This Is the #1 Mistake People Make When Decluttering Their Home

Updated 12/14/16
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Despite being told that messiness is a sign of intelligence, we still can't quite wrap our heads around that concept. Perhaps it's because we've been told (countless times) that clutter equals stress. And the studies don't lie. Houselogic, a team from UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives and Families, found that women who live in a cluttered environment are likely to have high levels of cortisol, a stress-related hormone. And it's as Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc points out in Huffington Post, organization boosts health and vitality, right? It's something we've all experienced firsthand once we've eradicated the jumble once and for all. It just feels so good.

But a new book, Inside the Flame by Christina Waters, Ph.D., aims to debunk the best-selling Marie Kondo method with its message of "healthy clutter." She doesn't believe in paring it down to the bare minimum in the name of organization; she views it merely as a "trendy crack-down on stuff." For Waters, this extreme approach is a war on our personal history. "Our stuff is a personal link to our past, it makes us who we are," she said. Ahead, Waters explains how our possessions actually improve our lives, the emotional impact of zero clutter, the number one mistake we make when decluttering, and simple ways we can introduce her anti–Marie Kondo method at home.

Jenna Peffley for MyDomaine

MYDOMAINE: The minimal trend has been a massive hit this year. Do you think that's going to change in 2017? why?

CHRISTINA WATERS: Absolutely. I think people are feeling a bit insecure right now. The recent election has left so many of us wondering what the future holds, and that can create feelings of anxiety and the need to hold tight to the comfort of things we love.

MD: We've been told time and time again that a clutter-free organized home will improve our lives, but you believe there is such a thing as "healthy clutter." What do you mean by this?

CW: Can you imagine Leonardo da Vinci, Julia Child or the Wright brothers working in an empty room? No way! The treasured collections we may have built up over the years, including those notes and books clustered around our workspace, are "healthy clutter" in the sense of being able to stimulate new ideas and inspire creativity.

MD: How can die-hard minimalists embrace this method but still have a clean aesthetic?

CW: Curate. Assess. Hold actual pieces of clothing, collections, books, and see if your body resonates. Reducing your "clutter" to prized examples of this or that collection allows you to retain beloved memory pieces, or special letters and souvenirs, without being swamped with unidentifiable piles and messy environments. Be selective. This can be a process that fine-tunes one's personal style and taste.

MD: How do we know what to keep and what to throw away? If we kept everything, our homes would become too crowded.

CW: Resist the scorched-earth policy of decluttering. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Of course piles of uncategorizable—even unrecognizable—stuff can get out of control. Curating your mess is a requirement of living life with focus and intention. But beware of careless trashing. Take time to read those little notes; scan them for future use before tossing them into the recycling bin.

If a collection has gotten out of control, cull items down to the ones that still retain their perfume of nostalgia. The ones that make you smile, stay. The ones you find puzzling, ugly, or redundant can move on.

Jenna Peffley for MyDomaine

MD: In the book, you mention "our stuff is a link to our history." Can you explain?

CW: Our stuff is unique; it's ours and not anyone else's. It reflects who we are and where we've been. We can look at a dried bouquet and remember a romantic walk with someone we love. The matchbook from a restaurant somewhere far away is filled with the memories of that dinner, in the same way an amethyst geode brought back from a trek to the mountains is filled with wanderlust.

Each item is linked to my sensory memories, and hence to a moment in my life. Our "clutter" acts as a mirror in which we can identify and reassure ourselves of who we are and what we like. Memory triggers are portals to our own past, the history of our movement through the world. By inspiring irreplaceable memories, our stuff contains our very identity.

MD: What is the emotional impact of zero clutter? How does it affect us?

CW: To declutter is to destabilize. Stripping away everything from the halo of sticky notes around the computer to that shelf-size collection of ceramic mermaids can feel invigorating, at first. We can convince ourselves that getting rid of all accumulated objects creates a fresh start. But in reality, it can feel like a betrayal of beloved times, precious gifts, and visual stimulation. It makes us feel neutralized, at a loss for a sense of coziness and self-identity. We have been stripped of either actual things or of a practice, a way of doing our work in the most personal way. Why would I want to get rid of something I've loved just because doing so is dictated by a current social movement? Paring my life down to zero clutter renders me just another generic subject of cultural fads.

MD: What's the number one mistake people make when decluttering their home? why?

CW: Emotional carelessness! The biggest mistake is diving into an anti-cluttering marathon assuming that accumulations of objects, mementos, and/or piles of uncategorized paperwork are simply junk. Clutter, be it stacks of papers or shelves of collected treasures, can be music for the eyes, prompts for creativity, and often contain nuances of style and usefulness that grow and develop over time, like a fine wine. We've all had that sinking realization that we threw away a precious little tchotchke that we long to have back. Don't be that person.

MD: What's the one thing everyone can do to bring a little healthy clutter into their lives?

CW: Embrace the fact that by living, working, and making choices, you will create a body of objects, mementos, and other by-products of being active. Let these accumulated accessories linger and work for you as much as they can.

Keeping a wealth of items in your life—objects, treasures, old souvenirs, beautiful nothings, memorabilia, tiny love notes, childhood toys, seashells, polished rocks—is proof of your unique identity and never-to-be-repeated journey. Cherishing important clutter is a way of nurturing your own story. Learn to know what represents your taste and imagination—and keep it close.

The Anti–Marie Kondo Guide to "Healthy Clutter" in Every Room

Alyssa Rosenheck for The Chad James Group


"The kitchen is a room of pleasurable sensations, aromas, and for making delicious experiences for you and your family. Since you spend at least part of your day in the kitchen, let it be a place for objects you (and your eyes) love. Keep your favorite utensils close by and ready to use. Even better combine your collections by stashing your arsenal of wooden spoons in that antique pitcher," says Waters.

Daniel Collopy for MyDomaine

Living Room

"The living room can be a prime showcase for your best stuff," says Waters. "Here is where those arts and crafts books can be piled, attractively, for display and use. Hang up a treasured family painting or two. Choose one shelf, windowsill, or fireplace mantel and arrange your quartz collection, your plastic dinosaurs, or dried palm fronds. Rotate these collections with the seasons."


"The bedroom should be about you and, when appropriate, the person who shares your bed. Always keep a few treasured photos nearby. Lots of throw pillows. Exotic textiles and textures collected on far-away trips belong here," says Waters.

Matt Harrington for Homepolish

Dining Room

"The dining room lets you unleash your creativity in terms of table centerpieces," says Waters. "Who says you need to use flowers and candles? How about pomegranates and baskets filled with seashells or driftwood? If you've collected it, you can probably make a killer centerpiece out of it. Mix and match stemware loves to have fun with unmatched new and old china dishes. Repurpose your best 'stuff' and let it jump-start dinnertime conversation."

Jenna Peffley for MyDomaine


"The bathroom is a great place to intersperse whimsical objects—tiny string lights, unmatched mirrors, potted succulents—with the utility items of personal hygiene. Done right, unexpected collections create a sense of play in the most utilitarian space in the house," says Waters.

Chris Patey for MyDomaine


"The entryway not only leads into your home, but it provides the perfect gallery space for special paintings, photos of your great-grandparents, and your collection of miniature orchids," says Waters. "The idea is to punctuate the entrance, not fill it up."

Shop the book and learn more about Christina Waters's "healthy clutter" philosophy below:

Inside the Flame by Christina Waters $13
Crate and Barrel Sawyer White Leaning Bookcase $159
Target Porter Mid Century Modern 3 Shelf Bookcase $120
CB2 Helix Acacia Bookcase $200
Zara Home Cube-Shaped Table With a Mirror $229
IKEA Lövbacken Side Table $60
SAIC Sling Nightstand Side Table $249

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