To find answers, I connected with organizing professionals around the country. They helped me sort through the various types of clutter inhabiting our home, and provided insights on how to tackle the mess once and for all.
1. Sentimental clutter
What it is: Your child’s artwork and school projects. A not-quite-right gift from a well-meaning aunt. Greeting cards. Prints of vacation photographs (remember those?).
“It’s common for these kinds of things to be enjoyed in the moment,” says Julie Bestry, a certified professional organizer and president of Best Results Organizing in Chattanooga, TN. “Then pretty much forgotten about until we go spelunking to find something we haven’t seen in years.”
How to tackle it: “Gently,” says Felice Cohen, a professional organizer in New York City. Cohen encourages her clients to tell her about the item and its history. “I would then point out that the story would live on without the item.”
Robyn Reynolds, a professional organizer and the owner and CEO of Organize2Harmonize in Los Angeles, suggests holding onto memories, but not the items themselves.
To do this, take a photo and save it electronically (where it won’t hog up physical space), or post it to social media so you can share your memories with others.
2. Painful clutter
What it is: A wedding dress postdivorce. Angry notes from a parent. A broken rocking chair from a deceased grandmother. Plastic tubs of supplies from a job gone wrong.
How to tackle it: Find ways to give the clutter new meaning.
For my situation, Tracy McCubbin, author of the upcoming book “Making Space, Clutter Free” and a Los Angeles–based professional organizer, suggested going through the items and gifting the usable supplies to a new teacher who’s just starting out.
Doing so gives it new meaning “instead of it languishing in your home, and taking up space, and making you feel bad,” McCubbin explains.
3. Sunk-cost fallacy clutter
What it is: Anything you’re keeping because you spent a lot of money on it. According to economic theory, the “sunk-cost fallacy” is continuing to do something—or keep something—just because we’ve invested in it, even if it’s useless or a drain on our lives.
How to tackle it: Accept your current reality.
“Sometimes you just have to accept that you made a mistake,” says McCubbin. “It’s an awareness or a consciousness to take a moment and say, ‘OK, I spent money on this but I’m not going to use this.’ ‘I don’t like this.’ Or, ‘My life has changed’ or ‘It’s a burden to me.’”
To make it easier to let go, gift the item to someone who needs it or donate it to a charity you support. If you have the time and energy, consider selling it online.
4. Identity and self-worth clutter
What it is: Items that tie into your sense of identity. It could be items from a job you enjoyed but no longer have, maternity clothes, or old athletic uniforms. Or it could be more aspirational items, like a yoga mat you’re sure you’ll use eventually or yarn for that knitting project you’ll totally do on your next vacation. Or it could be items in general and the sense of safety that they give us.
“When we grow up in poverty or experience profound, tangible loss at some point in our lives—through family separation, natural disaster, etc.—each possession we do have can feel tied to our feelings of self-worth,” says Bestry.
How to tackle it: Start by acknowledging the hold these things have over you.
“A lot of time people get stuck in the past and they don’t allow themselves to live in the now,” says Reynolds.
Bestry suggests acknowledging the part these items played in our lives and remembering that things don’t define us, and that our identity isn’t dependent on our stuff.