Smarter Living

March 27, 2014

To get organized, learn to let go of stuff

The average U.S. household has 300,000 things, from paper clips to ironing boards. So why can’t we let go?

We cherish things and accumulate them. We move them from shelf to shelf and from home to home.

The federal government estimates that a quarter of Americans with two-car garages don’t use them for automobiles. Even those without a permanent home carry their stuff around with them.

Things matter to us for reasons practical and emotional.

“Many, if not most, of the things we keep have an essence that goes beyond the physical character of the object,” says Randy Frost, who has studied and written about hoarding and is the author of “Stuff.”

A stroll through the Sunday flea market outside Fairfax High School in Los Angeles provides a catalog of some of those magical objects: varsity letter jackets, rotary phones, typewriters, fur blankets, old ties and cowboy boots. Butterflies pinned to cardboard and framed. A crystal Eiffel Tower. A blue guitar.

Consider these statistics, cited by professional organizer Regina Lark: The average U.S. household has 300,000 things, from paper clips to ironing boards. U.S. children make up 3.7 percent of youngsters on the planet but have 47 percent of all toys and children’s books.

So why can’t we let go?

Things matter to us for many reasons: keeping up with the Joneses, recalling departed loved ones, even objective value – like the 17th-century Dutch painting that is among many objects of desire in Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch.”

Our things can give us a sense of security, connection to the past, to the people we love.

“When you go home in the evening after work, you go in your house and you feel comfort because you have your stuff,” Frost says.

Figuring out what to discard and being able to actually toss stuff is crucial to an ordered, happy life, experts say.

“I don’t think stuff is inherently wrong or bad,” says Andrew Mellen, a professional organizer and author of “Unstuff Your Life.” “But if things have become obstacles to your happiness, that’s a problem.”

Deciding what to buy, what to keep and what to toss “takes a lot of mental energy,” says Gretchen Rubin, author of “Happier at Home.”

Anything that deepens your relationships with other people” is worth owning, Rubin says. That could be an origami set to use with your child or fancy kitchen knives used to prepare dinner parties.

There are many ways to figure out what to save and what to let go of, says professional organizer Lark. One of those begins by looking at your possessions in a different way.

“Why not surround yourself with just that which gives you pleasure?” Lark says. “With love and beauty and things that fill your heart and mind.”

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