Three steps to decide what to do with stuff you don’t use (but haven’t let go of yet)

“Is there such a thing as a fake unclutterer?” This question was asked by an Unclutterer reader in response to a previous post, “Uncluttering is a lot like running.” What exactly does it mean to be a fake unclutterer? One person replied:

… yes there are fake unclutterers, my mother-in-law is one. She has convinced everyone she is uncluttering but has instead just moved the clutter to her bedroom …

Someone else commented:

My mom was the perfect example of a fake unclutterer. She had every closet crammed with stuff, all categorized and neatly organized in plastic boxes. It didn’t look bad until you pulled it all out and realized just how much junk she saved. Yes, junk–hundreds of neat little bundles of twist ties for one example. All useful junk in reasonable quantities, but several lifetime supplies of pens, pencils, sewing needles, thread, chopsticks, notepads, letter openers, grocery bags, paper coasters, tape, hotel soaps and shampoos, ad infinitum.

Family dynamics aside, I suspect many people have their own notion of what it means to be an effective unclutterer as well as what the opposite looks like. The underlying impression of the latter is that you’re not really ridding yourself of clutter. Even if you move your stuff to a different location, hide it, or make everything look neater (though a reasonable first step), it is still clutter. If the items are useful but not used by you, that’s clutter, too.

The following are three steps you can take to begin the process of letting go of things you don’t use:

Figure out why you’re keeping items

It can be a tricky endeavor to figure out where to store everything you own and that’s probably why some things still linger throughout your home. You might feel sentimental about a few items or you might keep something even though you don’t want it because it was received as a gift. Maybe you think you might use it someday. In addition, when you don’t use something often (or at all), it may not be clear where it should be kept. There’s no framework for how to store and access it. So, if you find yourself surrounded by (or are hiding) items that you’re not using, look at the reasons why letting go is difficult. Your reasons for holding onto things can help set the stage for creating a successful plan for letting go of real clutter.

Create a plan and take action

Before sorting through your stuff, create a plan with steps that you can follow through on easily. For instance, your plan might include working in microbursts to avoid getting overwhelmed. You may also want to work during times when you are most alert and focused (so, if you’re not a morning person, you likely won’t be productive during early morning hours). Each of these strategies can work very well when they are incorporated in a regular routine. On the other hand, you’re not likely to see consistent results if you don’t commit to taking action on each item. If you begin to feel stressed or overwhelmed, resist the temptation to shuffle things from spot to spot or to put them in closet.

Think about the purpose of each item

What’s the likelihood that you’ll use the item and how often will you use it? Is that item essential to getting things done? Can someone else benefit from having it? Is it still in good working order? The questions you ask yourself will vary depending on the things you need to act on, so consider the purpose of each one so that you can let them go. If you still have trouble deciding, you might want to work with a friend who is a good accountability partner (or professional organizer) who can help you through the decision-making process.

Letting go of things that are not useful to you or that you don’t want doesn’t have to be a difficult process. Set aside some time each day (or as your schedule allows) to sort through and decide what to do with these items so that you can free up your space for things that you do use.

12 Comments for “Three steps to decide what to do with stuff you don’t use (but haven’t let go of yet)”

  1. posted by Judi on

    Great list! But I need to SEE things. (That’s why I clutter!) Here is a version of this column as a post-able list:


    Figure out why you’re keeping items
     Sentimental? Or a gift?
     Might use it someday?

    Create a plan. Take action. Set aside time EACH DAY!
     Work in microbursts? Or longer spans?
     When alert and focused?
     When stressed or overwhelmed, DON’T shuffle things from spot to spot or to put them in closet.

    Think about the purpose of each item
     What’s the likelihood of using the item? How often?
     Is that item essential to getting things done?
     Can someone else benefit from it?
     Is it still in good working order?

  2. posted by Melanie on

    My biggest reason for keeping items is that although I don’t need/want them, they are in my opinion too valuable to throw away (“perfectly good stuff”), not valuable enough to take the time required to deal with re-selling them (via online classifieds, etc), and have enough of a “I might need this someday” weight that I won’t just donate them (because if I *do* in fact someday need the item, after having donated it, I will need to spend my hard earned money AGAIN to repurchase the item or a comparable replacement). I guess the only reason this system sort of works is that my home is big enough/has enough storage space that I can keep these kinds of items around until I finally decide that I probably won’t need them someday or that the value of having the space is higher than the cost of repurchasing. I think what I really need is to put a $ figure on the emotional annoyance/distress of having to look at these items/trip over them…

  3. posted by Barb on

    Melanie, I have a friend with the same mindset. She regrets getting rid of everything she has purged. Need I say that she is a hoarder and her show could be on one of those shows? Have you ever considered that, if you do get rid of something and later find that you need it, you could likely borrow this item from a friend or family member?

    My husband and I were convinced we needed to buy a wet/dry shop vac to do a thorough job of cleaning our basement. Luckily we mentioned this to my sister and brother-in-law. They loaned us theirs for a week and that’s the last time we needed one.

  4. posted by infmom on

    My father-in-law saved all kinds of useful things that might come in handy someday. He grew up during the Depression and had to be very, very frugal. Unfortunately, some of the things he did to be “frugal” meant a week of work for the family cleaning out his collections of “useful” stuff (that had never been touched) after he died. What would anyone do with a six-foot stack of old margarine tubs?

    I save a lot of things for sentimental value and have a very hard time parting with them. For example, I’ve got a bag of Starbucks bears that my kids gave me over the years they worked at Starbucks. I have room to display a few of them in the office but by no means all. But… but… they’re cute, and my kids gave them to me! And a photo of my bears wouldn’t be the same! Sigh. So the bag is out in the storage room and just survived another round of “let’s take these things to Out of the Closet for donations.”

    My husband is unfortunately following in his dad’s footsteps in saving “useful” things that might come in handy someday. He also has a horrible time getting rid of anything printed on paper. He never seems to finish reading a magazine in one sitting, which means he’ll fold it to the page he’s on and set it aside for “later.” “Later” never seems to come, but he can’t get rid of a magazine he hasn’t finished reading because he might miss something. He can’t abide “wasting food” and will try to put all kinds of bits and pieces of leftovers in containers so he can “have them for lunch” (last night, I snuck a nearly-consumed chicken breast into the trash, because I made it a point to be the one who cleared the dishes after supper). Our fridge is full of containers of bits and pieces of leftovers. And someone has to wash all those containers after they’ve been used because the dishwasher doesn’t like them. Thus we also have a stack of empty containers waiting to be washed because I resent the assumption that *I* am going to wash them after *he* used them for his lunch.

    I worry that my husband might become a hoarder if I go first. So do our kids. So I have been trying to do a better job of getting rid of my own stuff so I can set a good example, and pushing him to deal with his stuff so he gets used to the idea that he doesn’t have to cling to everything. I’m not sure what else to do!

  5. posted by Valeria on

    I’m not a fake unclutterer, but a slow, conscientious, slightly obsessive one.
    A few months ago I volunteered to help a dear neighbor dispose of hundreds of books that had belonged to her recently deceased mother. Some were easy: the cookbooks went to a friend who loves to entertain, the children’s books were given to a school, the religion books and multiple Bibles were offered to a church, etc. And I have just returned from donating 13 encyclopedias (60+ thick volumes) to a local library. The point is, during the 3 or 4 months that those hundreds of books were in my house, I did shuffle them around and allowed them to collect dust under my bed, behind my couch, on my living room table, etc. But once I found someone who was happy to have them, I was happy to give them away.
    I like to unclutter AND make sure the things I get rid of are used by someone else. So it sometimes takes me a long time to find a willing recipient for my outgoing stuff. People have often told me “If you don’t want to keep those books/clothes/hotel soaps/old CDs/whatever, why don’t you just throw them away?” But it would make me very uncomfortable to do that, so I “fake unclutter” untily I can “really unclutter”.

  6. posted by GCarr on

    FreeCycle has made a huge difference for me in letting go of things! It is so much easier when I know they will be used. And I don’t have to spend time finding a new home for the item. I post the information on the website, then wait for emails. I make arrangements for someone to pick the item up at my convenience, at my home. I wish I had discovered FreeCycle much sooner. And there are similar organizations.

  7. posted by lisa on

    Thanks, Judi, for the list! Excellent idea!
    My revelation has been that I do not have to be the one responsible for “X”. I can release it into the wild (freecycle, garage sale, alley behind my house, donation center, etc.) and believe that it will find a good home. It does not have to be me who insures that X is loved or used well. I am very averse to throwing perfectly good things away so I really understand the sentiment. I just give myself permission to not have the perfect solution, but to let go anyway and have faith in the best outcome.

  8. posted by Christy King on

    Melanie, What really helps me is decluttering the same area multiple times, with a few months in between. The first time it’s really easy to say “Oh, I should use that now I that I remember I have it.” The second time it’s more of “I might use it someday,” and by the third time I’m much more likely to realize that if I haven’t used since this first time, I probably won’t.

  9. posted by Anna on

    It helps to be aware of some automatic mental processes that kick in during uncluttering. Every item that is part of the clutter is surrounded by a host of emotional reactions that kick in whenever you see the item (the memories it evokes, the guilt you would feel about letting it go, what the giver would think if she/he knew you were discarding the gift, etc. etc.). These emotional reactions are instant. They overtake and throttle your very good reasons for uncluttering. They are activated by the mere sight of the item, and they are very effective in setting up resistance. The first defense against these reactions is knowing that they will occur and seeing them for what they are.

  10. posted by Laurie Buchanan on

    We use the three pile system — DONATE, THROW, KEEP — to help us determine and stay minimal, as explained in Nary a Bat in My Belfry:

  11. posted by Savas on

    Having an organized life does include having an organized and clean space. I made over 100 transactions selling the stuff I don’t use anymore on different websites. Not only that I could make the necessary money for a vacation, but my house was a lot more organized since then.

  12. posted by Doug on

    I used to be a horrible fake unclutterer. Everything was piled in my closet in tubs and to me that was pretty organized. One day I just realized it was to much and I came up with my own rule of thumb. My rule is if I haven’t used it in a year it’s time for it to go.

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