Getting Rid of Stuff

The other day a friend texted me as she was packing to move across the country: “HELP! I am overwhelmed because I have so much STUFF. I am feeling buried alive. I know you have figured out how not to hold on to things. Can you give me some perspective on getting rid of stuff? I need a little tough love.”

When I got her text I was standing in front of my bookcase, hyperventilating. I happen to be moving in a few days, too—though just a couple miles away, not out of state—and I was in a state of panic. My shelves were just the tip of the iceberg; I hadn’t even started on the kitchen, bedroom or closets. Here is an (incomplete) inventory of the bookshelf in question:

  • Books I love but haven’t touched in years 

  • Important papers I need to fax to the IRS (as soon as I find them)

  • A stack of old homework and Scholastic book club flyers brought home by my children, dating back to the fall (the IRS papers are in that stack—I HOPE)

  • A favorite photo of my grandmother who recently passed away

  • Many, many CDs—from my old Beatles collection to the Taylor Swift album my daughter got for her birthday (we have all of them on iTunes now).

What to pack, what to toss, and how long before the IRS gives up and spends my tax refund on something else? (Can they do that?) I felt guilty for never framing the picture of my grandmother, the idea of throwing out the CDs made me nauseous, and I dreaded hauling a lot of heavy books to my new place—no matter how good they were.

So why was my friend was asking me for advice? Because I’m supposed to be the expert on getting rid of stuff. I moonlight as a personal organizer. People pay me to come to their homes and make them throw things away—even though I still can’t ditch the Christopher Pike books I was obsessed with in high school.

It’s not news that Americans have a clutter problem. Instead of dealing with our excess stuff, we buy bigger houses, rent storage units, install organizing systems to try to contain it, or pawn it off on others via endless stoop, yard and garage sales.

I tell clients that the secret to becoming a clutter-busting machine is simple—though not always easy: prioritize people over things. When you value yourself (and your sanity!) more than any material possession, getting rid of stuff out becomes easy. Don’t just organize your things—narrow it down. Be ruthless. When you're hanging on to a lot of stuff you don't use or need, no amount of bins, shelves or hooks will solve your clutter problems.

If your stuff causes you stress, it needs to go. Here are a few guidelines for tackling 3 common clutter magnets:

  1. Clothes: Needs to be mended? Has a stain you can’t get out? Doesn’t fit anymore or never quite fit right? Toss it. Forget the garage sale and the consignment shop. Take it to a fabric-recycling center or throw it in the trash—but get it out of your life.

  2. Books: You read them and loved them. But are you really going to read them again? Go through your books and weed out the ones you can let go of. Put them out on the street if you live in that kind of neighborhood, donate them to a school or library sale, or just throw them away—I won’t tell if you won’t.

  3. Photos and other mementos: This is tricky. My philosophy? Anything collecting dust in a box under the bed might as well be in the trash. It’s only worth hanging on to if you love it enough to display it. (Do give relatives who might want old family heirlooms the chance to take them off your hands before you break out the garbage bag.) Frame pictures and hang them, make scrapbooks for keepsakes, hire a carpenter to put up shadowboxes and display shelves. 

When I do a big stuff purge—throwing away things that were perfectly good, just not good for me—I feel guilty for maybe five seconds before a feeling of lightness and freedom takes over. The high from getting rid of stuff makes me more productive, more patient, kinder and more generous with my time, because it is not spent being stressed about clutter. Any lingering guilt just helps me to be more mindful of what I DO take into my home in the future.

Here is the text I ended up sending my friend:

GET OUT THE TRASH BAG! Any object with negative memories attached has to go. If you're tempted to keep something because the thought of getting rid of it makes you feel guilty, it goes. Before you pack each item, think how you’ll feel when you UNpack it. Will you be excited about finding a place for it? If it got lost in the move, how upset would you be? It is just STUFF. Getting rid of things you don't love makes more room in your life for things that you do. NOW GO GO GO!!!

And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get busy and take my own advice. There’s a certain bookshelf calling my name.

Updated November 6, 2018.

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