How to use the Clutter Test

Clutter clearing involves many decisions about what to keep and what to let go. The Clutter Test is a highly effective method that makes the decision-making process very much easier.

The Clutter Test

The Clutter Test consists of three simple questions you can ask yourself about any item:

  1. Does it lift my energy when I think about it or look at it?
  2. Do I absolutely love it?
  3. Is it genuinely useful?

If the answer is not a resounding yes to question 1, and an equally resounding yes to either question 2 or 3, then what is it doing in your life?

Understanding how clutter affects you

Most people have no idea how much their clutter affects them. They fondly believe it to be an asset, or at least a potential asset after it has been sorted through and organized. However, in the 40+ years I’ve been conducting clutter clearing consultations with clients around the world, what I’ve seen again and again is that the positive effects of letting go of clutter far outweigh any perceived benefits of keeping it.

The reason for this lies in understanding that your home is a mirror of yourself. When you keep items you do not love or use, stagnant energy will accumulate around them. And this doesn’t just affect the energy of your space – it will have a corresponding stagnating effect on your life too. That’s why people who have a lot of clutter feel stuck. It’s also why clutter clearing feels so freeing. It clears out the old to make room for the new and removes stagnant energy so your life starts moving again.

How to use The Clutter Test

When sorting through your things, you are likely to discover that your mind is very good at coming up with convincing reasons to keep an item rather than let it go. There are endless ways in which something could come in useful someday, after all.

So where do you draw the line? How long do you keep something in the hope that you will find a use for it? And how willing are you to put up with the stagnating effect it will have on the energy of your home and your life in the meantime?

A much better way to decide whether to keep something or let it go is to bypass your mind and let the feelings in your body be your guide. Here’s how The Clutter Test works…

Find an object in your home that you feel neutral about – a functional item, such as a kitchen utensil, that you could easily replace if you needed to. When you think about it or look at it, the energy in your body will naturally rest at waist level, which is the neutral position. That’s because it really doesn’t matter to you whether you choose to keep it or let it go.

Now find an item you don’t like, such as something you bought but have never found a use for. This will cause your energy to drop, especially if you wasted a lot of money on it. You may not ordinarily be aware of this movement of energy, but your body feels it each time you think about the item or look at it, consciously or unconsciously. It’s no wonder that people who live surrounded by clutter tend to feel tired much of the time.

Finally, find an item that you absolutely love – something that means a lot to you, such as a gift given to you by someone special or an item that reminds you of a very happy time. This will cause your energy to rise. You will usually want to keep these types of things, but before you make your final decision, go deeper, and ask yourself the following questions:

Does it lift my energy?
Many things in the world may lift your energy or “spark joy” in you, but that doesn’t mean you need to acquire them all or keep them.

Do I absolutely love it?
If so, does it really inspire me, or is it just “nice”?
Do I already have enough of this type of item for my needs?
In spite of how much I love it, does it also have sad associations in my life?

Is it genuinely useful?
If so, when did I actually last use it?
When, realistically, am I likely to use it again?

These questions will help you to weed out items you may at first be inclined to keep but, on deeper reflection, realize that you don’t really want, need, or have room for.

The more you practise using the Clutter Test, the more decisive you’ll become, and the faster you’ll be able to sort through your things.

Does it spark joy?

If you’ve read Marie Kondo’s books, you may recognize some similarity between the first part of The Clutter Test (does it lift my energy?) and her method (does it spark joy?).

The Clutter Test first appeared in my book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, which was published in the UK in 1998. It was translated into Japanese and became a national bestseller in Japan eight years before Kondo’s book was published. She mentions in her first book that she devoured every book about tidying that had ever been published in Japan, so she will surely have read it.

However, the two methods are actually very different.

Using joy as a barometer is not a reliable method for whether to keep something or let it go. I’ve met people, for example, who swear that every item in their home sparks joy, but their rooms are so full of stuff they can hardly move. They use joy as an excuse to continue to acquire new things and never throw anything away. The Clutter Test brings a reality check to the process (questions such as, ‘Do I already have enough of this type of item for my needs?’, or ‘When, realistically, am I likely to use it again?’).

There’s also no need to pick up and hold every single item you own to make a decision about it, as Kondo prescribes. The average American home contains over 300,000 things, so this could take a very long time! It’s good to start with just one item at a time and then as your clutter clearing muscle develops, you’ll be able to do much larger quantities — whole shelves, boxes, or closets in one go. And never start by piling all your clothes (or other categories of items)  in the centre of a room. That’s a sure recipe for overwhelm, as many despairing people who have tried this have contacted me to say.

The most notable difference with the Clutter Test, though, is that it does not invite you to view material possessions as a source of joy in your life at all. It’s enough to sort them into those you love or have a use for, and let the rest go. The reason for this is that joy is not an everyday commodity you can expect to feel more or less permanently after you have sorted and tidied your things. Yes, it’s better to have possessions that uplift you rather than those that pull your energy down. But expecting them to truly bring you joy is taking it too far. It’s a path to an unfulfilling and meaningless life.

After the Clutter Test, what next?

When you live surrounded by clutter, it’s impossible to have clarity about what you are doing in your life. Aim to have around you the things you need in order to do what you’re here to do, but not so much that it burdens you or holds you back. Keep the things you love and use, and let the rest go. Only then can you get your life back on track and start to make a difference in the world.

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd 2016, updated 2024

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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8 Responses to How to use the Clutter Test

  1. Trusting the feeling in one’s body can assist with many things in life. Practicing with one’s possessions is a good way to learn how.

    It’s a shame that the original Japanese translation was commercialized to “spark joy.” I love Karen’s book but also appreciate Marie’s. I’ve learned from her as well, taking inspiration from both authors.

    I think its a wonderful compliment to Karen that “Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui” was most likely a source of support for Marie…for both her personal path as well as her greater contribution to the subject. This junk-laden world needs all the clutter-clearing teachers and “vibrational upliftment” it can get!

  2. I have found another question that can come up when evaluating what possessions to keep or not keep. “Am I keeping this out of obligation?” I have met friends who keep things that were given to them as gifts or that were inherited. They feel a need to keep them because it was a gift, even though they never use it or is not a fit with their personal style. Some friends even store these items away and then display them when that family member or friend comes to visit! This brings up the whole topic of gift-giving, but I tell them that it’s OK to inwardly thank that person for the gesture of giving the gift, then let it go and trust that it will get used and appreciated by someone new. Keeping something out of obligation is not a reason to keep it, but letting it go is so liberating on many levels.

  3. Very interesting item and particularly great edition of the newsletter, thanks.

    Of course there are things in Marie Kondo’s method that will not work for everyone but I think it’s a bit harsh to accuse her of simply imputing joy to physical objects. After all, isn’t feng shui and clutter clearing based on the inter-relationship of the energy of the person and the physical environment. This article (not mine) discusses the Japanese term which she uses and that can be translated in various ways. As you say, her test is similar to your first test.

    When asked about keeping or disposing of useful items which do not affect your energy, she has a nice perspective of gratitude or appreciation. “Those things are helping you every single day,” wrote Kondo. “Change the relationship with those items, by appreciating their contributions to your life.”

    1. Hi Penelope – Since writing this article in 2016, a Japanese friend has confirmed that Marie Kondo’s original text was Ni tokimekuka?, which translates to ‘Does it uplift you/your feelings?’ and is very similar to the Clutter Test included in my book, published in Japan in 2002. It seems to be her US translator who came up with the phrase ‘Does it spark joy?’ which is very catchy but also very misleading, in my view.

  4. Great article! I used Marie Kondo’s method to clear some clutter last year and yet still feel there’s work to be done. I love your description of the feelings in your body regarding items. You are so right—the body does not lie…and using possessions to create joy implied to me that I needed more stuff for more joy!

  5. I totally agree with you about expecting inanimate objects to spark joy. My favorite quote by the famous composer, Richard Wagner: “Joy is not in things; it is in us.”

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