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Some Tips for Getting Rid of Things

Strategies and goals

I’m currently in the midst of a two-day “decluttering vacation,” taking time off from my regular work to go through my house, get rid of things I don’t need, and organize the things I have left. I used to live in a larger house with a fair amount of storage, and I also used to have a less realistic idea of what I might really, actually use some day, so even though I’ve been getting rid of some stuff in recent years, my current, smaller house, which doesn’t have much storage space, has some packed closets and corners that I’d really like to clear out. (See my article “Clearing Your Mind by Cashing In.”)

It seems to me that the hardest part of decluttering doesn’t have anything to do with time, space, or materials: it’s the decisions. You find a book you read and liked ten years ago, or a tool that you’d lost for two years, or a stack of letters from a friend, and you think “Should I get rid of this? Will somebody be insulted if I get rid of it? Where would it even go if I did get rid of it? What if I get rid of it and I need it? I paid a lot of money for this!” and so on.

Many of these questions are misleading, because they get us involved in a lot of drama over the objects that doesn’t help us figure out whether or not the object belongs in our lives.

Let’s first say that if we don’t have any use for something, it’s best to get rid of it, even if that takes time and effort. I had a large laptop battery that was tapped out, no longer usable–but I didn’t want to throw it away, because I knew some of its materials might be toxic and that it could be recycled. I walked all over downtown Montpelier, Vermont trying to find a suitable battery drop-off, then did some searching online, then finally took it to a recycling bin for batteries at a local Best Buy store (though I also could have taken it to the dump and put it in the right place there, it turns out). This was a pain in the neck, but it was less of a pain in the neck than holding onto that useless object for the rest of my life! And the feeling of accomplishment and relief, although small, made a truly positive impact on my day.

So for the moment disregarding the question of what is to be done with an object once we decide it needs to go, here’s a proposal for a question that can help decide whether or not it should go in the first place: “In what kind of realistic situation would I actually want to pull this out and do something with it?”

Keep in mind that we’re trying to picture a situation that would actually happen, in which we would know where this item was, be willing and able to find it and get it out, and experience happiness or relief at having it available. There has to be a plausible payoff to keeping the thing. If there is no payoff, no value to keeping it, then it’s probably worth letting go.

It can take some time to get past our gut-level panic reactions at tossing something we may have had for years or paid a bundle for, but the effect of successfully ditching objects we really don’t need is often one of relief and pride, not to mention better organization and increased closet space. While getting rid of stuff isn’t always the most useful thing to do with our time, when it does come time to face that task, it’s an opportunity for becoming happier and more free.

It also can be done–and often will be more rewarding when done–in small amounts every day or several times a week rather than in one big push. (See “How to Reduce Stress and Get More Done by Turning a Project into a Habit.”)

One last note: decluttering doesn’t apply to data in the same way it does to physical objects. Electronic information can be searched automatically and takes virtually no physical space, and the amount of storage we have for that information grows exponentially over time as technology improves. So spending a full day going through all the files on your computer and deleting the ones you don’t need is probably not a great use of time. This is not to say it’s never worth deleting or offloading things from your computer, only that organizing data doesn’t pay off in the same way organizing objects does.

Photo by sindesign

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