Why we hold onto clutter and how to let it go
Published Thursday, April 23, 2015 5:52AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, June 25, 2018 6:19PM EDT
The runaway success of Japanese organizing guru Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, seems to have come at a time when many of us are seeking simpler, more organized lives.
With many young families choosing smaller city homes over commutes to the suburbs, and baby boomers beginning to downsize into smaller homes and condos, there’s a move to dumping the clutter and living with less.
But before we begin to de-clutter, it helps to understand why it can be so hard to get organized. Toronto-based professional organizer Clare Kumar, the founder of Streamlife, offers her insights on why we hold onto things we no longer need and gives us some tips to help us finally let go.
Some of us are simply more sentimental
Some people have no trouble throwing junk away, Kumar says, while others simply can’t stand to do it, finding comfort with surrounding themselves with things that remind them of where they’ve been.
“There is definitely a continuum of sentimentality among us,” Kumar says. “The more sentimental you are, the more you emotionally connect to your things and the greater the challenge (of letting go).”
Sentimental people often struggle when it’s time to purge, downsize, or sort through the belongings of a loved one who has passed away. Kumar says for these people, it’s not enough to ask: “Does this item spark joy?”; many, many things could spark joy in those who are sentimental.
The better approach, she says, is to “curate,” to hunt for the best treasures among your things and keep only those. “It comes down to trying to pinpoint the essence of a memory,” she says.
Kumar, for example, holds onto only her most favorite photos of her late father as well as a cravat he used to wear.
“Those are the things that when I see them, they make me flash back to his best quality,” she says.
We don’t notice our needs have changed
As we grow and move into new phases in our lives, we often don’t need the items we once did. From the fine china for the dinner parties we no longer serve, to the books we read when we were in a different line of work, all these things can clutter up our homes.
That’s why the most important part of organization is awareness, says Kumar -- awareness of who you are right now, what your priorities are and what you want your space to do for you.
For clients who choose to keep reminders of their past, Kumar helps them find a way to honour those things by placing them on display.
Oftentimes, though, the space itself makes the decisions about what we can and cannot keep. If our things cannot be given places of honour, it will do us no good to try to store them in boxes, says Kumar.
“You don’t want to feel like you’re living in a storage unit,” she says. “Yes, you can put things in shelves and boxes and store more but that isn’t necessarily going to feel good.”
It’s important to be clear on how we want our spaces to feel, say Kumar. That’s why she tries to live by the credo William Morris wrote almost 200 years ago and that still holds true today: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
We don’t want to admit our shopping mistakes
Another reason many of us live with clutter is we don’t want to face the guilt of having accumulated it in the first place.
Kumar says many of the clients she sees hold onto things because they remember the day they bought the items and are still emotionally invested in that purchase.
It could be that dress that was a great price -- or that was very expensive -- but that never really fit right. Or that bread maker that they thought was going to revolutionize their kids’ school lunches but ended up just gathering dust in the basement.
“We don’t want to let it go because we would have to admit we made a mistake,” says Kumar.
So the question she likes to ask clients is: ‘Would you buy that item today? Knowing what you know now, knowing that item would sit unused for years, would you buy it today? That’s a liberating question, she says, because it focuses on the item’s value to you today, not the day you got it.
We don’t know where to start
One of the things Marie Kondo encourages is a rapid, dramatic, and some might say ruthless organizing spree done all in one go. But Kumar worries that approach actually intimidates those people who need to start small, with just a drawer or closet, for example.
“The thing is, there’s really no right or wrong way to get there. You don’t have to take on the whole thing but you do have to make the decision to say this is worth investing my resources of time and energy,” she says.
“Because (organizing) is something that pays back, which is what I like to remind my clients. Once you start, there’s a momentum.”
For those overwhelmed by the job, hiring an energetic professional organizer can be all that’s needed to spark that momentum. What's more, a professional organizer can keep us on track with our de-cluttering goals, pass on tips about where and how to pass on useful things to others, and support us through our difficult decisions.
We put things away for a future that may never come
So many of us hold onto things we think we will use in the future: we collect books we plan to read one day; we store things we think we’ll fix; we hold onto clothes we hope will come back in style; we save every picture of our children for that scrapbook we’re going to create one day.
The reality is most of us will probably never have the time to do the things we think we’re going to do, says Kumar.
“We often have this idealized idea of the future and what we might do with our time,” she says.
Oftentimes, by the time we do have spare time, we are no longer interested in the items, or we are retired and less energetic and we have no more space.
Kumar says the question to ask yourself when confronting things we’re saving for the future is: Is this item inspiring or useful to my life now? If you are simply holding onto it for a day that may never come, the answer is probably no.