Managing Life's Stuff

Clearing Out: How to Think About Your Stuff

I don’t know you. I haven’t been to your house. But you have too much stuff.

Clearing out the clutter in your home is the most fundamental part to achieving and maintaining a clean home and creating the kind of space you want to be in. You know when see furniture ads or catalogues and the rooms look so appealing and clean and peaceful. Yup. It’s largely the absence of your stuff that makes them look that way.

Clearing out the clutter is also the hardest part of the process. It helps to have a systematic approach to the way you think about the things you have in your home, what you should keep, and what should go.

Think of yourself as the CEO of your home. You’re ready to restructure and make your workforce more efficient. The things in your home are your employees, and the space you give them is their paycheck. You need to let a good chunk of your workforce go, so ask if each thing is earning the space it occupies? Really earning it? Do you want to keep paying that thing for weeks or months or years?

As you think about what to keep and what to donate or throw away, know that your belongings should fall into five categories. The vast majority of things in your home should be useful and in regular use. These items have a clearly defined job in your home and they are doing that job regularly and well. Think back to that CEO deciding who stays on the payroll and who gets fired. The coffee pot you use every single day? She stays; the company doesn’t run without her. The dishes your great aunt gave you that you don’t really like and never use? You’d be better off letting them go. The company will run far more efficiently without that whole team. The broken crock pot? It may have been useful at one point, but it isn’t anymore.

If an item is not both useful and in regular use, it may get to stay if it is decorative. These things make your home a more beautiful place. To fit into this category, the item must be cared for and well displayed. Think hard about the dusty figurines on your coffee table. I think the key to keeping decorative items from becoming clutter is to decorate mostly with useful things that are also visually appealing. Turn to lamps, throws, books, pillows, plants, flowers, trays, vases, bowls. These things are also easy to move around your home so you don’t end up with a stale room.

If it is not useful and in regular use and it is not decorative, it may still eke out a spot under seasonal or special occasion items. These things can include the sled you pull out each snowstorm; the classic, well-fitting cocktail dress that takes you to a handful of dressy events; or the menorah you light every Hanukkah. This should be a small percentage of your belongings. I love the holidays as much as anyone. I also know they can be celebrated without a lot of stuff that takes up space the rest of the year.

Outside of those three categories, a sliver of your belongings can be memories. If it is a treasured belonging to which you have an emotional connection, it should be treated as a treasure. Just because something came from a family member or from your childhood, does not mean it holds a memory. Ask yourself, do I want to hold these things, wear them, display them, look at them often, keep them close? If you don’t energetically say yes to one or more of those questions, the item should go.

And finally, that tiny sliver of employees who are not useful, decorative, seasonal, or memories but can be allowed to keep collecting a paycheck is a single collection exception. Yes, each member of your household only gets one. If you collect baseball cards, elephants, vintage toasters, coffee mugs, knitting needles, concert t-shirts, and Star Wars figurines, you are not collecting, you’re acquiring a bunch of crap.

My collection exception is books. If I studied a book in college or graduate school, read it for my book club, loved it or even struggled with it, I want it near me like an old friend. I still keep my collection edited and carefully considered and well displayed. I read the whole Twilight series, but that’s embarrassing so they are not still on my shelf.

Your collection should make you deeply happy and, did I mention, you should only have one.