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How to Deal With Sentimental Clutter

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Of all the categories of stuff I’ve helped people edit and organize over the past decade, sentimental items have to be the hardest. I’ve written about what to keep when someone dies, but navigating through your own letters, heirlooms, and mementos can be just as (if not more) difficult. I’m rounding up my best tips to help you sort through the piles and banish the clutter. This daunting task can be less painful than you think if you follow these suggestions…

sentimental clutter

Commit to a Timeframe

Decide how long you want to give yourself to get the job done and commit to a specific timeframe. It’s also important to play to your strengths and map out your time accordingly depending on if you typically work better in shorter bursts or longer stretches of time. Some people prefer to block out an entire weekend to overhaul their storage spaces, while others prefer putting in an hour or two per day over a series of several weekends. There’s no “right way,” just the way that’s right for you. For projects that feel overwhelming, I suggest starting with just fifteen minutes a day. Starting with a really manageable chunk of time will help get you out of paralysis and into action. More on my 15-minute win productivity hack right here.

Set a Physical Boundary

Setting a clear physical boundary for how much you want to keep can help you make the tough cuts. You can think in terms of available shelf space or quantity of bins that you have both the space and inclination to store. When my mom surprised me with a dozen storage bins filled with all of my childhood mementos, I decided I would whittle the collection down to two bins to store in our basement. This constraint helped me to edit more ruthlessly, and I was able to pull out the best and the brightest from the bunch to keep.

heirlooms and mementos

Determine What Makes the Cut

Before you gather up the goods and edit your heart out, you’ll want to set some clear parameters to determine which items should make the cut. For example, if you’re editing a huge box of photos, you could decide you want to ditch any duplicates, and images that are yellowed or stuck together. If you’re editing childhood art, you might decide you want to take digital pictures of your favorites and recycle the rest. If you’re ready to tackle your yearbooks and school awards, maybe you decide to keep one from each school. Deciding ahead of time what you want to hang on to will make for a much more efficient editing session.

Set Yourself Up for Success

To ensure an efficient editing and organizing session, you’ll want to keep some basic supplies at arm’s reach: A recycling bag, a donate bag, and a few bags or boxes for items you’d like to give to friends or family. If you have heirlooms of value, you may want an additional box for items you’d like to sell or consign. A pad of sticky notes and a pen can come in handy if you want to label certain items to be sent off to friends or family members.

Ask Better Questions

As you embark on sorting through your sentimental items, it’s crucial that you ask yourself the right questions. Unhelpful questions include:

  • Could this be useful one day?
  • Did someone give this to me?
  • Did I pay a lot of money for this item?

These questions are rooted in guilt, obligation and fear, and will provide you with the justification to keep just about anything. Remember: clutter is created by fearful thinking. Instead, focus on questions that are rooted in abundant thinking and that help you focus on only keeping items that contribute to creating a space that supports your current goals and lifestyle. Helpful questions include:

  • Does this item support my current values and priorities?
  • Could this item be more useful/helpful for another person?
  • Is this item really worth the space it’s taking up in my home?
  • Is this item adding value to my life right now?
  • Will I ever look at this again?
  • Would my kids be excited that I kept this?
  • Will keeping these items be a gift or a burden to my family?

The goal, of course, is not to be careless, or get rid of everything, but rather to remain focused on keeping things that are truly meaningful and functional for you in the present.

sentimental items

Remember Memories Don’t Live in Items

It can be easy to feel like if you part with an item you also have to let go of the memory associated with it. The good news is that memories don’t live inside of your stuff – they exist in your brain and your heart. If you’re a very visual person, you may find it useful to snap a picture of your sentimental items before you part with them. The photographs can serve as a reminder of the people, accomplishments, or experiences you want to remember. All the memories, none of the clutter.

Keep One Token From a Collection

If you find yourself facing large collections from your past, consider picking one token item to keep. This can be a very effective space saving strategy if your storage areas are cluttered up with boxes of comic books, baseball cards, vintage clothes, or other collectibles. Get creative – I’ve had clients turn pieces of their childhood collections into art installations or quilts, or frame a single item in a shadow box frame to display in their home.

Digitize It

If you’re struggling to make the tough cuts, digitizing your old letters, photos, art, and mementos can be a great alternative to storing all of the physical items in your home. Identify a bulk scanning service in your area, or, if you have the time, scan and save into organized folders yourself. Make sure to label folders into broad categories like “Letters From Dad” or “Wedding Photos” so you can easily search and find what you need. No time to DIY it? Services like ARTKIVE make it easy to turn a pile of kid art into a beautiful book, and The Cloud Life offers full service digital scanning and archiving services.

Pass it On

When it comes to more valuable art or heirlooms, remember, it’s not doing anyone any good just collecting dust in your basement. If you come across nicer items that you don’t have room to store or display, check in with friends and family members to see if they’d like to keep them. If you don’t have a taker in your inner circle, move on to your local community. Theaters, churches, community centers, non-profits, and schools, are often in need of donations. Don’t waste time dwelling on sunken cost – It feels great to free up space in your home, and even better to be generous and have a positive impact.

declutter

Display the Most Meaningful

It’s always struck me as strange that most of us store the items we deem the most precious in dusty attics, basements, or garages until the end of time. Decide which sentimental items are the most meaningful to you, and find a way to display them in your home so you can enjoy them every day. My father’s favorite mac and cheese recipe is framed in our dining room and it brings me joy every time I pass it on the way to the kitchen. If you’re looking to invest and have an item that is not easily framed, the Heirloomist is a service that turns your most precious memorabilia into modern art.

Weeding through stacks of sentimental clutter can be time consuming and emotional, but it doesn’t have to feel like getting a root canal. Remember to stay focused on keeping and displaying items that improve and add value to your life. The rest is just clutter.

Image Credit: Vivian Johnson Photography

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6 comments on “How to Deal With Sentimental Clutter

  1. As always, thank you for your great advice. I wanted to share with you someone I recently discovered. Her business is called The Heirloomist. She is a photographer and creates incredible images of heirlooms so they can be displayed larger than life or in other unique ways. She does some pretty cool things.

  2. Great post! I found going through the old photos to be the most difficult. I have a large basement but did not want to keep the old photos down there. I told myself I would be satisfied if I did half a job, that is, sorting but not necessarily discarding. I bought some scrapbook boxes online and they were great for oversize photos as well as normal size. I sorted into photo boxes for me, each of my sons, my parents, my grandparents, etc. In the process of sorting (which I admit was tedious), I did end up discarding quite a bit. The bonus: my brother was just thrilled to see the photos of our grandparents; he did not know these pictures existed.

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