Merlin Mann reviews It's All Too Much, a book on decluttering

On Cool Tools, Merlin Mann reviews It's All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life With Less Stuff.
200807181306.jpg It's All Too Much is a terrific book that inverts the typical approach to dealing with existential kipple. Rather than helping you find new places and novel ways to "organize" all your crap, author Peter Walsh encourages you to explore why you ever kept all that junk in the first place. Does it reflect a fantasy waistline or a long-abandoned career? What about this "priceless" relic of a late loved one that's been sitting in a moldy trash bag for 10 years? Be honest: what place do these things have in the life that you imagine for yourself? Because, if the stuff you accumulate isn't actively helping get you closer to a life you truly want, then it's getting in the way, and it needs to go. Period.

The biggest change in attitude this book made in my life was to teach me not to generate false relevance by "organizing" stuff I don't want or will never need. Organization is what you do to stuff that you need, want, or love - it's not what you do to get useless stuff out of sight or to manufacture makebelieve meaning. For me, this is about the opposite of organizing; it means disinterring every sarcophagus of crap in my house and, item by item, evaluating whether it's making my family's life better today.

Kevin weighs in with his own hearty recommendation for the book:
Merlin Mann's review turned me onto this fantastic book. We've rethought our household because of it. We were reminded that life is not about stuff; it's about possibilities, which the right tools can enable. For a world of expanding stuff, this book is the necessary anti-stuff tool. If you are reading Cool Tools, you need to read this. It will help you distinguish between that which is fabulous for you personally and that which is just more junk to organize.
Kevin includes a bunch of excerpts from the book. Here are a few:
Imagine the life you want to live. I cannot think of a sentence that has had more impact on the lives of people I have worked with. ... When clutter fills your home, not only does it block your space, but it also blocks your vision.


You need space to live a happy, fruitful life. If you fill up that space with stuff for "the next house," your present life suffers. Stop claiming your house is too small. The amount of space you have cannot be changed -- the amount of stuff you have can.


I know it sounds strange, but if you start by focusing on the clutter, you will never get organized. Getting truly organized is rarely about "the stuff." This is the bottom line: If your stuff and the way it is organized is getting you to your goals... fantastic. But if it's impeding your vision for the the life you want, then why is it in your home? Why is it in your life? Why do you cling to it? For me, this is the only starting point in dealing with clutter.


If it's taken you ten years or more to accumulate your mess, it's impossible to make it disappear overnight. Letting go is a learning process. You might need to start slowly, and it may take time to discover that not having things makes your life better, not worse.


Most things that you save for the future represent hopes and dreams. But the money, space, and energy you spend trying to create a specific future are wasted. We can't control what tomorrow will bring. Those things we hoard for an imaginary future do little other than limit our possibilities and stunt our growth. When I urge you to get rid of them, I'm not telling you to discard your hopes and dreams. It's actually quite the opposite. Because if you throw out the stuff that does a rather shabby job of representing your hopes and dreams, you actually create room to make dreams come true.

It's All Too Much -- How to declutter your life (Cool Tools)


  1. I love getting rid of stuff. Almost as much as getting stuff. I gave away tons of clothing in my last move that I was too small to fit in anymore. Wonderful feeling.

  2. Ah, the maladies of affluence.

    Not always though. Some people horde because they feel that having possessions is inherently worthwhile and satisfying – this is the materialist paradigm. But some people horde as a response to the danger of severe poverty or deprivation – for example people who lived through the great depression, or people who were once homeless. They accumulate excess possessions as a buffer against poverty (maybe you don’t need 3 pairs of shoes now, but what if one pair breaks and one’s stolen?), or as a habitual activity even once they’ve escaped the danger of being utterly destitute.

    What I’m saying is that sometimes hording is an appropriate response, so it seems like the author is coming from a naive affluent perspective when they tout platitudes like “not having things makes your life better, not worse.”

  3. I come from a family of horders. To which I credit my utter hatred for excess junk. My general rubric for throwing out stuff is this: if it has been in storage, in the closet, etc. for a year then chances are I’ll never use it again. If you’re devoted to putting things away in storage bins this 1 year quarantine is pretty effective.

  4. Which means the stuff we stored after our house fire can all be binned. YAY! I’d love to have back that $100./month.
    I live with a hoarder, a person who keeps things like the last soda can a friend drank from before moving away. Agh.

  5. “Its wise to hoard. A dark age looms.”

    And you need to know what to hoard. My grandmother was a hoarder. Orphaned in Russia during the revolution, she learned the value of saving stuff that could be put to good use. Her bottles, bolts of fabric, jars of seeds, nails, rubber bands, and other salvaged and scavenged supplies were stored neatly in the basement next to her bags of dried mushrooms, canned garden preserves, and shelves of dandelion wine.

  6. I have a hoarding gene (no, really, all my father’s side has is, too). I really do have a mentality that I am quite aware of “can never have enough _____ — it may run out.” And oddly, when I don’t buy excess — it runs out and I can NEVER find it again. Grrr.

    But I need to find my floor again.

  7. Goody! Now that we’ve covered the important tips in the book, I don’t have to buy it. Less stuff!


  8. wow… I have a book that covers exactly the same material dating from some 30 years ago… see I failed, I hoarded it…

  9. After years of lugging boxes and boxes of books between houses every time I moved, I gave away a couple of thousand of them. Moving got a lot easier, and now I had space for newer and more interesting books.

    However, there are a few of those 2,000 books that I now regret giving away. At the time, I decided “sentimental value” was not a good criterion for keeping stuff. But I was wrong. I regret to this day giving away the K&R that I learned C from. And there were others.

    So I don’t agree that the criterion should be “whether it’s making my family’s life better today.” If that were a good rule, I’d only own one pair of pants.

    I love getting rid of stuff, too (just as I love deleting programming code). But I would caution over-zealous declutterers to consider whether a given item is irreplaceable, and take that into account.

    I also reject some of the touchy-feely stuff that Walsh talks about. Giving away all those books didn’t improve my “vision” or my “hopes and dreams.” It just made moving easier. :)

    All that said, Walsh does make some good points about organizing clutter rather than getting rid of it.


  10. I’m feeling a bit conflicted here, as one of the things I have far too many of is books…

  11. @13 wrote:

    So I don’t agree that the criterion should be “whether it’s making my family’s life better today.” If that were a good rule, I’d only own one pair of pants.

    I completely agree. Sounds a bit too much like watching “Clean House” where they sell a specific lifestyle so you see them convince the dad that he needs to get rid of his Xbox or the teacher she needs to get rid of all of her books rather than show them how to properly organize. My extensive action figure collection in my basement office does little to “make my family’s life better today” but it sure gives me a lot of enjoyment.

  12. Coming from a non-consumerist angle, I have a unique dilemma. I refuse to buy things, because I realize that satisfaction and fulfillment don’t come from buying things, so in that way I relate to the non-materialist philosophy. We’re only talking /most/ things, mind you. I still buy electricity, water, shelter, health insurance, and (embarassingly) the very occasional bit of electronics.

    This puts me in a weird relationship with materialism. Because if I’m hungry, I can’t just go out to the store and buy a sandwich. Or if my clothes are dirty, I can’t just pick up some detergent from Wal-Mart. This leads to hoarding, not really by necessity, but in a way that seems justifiable to me. After all, if my jeans get torn up, I better have another pair or I’m gonna be pretty uncomfortable.

    But because replacing material possessions is so more difficult than for a consumer, they’re similarly difficult to justify giving up, or not hoarding. This is especially true for food: how many cans of soup is too many? You never know… After a while it becomes sort of ridiculous. There’s clearly a balanced to be maintained there, but the considerations about what you might need in the future are much more serious when your lifestyle involves living primarily off scavenged/foraged resources.

    This leads me to an interesting question: Is non-materialism actually a privilege of those who have enough liquid capital that they can afford to shed their possessions when they tire of them, secure in the knowledge that they could simply re-purchase them later?

  13. @16

    Zikzak, could we perhaps get you to write a book, about how to live without buying anything? Seems like these days that would be a lot more useful than how to live without clutter.

  14. This concept has already been covered in Sink Relfections. This woman the flylady wrote about how clutter just messes up your life and how you can’t organize it. She’s kind of like the Richard Simmons of hoarders and crappy housekeepers gives them chores to do in order to keep their house clean and organized. It’s seems goofy but she has an army of followers at

  15. I’d like to live in a Zen garden of nothingness, but RAR my current household, just in case…

    Is this too much to ask?

  16. My last move was overseas.

    I made one *big* mistake. I threw away a whole lot of stuff before doing it.

    Why? My stuff had to be put in a container for shipping anyway… a few extra boxes of rubbishy bits and pieces would not have increased the cost.

    I Love My Stuff. I hate the idea of having to think, “I just need… and I had one once!”.

    Some people like to suck on the corner of a blanket. Some people like to be surrounded by their stuff.

    Some people like to knock all the walls down and live in a big minimalist space: they are not better human beings than I am!

  17. I fully appreciate this philosophy. Stuff takes up mental as well as physical space. If your stuff makes you feel guilty, anxious, sad, or regretful whenever you look at it, then it should be gotten rid of. This includes “Man, I wish I’d learned to play that musical instrument” or “I wish I could still do that sport.”

    In GTD terminology, physical stuff can also represent open loops, something you have to deal with in some way. It often represents a project you no longer have any interest in, or one that’s become impossible or useless. But since the stuff is still around, you’re still thinking about it. Lose the stuff and free your mind.

    And even if you’re thinking “no, I still want to make use of it!” — if it’s been more than a year and it’s collecting dust, you’ve really already made your decision. You’re not interested, even if you want to be or feel you should be. Own that and let it go.

    I apply the one-year rule to clothes. If I haven’t worn it in a full year, through all the seasons and events that happen in a year, then I’m never going to wear it. This keeps my closet whittled down quite well.

    For those who feel guilty about throwing away stuff, look into Freecycle. There’s a Freecycle group most everywhere and you would be amazed what other people want! I’ve never seen the aphorism about one man’s trash being another’s treasure ring so true.

  18. I’m also skeptical of this “one year rule.” I tend to get passionately involved in various hobbies (cooking, astronomy, chess, etc.). I’ll buy practically every book and doo-dad I can find (I love buying stuff). After a few months (more or less), I find a new hobby, and the last one (and its stuff) lies dormant.

    However, I haven’t necessarily given up the first hobby. I may not do anything with it for several years. But one day, something retriggers my interest, and I’m back to the recipe books, telescope or chess board. It’s always a delight to discover all the cool stuff I already own. I can just dive right back in.

    The “one year” rule wouldn’t let me do this.

    Furthermore, having the remnants of an old hobby lying around doesn’t do me any mental harm. Quite the opposite: every time I pass that particular bookshelf, I get pleasure.

    Decluttering should be done for a practical reason – not for its own sake. If clutter is causing me unhappiness, I should get rid of it. If it’s not, I don’t. No need to think about “closing loops,” whether the one-year rule period has passed, or how much “mental space” the stuff is taking up. In other words, pure common sense suffices.

    That’s me, at least.

    On another subject, making a vow not to buy anything sounds a lot like a vow of celibacy. On the surface, it sounds noble. But when you get down to it, it’s self-denial, and there’s nothing intrinsically laudable about that.


  19. I have always been someone who feels the need to get rid of stuff I don’t use – I live in a semi-rural area without trash service so I go to the county waste disposal site which has covered shelves where you can put stuff someone might want. Many times I put stuff on the shelf and its gone before I can drive out of the waste disposal site. I imagine it ends up in someone’s yard sale. But I’m happier, someone else is happy, so it’s win-win.

Comments are closed.