Three strategies to help you achieve sorting success

Sorting through your items is an essential stage in the uncluttering process. It is also a stage where many people have difficulties and consider bailing on the entire process. It can be hard to look at your things and know if you should keep or get rid of them. What if you might need it one day? What if you lose weight? What if, what if, what if.

When sorting — even if you aren’t having much difficulty — keep the following three things in mind to help you speed through the process:

  1. Don’t touch it. Avoid touching items you anticipate are going to be difficult for you to sort. Instead, ask a friend, family member, or professional organizer to hold these objects up for you. When we touch objects, we form stronger emotional connections with these objects. You’re more likely to be reasonable and make rational decisions about objects if you don’t touch them.
  2. Post your goal. Draw a picture, write it down, or find an old photograph of the space when it was uncluttered and organized and post it where you can see it while you work. You can’t talk yourself into keeping objects you don’t need when you have a constant reminder of your goal staring you in the face.
  3. Be happy. Play upbeat music, listen to an audiobook with a positive message, have a friend with a good attitude keep you company, or do whatever you need to do to stay happy during the process. When you’re in a good mood, your stress levels decrease and you’re more creative, able to come up with alternatives, and be more hopeful about the future. Happiness is a terrific friend during the uncluttering process.

Good luck, and happy sorting.

24 Comments for “Three strategies to help you achieve sorting success”

  1. posted by Cindy May on

    I am currently sorting through an old shoebox of letters and it seems to be bottomless. Just when I think I’m through I find another stack! I almost feel guilty for wanting to get rid of so many of the letters, but some are from people I haven’t heard from in years (nor do I intend to get back in touch with them), nor do I even remember many of the writers.

    After reading a stack of letters from one of my grandmothers, I was tempted to shred them all (since reading many of them was like one long guilt trip), but instead I think I may offer them to my father which may or may not be a good idea, but it’s something I’m thinking of doing nonetheless.

    As far as getting rid of the rest of my letters, most I guess I’ll just put in my recycling bin, but I am leery about doing that due to the privacy factor. I hate to just throw them in the trash or shred them and then put the shreddings in the trash. Anyone else have any brilliant ideas for getting rid of rather personal items like this?

  2. posted by Nurchamiel on

    @ Cindy: Burn them?

  3. posted by Rosemary on

    Cindy, personal letters from any of your relations (no matter how distant) should be passed along to someone in your family that is interested in genealogy or family history. They will be thrilled to get them.

  4. posted by josh on

    Scan them into your computer so they can be kept without taking up space. That way you can pass them down through the generations.

  5. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Cindy — I disagree strongly with Rosemary. Those letters were not intended for anyone other than you. I would be horrified if someone passed along a letter I wrote. I cannot imagine a larger violation of trust. Unless the person went out of his/her way to say it was okay to share the letters, assume the writer only intended for you to read them. Do with them as YOU please. Burn them, shred them, or keep them, but don’t pass them along unless you know for certain the letter writer would be okay with it.

  6. posted by Denise on

    I second the suggestion to burn them. It seems a little more ceremonial, a little more like a proper send-off for certain items.

  7. posted by Laura on

    My mom saved all the letter and cards my grandmother (my dad’s mom) sent during the time my brother and I were litte…about 5-6 years worth.

    A few years ago my mom passed them on to me. My grandmother has passed away and it was so neat to read those letters. I copied them all and had them bound and they sit on my bookshelf now. I also gave a copy to my aunt and my dad, both of whom were glad to have this. The letters are just happy correspondence about life, travels, the gardens etc and I know my grandmother wouldn’t mind that they were shared.


  8. posted by Fairfax Avenue on

    My parents exchanged lovely letters from Pearl Harbor Day in 1941 (1 month after their wedding) until my father returned from the Army in 1945. I peeked at them some forty years ago, and while rather mundane, they are a testament to their dedication to each other and the experiences of WWII. Some family members wish to destroy this treasure; I feel that there is reason to see the letters preserved for the benefit of their grandchildren and great grandchildren. Also, there may be some historical value. Although we three middle-aged children are somewhat at odds about what to do, I think our adult children will have more objectivity and I plan to give them some say in the matter (one of them serves as the “family historian”).

    Therefore, my opinion on letters is that if you choose to destroy your own correspondence – fine. You have very strong feelings about their contents and the right to keep it personal. But if you leave them behind, although you may express an opinion on their eventual use, the final decision belongs to your heirs.

  9. posted by Linda on

    If the letter writer has long passed and there isn’t anything particularly scandalous in them, I don’t see the harm in passing the letters along to someone who would treasure them. Many town halls have a history archive that will hold letters and diaries of people who have long passed away. Even the most mundane things that happened 50 years ago can provide a window to everyday life for historians.

  10. posted by chacha1 on

    As a historian, my inclination is to say: keep family letters. As a realist, though, I’m sure that most people’s letters do not contain the sort of information that actually enriches historical understanding.

    Journals can be another matter. But even there, the personalization of the material makes it unreliable as a way of documenting events. My grandmother wrote a lengthy memoir, and the POV was so personal that a reader would barely be able to grasp when and where the events occurred, much less their relationship to contemporary state, regional, or national events.

    In recent years, many historians seeking to fill in the missing pieces of history are finding their best material in household ledgers. There is no arguing with a family legend that Ancient Famous Person stayed for a week if there is a logbook recording extra servants paid, extra food purchased, extra washing ordered, dinner set for sixteen including said AFP, etc.

    All that said, in general I agree with Erin that once something is in your home, it is yours to dispose of. And in general, people overestimate the future/residual value of just about anything. I think the historical value argument is just one of many made when, for emotional reasons, we don’t *want* to let something go.

  11. posted by Java Monster on

    I just remembered! A few years ago, I photocopied all the letters my cousin had sent to me during our college years & earlier (I think they went back that far) and had a copy store bind them all together. I gave them to her as a present. I think she was taken aback, and perhaps embarassed, when she read through all of them, but it was a window into her life at the time. The originals are still in an organized box in my garage now, I think. I haven’t seen them in a couple of years.

  12. posted by JustGail on

    Part of me says that if they were 1 big guilt trip to read, burn them, shred and use in the cat box, whatever.

    Another part says give them to your Dad or another family member. Although it’s entire possible that someday you’ll be dealing with them again if they go to your Dad. However by then, you may feel differently about them.

    Still another part says if there’s a historical society, donate them. Even if (especially if?) there’s something scandalous. Most likely it was an open secret or based on half-truths anyway, and it may help dispell any lingering untrue rumours, if anyone cares about it any more. Besides, what was scandalous in your grandmothers day doesn’t raise any eyebrow now.

    I remember when watching history documentaries by Ken Burns on PBS, that some of my favorite bits were those items read from old letters or journals. Not famous people, just ordinary citizens.

    I think I’ve helped the decision not at all.

  13. posted by Sky on

    I completely agree with Erin, the letters were meant to be read by Cindy, not the world. I found out the hard way, many years ago, not to put anything in a letter that could come back to haunt me.

    I’ve burned many letters, etc .It is very finalizing and I have no regrets.

  14. posted by Sinea Pies on

    Sadly, my two rooms that are the biggest offenders never had a “before picture”. 🙁

    The advice about playing a good audio book or music that lifts your spirit while you work is perfect. It makes the time go faster…and better.

  15. posted by writing all the time on

    I’ve never had family letters to dispose of, but did have journals of my own that are/were intensely personal. In the past, I had a garden and got a huge thrill out of ripping into tiny pieces the pages that chronicled a particularly difficult period, and composting them.
    I’d turn the compost pile and see the little bits of paper begin to decompose – very satisfying.
    I agree with Erin and Sky, don’t pass along anything that isn’t meant for general viewing.

  16. posted by *pol on

    Organizing: Not touching something really does help. I had my sister come over and help me sort my clothes closet. There were many items that she held up in front of me and said “why on Earth do you have this?” And if I had touched them I would have easily said that it’s soft or comfy and kept it (with holes and all).

    I do find taking a BEFORE picture of the messy zone at it’s worst very motivating to KEEP a place organized as well! (I have an embarassing photo of the laundry room of doom stuck behind the door that way as I leave the room, I check behind me to make sure things are away.

    The letters thing. I just came accross a box of journals and letters I wrote/received in highschool. I read them, got a little teary eyed and mostly annoyed with my teen-self, then shredded them page by page. I did scan a few of the cute passages for a digital copy, but for the most part, my past is best left in the past. My current life would not benefit from dredging it up, and my future is clean and unwritten (and not made stagnant by the journals anymore). It was a liberating feeling.
    (I think I will compost the shred now… great idea!)
    However, I do keep my favourite birthday card from each of my relatives — just one — to keep a sample of their handwriting and that warm glow of remembering them when they were alive. One is enough for that.

  17. posted by ninak on

    To borrow Erin’s words I’d be horrified to find out that letters I intended for one were read by someone else too. If you don’t know how the writer feels about this one, assume that they’d not want to share their words. Once I’m done reading through my piles I will create a personal moment and burn them.

  18. posted by ninakk on

    And it’s me, ninakk, obviously. Can’t spell today.

  19. posted by Susan in FL on

    I ended up with the diaries that my husband’s paternal grandmother wrote from 1937 through 1969. I transcribed them, had them copied and mailed copies to each of her children and grandchildren. Everyone loved them and I’m glad I completed this work of love before her children all passed away – they enjoyed them the most.

  20. posted by Erin on

    Thanks, Erin, these are great tips! I have a few boxes in my bedroom that I keep avoiding. Happy music and open windows for the sunshine will help a lot.

  21. posted by Kate on

    Cindy May–from the way you describe those letters (one big guilt trip), I would think destroying them would be the best thing for everyone. Passing that negative energy to your father doesn’t sound like something you want to do.

  22. posted by Margaret on

    There is nothing wrong with taking more than one pass to unclutter everything, especially if you are just starting. Get the things that are easy to get rid of first. On the next pass, you can get rid of more as you get better at making decisions and discover how good you feel about getting rid of things.

  23. posted by Daniel on

    I’m with Margaret, I try to do things gradually. A few items per day works for me.

  24. posted by Jody on

    I had saved every letter and postcard I ever received for 30 years. For a few years I toyed with the idea of getting rid of them but people kept talking me out of it.

    One day I sat down and started reading them and you know what – they were not the great nostalgic visit I was expecting…people write about what they are doing and who they are doing it with but I didn’t do these things so there were no memories being invoked. I offered the letters to the writers because it was a really good snapshot of their past but they didn’t want them either. Into the shredder they went, it was kind of fun – I only kept the letters from my parents and brothers partly because I couldn’t shred them and partly because I have a young niece who might like to read them when she is grown (her Dad wrote his letters to me when he was serving in Bosnia & Afghanistan).

    I also got rid of my highschool & university yearbooks but was careful not to tell anyone I was doing this because I knew they would talk me out of it. I didn’t want that decision to drag out for a few years.

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