6. posted by Chris on

    My “better question” is actually your definition of smart consumerism, Erin: Do I NEED it or does it help me pursue the remarkable life I desire?

    I have that original sentence handwritten on the back of a business card and carry it in my wallet at all times, along with a William Morris quote (that I’m pretty certain came to me via unclutterer): “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

  7. posted by Cherry on

    A good read I thought I’d pass on to you-

    Dave Bruno’s The 100 Thing Challenge:

  8. posted by Catherine Cantieri, Sorted on

    Great post, Erin, and I love Chris’s comment. That William Morris quote is such a perfect guideline. I’d apply it to workspaces and offices as well, not just for the “useful” but also to encourage some “beauty” in these spaces.

  9. posted by Travis on

    I think it’s shortsighted to exclude the future. Chris from above has a more appropriate question:

    “Do I NEED it or does it help me pursue the remarkable life I desire?”

    Pursuit can apply to the present or the future. I’m not getting rid of the 5 books I purchased to read later just because I’m not reading them now. I know I will read them soon. Then I can unclutter by selling or giving them away after I’ve read them. Even then there are some books I don’t get rid of because I know I’ll read them again and again.

  10. posted by EM on

    Answer to Cheryl – Yes, multiple times I’ve decluttered stuff I had for years, thought I never needed or could easily replace and discovered that when I did need the items, usually within a few months or at most a year, I could not find the same thing at all (so no option to replace it) or could not find a replacement even close in quality to the one I got rid of or can’t afford the replacements. Now I’ve had to buy multiples of the things I got rid of when the replacements have worn out because they are not made as well as the original item. Case in point, very fancy high end restaurant pots, huge, I sold them off when I inherited them. I didn’t think I’d ever cook big batches of stuff or need them. Now I can’t even find that quality of stainless steel pots much less afford to buy them. And now I do need several big pots. I use my one 5 gallon one regularly but I sure wish I had the really big ones still. I’ve had to buy multiples of hand tools because new ones are junk and break under steady use. I sold a bunch of old tools, now I wish I had those back, I see them for sale in the antique shops for a lot and I now could use them. Old Science Fiction books, got rid of a bunch, thinking I’d never re-read them. Now I have time and want to. They are out of print and not available in ebook format. I can’t even find copies to buy or when I do my old 20 cent paperbacks are selling regularly for $70-90 each! Library doesn’t have them so no option to borrow them either. Those are just the ones I remember with most regret but it has happened a lot to me.

  11. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Travis — If you’re actually going to read something, then I think it benefits you now (you’re looking forward to reading it in the present). The statement applies more to looking at an object and thinking “oh, I might be able to use that one day …” without having any sort of time line or scenario in your mind for when you will use it. I call these things “butter tubs.” My grandmother kept hundreds of empty tubs of margarine in her home thinking that maybe one day she might have a use for them. She had so many of them that she never could have used all of them. They were clutter and were ultimately recycled.

  12. posted by Diana on

    Hey, I think you’re talking about me! 🙂 I seem to recall posting that about my own object-editing.

    Re: questions regarding what an object will do in the future – to me, thinking ahead next week, next month, next season makes sense. I wouldn’t toss a winter coat just because it’s summer.

    However, there’s a point where thinking too far ahead is hoarding mentality. “But I’m going to…” But exactly how many things have to happen first before you’re going to do _______ ? If it’s more than two steps or two months and has no connection to seasons or weather and isn’t the sort of thing where you have tickets booked or a spot marked on your calendar…it’s probably not going to happen.

    Am I perfect at this? No. I’m still 15 years behind in my reading. But I’m much more comfortable in my 1000 foot apartment than I was!

  13. posted by Julia on

    There have been a number of times when I’ve somewhat carelessly gotten rid of something, only to wonder later “whatever happened to…” It goes into a mental category called “lost in the last move.” Oh, well. Gone, now. Too bad.

    If I was even fairly sure I didn’t need it, and if I can’t remember when I got rid of it, it’s a dead cert I DON’T need it and can find another way to deal with the situation at hand.

  14. posted by Jennifer on

    Another article I once read – I no longer have a link – phrased the question like this: “will I lack?” Rather than asking if this will make things better (though I like that too), asking if my life will be the worse without this thing… that gets me over the hump of “maybe someday” that keeps so much clutter in my home.

    I will not lack without most of this stuff.

  15. posted by melissa on

    i love this. on the question of regretting giving away certain things, i’d have to say that i can only think of a couple of them, and they are far outweighed by the benefits i’ve gotten from decluttering. more importantly, i can think of a million things i wish i had DONE, not things i wish i still HAD.

  16. posted by Karyn on

    I’ve come to see the issues of clutter and hoarding as a matter of trust vs. fear: Do I approach life with a sense of fundamental trust that one way or another, my needs will be met, or do I live my life in fear and clinging and a perpetual sense of lack?

    I believe that the peace gained by approaching life with trust and confidence rather than fear and “never-enough-ness” is worth an occasional regret over a slightly zealous stuff-tossing session. Remember, it’s only stuff. I’m still me. I’m still here.

    That sense of “trust” might take the form of, “This is an abundant Universe,” or, “God/dess will provide,” but it can also take the form of, “I trust myself and my own resourcefulness,” or, “I trust in the goodness of friends, family, and community which surround me.”

    When I was twenty years old (a long time ago), I created the affirmation, “Wherever the river of life takes me, I am ready and able to navigate it.” Had I known, in the innocence of youth, what I was letting myself in for, I’d have run screaming amok. 😉 Fortunately, I just had to take each day as it came–and that, to me, is the essence of living an uncluttered life.

  17. posted by *Pol on

    EM- I completely feel for your loss for QUALITY items. Too much is disposable crap these days. I want to buy stuff to have for at least 10 years, not the “30 day limited warranttee MIGHT last until next season” bull-cr*p. My husband and I both prefer to service and fix our things instead of replace them… but things are not designed that way anymore; from egg-flippers to cars!

    Back to the original post… I am definitely going to use that question to help me “release” more things. I get too hung up with my emotional attachments to things and memories associated with them. Too much loss in my childhood, but I need to have more faith in the here and now to provide all I need!

  18. posted by Ellen on

    Another response to Cheryl – something I read. When you get rid of clutter, you might miss 10% of the things you get rid of. However, you feel so good about getting rid of the other 90% that it doesn’t really matter.

  19. posted by Amy on

    Regarding things that are for the “I want to use this someday” category, sometimes it is easier to unload it and re-acquire it when you decide that you need it. The mental clutter and guilt that I felt from seeing all of these things that I wanted to do, like sewing and painting, but did not have time or space to pursue was a quiet but present burden, always with me. How sad that I did not even realize the pressure until it was gone! It can affect self esteem to constantly be thinking “Oh I should get to…” this or that. Letting it go doesn’t mean giving it up forever.

  20. posted by Does this make my life better? « Meg on

    […] I read this on the Unclutterer blog today. So great. The context is for “things” but I think it can apply to all areas of life. Is this activity, person, place, idea going to make my life better? I’m not saying “will it make my life easier.” We all have to do things we aren’t exactly excited about, but I think focusing on the betterment of one’s life is a good motto to live by. If we asked ourselves that, imagine how our lives would improve – it would be simpler, and we would be investing time into the people, places and things that really added to our lives, rather than things that distract and take away from our main priorities. You can view this particular post HERE. […]

  21. posted by Steven on

    Authors Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro ask a similar question in their book, Repacking Your Bags.

    “Does all this make you happy?”

  22. posted by WilliamB on

    @Amy: “Regarding things that are for the “I want to use this someday” category, sometimes it is easier to unload it and re-acquire it when you decide that you need it.”

    Unfortunately this conflicts with frugality, something else I value. It’s my constant conflict, one that will probably never be resolved.

  23. posted by Shalin on

    aahhhhhh… what a refreshing question to place meaningful-ness and clarity where there were loads of grief, hesitation, anxiety, agony, scatter-brain-ness, etc… Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing this wonderful question! 🙂

    Grammar nit (Perhaps? I’m an engineer w/a lot of documentation experience, so…) – “*Will* this make my life better” pertains to the future which could be 10 years or 10 seconds from asking the question. I think “will” is more useful than using “does* in the question at hand.

    Very best,

  24. posted by Jonathan on

    There are so many things that you may want to get rid of that you don’t see the benefit of right now, but that may make your life better in the near future. It’s not always cut and dry and easy to judge if this will make your life better.

    So unless you really don’t think you’ll ever need the object again, I’d say toss it. Otherwise, you may want to repurpose it for the time being.

  25. posted by Lola on

    Great thread! Karyn, your thoughts re: trust vs. fear are especially poignant. Thanks to all who’ve shared.

  26. posted by Jeri Dansky on

    This reminds me of what Peter Walsh wrote in “It’s All Too Much.” First, he asks you to imagine the life you want to live. Then the question to ask is: “Does this item advance and enhance the vision I have for the life I want, or does it impede that vision?”

  27. posted by dis on

    @Sean, it’s as simple or as complex as you need it to be. In fact, by deciding that it’s too simple for your use (assumed based on your response), you’ve tossed it from your consideration. Because you decided that your life is better off without it.


  28. posted by When I Grow Up – The Blog » Blog Archive » Tough (Question) Tuesday: Does this make my life better? on

    […] have to admit, I stole this question from Unclutterer. While they mean for you to ask it about your stuff (& I’m so doing it now that I’m […]

  29. posted by nuha on

    who are you?

  30. posted by nuha on


  31. posted by nuha on

    my mame is?

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