Even if you’re good at clearing the clutter out of your home, the sentimental stuff is always the hardest to shift: what do you do with those daubings your now 15-year-old did aged three, or all the Mother’s Day cards you’ve ever received, or those boxes of bits and pieces retrieved from your parents’ home after their deaths?
The big fear we all have, says clutter-clearing guru Marie Kondo, is that if we throw away these objects we’ll somehow be losing the precious memories and legacy that goes with them. Not so, says the Japanese bestselling author: truly precious memories will never vanish even if you discard things associated with them.
So how do you deal effectively with the stuff we can’t bear to part with, but which we know we can’t keep stashing away.
1. Focus not on what to chuck, but on what to keep
When we have a clearout, most of us tend to focus on what we’re going to throw away. Kondo’s approach is the opposite: she says we should concentrate instead on what we’re going to keep. The reason is simple: there are so many items of sentimental value, from our own lives and from our children’s lives and from our parents’/grandparents’ lives that it’s too overwhelming a task to think about what to jettison.
2. Ask yourself of each object: does it spark joy in my heart?
This is the central message of Kondo’s creed: the litmus test to whether to keep it or not is to ask yourself, does this object (whatever it is) spark joy in my heart? To work this out, you have to touch the object, and see what response that elicits inside you.
Any such object has a place in your life, says Kondo. And once you are convinced of the spark of joy, you should be able to hold on to an item with confidence. You don’t need to make excuses for keeping it any more: you’ve proved to yourself that it’s important to you. But most objects in your life will not spark this joy – and these are the ones you should part with, again with confidence because you know they don’t mean enough to hold on to.
3. Make sure you’re properly committed to having a tidy-out
It’s crucial, says Kondo, that you don’t begin to declutter until you’re properly committed to it. What’s more, sentimental items are in fact the last sort of clutter that you should clear out: Kondo recommends that you “train your tidying muscles by tidying in a specific order, and begin with the categories of items that are typically easier than sentimental items”. You must tidy, she says, by category, not by location or room. “Your tidying should be in this order: clothing, books, papers, komono (miscellany) and then – and only then – will you be ready for your sentimental items.”
4. Never leave stuff in boxes at your parents’ home, or send it to them
One thing you should never do, says Kondo, is send boxes of sentimental items to your parents’ home – and nor should you ignore items that languish there long after you’ve moved out. Why not? Because, quite simply, you’re cluttering up your parents’ lives – and that’s unfair. Having tons of your stuff around your parents’ home makes it much more difficult for them to put their own house in order; something many people have a desire to do as they get older. And what’s more, says Kondo, boxes sent home are never actually opened.
5. Make a plan for taking care of the precious early items from your children’s lives
That first babygrow; the artwork he brought home from his first term at nursery; the Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards she made you when she was in primary school. These are the easy items to decide about. The trick, says Kondo, is not merely to keep them, but to display them in some way that they will bring you pleasure as you go about your daily life – and they will bring pleasure to others who visit your home, too. Baby clothes, she says, can be displayed as art, hung in a frame or displayed in a creative way. “If you bundle them into a drawer thinking, ‘maybe some day I’ll return to them,’ then I doubt they spark joy in you, and they are taking energy away from other items that do spark joy for you,” she says.
If your instinct is that you want to keep more of your children’s artworks than is viable, you can always take photos of it before you throw it away. Another tactic is to decide on how many items you will keep, and stick to that number. And of course, the ideal thing to do with your children’s art is to put it on show: hang it on the wall, frame pieces you hope will last for a while, share it with visitors. And when the time comes to discard it, says Kondo, you should thank it for helping your child to grow, and let it go without guilt.
6. Say farewell to precious items that belonged to your dead parents or grandparents
If an item no longer sparks joy, but it has a sentimental attachment connected to it, you should always bid it farewell in a way that respects what it has meant to someone in your family in the past. If it’s an item that you know was important and meaningful to a parent or grandparent, now dead, or if it represents them to you, Kondo says you should thank it for the service it has done and the role it has played in your family’s life. “Giving sincere thanks to an item will significantly reduce or even eliminate any guilt you may feel when you decide that you will no longer have it in your home,” she says. “I understand that for some people it may seem strange to thank items, but if you try it you’ll be surprised by its effectiveness. Keeping an item beyond the time it sparks joy for you will only diminish the care and appreciation you have for the other items in your life.”
7. Tidy photographs together as a family
Tidying your family’s photos should be the final stage in your journey to clear the sentimental clutter in your home, says Kondo. She recommends that you collect all the photos you have around the house: remove them from their albums. Next, lay all the photos on the floor according to the year or period in which they were taken. The trick with photos is to be ready to let go of any that are similar, or are of scenes you don’t really remember. If you have several photos from the same day, choose only the best one. The basic approach to negatives, says Kondo, is simple: get rid of them all. Another good rule of thumb is: only hang on to pictures in which you, or the person you care about in them, is looking good.
With digital data the same principles apply: choose what you want to keep, not what you want to discard – you’ll never finish the job, says Kondo, if you try to decide which ones to erase when there are so many possibilities. She suggests you start by making a new folder in your computer, and then move all the images you choose to keep into this folder.
Sorting out photos is, Kondo believes, probably the happiest tidying job ever – especially if you do it altogether as a family, inter-generationally if possible. Laughing and talking together about your memories will make it fun – and seeing images of your family across many years, and perhaps across generations, will help you make sense of your story, as well as bringing a note of acknowledgement about what each generation has done for the next, all the special days, the ordinary days, the big occasions: the births, and the people who have died, and the different places where you all lived and holidayed. And what it gives is what all clutter-clearing should give: the chance to relive wonderful memories and to respect and honour your family history, while putting your life into order so you can fill the present with the things that matter, and that bring you happiness in the moment.
Check out my related post: Are vinyl records worth collecting?