The One In, One Out Rule is a Lie

Some conventional wisdom is battle tested and proven. Some age-old advice needs to get with the times. I’ve been thinking a lot about one particular gem of the organizing cannon, and why the one in, one out rule is a lie. 

The One In, One Out Rule is a Lie


The one in, one out rule applies not only to closet organizing, but our whole lives. It assumes that we are rational beings who know the value of “enough.” It also assumes that our things are roughly equal in value and utility. This rule also assumes that we buy individual items and not packs of multiples.

One In, One Out Rule is a Lie

Let’s break it down. I recently found myself in a store (!) with no kids (!), an extra hour (!), and a gift card in my hand. Jackpot! I found three cute tops and brought them home.

Strictly speaking, I didn’t need three new tops. My strategy for my wardrobe is to limit the number of hangers in my organized closet. Since my hangers never leave the closet, and none of my family members’ hangers ever co-mingle, the number of tops I can own has a hard limit.

When you buy something new, or you receive a gift, your brain probably doesn’t switch to declutter mode right away. Me neither. To make the one in, one out rule work, I’ve now got to get excited about eliminating three things from my closet, probably on a different day.

-Should the things I eliminate all be shirts, or can they be any type of clothing?
-Could they be knick-nicks?
-Could they be things from my winter wardrobe, even though I bought summer shirts?
-One was a cardigan, so can I just hang it over a shirt or is that cheating?

Let’s assume I’m really committed to this one in, one out thing. Now it gets harder. There’s a bit of brain science that comes into play here, and it has to do with things like the endowment theory that I wrote about before and loss aversion, which is when our brains try to avoid the pain of any loss. Loss can be big or small, even the idea of losing three relatively unloved tops in the back of my closet can cause physical pain.

-I truly like all of my clothes. Even the t-shirt that’s got a tiny little stain that you can’t see when I wear a sweater isn’t that bad. I might keep that one…just in case
-The black cami that is a little scratchy is the one that completes that certain ensemble…that I hardly ever wear but might next season. 
-The bright pink shirt looks great when ironed…maybe I’ll iron again someday, right?
-Where should I store the three things I selected to offload? Can I put them away but nearby, in case I want to wear them again?
-If I’m editing my wardrobe of things that are perfectly good, is that a sustainable and responsible thing to do???

If this sounds like the voice in your head, check out the things baby boomers say when decluttering. 

Does the one in, one out rule apply to non-clothing things?

People don’t always pay attention to the one in, one out rule in the pantry, whey they are–let’s face it–more likely to stockpile food. The same is true for office supplies. Some people stockpile gifts, too, reasoning that they can save money by being prepared for every gift-giving occasion.

The math doesn’t always lean towards a perfectly stocked drawer. When I get a hole in my sock, I’m usually buying a 3-pack to replace the one pair. There is that uncomfortable space between not enough socks and too many to fit in the drawer. It’s surprisingly hard to land on the spot where we have “enough.”

What sounds like a completely reasonable rule to live by is surprisingly complicated, so don’t beat yourself up if you fail on this one. I’m calling the one in, one out rule a lie.

The One In, One Out Rule is a Guideline

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it as more of a guideline, in the same way that a plate of food is probably enough for dinner. That’s a guideline, too, but that doesn’t mean that your plate can’t be a bowl sometimes, or a different size than my plate, or that you can’t have seconds on occasion.

Guidelines are good. The one in, one out guideline will help keep us in a mostly organized home, where we don’t spend days decluttering. You don’t have to follow this rule rigidly to benefit from it.

In case you are wondering, I did choose three tops to donate. The truth? It was hard, and it took almost as much time as shopping for the new tops! But I haven’t worn these in a very long time, and the newer shirts are more flattering and easier to care for, so, yeah, I’m sticking with the plan and going with the future.

The One In One Out Rule is a Lie-after

What are your thoughts on the one in, one out rule?


This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Elianne

    Dear Darla, the 1In-1Out guideline/rule has been super helpful for me. I recently purchased a much needed Sauce Pan, then donated 3 larger pots and pans. Win! Earlier this year I purchased 3 new winter tops, then chose 3 older winter tops to donate. But 3 tops aren’t worth a trip to donate, so I leveled up with items from Husband’s closet (with his approval)!

    1. Darla

      Excellent job. You have the hang of it.

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