How to Decide Between Trash and Treasure

3 easy tips on consolidating your clutter

Stever Robbins
4-minute read
Episode #186

Jen writes:

“I'm going through boxes of mementos and I can't decide what's worth keeping. I can digitize paper, but I have a hard time letting go of old things. How do I decide what's worth keeping?”

Clutter saps our energy, clogs our productivity, and makes it hard to find clean socks. A lot of our clutter comes from the things we accumulate over the years. 

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Consider Items in Groups

One day I counted the books in my "to read someday" pile. Assuming I read an average of 20 books a year, given my projected lifespan and allowing for vacations, that one pile represented 10% of the books I will read during the rest of my life. Having figured this out, I immediately knew that this particular collection of books was not the collection I wanted to be 10% of my remaining reading.

But a funny thing happened: when I considered the books one-by-one to decide which ones to give away, I had a reason for keeping every one. As a group, I didn't want them. Individually, I did.  Most clutter works this way. We see it en masse and think, "Ick!" But considered item-by-item, we are attached to each one.

Here are 3 Quick & Dirty Tips to break free of the clutter:

Tip #1: Use the Group to Set Limits

Start by considering the group. Taken collectively, how much do you want to get rid of? What's the maximum amount you want to keep? You'll use this information later. Choose your maximum before you consider things one at a time. Look at your 6 rooms of mementos and decide, "I want to keep just 2 rooms." That will free up 4 rooms for a guest bedroom, a crafts room, a sitting space, and a convenient lab for building the apparatus to contact your alien overlords. (Hey, if you're hoarding 6 rooms full of stuff, it's just a small step to alien abduction fantasies. Prepare now!)

Tip #2: Consider Replacement Costs

One reason we keep things is we think we'll need them someday. Papers are easy to handle: either file them or scan them into a computer. Legal Lad and I wrote an article that will tell you how to deal with your papers. It's the physical stuff that's hard.

For example: I like sticky pads. I mean, I really like sticky pads. I like them so much that once I bought a ton of them, just to make sure I'd never run out. That was 10 years ago, and I still have an entire unopened case of sticky pads. But I can't get rid of them; what if there's a sudden, pressing need to stick a note to my front door? I might need those sticky pads.

Well, I have 10 years' worth of data that tells me my sticky pad eyes are bigger than my sticky pad stomach.  So even now, as much as my emotions are crying out, "Keep the sticky pads!!" my brain knows that I'm probably not making a good, rational decision about this.

If you want to keep something because you think you'll use it later, consider how often you've used it in the past and compare that to the cost of getting rid of it and buying another if you ever need it. Sticky pads are really inexpensive—maybe $20 to buy the amount that I’ve used in 5 years. If I get rid of the case of sticky pads and just buy them as I need them, it will cost about $20 over the next 5 years. Is it worth $20 to free up space? Yes. Yes! YES!!!

Replacing things you need is doing your civic duty. It keeps the economy going. It also depletes the world's natural resources faster, raising prices on the resources that remain, thus increasing GDP. Everyone wins. Just ask the Winning Investor.


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins was the host of the podcast Get-it-Done Guy from 2007 to 2019. He is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT.