Working as a professional organizer has taught me a lot about possessions. I’ve learned that physical belongings serve a variety of purposes, including:
- Connecting us to our past (e.g. a varsity sport jacket)
- Embodying dreams for the future (e.g. a book on how to buy a boat)
- Keeping us healthy in the present (e.g. workout gear, food)
- Serving practical functions (e.g. a plunger, a dog leash)
- Providing entertainment (e.g. video games, books)
- Recording choices and decisions (e.g. wills, advanced directives)
- Evoking feelings (e.g. children’s drawings, souvenirs)
- Investing and saving (e.g. artwork, real estate, collections)
- Facilitating hobbies and recreational activities (e.g. sports gear, knitting supplies)
- Meeting emotional needs (e.g. photographs, a baby blanket)
The reasons for owning things are many. Having enough of what we need and love is good. However, having far more than what we need and enjoy can be a problem.
When I work with a client who has too much, it can be helpful to uncover the root of the problem.
- Sometimes an individual is simply going through a life event, such as the arrival of new baby, a relocation or the onset of an illness. These scenarios require the introduction of new systems to manage the emerging complexity.
- In other cases, there can be an emotional issue, such as hoarding disorder, that is causing the problem. These situations are challenging, and require a team-based approach to manage the situation. Key players include family members, therapists, organizers, social services providers and others.
- Other times, people simply have accumulated belongings that need to be shed. People who regularly struggle with moderate clutter are often what I call Acquirers, Keepers or both.
Acquirers are people who regularly bring new items into their environment. Buying new things and getting deals brings joy to the Acquirer:
- An acquiring parent loves to bring a stuffed animal home from a business trip to give to a child.
- Acquirers may thrill at the newest technology and most modern tools.
- Acquirers glean as much pleasure from buying supplies for a new hobby as in pursuing the hobby itself.
For Acquirers, the process of acquisition is pleasurable, relieving stress and connecting them to others.
Keepers are those who find comfort in holding onto things. Physical objects often carry significant emotional and sentimental value. Keepers also resist letting go of any pieces they have anxiety about needing it in the future. If they let it go now, they might not be able to obtain (or afford) it again in the future. Sometimes Keepers are referred to as “packrats,” but I don’t like this term. There are many positive reasons for holding on, beyond the simple piling up of goods. For example,
- Keepers can tell the story of an old sweater or a family heirloom.
- Keepers enjoy collecting and collections. They preserve the past.
- Keepers tend to have plenty of supplies and tools that come in handy.
For Keepers, the process of holding on provides a sense of significance and peace.
Individuals can be Acquirers, Keepers or both. In couple relationships, it is not uncommon for an Acquirer or Keeper to be involved with someone who is of an opposite persuasion… someone who sheds easily. On one level, this can create tension. One partner feels they are always trying to “clear out the junk,” while the other is trying preserve important memories and make sure the family has what it needs. Negotiating some ground rules (e.g. “his room” and “her space”) can be helpful, and also remember that opposites attract for a reason. They balance each other out.
If you are living in a space that is overwhelmed, consider whether you or a family member might be an Acquirer or Keeper. Healthy boundaries can be helpful in finding a peaceful middle ground.
Use a physical object as your limitation.
I can only buy shoes that will fit on the shoe storage rack in my closet. If my shoe storage space is full, I must eliminate one pair before bringing in another.
Impose a time restriction between shopping and purchasing to reduce impulse buying.
– I feel like I want to buy this now. I will make myself wait 2 days. If I still want it then, I will buy it.
Limit your purchasing to what you can pay for with cash.
– If I have to incur debt, I can’t buy it now. Once I’ve saved enough, I will get it.
Avoid mindless shopping.
– I will only go into Bed, Bath and Beyond if I need something specific, not to browse.
Establish “acquisition free” days on your calendar.
– I will only buy things on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Take someone with you into tempting situations.
– I won’t watch QVC alone at night. If I want to watch, I’ll invite my girlfriend over.
Make yourself “earn” the acquisition.
– Once I have exercised faithfully for six weeks, then I will let myself buy new running shoes.
Limit to one the objects you keep to maintain a common memory.
– I will keep Grandfather’s antique rod and reel but will let go of the old net, his fishing hat and the bag of broken lures.
Use photographs as ways to remember items that are large, unusable or decaying.
– I will take a photo of my old ballet shoes that are falling apart, frame it, and hang it in my bathroom where I can look at it every morning.
Scan and digitally store documents and images.
– I will can my favorite photos from this old, yellowing album and have them made into a book for my coffee table… and then I will throw the old album away.
Remove sentimental items from prime storage locations.
– Since I’m not wearing this old uniform, I will move it out of my closet and into a cedar closet in the attic.
Restrict your number of collections, and only collect what you can easily access, display or use.
– I will only collect one thing instead of five.
Set limits on how much you will allow yourself to keep as supplies for the future.
– I will only keep 6 reams of printer paper. Even if I see a great deal on paper, I will only buy it if I have fewer than 6 in the house.
Assign a “probability of use” to assess whether an item is worth keeping.
– What is the chance I will actually use these old curtains? If I need curtains, I will probably buy new ones that match my current décor, so I might as well donate these.
Resist saving items for someone else unless you are certain that he/she wants it.
– I’m going to ask my daughter if she wants this old dresser. If she doesn’t – even if I think she should – I will give it away.
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When you feel like you’ve accumulated too much, consider where it is coming from. Are you an Acquirer or a Keeper? What tips do you have for keeping yourself from having too much?