Decluttering Cure

5 Rules to Help You Streamline Your Sentimental Clutter

updated Sep 19, 2019
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Credit: Anna Spaller

Apartment Therapy’s September Sweep is a free 15-day decluttering program, guaranteed to leave you with a lighter, leaner home by the end of the month. Sign up here so you never miss a lesson, or go here to view all of the assignments so far.

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The biggest enemy of an uncluttered home is feelings. Don’t believe me? Imagine you’re on a reality TV show where a stranger comes into your apartment to declutter it down to as few items as they can. They’d keep some furniture, a few kitchen and bath essentials, maybe a couple pieces of your decor they happened to like (to add some personality), then they’d send all the rest of your dearly treasured stuff to the curb.

Not that that stuff isn’t valuable. But it’s only valuable because of your feelings.

There’s likely a lot you’re hanging on to because it’s sentimental. That doesn’t mean you need to get rid of it—but you can pare it down. That’s what we’ll try to do today. (Or this weekend, if you need extra time.)

Today’s Assignment:

Sort through some (or all) of your sentimental clutter, and decide what you want to keep.

The first step is to find the sentimental clutter: Open up the closets, drag out the boxes, and let’s find your most feelings-rich stuff. What counts as sentimental? Anything you’re hanging onto not for its usefulness or even its beauty, but just because of what it represents to you.

I chose the words for this assignment—”decide what you want to keep”—carefully. Unlike when we’re rifling through the kitchen looking for cookie cutters from Christmas ’09, I don’t want you to approach your sentimental clutter searching for things to eliminate. I want you to consider the things you’re storing, and make value-rich decisions on the things that mean the most to you.

Here’s what’s worth keeping, in my opinion:

  • Keep things that bring back quality memories. Especially anything you hadn’t thought about in a while. Don’t hang on to things that bring back unwelcome feelings. Notice I say “unwelcome” rather than “sad.” You’ll know an unwelcome feeling when you feel it. (My sign is Cancer, so believe me when I say it’s OK to relish in sorrow sometimes.)
  • Keep a few treasured things from a bigger collection. If you have a big collection of, say, mugs or snow globes or whatever, a good way to maintain order is to curate your collection, like you’re in a museum. Keep a few of the very best or most memorable, and pass some of the less interesting ones to a new home.
  • Keep small capsules from moments of your life. You might decide to dedicate a shoe box each to childhood, high school, and college, then fill it with small mementos from each stage.
  • Keep things that can be made into other, more useful things. Turn ticket stubs into art, or t-shirts into a quilt. Instead of keeping a childhood toy, you could decide to have professional portraits or illustrations done to remember it by. Even just taking an old photograph and using it as a bookmark means you’re getting to enjoy it 10 times more than when it’s stuffed in a box in the attic.
  • Keep things you want to keep. You don’t have to keep family mementos unless it’s something you personally value.

Once you’ve picked through about half of everything and found many things you love, step back for a moment. If you only kept those things, how would that feel? Could you let the rest go?

More importantly: How do you feel? Was sorting through the things a touching trip down memory lane? If you’ve got space to store it, keep some or all of it and don’t apologize. But if you were feeling distressed or remorseful about the things you’ve decided to hang on to, or the manner in which they were being stored, you’re a great candidate to let it go. Make room for the things you’ve decided to keep so far, and send the rest of it on to another home.

And don’t forget:

Clear three things from your monster zone.

All month long, we invite you to share your progress here in the comments and on Instagram with the #septembersweep hashtag. Or join our Apartment Therapists Facebook group to start your own conversation.

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