How to hold on to sentimental items and let go of clutter

In Gretchen Rubin’s recent article in The New York Times, she said:

While we’re constantly bombarded with messages of “More!” and “Buy now!” we’re also offered the tantalizing promise “You’ll be happier with less!”

She goes on to say that achieving simplicity is not as cut and dry as it may seem. Like some relationships, it can be complex. And, it can get especially complicated when you have to let go of things that have high sentimental value.

Rubin also suggests that we need to keep things that are precious to us. Striking the right balance between how much to keep and how much to let go of can be difficult if everything is (seemingly) dear to you. How do you decide what stays and what goes? It’s this part of the process that can stop you in your tracks. And, there are times when you’re forced to make a decision, like when you’re moving to a smaller home (or office) or if you have to sort through the belongings of a loved one who has passed away.

Though you may not know what to do with everything, there are some steps you can take until the time comes for you make a decision.

  1. Pack them away. When your emotions get the best of you, it can be difficult to make a final decision about what to purge and what to keep. You might find yourself changing your mind many times. This can add to any stress you’re feeling, so you may want to put those items in a box to review later. But, before you put that box in the garage or the top shelf in your closet, add a label with the contents and an expiration date. Choose a reasonable timeframe that you think will give you enough time to figure out what to do. And, if/when that time comes and you still haven’t decided what to do with them, give yourself permission to let go of the box and everything in it.
  2. Capture the moment. One of the reasons we hold on to documents is because we want the information that on them. The same can be true for sentimental objects. Sometimes, it’s not the object but the memory that the item conjures up for us that we wish to save. Consider writing down (or recording) your memories and feelings associated with those cherished items. A paper journal may be all you need, but you also can create a digital scrapbook (and include photographs) or start a blog to capture all your memories. This way, you’re still honoring the objects without having to keep them.
  3. Pick the best. As you try to decide what to keep, select the things that mean the most to you or that are in the best condition. Then, put them in a spot in your home or office that you can easily see them. Over time, your feelings for them might wane. By then, you will have enjoyed them and be ready to pass them on.

Making a decision about an emotionally charged object is a tricky endeavor. But, you don’t have to have all the answers right away or to decide what to do immediately. And, if you keep in mind that you likely can’t keep everything, you’ll be able to part with items that are truly clutter and keep the ones that mean the most to you.

8 Comments for “How to hold on to sentimental items and let go of clutter”

  1. posted by Dusty @ Wine Logic on

    I went through my storage area in my basement recently when it was getting out of hand. I chose to do the last thing and pick the best of my sentimental items. The kid sin you might like to see all the trophies from over the years, but what use will they ever have besides the occasional glance as you are looking through your storage for christmas decorations?

  2. posted by Christiano on

    Point two is straight on point!
    I do that most of the time, unconsciously. Only now did I realize that this is what helps me live with less, happily.

  3. posted by Dede on

    #2 is right on. When the kids were little, I saved just about everything. Each child had a box full of “stuff” from school and church. Over the years we would go through the boxes and each time we would toss more stuff. Now that they are well into their 20s I realize the “stuff” was not important. What I should’ve done was keep one large journal or one journal for each child and record the things we did, things they did in school, etc. So many objects we tossed because we could not remember what prompted us to keep it in the first place. So if you have small children – JOURNAL and take photos. Toss everything else.

  4. posted by EZ on

    I love the idea of taking pictures of things and putting them into a journal with notes. I just realized that for electronic version, you can use Evernote, it’s super simple and searchable and you can snap a picture and write a note right from your phone. It synchronizes with your computer too. I am sure there are other apps or software that can make this easy and fun.

  5. posted by Henave on

    I started keeping journals when my boys were very young. My mother died as my first son was just born and I didn’t realize the questions I wanted to ask her about myself as a child until I had one of my own (and it was too late). I am now transcribing these journals onto the computer (and tossing the handwritten ones) and it is fascinating the things I have forgotten and my boys are only 12 and 14! The journals, videos (short ones!) and photos are the most important memories and they are all digital now.

  6. posted by HAH on

    With our house on the market wanting to downsize to a one bedroom flat, I feel that I am having to organize every memory(good or bad)of my life! Honestly, I feel like I have held in my hands some objects and re-lived some very interesting moments in my life. It has been very liberating to let go of some of these objects. Came to the realization that many of these things exist in my photo albums and that does seem to really help me let them go. I am currently struggling with a loveseat from my grandmother, I’m quite happy to have it only exist in my photo albums, but it seems so final to get rid of it. I’ve grown tired of asking my grown children for permission to do anything since that’s really not who any of us are right now. Actually, really looking forward to going through the Christmas decorations and seeing what really means something to me and then letting the rest go.

  7. posted by Emma on

    I take something of the opposite approach with digital storage. It’s space-saving for sure, but it isn’t low maintenance. You’ll have access to those pictures and documents for only as long as you commit to upgrading and transferring all of them each time your hardware changes (and for as long as you remember the password). You also are presuming that the company maintaining the site will remain in business- forever. Your grandchildren will be able to see these pictures only if their parents have been as diligent over the years as you will have to be. Break the chain, and they’re gone.

    I have pictures on 3.5″ floppies. What I don’t have is a machine that can read them. They’re lost not only to me, but to any family or others who might have been interested. My own fault, of course, and if they were truly important I’d hunt down a floppy disk reader. On the other hand, my family has family photos from the early 1900s. Paper can be fragile too, but it is much less onerous to maintain. Digital is great, but keep in mind the limitations. If you couldn’t bear to lose it, why not maintain an original too.

  8. posted by Mira on

    I embarked on a project to save my memorabilia in a photobook. I uploaded and then scanned old letters, notes, precious photos, certificates, school papers, athletic ribbons, etc. etc. and then created a photobook from Shutterfly with those scanned pictures. I love it! Everything is nicely preserved and now I can toss most of those things (like papers) that will get ruined over time anyway. If you have a scanner and a computer, is a very doable project.

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