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Hoard No More: The Art of Throwing Stuff Away

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When I was about 10 years old, my mother and I got into a fight. In the bedroom I shared with my little brother, she’d enlisted my help in getting rid of everything we no longer needed, used, or fit into. But when she approached the closetful of stuffed animals I hadn’t glanced at in years, I burst into tears.

“You can’t give them away!” I wailed.

“But you have so many toys,” she said calmly. “What about sick kids who don’t have any?”

In the end I agreed to donate half the collection to the local children’s hospital. It was probably the first, but certainly not the last, time I’d struggle to get rid of things. Difficulty giving away possessions is a complicated issue that sometimes has to do with fears about letting go of the past, worries about being wasteful, or just not knowing how to start organizing. But it’s possible to overcome those obstacles and get rid of absolutely all (or fine, maybe just half) that extra stuff.

Surrounded by Stuff — The Need-to-Know

Spoiled brat though I may have been, some organization experts say difficulty throwing stuff away isn’t just about selfishness: It’s often a way to avoid change. A house full of clutter may also reflect the procrastination habits of a person who’s just too lazy to get rid of ticket stubs and used garbage bags.

But my mother was, of course, right (at least in that situation — I still refuse to take her hairstyle advice). Stashing away everything we’ve ever bought, touched, or blown our nose into can contribute to serious stress. For one thing, a cluttered desk can be distracting and over-stimulating when it’s time to buckle down. And constantly having to look around at all the stuff that really belongs in the nearest garbage truck can provoke feelings of guilt and anxiety.

In certain situations, the inability to throw anything away can become a pathological disorder known as “hoarding [1]. Glorified in some popular television series, hoarding problems affect between two and five percent of the American population, keeping them from fully using their living space and interfering with their daily lifes. But for those who don’t struggle with this psychological issue, getting rid of extra stuff can be liberating and energizing. (Plus you won’t scare off potential suitors when they stop by before that date.)

Clear The Air — Your Action Plan

Not to get too metaphorical, but getting rid of physical messes can also mean tackling mental and emotional clutter and letting go of the past. (Cue the violins.) Some health experts say getting rid of junk can be genuinely refreshing. A newly cleaned room feels peaceful and spacious — not to mention fully functional, now that the 15-year-old treadmill-turned-clothes-rack has been trashed.

But clearing clutter is a lot easier said than done. There are lots of excuses we use to weasel our way out of cleaning up, like not having enough time and thinking we’ll use the stuff at some point. (Maybe that broken pen could be a hair accessory!) Luckily, we’ve got some suggestions to make the task just a little bit easier. Try these 12 tips and watch the clutter vanish, no English governess required.

1. Set aside about 20 minutes every day to clean. That way you don’t have to worry about the clothes closet swallowing you whole or starting a job you’ll never finish.

2. Question your reasoning. Ask yourself: Are you keeping this item because it makes you happy? Or because you think you should keep it? If it’s the latter, throw that broken Tamagotchi in the trash.

3. Tackle the “maybes.” When going through items to give away, make a pile of items you “might” need and hide them somewhere for a month. If over the course of that month you find you don’t need them even once, they’re probably not essential enough to keep.

4. Remember your memories aren’t in physical objects — they’re in your mind. It’s hard to give away sentimental items like a great-grandparent’s dish set, but it doesn’t mean you’re forgetting about the great-grandparents.

5. Dump the stack of old magazines. If you haven’t already read them, you probably won’t; if you’ve read them already, you’re unlikely to browse them again. Instead keep a folder of favorite magazine clippings and donate the rest of the collection to a local library.

6. Refresh your wardrobe. Try this trick: At the beginning of a new season, turn all the hangers so they face right. After you wear an item once, turn its hanger around to face left. Once the season’s over, keep only the clothes on the hangers pointing left. (So long, Spice Girls costume from Halloween ’98!)

7. Steer clear of danger! Chances are there are some expired medicines and old makeup hiding in the bathroom cabinet. Avoid an accidental dose of 20-year-old Tylenol and throw that stuff away. (Follow these guidelines for safe disposal.)

8. Digitize it. Throw away old receipts you don’t need for tax day or for items you’re not returning. Then scan the rest of the receipts, bills, and other financial papers, and store them in cyberspace.

9. Make some money. That old blender sitting in the attic could quickly turn into a $50 bill. Try selling unused items online instead of just dumping them in the trash.

10. Donate items to charity. You might use that pancake spatula at some point in the next century, but there’s probably someone who needs it right now. Don’t wait for the holidays to do a good deed: Try the local Salvation Army or Goodwill, or check out this list of charities that accept used books, athletic equipment, and musical instruments.

11. Hire a professional organizer. Getting help from a cleanup pro can be costly, but if clutter is a serious issue, it might be worth it.

12. Set up a system. Going forward, try to deal with clutter on a regular basis, getting rid of old shopping bags, used batteries, and ugly gifts right away. Donate a bunch of unwanted stuff every month, or even every week. And keep your bedroom from overflowing: Every time you buy a new item, get rid of one old one.

Do you have a hard time getting rid of stuff? What are your tips for battling clutter? Let us know in the comments below!

I'm the senior writer at Greatist, and I mainly cover new trends in psychology and mental health. When I'm not hanging out at Greatist HQ,... Read More »

Works Cited

  1. Hoarding: Obsessive Symptom or Syndrome? Sansone, R.A., Sansone, L.A. Departments of Psychiatry and Internal Medicine, Wright State University of Medicine, Dayton, OH. Psychiatry 2010;7(2):24-7.