So now you understand your situation, and you have your vision. How do you begin this new chapter in your life? In our experience, there are common obstacles to putting your plans into action, to getting rid of stuff. We advise that you should begin by understanding (and expecting) your obstacles, so that you may deal with them. In no particular order, they may include fear; emotional attachment; shame; guilt; negative sentiment (towards a thing, which is causing you to avoid an issue); skewed value perception (to you or to a potential recipient); a lack of time; unnecessarily designating different things for different occasions.
This list is not necessarily comprehensive, but it does serve to catalogue our extensive experience and should therefore help you.
There are many reasons why we fear losing our even unnecessary stuff. We've already dealt with the concern that we may need it again, or may feel remorseful later.
There may be a more deep-seated fear that psychologists and economists call 'loss aversion' at play. According to this theory, we resent losing things or money much more than we like gaining the equivalent thing*.
* This is a controversial idea that N.N. Taleb and the ‘ergodicity economists’ (Ole Peters et al) are critical of. We don't have to worry too much about the academic arguments. Instead, we find that almost all of our clients find it challenging to get rid of stuff, even if they don't have a use for it, and also if they can't foresee a purpose in the foreseeable future. So we treat this fear as real and try to find out why, so that we may help our clients make these decisions.
Storytime - Confronting your life’s work
We helped a client, a prominent journalist and political activist in the 1980’s downsize from a large family home of over 40 years, to a two-bedroomed retirement villa. The decluttering of his study proved to be one of the most fearful things he ever faced. His life’s work was crammed in there, occupying every inch of space: typed and printed articles; speeches; political pamphlet; books; floppy discs.
Step by step, day by day, we held his hand to go through these memorabilia. He often paused to share his anecdotes, but mostly to allow him to catch his breath. He feared losing all the stuff that was a part of him for 40 years. When I asked him whether the process was cathartic, he said: “This is the most frightening thing I have ever had to face”.
Stuff isn't just stuff to people. We attach value to things beyond mere function. They remind us of people or experiences, and we want to hold on to the memories.
We obviously do not try to fight emotional attachment. Instead, we pry just enough to weigh these feelings against the constraints (usually a lack of space). This handholding allows us to suggest practical solutions that often work for other clients. For example, memories can be recorded, digitised. While we acknowledge that many people like to touch their photographs and watch their slides, there is wide acceptance of scanning photos, certificates, children's art, letters and even legal records (except where the law requires originals). If the motivation is to keep a memory alive, these ideas often work just as well, or better, because the memories can easily be indexed and accessed. Photo books, although not a pure digital solution, are a healthy compromise, and make for easy storage. They also make wonderful gifts.
Storytime - Slip-sliding away
In clearing deceased estates, we often come across boxes of slides, unlabelled and unindexed, holding precious memories. We sent over 1000 slides to be digitised for a client, living overseas, whose mother had passed away. No memories were lost and she could return home with a well ordered accessible solution - a memory stick to keep her mother’s memories alive.
The first thing we tell our clients when meeting them at their homes or offices is “We are not here to judge you.”. On many occasions, we have met with a client whose house, on the surface, appears immaculate - tidy and minimalist. When we ask why they called us for assistance, they tell us that they were so ashamed of their clutter that they were compelled to hide it all before we arrived. Very often, they ask “How could I let my life go like this?” or “When did things fall apart?”. Quite often, they feel shameful of others’ opinions. There is a need to be seen as organised and perfect.
We know you won’t feel different just because we say you should. But, really and truly, there is no shame in owning clutter. Everyone has some. And, if our clients are a yardstick, most people have too much and their clutter is out of control. Their stuff owns them.
Taking the first step to confront the problem is brave. Pat yourself on the back. Don’t give in to the shame impulse.
Storytime - The clutter room
We went to meet a client who was moving into a retirement village. Her house was immaculate - everything was in its place and there was not a single item on her kitchen countertops. However, she had one room which she called her ‘clutter room’ - she wouldn’t even let us see it, but acknowledged that she needed help sorting it out prior to the move. Together with her, we tackled that room, which was her source of shame - it was piled to the ceiling in clutter. We were, initially, unable to fully open the door to get in.
Her life had been fraught with emotional trauma: divorce, the loss of a brother, looking after a mentally disabled adult child, a husband diagnosed with stage four cancer. At each of these life-changing events, her lack of control lead her to store items that she was unable to deal with in that ‘clutter room’. It was a source of shame for her, beyond her control.
Storytime - Maintaining an image
A prominent professional athlete, still active but not competing professionally, needed assistance to relocate to a retirement estate. He was known in the public eye as a calm, composed and organised person. When it came to us downsizing his home, we saw the stress that he experienced daily keeping up his image for the public eye. He experienced overwhelming potential shame from being perceived as ‘disorganised’.
Has someone given you a gift and you feel guilty not keeping it? Is it your responsibility as a parent to hold onto every piece of children’s art, school clothes, belongings of others? Do you feel guilty about getting rid of a deceased loved one’s possessions?
I’m often asked what to do with gifts that are unwanted. The answer is simple: a gift should be unconditional so it is your choice what to do with it. However, many clients often feel that they are compelled to keep a gift ‘in case’ the gift-giver visits and wants to see them use that gift. They cannot bear the guilt of getting rid of it.
Storytime - Clothes make the man
One of the most difficult things for our clients to get rid of are clothes belonging to a deceased loved one, particularly if the loved one has passed on recently. The clothes are a reminder of that loved one, engaging the senses of smell, sight and touch. But our clients tell us that they actually feel guilty, that getting rid of clothes symbolises ‘throwing away’ the precious memory.
We advocate keeping a few items, and slowly and in time when the client is ready, to get rid of those.
Storytime - Guilt-tripping the kind-hearted restauranteur
A restauranteur friend has the quirkiest collection of dog-memorabilia, as well as beautiful antique furniture in his country restaurant. We are constantly engaged in debate whether his collections constitute clutter, or collections. On prodding him in discussion, we learnt that most of this memorabilia and furniture are gifts from friends and acquaintances who know (and expect) that he will keep and display them in the restaurant. He’d like to get rid of some of that, but he would feel too guilty. He can’t even face offering to give these gifts back to the givers. These are complex emotional ties that bind and we don’t have simple answers. He will only cut the Gordian knot if ever forced to do so, for instance when he closes shop or sells the place.
Often our clients don't want to get rid of stuff because they don’t want to engage with specific items at all and prefer to avoid the associated memories. Here, as our stories attest to, cathartic experiences tend to win the day, and we therefore recommend gentle confrontation to close a chapter and to move on, assuming you’re ready.
Storytime - Weight lifting
One of our clients had an emotional collapse when she finally confronted a contract that we found among her ex-husband's stuff. It was a defunct agreement with a business partner. This piece of paper represented for her the collapse of her marriage and, with it, the loss of her happiness. The husband had an affair with said business partner and divorced our client. When she confronted the piece of paper, and destroyed it, she grieved and then lifted a weight off her shoulders.
Almost all of our older clients with children or close family ties imagine that stuff they don't use will be valuable to the chosen recipients. When we speak to these people, they inevitably say they don't want these things. This usually happens because things come in and go out of fashion (but mostly go out). It also occurs because design evolves, and designs do tend to improve over time. It also happens because things often embody negative emotion for the targeted recipient.
Storytime - Family dinners around the old oak dining table
One of the most common items I am asked to sell on behalf of my clients is a 1980’s oak dining room table and chairs set. There is a perception that the set should have escalated in value. Similarly, large items of dark contemporary wood furniture are expected to reach high selling prices. In reality these items are no longer fashionable. The same goes for antiques, sadly. Periods go in and out of fashion. I always counter my clients’ expectations with a question: “Have you had value out of the oak table over the years”. The answer is inevitably “Yes.”. That, and the memories, should be enough.
Supply and demand being the strong forces that they are, our clients almost always over-estimate the commercial value of their stuff. Naturally, we generalise. Sometimes we do find gems, collectables that have stood the test of time. This is one reason why we advocate using experts who are likely to find and identify the gems. It is why we suggest that purges should be consultative, including experts and loved ones. Your kids may have their own sentimental attachment to your stuff and the space to keep it in.
Storytime: The wine collection
We were assisting a client to relocate to a retirement home several hundred kilometres away. They had a small, but well-stocked wine cellar in their original home, but not in the new place. Therefore they had to sell the collection before moving. Someone had offered them R10 000.00 for the contents of the cellar. After careful analysis, we offered to auction the wine, with a guarantee of at least R10 000.00. It turned out that there were over 2500 bottles, some with a fair amount of seepage, but all bottles were externally in good condition.
We achieved over R350 000.00 for the contents of the cellar at auction!
Many of us work full-time and our weekends and evenings are precious. No-one wants to declutter their garage then. A lot of people who consult us therefore want us to do the job for them, without their involvement. If you've been reading with attention up to now, you will know that this approach is not ideal, nor even possible. You have to be make too many decisions to kick this ball over the fence. However, a facilitated approach, holding the client’s hand, can save a lot of time, and assist with the emotions.
If you can't afford professional organisers, then you need to weigh up the time commitment against the stress that we assume exists. We offer two potential solutions.
- Tackle the clutter slowly and iteratively, for instance, by starting to live differently and clearing out bit-by-bit, as you engage with the stuff that you don't need. There are loads of tips here, so follow that advice. As an overall approach, tackle the urgent and important stuff first (that which causes the most stress and has the least value in your life). Go for quick wins because it creates the momentum that you need to keep up a clutter-free lifestyle. We call this “unpacking your suitcase” (of stress). This approach often leads to the motivation and the confidence to make a wholesale change in your life, to purge or to spring-clean.
- Begin close to home. Get your roomies to help organise, but also share your unwanted stuff liberally with those people that you regularly interact with. This generous mindset is an excellent habit to cultivate, if you can afford it, because it serves to create and build momentum towards living clutter-free.
“I don't use my good stuff, but I will. One day…”
We're sure you know this one well. You have more than one dinner set. And the one gathering dust has never been used (unless you count washing off the dust every spring - talk about stuff owning you!). Just stop kidding yourself. Use the stuff. Or not. Just stop kidding yourself about it.
Our motto is: Wear the party dress and use the Noritake.
Storytime - Collections of unremarkable stuff
We have come across the most fascinating things that are kept in multiples (duplicates or more). Much hilarity ensues when we ask our clients (those with a sense of humour about it) why they’re keeping these extras. Sometimes they simply have no idea why; reasons include items kept for special occasions (which, upon probing, rarely, if ever, happen).
We regularly find stashes of extension cords; incomplete sets of dinner services; collections of pillows and linen; (mostly expired) herbs and spices; troves of oven gloves, aprons and dish towels; towers of toilet rolls.
What if, indeed. In urban areas, we’re never far away from a shop, so the risk of running out of something ranges from non-existent to negligible. Furthermore, even if you are someone who isn’t very mobile, online shopping is easily accessible and relatively cheap (again, at least in the major urban areas). Once you know your consumption pattern, just buy enough so that you have a reasonable stock buffer to last until the next shopping day.
So now that you’re out of excuses, remember that this war-time attitude leads to hoarding.
Storytime - You can never have enough spice in your life
We relocated a client to a 1 bedroomed unit in a retirement village from a large 5 bedroomed family home. She was unable to assist us at all, as she was frail. As a result we couldn’t get to the story behind why she had several boxes of expired herbs and spices in her pantry - her children were also perplexed by this!
Storytime - May I borrow a cup of sugar?
A client owned a bakery. However, despite having surplus stock of baking ingredients at the bakery itself, she was always concerned that she would run out of ingredients and be unable to fulfil her orders, and so most of her garage at home was filled with these ingredients. So we prodded. In the decades of operating the bakery, she never ran out of ingredients from the bakery pantry.
We wish we could claim success, but alas! Old habits die hard, and we built shelving and other storage units inside her garage, so that this quirk was at least neatly and hygienically stored. LOL.
In the next instalment of the So Sorted story, we explore a special case for living a simpler life: life-stage downsizing