Wait a minute. I thought professional organizers would come in and tell you to get rid of everything so you can simplify and find peace. Isn’t that how you do it?
I’d say yes, getting rid of things can certainly help. But the goal is usually to get rid of clutter, and to know where things are…and for this you don’t technically have to get rid of anything. Possessions have a lot of meaning and memories associated with them, and you don’t necessarily need to get rid of them to have an organized home.
You may think all those sneakers in the picture above are just utilitarian, but nope, they all have memories. There are the NYC sneakers that make me nostalgic for where I grew up, the Pittsburgh Marathon sneakers that remind me of my aunt who lives there, the sneakers I bought because they were cute on my trainer, but I don’t really like them, yet can’t seem to get rid of them…
I decided to write this article because I regularly work with people who struggle with the idea of keeping things, and then how to do it. So here I’ll cover why you can keep things, and strategies for how to organize things so that they are more manageable and accessible.
1) Let yourself off the hook about having things.
The home organizing process usually starts with going through things to see what you have, deciding what to keep, and categorizing items. During this process people often berate themselves about having things, and express real angst if they can’t come up with a “good” reason why. Knowing that this is likely to occur, I often start the process by telling people: You can keep things, it’s okay, even if there’s no “practical” reason for it.
People spend a lot of time judging themselves for having too many things, and/or not having them in order. This also shows up with productivity consulting clients on the topic of time management and the never-ending to do list, with clients berating themselves for not getting enough done. So I believe the first step towards helping people achieve peace of mind with their space and use of time is to help them adopt more self-acceptance and self-compassion. This helps them move away from the negative self-talk which impacts their quality of life and ability to move forward. Once people can accept where they are, they can approach the organizing process with more energy and positivity, and make good choices about their stuff and their time. Yes, I have a lot of sneakers, but no, that doesn’t make me a bad person.
2) Know that some stuff is really hard to get rid of.
I’ve found that there are certain categories of items that are particularly challenging for people to part with as they have emotions attached to them. It’s good to know this and give yourself a break if you’re struggling with items that have:
- Memories: In addition to the traditional memorabilia from your life (photos, cards, etc.), everyday items such as clothing and kitchen items also hold memories for people.
- A sunk cost: It can be hard to get rid of something you or someone else spent money on. I’ve seen a lot of gifts in bags waiting for a reason to be used.
- Connection to a hobby: Interests come and go, but the stuff often remains, and can become a collection even if you didn’t intend it. Reading can easily become an acquiring hobby – there’s even a Japanese term (Tsundoku) for the accumulation of books that will unlikely be read. Back to the sneakers – they remind me of 5Ks I used to run (in the before times), and have now become a collection.
- Potential: I work with a lot of creatives, and find that objects for them often represent inspiration and ideas for what they can make or do.
3) Be intentional, and realistic, about what you’re keeping.
If you want to keep things, I think it’s very important to understand what you have and why you have it, and then to be honest about whether you have the space for it. Ask yourself:
- Do I really want this? Will keeping this item make me feel more or less relaxed? Will it feel good for me in some way to hold on to it?
- Do I have the space? Do I practically have the space to keep this item? Is it impeding my living spaces? How much can I realistically hold on to?
4) Use these options to help trim down what you’re keeping.
So let’s say you do want to keep some things which may be less about everyday usefulness than attachment and potential for use or reference “someday” – the large photo collection, old artwork, a bunch of old records and CDs you’re not likely to listen to again, or too many sneakers. Here are some strategies to make good decisions about whether and how much of such items to keep.
- Reduce the volume. Let yourself keep some of it, but not all of it. Remove extraneous packaging. Maximize how you’re storing them.
- Donate items to specific groups: It can help you part with things if you ask yourself if someone else would benefit from this item more than you. Imagine the other person really appreciating and using the item. And find specific places where you can donate items in alignment with your values.
- Define a collection: Identify if something has become a collection for you (such as my sneakers), and decide how much of it you want to own. Then establish a “one-in, one-out rule” so you don’t acquire too much moving forward. Every time I consider buying a new pair of sneakers I now ask myself: Am I going to donate a pair? Do I like this more than what I have?
- Give items a time limit: Sometimes it’s just hard to make a decision about things, in which case I recommend that people have a “purgatory” or “safe harbor” box in their home where they can put these items for a set period of time. This gives items a chance to have a place in your life. Set a reminder to check back in on them, and if they still aren’t integrating into your life in some way, you may be able to discard or donate them.
5) Archive less-used items.
The last step here is moving items that are used less frequently, or being kept just for nostalgia, to less-used areas in the home (such as hard-to-reach cabinets, basements, and back closets). You know they’re there, and can enjoy owning them, but they’re not taking space in “prime real estate” and confronting you regularly.
Some final advice.
Going through things, and making decisions about what to keep, is emotional and tiring work! If you’re going to embark on this work, make sure that you:
- Focus on the positive aspects, such as achieving your organizing goals, finding stuff you’d lost, or donating items to others.
- Work incrementally. Set a time limit or a specific set of things to go through.
- Celebrate progress along the way. Going through even one box is an accomplishment!