Beyond The Half-life

Old, beat-up ball

Have you ever heard the term “half-life?” In physics, this term describes the time required for one half the atoms of a given amount of a radioactive substance to disintegrate. In the world of pharmaceuticals, it means the time required for the activity of an ingested substance to lose one half of its initial effectiveness. For the rest of us, this term usually refers to a period of time during which something flourishes before dying out.

When it comes to material possessions, the idea of a half-life can provide a helpful perspective. Most of us tend to keep things longer than we should. We tell ourselves that even a glimmer of potential use to be rung out of an item provides sufficient justification for holding on to it.

As a disclaimer, I want to clearly state that I am not advocating for tossing all belongings that are not new. Many pieces have been designed for long-term use, and a bit of periodic maintenance or repair is all that is needed to keep them in working order. Additionally, there are some items we love so much that we enjoy using them until they are literally falling apart, such as a favorite t-shirt, a comfortable pair of shoes, an old recliner, or a decrepit car that (in spite of appearances) continues to run.

In contrast, there are other belongings that we acquire, partially use, but then abandon to the far reaches of our drawers, shelves, closets, and trunks. These often go unnoticed for months or years, and yet take up valuable storage space. I tend to come across these items when working with clients because my approach typically involves removing everything from a given area and bringing it out into the light of day for examination.  

Removing these things from your life is a worthwhile effort because it frees up space for the supplies you use and like today. Therefore, I’ve assembled a list of items beyond their half-life that I give you permission to release.


Partially Used Craft Kits

If you have crafty children, you probably have some of what I call “half dead kits.” These are boxed crafts where all the supplies are provided to complete a craft project. Often, these boxes come with enough supplies to make multiples, yet after the first use or two, the bloom falls off the rose. For instance, the supplies become entangled, or paint leaks, or the stickers lose their adhesive, or pieces are lost. In other cases, there are simply not enough ingredients left to complete an entire project, but we feel badly about getting rid of what seem to be useful ingredients. I suggest clients go ahead and get rid of any, “mostly used” kits, unless they are known favorites. If you wish, remove any supplies that are in good condition and combine them with more general supplies, such as a bin of stickers or a box of markers.

Partially Read Books

Most of us have books that we started reading and for one of a variety of reasons, never finished. Maybe we found them boring. Perhaps they were different from what we thought they were going to be. Maybe we didn’t like where the story was going. Or maybe we started a book we thought we should read, but then just didn’t have the energy to finish it.

When it comes to books, this is what I want to say: quitting a book is not a moral failing. It is acceptable to stop reading a book. You are an adult, and if you don’t want to spend any more time on a book, let it go. Put it in a donation bag. Books are the ultimate reusable, and it may end up in the hands of someone who is thrilled to get it.

Old Hobby Supplies

Over time, our interests change. This is perfectly normal. Maybe we loved baseball when we were in high school and college, but now it is pretty hard to gather enough people together to play. Perhaps we used to love knitting but know we have arthritis and it just isn’t pleasurable anymore. It could be that we used to love to ski, but now live in Florida and can’t tolerate cold weather. In other words, there are innumerable reasons why we may no longer be pursuing hobbies and activities that we did in the past.

The inner dialogue on this one usually sounds something like, “I know I’ll never get back to this. But I spent a lot of money on all this stuff. Maybe I will do it again someday. I should at least hold onto it for my grandkids. I really should try and get back into it,” and so on. I don’t know why we do this to ourselves. My recommendation is, keep the supplies you want, for the activities you enjoy, and get rid of the rest. Evolving interests are good things, and we shouldn’t feel we are failing if we want to move on to something different.

Abandoned Project Pieces

At one point or another, most of us have undertaken a building or repair project. Often, we bite off more than we can chew. We make the requisite trip to the home supply store, invest in a bunch of equipment and/or tools, dissemble or begin building, and then hit a snag. Maybe we encounter a problem we don’t know how to solve, or realize we lack the skill needed for the next step. Often, after getting the whole thing spread out all over the garage, we get called away by something more pressing, and end up tossing all the pieces into a box until we get back to it “later.”

At some point, we need to cut bait. We need to acknowledge that our efforts have created a monster that we cannot tame. If pieces have been lying around for more than a year, it is worth seriously considering next steps. Either it is time to hire a professional to bring the project to closure, or it is time to scrap the pieces, call it a “good effort,” and invest in a new one. Or, maybe we’ve lived without it for so long that we realize we don’t need it after all.

Failed Make-up

Few marketing campaigns have created as much clutter as the proverbial “Cosmetic Free Gift.” If you’ve never received one, this is basically a sampler of make-up that you receive for spending a minimum amount on a purchase. The problem with the free gift is that it often is not a good match for the recipient’s skin. I once got a lipstick that was so bright against my pale skin that I felt like a clown.

Good make-up, that both flatters and feels good, can be hard to find. As a result, most women often buy product to try it out, and then discover that it isn’t a good fit. Unfortunately, we often feel guilty throwing it away because we figure it is “almost new,” and therefore it would be wasteful to simply toss it.

However, the reality is that if we don’t like a cosmetic the first couple of times we use it, we are unlikely to start liking it at a future date. Furthermore, make-up has a shelf life, so stashing it in a drawer or box is a surefire way to hide it long enough until it is no longer wise to wear.

When it comes to make-up, allow yourself to make mistakes. Trial and error is par for the course. If you end up with a product that you simply don’t love, pitch it right away. If you have a drawer full of supplies that you haven’t touched in awhile, empty them into a trash can and start again with the products you know you will use.

Unwanted Food

Unless you have recently cleared out your kitchen, it is likely that you have some unwanted food lying around.  Common culprits include:

  • Holiday candy that was never consumed (e.g. a random candy cane)
  • Snacks that nobody in the house ended up liking
  • Ingredients that were purchased for a recipe but then never used again
  • Diet supplements for regimens that are longer being followed
  • Tiny quantities of bulk food that are insufficient for a serving (e.g. two tablespoons of cereal, one spoonful of ice cream, etc.)
  • Frozen food that is unidentifiable
  • Liquor that no one in the house consumes that is left over from a party
  • Baby food that the household has grown beyond
  • Condiments bought for a visitor/relative that household residents don’t use
  • Cookie/cake toppings that are seldom used and have been in the cabinet for years
  • Soy sauce and other packets from take-out

This one is pretty easy. If you aren’t eating it, get rid of it.

*     *     *     *     *

Physical belongings should enrich our lives. If their moment of flourishing has passed maybe now is the right time to let them go.

Do you have any items in your space that are beyond their half-life?

21 thoughts on “Beyond The Half-life”

  1. Definitely the books on this list, I am guilty of as I have many that I have actually read already and still have held onto. Maybe I need to donate a few of those as they are indeed taking up space that could be used for other stuff, to be honest. So, you definitely gave me a bit of food for thought so to speak on that for sure!

    1. I love the fact that books can be used over and over and over again without any loss of benefit! Also, it is good to know you can usually get almost any book you want at your library or local consignment shop. Definitely worth the effort to clear up a bit of space:)

  2. It helps to quantify when you want to edit. Having this resource as a new perspective helps me think about when something is “used up” rather than thinking of the value wasted. Thank you!

    1. It is funny that the concept of when an item is “used up” is not universal. Those who struggle with clutter tend to assign a longer life to most objects than those who don’t. This tends to create stronger feelings of guilt about letting go, and then the cycle begins again. I’m always open to a new way to think about how best to manage our possessions:)

    1. I see them in almost every home I work in where children are present. Just this morning my client and I broke down a few “expired” kits and put the remaining usable pieces into bulk supply bins.

    1. It is somewhat endless, isn’t it? I think we underestimate how much we have, and also how much still comes in. I’ve had this conversation with so many clients that it seemed worth writing a post about it:)

  3. I love how you not only list the “half-life” items that can potentially be released, but you also explain in detail the reasoning behind the choice. They are all so familiar personally or professionally with items and conversations I’ve had with clients. We hold on to things for many of the reasons you mentioned like feeling guilty for letting go of something not useful, but almost new, or thinking that we might use it “someday.” But the other thing you mentioned is also real. Sometimes the stuff is just put away and then forgotten. So the value of emptying the entire contents of a drawer, closet, or cabinet is that we get to revisit the choices and ask those essential questions. By doing that, the expired candy and icky-colored lipstick have a better chance of exiting. Loved this post!
    Linda Samuels recently posted…8 Helpful Tips for Letting Go More EasilyMy Profile

    1. Thanks so much, Linda! After awhile I realized I was seeing the same things in space after space… having the same conversations. At some level, it is comforting to know that we all have similar situations. I often feel that it is helpful to clients when I say that I see this in almost every house, and am able to share what decisions were made by others. Perspective can be one of the hardest things to get when you declutter all by yourself.

  4. This post is a great resource for anyone who just doesn’t know where to start.

    OMG! Five years ago, when I started transforming my kids’ craft area into my own craft and scrapbook space, I had so many “half dead kits.” It was so satisfying to get rid of these items. And, you know what? The kids didn’t even miss them. It was wonderful.
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…Creative Ways to Organize Tools in a ClosetMy Profile

    1. Whether it is craft kits, clothes or something else, I am repeatedly amazed by what we do not miss once it is gone. I’d love a reliable statistic on disposal regret as I imagine it is pretty low. How fun that you were able to declutter and give yourself a wonderful craft space!

  5. This is a great perspective. Pretty much everyone has struggled with several, if not all, of the types of clutter you mention. You offer an insightful way to get past the mental stumbling blocks that prevent people from letting go.

    1. Simply knowing that the stumbling blocks we face are commonly shared can be comforting. I find specific examples are appreciated by my clients and readers, so why not share them? After all, we are all dealing with a lot of the same issues.

  6. It’s such a good term and I know it well. I can think of a dozen things in my house that have achieved half-life status! The craft kits.. oh my. The science project kids. The recipes. The everything! The toy train!

    1. Science project kits is another great one… I ran across that recently! Toy trains is another brilliant thought. Last week I helped someone pack up a huge box of tracks and accessories for a Thomas the Tank Engine train. And her youngest is way beyond wanting to play with them. The table and rug that some people have can also go:)

    1. I run into cake and cookie decorating stuff in almost every house, Marcia! Sprinkles, frostings, food dye… all that kind of stuff. I say pitch the soy sauce, because who knows how old those things really are 🙂

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

CommentLuv badge

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.