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Show Your Stuff Some Tough Love

Let's face it: almost all of us have more stuff than we'll ever use. Though it can be comforting to be surrounded by things, far too often they become a source of stress, clutter, and unhappiness.

Getting organized always involves making decisions about what stays and what goes. Sometimes those decisions are easy and obvious, but when they're not, being willing to part with stuff requires some determination and some tough love. Here are three of the most common excuses for holding onto things, along with ideas on how to overcome each of them.

"But I might need it someday"
We've all said this at some point or other, no matter how obscure or ridiculous the "it" at hand may have been--a bin full of untouched knitting yarn, the leprechaun-themed serving platter, ten unopened bottles of rubbing alcohol. Almost anything can qualify as potentially useful, depending how you look at it.

That said, the vast majority of stuff that "might be needed someday" causes more trouble than it's worth, and winds up never being needed at all. Yes, you might someday decide to pick up knitting again, although you haven't done it for years and have taken up new hobbies in the meantime; but until you do, that bin of supplies will be lurking around, taking up space, causing needless guilt, and collecting dust. By letting it go, you clear out room for the things you actually enjoy doing now, and you let go of the stress born of feeling like you should be putting the supplies to good use.

"But I paid good money for it"
Investing a hefty chunk of cash in something that turns out not to be as appealing or as useful as you originally thought can bring up all sorts of emotions: stress, anger, guilt, annoyance. It can also strengthen the desire to hold on to the object in question; after all, who wants to relegate a valuable object to the Goodwill pile?

If you're keeping something you don't use--or even necessarily like--solely because you paid a lot of money for it, chances are good that the object is serving as little more than a reminder of a purchase you regret. If, every time you look at this thing, you ask yourself, "What was I thinking?" or feel a flood of guilt wash over you about wasted money or an unwise purchase, it's time to bid the object adieu. Selling it, giving it to a friend or family member who will use and adore it, or donating it and taking a tax write-off (if applicable) will let you get rid of both the thing and the mental clutter that went along with it.

"But it reminds me of [person, place, or thing]"
Sentimental clutter--the stuff that reminds us of people, events, or places we love--can be the hardest to wade through. Far too often, it can seem like getting rid of an object related to a memory requires getting rid of the memory as well.

Sorting through sentimental stuff requires that you be honest, gentle, and firm with yourself, all at the same time. First, promise yourself utter honesty about why you're holding on to the object: is it really a reminder of a pleasant memory? Is it a reminder of an unpleasant memory? Is it a way of escaping something difficult or unpleasant in the present? Unless it summons a positive memory--one that can't be summoned by any other means--there's a good chance the object isn't worth keeping around.

As you go through sentimental things, don't berate yourself if you get teary, exasperated, wistful, angry, or sad--all of those emotions are to be expected. Be gentle with yourself and you'll be more likely to make clear, honest decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. At the same time, be firm: don't let yourself slip so far into nostalgia that you find you're keeping things you don't like, or that are associated with negative memories, or that make you feel bad about yourself or others.

Sorting and weeding involves decision after decision after decision, making it one of the hardest parts of organizing. While the tough love tactics above may not make weeding fun, they can help make it more effective and less agonizing. Reminding yourself that you--and not your things--are in charge will give you a clearer sense of what's worth keeping and what's taking up too much valuable space in your life.

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Content copyright © 2013 by Emily Wilska. All rights reserved.
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