Reader S. submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:
I really want to unclutter my house, but every time I go to do this I get emotional and start reminiscing in my mind. So, back in the pile/box it goes. I can’t seem to move forward. I know if you haven’t used it in 2 years you should get rid of it. HELP!!!
I think there are two main types of objects in our homes — utilitarian and sentimental objects. Utilitarian objects are useful items like plates and chairs and blenders. The two year rule you mentioned primarily applies to these types of objects. If you don’t have use for a utilitarian object over the course of two years (or one year), you should donate the item to charity or sell it on Craigslist or give it to a friend who wants it. My guess is that you don’t have much issue parting with these types of objects since they hold no emotional attachment.
Conversely, sentimental objects don’t usually work with “if you haven’t used it in X timeframe” guidelines because the reason you have the item has very little to do with an object’s purpose. You keep sentimental items because you have an emotional attachment to them that is often based on a specific memory. You may have your grandmother’s rocking chair in your daughter’s nursery, and you may actually use it to rock your daughter to sleep at night, but the reason you have that exact chair is because it was your grandmother’s. When your daughter no longer wants a rocking chair in her room, you’re more likely to move the chair to another room of the house instead of selling it. If you were to get rid of the chair you might feel like you’re getting rid of your grandmother. (Obviously, you wouldn’t be getting rid of your grandmother if you did part with the chair, but the emotional attachment you have can certainly cause you to feel that way.)
Remember that clutter is anything that distracts you from pursuing the life of your dreams. If you have so much sentimental stuff that it is causing a stressful mess or taking up room in your home for things that matter more to you, you will want to cull the clutter. But, you don’t have to get rid of all your sentimental stuff. At least for me, some of the things I keep for sentimental reasons are objects that reflect what I value most. My grandmother is one of my most favorite people on the planet, and having her rocking chair makes me smile and remember all the wonderful times we have shared. So, I keep that exact chair. However, I don’t keep every card she ever sent me or every gift she ever gave me because I don’t have room to keep everything and the chair elicits the happiest of all the memories. With sentimental items, it’s usually a good idea to aim for quality over quantity. Think about sorting through your sentimental items like an editing project — you’re not getting rid of everything, you’re just getting rid of the excess that distracts from the really good stuff.
For you, I recommend choosing one nice waterproof box (like a plastic bin) and calling it your Keepsake Box. Do not use a cardboard box as critters and pests can eat through it and water can soak into it and ruin your keepsakes. Then, only put the sentimental items you decide to keep in your one Keepsake Box. You’ll need to make guidelines for what sentimental objects you wish to keep and which ones you wish to purge. Items to get rid of might be things that are broken or damaged, things that you don’t remember exactly what they represent, things that are associated with bad memories, and things that you value less than another object that represents the same memory.
Also, grab a friend and a digital camera as you’re going through this process. Have the friend hold up stuff from your current stash (Rule #1: YOU can’t touch any of the stuff. Research has found that it’s harder for people to get rid of things they are holding). Any item that doesn’t meet your “keep” criteria, photograph it with a digital camera before having your friend help you get rid of the item. This way, if you ever want to see the object again, you can simply pull up the digital image file on your computer. That file takes up a lot less space in your house than the actual object did, and you’re still able to look at it whenever you want.
At the end of the project, you’ll still have a Keepsake Box, but it will hold things that are really important to you. Moving forward, you can only put items in the Keepsake Box that fit inside the box. This means, you need to leave some room in your Keepsake Box for future memories and be sure to only add the really important paraphernalia. You also might consider getting a journal and writing individual entries about each of the items in your Keepsake Box. Tell the story of the things that matter most to you. If you don’t want to spend the time writing about an item, it could be a sign that the item isn’t actually very important to you. (This isn’t always the case, but it’s definitely something to consider.)
If you don’t have a friend who would be good at helping with this sort of uncluttering project, hire a professional organizer to assist you with the work. Interview a few and choose one you trust and believe can best help you.
Also, I strongly recommend displaying and using your sentimental items that have some utility. If you’re proud of your college diploma, frame it and hang it on the wall of your office as a daily reminder of your accomplishment. If your mom made you a quilt, get it out of storage and wrap yourself in it on chilly evenings. Hiding important and useful sentimental objects in a box is a pretty lousy way to enjoy something. Use your Keepsake Box only for those small things that lack utility and would be awkward to display. For instance, I have a copy of my wedding invitation in my Keepsake Box. I don’t have any use for the invitation and I don’t have a desire to display it, but every year on our wedding anniversary we pull it out and look at it and talk about how much fun we had on our wedding day. I think Keepsake Boxes are perfect for this type of item.
Thank you, S., for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column.
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