Fighting Clutter From the Inside Out

Let go of clutter by dealing with essential emotions and questions.
Organize Memorabilia

Organize Memorabilia

True family heirlooms deserve a place in an organized home, but not all inherited items qualify. Do keep your grandparents' love letters, but find a shredder for their utility bills.

Photo by: DK - House Works © 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

DK - House Works , 2010 Dorling Kindersley Limited

True family heirlooms deserve a place in an organized home, but not all inherited items qualify. Do keep your grandparents' love letters, but find a shredder for their utility bills.

Scarcity thinking: "I might need it."

People with scarcity thinking refuse to part with clutter out of fear that they will not have or will not have enough of the goods and items they need at some future time. Result: Drawers filled with folded aluminum foil and stacked egg cartons, garages drowning in bent nails and broken tools.

Deal with scarcity thinking by dragging your fear into the open and staring it down and then move past it to release the hold on your thinking. For example, confronted with a cabinet full of empty yogurt containers (no lids), ask yourself, "When was the last time that I ever used one?" An answer that ranges from "never" to "about 25 years ago" means that scarcity thinking is behind the clutter problem.

Face the fear! Remind yourself that the world is full of empty yogurt containers. Your belief that they might all disappear is just that, only a fear. Out they go, both the containers and the fear behind them.

Protecting an investment: "I paid good money for that."

Financial issues often bond us to clutter; a mental refrain of "But I paid $20 for that!" can keep us from releasing items we no longer need or want. Problem is, yesterday's purchase price no longer has much relationship to today's value. Prime example? Computer equipment. Three or four years after purchase, the actual value of a personal computer is only a fraction of the original price due to rapid advances in technology.

It's not what you paid for the item that matters; it's what it's worth today and that is the value you must assess when considering whether to give the item houseroom or let it go as clutter. Online auction sites are wonderful allies in this process; they'll give you a quick, real-world value for any product. Knowing what something is worth today will shift your thinking and make it easier to part with the item and move on.

Thrill of the chase: "It's a collection."

Collecting can be fun, but it can also lead to immense clutter problems. In the thrall of pursuit and acquisition, little else matters until you have to find homes for the new additions on already-crowded shelves. By the time a cherished collection must be stored in dusty attics or on high shelves, it's crossed the line and become clutter.

To break the bonds of collection clutter, assess your collection with an eye to finding the heart: those three or five or seven items with a true tie to your affection. Only those items with meaning, use and value deserve a place in your home.

All in the family: "It was my grandfather's."

Family: It's the tie that binds and binds you to unwanted stuff in the form of "heirloom clutter." Heirloom clutter is any item you don't want, don't need, don't use and don't value, but which you keep because it once belonged to a family member. 

We're not talking about true heirlooms. I have one: a beautiful quilt handmade by my great-grandmother. Each time I find the tiny squares of "ABC" fabric, salvaged from a childhood dress of my mother's, I feel the love of four generations in my hands. My quilt tells a story, and I will pass it and its story along to my own grandchildren.

Be selective. True family heirlooms deserve a place in an organized home, but not all inherited items qualify. Do keep your grandparents' love letters, but find a shredder for their utility bills.

Heirloom clutter is more like Grandpa's old sofa. It's tattered. It's ugly. You can't sit on it for fear that it will fall apart, but you can't get rid of it, either. Why not? "Because it's an heirloom!" Learn to distinguish between a true heirloom and heirloom clutter. To help, ask these questions:

  • What do I know about this item?
  • Do I have a memory related to this item?
  • Does the item have use or value in my everyday life?

Identity crisis: "Those beer kegs were in my room in college."

Identity clutter is possessions we no longer use, but hold onto because they symbolize a younger, earlier identity. Identity clutter is easy to spot, because it's usually branded closely with its time and place. The macramé wall hanging you made at summer camp. An LP record collection from the 1980s.

To cut the bonds of identity clutter, remind yourself that you are not your stuff. The memories and the growth are the true gift of these earlier identities. The leftover stuff no longer has a use, except to tie us down and hamper our current, richer life. To retain the memories, save a symbol of that stage of your life, and then release the identity clutter. Write a journal entry about your summer at camp and ditch the dusty macramé. Frame two or three LP covers, hang them as a memory wall, and give the rest of the collection to charity.

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