I came across this quote about clearing clutter on – of all places – a medical website, and it struck me as the perfect way to look at the “too much stuff” conundrum I’m still struggling with.

Peter Walsh, an organizational expert and former host of The Learning Channel’s Clean Sweep show, said about the deleterious effects of having too much clutter in your home: “If you have so much stuff it drags you into the past or pulls you into the future, you can’t live in the present.”

Past and Future: A Great Way to Think About Clearing Clutter

That’s a great way to analyze your clutter, as far as I’m concerned. It allows for having a variety of possessions, for one thing. It’s not advice about how to strip your belongings down to only the essentials. Instead it concentrates on the draggy effect of being surrounded by too many things that remind you of times gone by or tasks that you haven’t done.

 
 

This way of looking at clutter is new for me, and I like it. The wildly popular piece of advice, often quoted to me from that mega-selling “Magic of Tidying Up” book, about holding each of my possessions in my hand and seeing if it brings me joy, just doesn’t do it for me.

First, I don’t have enough time on this earth to touch each individual item that I own, one by one, and commune with it to determine its joy value. Does this include each pen in my drawer? Each greeting card in my stash? Each pair of earrings? Each measuring cup? Ugh.

Second, there are many possessions I own that I already know do not bring me joy – or that in fact bring me sadness – but I wouldn’t part with them for anything in the world. Things that were my mother’s. The leaning-to-the-side vase that my son made for me a zillion years ago. Pictures of my wedding the first time I was married. They’re important to me. They’re sentimental. I’m keeping them.

And I’m not a hoarder, by the way, in case you’re wondering. But I do have too much stuff that’s dragging me down. And now I have a different way of setting my mind to tackling it.

On the Hunt For “To Do” Items That Pull Me into the Past or Future

Now I’m on a quest to survey my home for all the “to do” items – and often stacks of items – that are placed around my home. I admit there are a lot of them. They are indeed a source of bad feelings. I’m ready to concentrate on just those things about which I’ve said, maybe a thousand times, “I’m going to [sort, do, read, file] that.”

It might be organizing piles of books, many of which I know I don’t really need to keep. It might be needlepoint that I meant to do for my children that now I plan to do in preparation for grandchildren. It might be photographs I intend to sort meticulously, labeling each by date and event.

Clearing Clutter Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Throwing Away

I can face these things that make me feel bad with a different intention now – to bring them into the present, or banish them from my daily living situation. For that collection of books, I’m going to tackle them with a couple of bags, with the goal of filling those bags with the books I can admit I don’t need to keep. Off to the Friends of the Library they’ll go. Then I’ll organize the rest of them. A bit of banishment, plus a bit of moving items from “I’ve got to do something with those” into an organized part of my present-day life.

The handicraft projects I’ll either give away or store with my gifts stash. (I always have a stash of things I buy for loved ones whenever I find things I know they’ll like; I hold them until the next birthday or holiday.) That way I don’t feel that I need to complete those projects now. I’ll complete each of them when the time is right for giving them as gifts. They’ll move from “I have to finish those projects” to “Gifts ready for giving.” When an event arises for one of those needlepoint projects, I’ll be motivated to complete one.

The photos I’m putting into boxes by era based on my life and my children’s lives, and I’m not going to sort them down into exact sequence or dates as I had planned to do. I don’t need to create the Library of Congress here; I just need to organize an easy-to-navigate collection of photos that I can enjoy when I want to look at them, and that my children can look through whenever the mood strikes them. They don’t need to find “First Day of School 1991” or “Christmas 1987” or “Halloween 1993.” I think “Kids’ Baby Years” or “Kids’ Middle School Years” will suffice. That I can get done.

It’s Not Really About the Stuff, It’s About the Demands You Place on Yourself

Conquering too much stuff is about letting go a little, being more reasonable about what can be accomplished in a reasonable amount of time and lowering the sometimes-ridiculous standards you’ve set for yourself.

I like this new way of tackling clutter. It will bring me one step closer to the feeling of freedom and possibilities that I long for – the idea that, Hey, if I wanted to pack up and move one day, that would not be an insurmountable task. And freedom and possibilities are what life is about, right?

Have you thought about clearing the clutter in your house this year? Do you have more than a few items in your house that make you feel that you haven’t accomplished what you’re supposed to? Do you ever think about how clutter might be restricting your choices in life? Please join the conversation.

Karen VenableKaren Venable is founder of Roommates4Boomers, a service for women over 50 that matches roommates using an algorithm similar to what dating sites use. Several years ago when Karen was going through a divorce, she realized how helpful it would be if there were a service that matched compatible over-50 women, so she launched Roommates4Boomers.

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