An impartial participant can help get rid of clutter

Little League BaseballSentimental clutter can be the most difficult clutter to clear from your spaces. “Oh, I remember this!” is the exclamation that inevitably gets tossed around while trying to clean out a closet, basement, or attic. Until you went to organize the space, you probably had no idea that you were holding onto these items. You’re then struck with the pang of nostalgia and you flirt with the idea of keeping everything you’ve rediscovered.

If you are going to take the time to clear your home of clutter, it can be a good idea to get someone impartial to help handle your sentimental clutter. Whether you hire a professional organizer or you get a friend or spouse to help you, their impartiality may help you get rid of sentimental clutter.

Trying to get rid of things that you think you’ll miss or one day need is a problem for most of us (I struggle with it). This article in the San Diego Reader is entertaining and shows how the process of getting rid of clutter can be helped by having an impartial participant. From the article:

David sat on the floor and began unloading a large box; I stood beside him and sifted through a crate. Every few seconds, I would hold up an item and say, “You don’t need this. Trash?” I’d wait for him to nod before placing it in the big white plastic bag. David grumbled here and there, but an hour in, I’d filled three large bags and broken down four boxes.

If you’re struggling with clearing sentimental clutter, you may want to read the full article for some inspiration.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.

20 Comments for “An impartial participant can help get rid of clutter”

  1. posted by becoming minimalist on

    completely agree. i have found sentimental clutter to be single greatest obstacle in our journey to become minimalist.

    as i write, i can picture the two large full boxes of sentimental cluuter sitting on my basement floor right now that brought the clearing of that room to a screeching halt.

    i will add this, we began clearing our possessions over 4 months ago and haven’t missed a single thing yet (except ths jell-o molds that apparently my wife wanted to keep…)

  2. posted by Mo on

    I cleaned out a lot of my memorabilia. What I did:

    1. Decide how big a box or chest you can devote to memorabilia. Choose one. Fill it.

    2. If there is enough to make a shadow/memory box to hang on the wall, do so. If you feel un-artistic or overwhelmed, poke around on and see if you can find an artist willing to work with you on this. In the Alchemy section, you can post a request for something you would like an artist to make for you and the approximate price you’d like to pay.

    Making a shadow box for my husband really helped him let go of a bunch of the other stuff. It’s often more about honoring fond memories rather than the stuff itself.

    3. Realize that you’ve held onto that crazy-huge elementary school play prop-thing for this long, it deserves a place of honor at the top of the attic stairs. Your heirs will have to deal with it.

  3. posted by Jess on

    This is spot on. As a young girl I used to be terribly sentimental until one day, when I was about 10, my brother suggested I get rid of some stuff. I’m not sure if he was put up to it by my parents or he was just personally sick of all my clutter but we sat down together with all my stuff in the middle of the room and he made me justify why I had to keep absolutely everything. He let a few sentimental things slip through but after nearly a day I’d stopped complaining so much and had got rid of 2 bin bags of toys and books and broken things I was hanging onto.

    Since then I’ve subjected myself to the same process every time I feel like I have too much stuff.

    I’m not sure if the success was down to the fact that the person who helped me was impartial, or rather the person who helped me was someone I looked up to and whose opinion I really respected…

  4. posted by Beth on

    I think we need to differentiate between sentimental clutter and sentimental objects. Keeping term papers from high school, costumes from a school play, or everything single birthday card you receive is clutter. But, sentimental object should be displayed in a place of honor. I have several of these scattered about my house – from my Dad’s college statistics book that sits on my desk to a hand knitted teddy bear that my grandmother gave me as a child. When I walk in each room and see these things, it reminds me of that person.

    Not to sound critical but I think sometimes, our efforts of decluttering and minimalizing spaces can cause our homes to feel like sterile, heartless spaces. Sure, the statistics book sitting on my desk is probably catching dust and monopolizing valuable workspace. But, everyday when I sit down at my computer, I see it and think of my dad.

    Hey, we’re all allowed to be sentimental fools sometime! That doesn’t mean keeping the pair of socks you wore in high school! But, I think it allows us to keep high school yearbooks to page through on a rainy day and remember when.

    I remember when my Grandmother was going into a nursing home and she was giving away her stuff. Wedding china, crystal (which I got), jewelry, etc… All my mother wanted was a porcelin green teapot because it was in that teapot that her mother served her tea when she was sick! People probably looked at her like she was nuts! Yet, it sits, on her kitchen window sill – doesn’t match her decor but it is in a place of honor.

    Bottom line I think – a little sentimentality makes a house a home! Not everything deserves the Hefty bag!

  5. posted by Christian on

    My cousin is great for this. He’s very neat so whenever he comes over to our place, he starts telling me what I need to throw out without being asked.

  6. posted by Lori on

    Amen, Beth!

  7. posted by Tabitha (From Single to Married) on

    I agree! Not only is it difficult to let go of some items, but it makes the process take forever! It’s so much better to set a timeline and stick to it. That helps with the sentamentality factor too because you don’t get wrapped up in looking at every item and reminiscing.

  8. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Beth — If you love something, honor it by displaying it and/or regularly enjoying or getting utility from it, then it isn’t clutter.

    Matt is talking about purging clutter — Things that you don’t want, things you don’t honor, and things that you derive no enjoyment or utility from. He’s not saying to get rid of something because it’s sentimental, he’s saying to get rid of clutter than at one point may have been sentimental.

  9. posted by Harris on

    There is such a difference between clutter and things with sentimental value. Seems to me that we are all so caught up in “stuff” that we’ve lost sight of what’s what. As I’ve decluttered, I’ve realized how freeing it is to get rid of the excess and how valuable the things I’ve kept become. Three boxes of my childhood toys collecting dust in the attic didn’t work but the few dolls and toys I kept for my grandchildren to play with are priceless. Same with inherited furniture and things. It can be hard to let go but if someone else can use and enjoy something and I have more than I want and need, well, it’s good.
    Hanging on to something you really don’t want for sentimental reasons doesn’t make sense….unless you have a really big house!

  10. posted by Beth on

    things you don’t honor – boy, that’s a tangled web there. Because I am sure alot of people think “honoring” is storing in a box in the garage!

  11. posted by ellebee on

    I recently played “semi-impartial participant” to my parents as we helped them “clean sweep” their house in preparation for a move and the thing I learned that was most valuable to my own cleaning-out is that doing it in bulk really does make it easier. If I come across a meaningful card or note or something sentimental at home, I have a hard time throwing it out, as I can simply file it away. But when I’m going through several boxes of that stuff? It is SO much easier to throw it out. I found my parents reacted the same way … the first few items were hard, but then they got more and more ruthless and threw out all kinds of stuff they never would have parted with on an individual basis. Of course doing it like this takes a lot of time, but emotionally I find it much easier.

  12. posted by infmom on

    I don’t think spouses are necessarily the best people to help clear clutter. Sometimes there are ongoing issues that make one person cling just because the other one says it ought to go. 🙂

  13. posted by Marc on

    This is a sure way to divorce in my expereince. My wife is the sentimental on and I am the minimalist so if I start working with her to toss stuff she is about ready to toss me out in the end.

  14. posted by Another Deb on

    I agree with the spouse thing. There are so many power dynamics and Mars-Venus perspectives that you begin to suspect their motives. Better to have an efficient friend or hire a professional to help.

    Then when you both have complaints about the system you can blame a third party! Of course when it all works out better you can take full credit for the foresight you had. 🙂

  15. posted by Charity on

    i find that every time we move our stuff gets less and less sentimental. When it the sentimental stuff out-weights the humans toting it around its too much. we went from 4 massive blue rubbermaid bins of sentiment to 2 milk crates. 1 is stuffed toys and dolls our various grandmothers gave us (my boyfriend is a softy too). THe other is picture albums of friends and my birthson. total weight is 9 pounds. I dont mind moving that 🙂

  16. posted by remaras on

    We can accumulate stuff so easily and the job of uncluttering our work spaces can be a real challenge. My wife and I moved into a new home several years ago, but while we were in the process of looking for our home we created a motto that still rings today, throw, throw ,throw. Keeping our work spaces free from clutter is ever ending process.

    When we moved we downsized and don’t have as much room as we once did. Once we moved though we also decided to try to live more simply. We purchase what we need and made it our aim not to accumulate unwanted or unnecessary things. We ask ourselves a simple question before making any purchase; do I really need this item.

  17. posted by anonymous on

    Hey, we’re all allowed to be sentimental fools sometime! That doesn’t mean keeping the pair of socks you wore in high school!

    Unless you’re still in high school.

  18. posted by laura on

    Friends help the decluttering process even when it’s not sentimental stuff. I had a friend of mine come over as I went through my clothes (which I have a hard time parting with). Not only was she quick to say “I have never seen you wear that, get rid of it!” She also nabbed a few things to keep herself that no longer fit me. Everyone wins!

  19. posted by The sentimental factor - Simpler Living - - Albany NY on

    […] has a good post regarding how hard it can be to de-clutter when so many things have so much sentimental […]

  20. posted by Heidi on

    I agree a husband is not a good impartial person.
    Mine cleared a room I used for storage, but was intended to be “my space,” without my knowledge when I was away.
    He threw out much of what was in the room, believing he knew best.
    Couldn’t believe he’d be so disrespectful. I felt violated. But he was happy.
    I guess this is more a representation of his character & meeting his own needs.
    I do have to admit it is nice to have the space back, but I still feel hurt when I go for something he threw out.

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