How to Detach from Your Stuff & Clear Clutter

The amount of stuff we have in our homes can be overwhelming. There are industries devoted to clearing out our clutter. But what happens when so much of that clutter is intertwined with our memories? How do we decide what’s important to keep and what to get rid of? And if we decide to keep it, what’s the best way to preserve it?

I recently interviewed Terri Blanchette of Time Sorters and got some of her best tips on how to make those challenging decisions.

The first thing she shared is that, “We have to understand that our memories are really what drives us to hang onto things. And those memories we have sometimes don’t translate to the next generation. Some things that we have are uniquely ours and will have to live and die with us – and that’s OK.” She has a collection of spoons that she enjoys seeing displayed on her wall and enjoys the memories they’ve given her. But she knows they will eventually be disposed of, and she’s OK with that. (I’m looking at you, Dad’s salt and pepper shakers…)

“When people are intent on saving an object, what they’re really trying to save is the memory that goes with that object, more so than the object itself. We’re attached to those things because we’ve instilled in them a deep emotional memory – but the item itself might not have a lot of value, and maybe shouldn’t be saved.”

When Terri works with clients, she’s really practicing a kind of “history therapy,” where she’s asking people questions, in which their answers will help her steer them in a certain direction. “When dealing with personal items,” she says, “people are so wrapped up in them and they’re so close to us, that we cannot get perspective. And we need perspective to be able to logically know what to do with something.”

For example, when trying to decide on whether or not to save a photo, she might ask this series of questions:

“Do you know who’s in this photo?”

“No”

“Do you know where or when the picture was taken?”

“No”

“Then why are you keeping it?”

“….um….”

Sometimes people will say that someday maybe they will find the person who does know who’s in that picture. She tells her clients that the likelihood that will happen is slim, and even if it does, the likelihood that the person identified in the picture will have relevance to them is slim as well.

She uses an approach used in her museum days when talking to people about how to decide what to keep and what to get rid of, and there are two main questions she asks:

  • Does this item have any relevance to my story?
  • Can I afford to keep this item?

 

The second question usually helps make the decision. When she uses the term “afford,” it’s not only the cost of cleaning the item or storing it properly, but it’s also the space the item is taking up in your home that might impede you from storing other items properly or having room for other things in your home. She wants people to understand that their space is a valuable commodity and keeping certain items may not be a valuable use of that commodity.

When you begin this journey of clearing your clutter, Terri recommends going through it by grouping like items together and then making decisions. The three main categories are three-dimensional objects, photos and documents.

There are 5 main action items you can take when deciding on saving a family item:

    • Dispose of It
    • Donate It (to a person or museum/institution)
    • Sell It
    • Take a Photo of It (and then dispose of it)
    • Store or Display It

 

For three-dimensional objects, once you’ve decided you’re going to keep it, you need to first see if it needs to be cleaned, and then you need to create a barrier around that item to protect it from getting damaged. (Always keep items away from temperature, humidity and light.)

The other decision is whether to store it or display it. For storing it, you’ll want to obtain archival boxes that are acid and lignin-free. For displaying it, the ideal method is to lay things flat or on a slight angle.

With documents, the task is a bit easier, as they are flat, take up less space, and are easy to scan. Still, they can take up space, so you need to ask yourself whether it’s important enough to just keep, versus just scan, or do both. If you do decide to keep them, again, you’ll want to put barriers around them with acid-free, lignin-free file folders, boxes or archival quality sleeves.

For photos, her biggest suggestion is to gather them up so they’re all in one place. The next most important step is to get them out of those dangerous photo albums (especially the magnetic, sticky ones) and put them in archival boxes (labeled on the back with an archival safe pencil).  Also, scan newspaper clippings and then get rid of them, or store them separately, as they are the great destroyer of all paper and photos.

The most important thing she wants people to understand is that “doing something is better than doing nothing. Don’t wait until you feel like you have time to do everything perfectly. Find something you can move forward with and do that.” For example, find all of your photos and put them in one spot. Just collecting them is enough for now.

Terri loves to freely answer any questions people have, as her driving goal in life is to relieve the tension and stress from hanging onto all this stuff. You can find her at TimeSorters.