Clearing out attic clutter

No one ever said getting rid of clutter is easy. It takes time, effort, and sometimes an emotional toll. Sentimental clutter often can be the most difficult to part with during the organizing process. In this Washington Post article, Home section editor Liz Seymour describes the process of clearing out her cluttered attic. From the article:

Organizing the attic was an emotional experience. I had to face the fact that I was never going to use a lot of the stuff I inherited from my parents and it was time to get rid of some of it. I had to admit that there was no reason to hold on to the high chair and other baby gear I’d been storing, because I wasn’t going to have any more children. And I had to acknowledge my failure at household bookkeeping after spending hours sorting through boxes of outdated bills, tax returns and other documents.

Beyond the emotional toll, this was a back-breaking job. It took me weeks, because you can only work in two- or three-hour shifts. Even armed with a pitcher of water and having an attic that’s more climate-controlled than most, the sorting and storing became very tedious.

The attic, basement, and garage can be major clutter traps in anyone’s home. It takes quite a bit of effort to trim down what has accumulated in those areas over the years. One also must make a conscience effort to keep them uncluttered after an initial cleaning has taken place.

24 Comments for “Clearing out attic clutter”

  1. posted by Nathania Johnson on

    Probably the biggest reason holding me back from cleaning up our oh-so-cluttered house is the emotional part. Going through things bring up a variety of memories, as its easy to just hold on to things that are from significant times in life.

    But just like you can’t hold on to those times, you probably shouldn’t hold on to all that stuff! Let the memories be what they are.

    Anyway, my first step has been to try get rid of stuff from my current life and/or not take it in the house in the first place.

  2. posted by ktpupp on

    “The attic, basement, and garage can be major clutter traps in anyone’s home.”

    Heh, we avoid those problems by living in a house that (unfortunately) has neither attic, basement nor garage! 😛

    Of course, it’s an organizational nightmare when you have little to no storage, so we still have tons of clutter – hence the reason I read this site!

  3. posted by Katie on

    I got a huge wake-up call about this kind of storage when we went to an estate sale that was basically just a walk through someone’s house. Fifty years of knick-knacks, personal items, and doodads were just tossed around. Their uselessness was so depressing! Now when I bring something into my house, I think about what it would look like as part of that kind of estate sale.

    We have a storage space under the house, and we only put in/out items there–things that go in and out, like luggage and holiday decorations.

  4. posted by Doug on

    We did this about a month ago in order to convert the attic to a bedroom for our oldest son. We determined that we filtered through 273 man-years of…ummm…junk and threw out an average of just under one trash bag per decade sorted.

  5. posted by Michele on

    Thanks for the link to the article. It was good to read someone else’s journey. Katie, I love your idea about considering how things will look in an estate sale.

  6. posted by CoffeeKim on

    Great article! I often envision the sentimental headaches my children will one day incur should I fail to keep these things under control. The “estate sale” mentality is a reality check; even though we all hate to admit it, our possessions are often of little value to anyone but ourselves, and I read a thought recently (maybe here?) about not saving so much for our children who do not share the memories we have that are associated with the item. That is a tough bracer; our past memories, childhoods, etc, are uniquely our own and cannot be replicated for our children no matter what we do.

    So- live in the present and remember the good times for what they were for you, because all too soon, today’s cherished moments will become part of that irretrievable bit of our lives as well.

    I have a fantastic quote on a fridge magnet (one of only a couple, since I can’t STAND visual clutter either!) that says, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”

  7. posted by Harris on

    What a great article! Liz and Caitlin are wonderful and their ideas are really helpful.

    My biggest issues are family things I feel I should keep even though I don’t want them. I have a problem with the little voice in my head (probably my parents) telling me how important the ceramic bird my aunt made 30 years ago is. So it and other similar stuff I will never display or use is taking up valuable space in my attic.

    Any suggestions on not feeling guilty for letting stuff go?

  8. posted by Sue on

    Whenever I have “sentimental clutter”, like your aunt’s ceramic bird, I write about it in a journal before I get rid of it. You can even take a picture of it and add it to the journal entry. That helps to preserve the memory, and I feel less guilty getting rid of the item.

  9. posted by Marc on

    When considering the emotional aspect of getting rid of “sentimental clutter” consider the emotion of that it means to keep it. If you are considering eliminting the clutter there is probably a reason–maybe frusteration with the amount of “stuff” or maybe a need to downsize.

    One of the most common disagreements in my household is about the kids toys. Between my wife and I we barely have enough “stuff” to fit into a closet since we live pretty minimally but somehow the kids accumulate toys. The mess these create cause more “negative emotion” than anything else.

    While I can’t get rid of all my kids toys (trust me I would love to some days) that emotion drove the desire to downsize and remain downsized when we relocated.

    If an “heirloom” is of value try pairing down the other items even more. Or, if you have a relative who would value it pass it along. If it can’t take prominance in your life, and is stored away, what value is it for you? In fact, I have found that I appreciate what I have more because I try to have little–those things I have are used or appreciated more frequently because there is less distraction.

  10. posted by JustTheSort on

    The quickest way to deal with attic clutter is to discover your new roof is leaking.

    Prioritizing becomes amazingly quick and easy when you have to completely empty out your attic in a matter of hours and there are stacks of soggy boxes standing all over the rest of the house. Our attic was pretty well organized before this happened. Boxes were labeled and stacked neatly and many things were plastic tubs so the contents were not destroyed. Still the whole incident forced us to make speedy decisions about what we really NEEDED to keep.

    I certainly wouldn’t recommend this ‘extreme’ approach to everyone (OK, it was awful and I really wouldn’t wish it on anybody) but think of it as motivation. Wouldn’t you rather sift through your possessions at your leisure before you HAVE TO? (Or before your family has to.)

    Remember: if you are storing something but you aren’t using it, no one else can use it, either.

    On sentimental clutter: If you feel guilty about wanting to get rid of something you feel forced to archive, just keep in mind that someone else out there will probably be thrilled to find that very thing in a thrift shop or at a tag sale!

    If you’re not enjoying/appreciating an object, let it find its way to someone who WILL. You’ll get rid of the negative emotions (guilt, annoyance, etc.) associated with the item AND have more space. A word of caution: If something is a potentially ‘important’ family item (Great Aunt So-and-So’s wedding china) you might want to ask around to various relatives to see if anyone else wants it before carting it off to Goodwill.

  11. posted by Michael G on

    Our attic space is finished except the very sides. Fortunately we’ve lived here little enough time that we haven’t managed to squirrel away crap in there. The garage is the first order of business as far as clutter goes, then the basement.

    @JustTheSort: I like that reminder about sentimental clutter, which I am prone to accumulating, as well as the reminder about Great Aunt So & So’s stuff.

  12. posted by Harris on

    Sue, I love your suggestion to write about it in a journal and take a picture. Takes up a lot less space!

  13. posted by Mike on

    Seriously, at this point, anything at all in my attic counts as clutter. I have cabinets and closets to store my holiday decorations, and anything that doesn’t get used at least annually has to have some really life-compelling reason not to go up on eBay at this point, and if you’re using it more than annually, putting it in an attic is pretty poor accessibility!

    Decluttering is truly an ordeal. It never seemed this hard or this long-lasting when I was accumulating the stuff!

  14. posted by Peter on

    “Sentimental clutter often can be the most difficult to part with during the organizing process.”

    This is probably the biggest hurdle when cleaning out an attic. So many old items can hold emotional attachments, it may be hard to choose. I think the best way is to see what is still useful, and what is just a full blown memory that can be just as easily derived from a picture. Easier said than done!

  15. posted by dust on

    It has helped me, when I have gotten rid of things that have “emotional” value, to first offer them to people who might want/enjoy those things.

    If that fails, I either sell them or donate them to
    charity, knowing that those “things” have gone on to people who will cherish them (they are paying for them, after all).

    It never hurts to take pictures of the things, if it makes you feel better about allowing them to leave.

    Thinking in these terms has really allowed me to let go of a lot of things.

  16. posted by WineWench on

    We recently moved after 17 years in the same house with 3 kids (all now grown). As we cleaned out the attic, we were amazed at the stuff we had saved — for whatever reason! The majority of it got tossed, the kids kept a few items, and the rest went to charity. We now live in a house with no attic/basement but we do have a garage — have to keep it clutter-free because we need to park our two cars in it. Amazing what you can let go when you need to!

  17. posted by Empress Juju on

    I live in an apartment with minimal storage space, and I’m on a mission to “get current.” I’ve got loads of clothes, accessories, sporting gear, etc… from great ideas with big plans that never materialized. I’m ready to stop beating dead horses and live the life I have now.

    Today, I sorted through cards & letters and got rid of all the ones that gave me pangs of regret, and then I let go of quite a few things that are remnants of false starts I made earlier in life.

    It wasn’t easy, and it required a headset and a couple of friends who don’t mind staying on the phone with me, but I got through a big chunk of it, and I feel great!

  18. posted by George on

    Currently in my one room, one bath flat in africa there is liitle clutter – although can you believe it still creeps in! However, despite massively sorting out all our stuff before storage in the UK, we still had far too many possessions. The husband found it very difficult to part with years of clutter – things he had builtup , like landrover spares and tools, over a number of years. Hopefully he will be encouraged to part with more aswe return home.

  19. posted by Rich on

    Thanks to the thunderstorms of two nights ago, I’m currently getting to unclutter my basement. (Kind of like JustTheSort’s attic.) I’m a terrible packrat, and I’d accumulated years of junk down there in cardboard boxes… sitting on a cement floor… just waiting for something like this to happen!

    Unfortunately, some of the ruined items were photos and other memorabilia… but how treasured can a possession really be if it’s been sitting in a cardboard box in the basement for several years? We hadn’t missed them before now, and we probably won’t miss them again in the future. But it’s still a bit emotional seeing them go!

  20. posted by Charlene on

    If you’re putting off dealing with a space because of specific emotional landmines, I’ve found it helpful to allow yourself a holding area for those potentially painful objects.

    For instance, if you really need to declutter your apartment but hidden among the clutter are painful reminders of a failed relationship, well, no wonder you’re procrastinating! If you give yourself permission to set aside a box to corral those more emotionally fraught items, you can power through the rest of the space, tossing trash or setting aside donations. You can go through the box of painful items when you feel more ready, while reclaiming the rest of your space in the meantime.

  21. posted by Kim Woodbridge on

    This was a timely article for me to read. I am planning on clearing out my attic once summer is over. There is no power up there and it is just too hot to work up there right now.

    My husband and I split up at the beginning of the year and prior to that he took care of the attic. I thought he was very organized about it. I have since learned while investigating that it isn’t organized at all; boxes aren’t labeled, there’s a huge pile of empty boxes, etc. I’m tempted to make him come help with the project but he is more emotionally attached to material objects than I am and it will be harder for me to get rid of things if he is there.

    It’s amazing the amount of things we accumulated in just seven years.

  22. posted by Christopher Grasse on

    I put on some music and sat down up in our attic. How big the space, but how small because of all the stuff! For me, attitude is everything. That sense of abundance which makes letting go so much easier stems from a feeling of gratitude for what we already have. Do I really need twenty 1960s turntables? There is a wonderful feeling which comes from separating out what you know you will never use, and knowing you can and will find the right person, persons or organization to give it to. It is that sense that it will be cared for and appreciated, still, even when it has left your home and your “watch.” You can willfully and consciously take this huge accumulation apart all by yourself. I usually have about four large, empty boxes nearby, and slowly drop things into them. As they fill, I tape them shut (so I won’t keep peeking, change my mind, and backslide) and move them downstairs on their way back out into the community. It took a long time to gather all that stuff, and it will take a correspondingly focused effort to get free of it. I have already ridded myself of over twenty manual typeriters. The attic breathed a sigh of relief – all that weight is now gone. It frees you to let go. I look forward to continuing my journey through all this stuff that just isn’t “Me” any more. Others will benefit. I hope my little account here inspires others to stay with it and do a good job! Submitted by: Chris in South Portland, Maine.

  23. posted by Lisa on

    I finally got my attic cleared out. I have wanted it done for 20 years. When me and my ex husband moved in we both had boxes of stuff. Plus stuff that was given to us. He would never help me clear the attic, and he wouldn’t ever let me get rid of his junk. I left him about 5 years ago and we got divorced.I moved back in and took over my home. He left all his years of clutter up to me to do, and get rid of all his junk. I didn’t mind doing mine, but it was just like him to leave all his clutter for me to get rid of. My best friend has helped me alot. I am so happy now that my attic is empty and clean. It is like a burden has been lifted off me. I also cleared all the negative energy from the attic. It is a joy to go up in my walk in attic now, something I never thought was possible.

  24. posted by Christopher Grasse on

    Well, I’m still at it up in our attic! Slow work, because as you get free of stuff you get closer and closer to the special, personal stuff that has some sentimental meaning or memories attached to it. Everything slows down, including you. It sort of goes in stages, at least for me. I started with the obvious stuff, like the typewriters mentioned above in my other post here. I was pretty good at spotting the stuff to get rid of, but I felt, for some reason, I had to wait until I could assign a new owner, item by item, selected by me. Talk about the need for control! Well, you know that process of selecting new, “acceptable” owners could take a lifetime. So the next step after finding what you are ready to let go of is to just pack it up and bring it to Goodwill or some other place to immediately get it out of the house before you change your mind. You will miss it all on some level for about forty-eight hours and then you will breathe a proverbial sigh of relief and feel proud of yourself for sharing with others in this lean economy the blessings which have come your way in this Life. It is not necessary to find new owners for everything. That was the mistake I was making. I call it “caretaking.” You no longer need to “caretake” the stuff you are getting rid of. Just let it go and reclaim your newly created space and newly found Life! Submitted by Chris Grasse, South Portland, Maine, U.S.A. on May 7th, 2010. Good Luck to everyone reclaiming brand new, wide open spaces, home, and vibrant new lifestyle!

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