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How to Stop Hoarding Nostalgic Items and Keep What Really Matters, According to an Organizing Expert

Ready to take control of your clutter habit? Peter Walsh, expert organizer and author of Lose the Clutter, Lose the Weight: The Six-Week Total-Life Slim Down ($4.95, Amazon), created this guide to managing the sentimental hoarding of family history and nostalgic items. 

“Memory clutter” is found in piles in people’s spare bedrooms and garages. These things tend to remind you of a person, a place, or a significant time in your life. The fear is that if you let go of the thing, you’ll lose the memory.

Some people seem able to deal with the loss without too much pain. They can toss the stuff others would never think of discarding. What these people know is that not every object evokes the same amount of emotion. So if you’re holding on to too many items from the past, here are three ways to tackle your memory clutter.

1. Establish a hierarchy of value. 

When someone says “everything is important,” what they’re really saying is “nothing is important.” Or, at least, “nothing is more important than the least important thing in this group.” When you think about it this way, it’s pretty obvious that in the pile of things you inherited from your mother, not everything is equally valuable. Much of it has little emotional value, while other pieces may have a really strong memory for you. Go through it with an eye to keep only the items that evoke the strongest, most significant memories. As difficult as it may be to hear, the rest should go.

2. Rescue your treasures. 

These are the best of the best, representatives of the stuff you’re going to discard. For everything else, grab your phone and take pictures. When you identify the treasures and give them a place of honor, then the significance of other memory items diminishes. You know deep down you won’t ever use that entire set of bedroom furniture you’ve somehow inherited. Take pictures of each piece, then pick a favorite item to keep —  and let the others go by donating or giving them away to friends.

3. Remember that limits are your friends. 

We know you love your kids, but is it necessary to keep every piece of artwork they’ve made? Keep a folder for each child’s art. This is the clear limit you’re establishing. When it’s full, it’s time to get rid of something — the “one in, one out” rule. Do the same thing with boxes of memorabilia you’re storing from different times of your own life. It’s seriously doubtful you still need the books and paperwork from your college days, for instance.

Understand that sometimes, letting go of these items can also mean letting go of a dream your younger self might have had. Textbooks can go (the more up-to-date information is online or at the library). Your class notes are probably never going to be read again. Scan important projects and papers and store them in the cloud. Let go of the paperwork, books, and files that hold you to your past, and you’ll feel so much lighter and ready to tackle any new challenge.

Saying Goodbye to Memory Clutter

The bottom line is this: Stuff has power. Looking at an object can evoke all sorts of memories. I don’t want you to ever lose that wonderful feeling. Instead, by keeping just the most important pieces, by displaying them in your home with honor and respect, you’ll unburden yourself from the massive pile that’s keeping you from truly enjoying your home. Memories are wonderful, but living fully in the present is even more important.

This article was originally written by Peter Walsh. For more, check out our sister site, Homes to Love.

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