Ask the Experts

Q: How Can I Break My Emotional Attachment to Unnecessary ‘Stuff?’

If your closets, attic, and/or basement are jam-packed with boxes you haven’t opened in decades but still can’t bear to ditch, you might need to read this practical, empathetic decluttering advice.

Reviewed on April 2, 2019

Q: “I have a hard time giving away or throwing out things like recipes, magazines, ‘important’ articles I’ve clipped out of magazines and newspapers, as well as old cookware, reusable food containers, clothes that are still in good shape, old jewelry, scarves I never wear, etc. I’ve run out of space for all this stuff and I can rarely find things that I’m looking for. I don’t know where to start.” — GRMom


Hi GRMom:
I love that you asked this question! It’s a common one with not a simple answer. It’s not always easy to identify where or how to start, or how to make the right decisions in relationship to our stuff.

Since I don’t know anything about your emotional connection to your “things,” I want to explore the “practical” connection. Simply put, it sounds like your clutter is costing you. In time, in space, financially, emotionally, physically, all of it. So I want to provide you with a few questions to ask yourself every time you pick up an item and don’t know whether you should keep, toss, or donate it. It’s a way to take the emotionality out of the decision-making and allow you to make clear and rational decisions.

[Your Free Guide for Controlling Clutter]

  • When was the last time I used this?
  • How often do I use this?
  • If I was to get rid of this, would I be able to retrieve the information in another way
  • How difficult or expensive is it to get this?
  • Do I have a similar item that serves the same purpose?
  • If I was shopping right now, would I purchase this again?
  • Is the only thing keeping me from disposing/donating this that I don’t want to waste money?
  • How much space (physical & emotional) would I free up if I were to let go of this item?
  • Does it really fit me?
  • How much time would I spend looking for this item again? (My favorite!)
  • Am I holding on to this for sentimental reasons?

Also, two quick tips to help you get started.

1. Have you heard of body doubling? It means working alongside someone else, and it can help us to initiate and stay on task. Hard work goes faster when we do it with someone else. So perhaps you can set aside a specific time each week to work with a friend or a spouse on your clutter. Make it fun and reward-oriented. Put on music, have your favorite snacks on hand, and when you’ve worked for the allotted amount of time, go do something together that you both enjoy.

2. The wonderful Judith Kolberg came up with this feeling she calls Tactile Sympathy. What it means is that, when we touch our things — especially those that have meaning — it may set off an intense emotional response. In other words, our emotions can be getting in the way of making practical or even logical decisions regarding keeping or disposing of stuff. Perhaps that old recipe you never made has special meaning because your grandma sent it to you. And when you hold it and touch it, those specials moments and memories come flooding back.

So try this technique to counter your emotional response to your stuff: Recruit a friend, your spouse, or another family member to hold up each of your items while you make all the decisions. By putting some “distance” between you and your things you may put some distance between sentimental vs. practical reasons for keeping them.

[Want to Organize Your Stuff? Don’t Do It!]

Good Luck!


Organization guru Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, answers questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

Submit your questions to Dear Organizing Coach here!

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  1. I have the exact same problem as GRMom and have tried the approach to ask myself the questions to help decide whether to keep, donate or purge my stuff, but it really doesn’t help me know where to start or how to actually get rid of the stuff I know that I need to. I also do not have anyone I feel comfortable enough with to “recruit” to help me with this monumental task. Any other suggestions?

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