Shedding Sentimental Clutter
A vital step in the letting go of clutter process is
learning how to manage memorabilia. Why? Because when you let
go of objects that remind you of memories you'd rather forget,
you make room for the things that matter most to you.
Of course, letting go of personal memorabilia, especially
if you're a sentimental soul, tends to be hard.
As a sentimental person myself, I'm sympathetic to those
who find the process painful. But I also know how important it
is to manage your mementoes so they don't keep cluttering up
your life. Otherwise, you run the risk of becoming a "memorabiliac":
someone who accumulates vast amounts of personal memorabilia.
|The Meaning of Memorabilia
To make sure we're on the same wavelength here, I want to
clarify what I mean by personal memorabilia. I'm not talking
about "collectible memorabilia," which involves
collecting antique (or antique-looking) knickknacks. Personal
memorabilia means the things we keep that evoke personal
reminiscences, pleasant feelings, bittersweet emotions, and/or
a sense of historical connectedness.
It's the stuff that we think of as "priceless"
because it often has value just to us; that’s why it's the
stuff that's missed most when people lose everything in a fire
or other disaster.
There are a number of creative ways to categorize,
organize, and/or display sentimental stuff, such as
scrapbooks, photo albums, and shadow boxes--none of which will
be covered here. Although these options can turn into
satisfying hobbies, they are more likely to become stressful
"procrastination projects" for those who are already
overwhelmed by clutter and commitments.
In my experience, there are three types of memorabiliacs:
Type 1 = someone who actually creates and maintains
scrapbooks, photo albums, or other systems for keeping
sentimental stuff in order.
Type 2 = someone who aspires to being a Type 1, but rarely
(if ever) gets around to creating or maintaining those
Type 3 = someone who has no Type 1 aspirations.
Which type are you?
If you identify yourself as a Type 1, that's admirable. But
as time goes on, you may find yourself accumulating mementos
faster than you can capture them in your systems. The rules
and steps detailed in this chapter are designed to help you
deal with any existing overflow and prevent more from building
If you are a Type 2, the most important step you can take
now is to be honest with yourself about your priorities and
Accept that it is OK if you never do get around to putting
your stuff in scrapbooks "someday." (But you may be
able to get someone else to do it for you!)
Please let go of any pressure you've put on yourself that
this project is something you "should" do. There are
other ways to master your memorabilia, and we'll be covering
Finally, if you see yourself as a Type 3, your challenges
may be simpler--not easier, just simpler. It all depends on
how much sentimental clutter you've accumulated so far, and
how much of it you ultimately end up keeping. That's why the
rules and techniques which follow are designed to help make
your memento-related challenges easier.
Memories are Made of This...and This...and This...
It's easy to spend a lot of time organizing and cataloguing
sentimental stuff. My objective, however, is to get you to
focus on letting go of certain things so you don't have to
spend as much time deciding where to put them. Of course, I do
expect you to keep some memorabilia--but only those items that
survive the rigorous testing procedures I'll be describing in
First, however, I want to clarify my three-part process for
managing memorabilia. I'm going to show you how to:
A) let go of anything that doesn't touch you in a positive
or poignant way;
B) save only what you have space for; and
C) keep your meaningful mementoes in simple,
The best way to begin is by gathering together all the
things you think you're keeping for sentimental reasons.
However, you can also use this process on an item-by-item
basis as you come across individual mementoes.
|Sentimental, Ornamental, or Accidental?
Sometimes there are things we think we're keeping for
sentimental reasons that are actually not mementoes at all.
Such "memorabilia imposters" include:
- Antique or old knickknacks that have no real personal
history (as opposed to inherited items or gifts). By all
means, keep any items like this that you really, really
like--as long as you have a place to display them. Otherwise,
get rid of them (sell, donate, or give as gifts).
- Outdated but non-historical legal documents (wills,
divorce papers, deeds, lawsuits, IOUs). You might want to
check with your attorney before destroying any of these. In
the meantime, they can be archived with your old tax papers.
- Old resumes and appointment books/calendars. Likewise, if
you choose to keep these for historical purposes, they can be
stored in your archive files (assuming you haven't run out of
- Invitations and announcements that you're only keeping as
samples for design ideas. If you really think you're likely to
revisit these items, set up an "Invitation Samples"
file (or use whatever file name works for you) under the
Personal category. Otherwise, the "round file" may
be the best place for them.
A) Let Go of Anything that Doesn't Touch You In a
Positive or Poignant Way.
To do this, it's useful to first inventory your sentimental
objects and papers by separating them into four categories:
Happy, Sad, Good, and Bad.
Happy = mementoes of positive accomplishments, joyous
personal occasions, fun times, and loving relationships.
Sad = remembrances of poignant milestones, deceased
loved ones, personal transitions, & wisdom gained from
painful life processes.
Good = stuff that is potentially useful or even
monetarily valuable, but otherwise not particularly
Bad = reminders of upsetting incidents, unpleasant
events, or unfinished business.
Now that you've inventoried your sentimental stuff, I can
finally reveal to you my Golden Rule of Memorabilia
Keep only your most special Happy and Sad
get rid of all Good and Bad ones.
Did you think Good and Happy were a natural pair of
"keepers," while Sad and Bad belonged together in
the bye-bye bin?
Sentimental stuff that's "Good" tends to be a
major clutter contributor. But because it has a sentimental
scent to it, so to speak, it can seem harder to part with. Yet
that's precisely why it's so freeing when you do cut the
emotional cord--you will feel a wonderful sense of lightness,
as though you've been released from bonds you didn't know were
Right about now you may be thinking, "But she doesn't
know about MY stuff--my things are different/valuable/special!
Also, my mother/sister/father/brother/aunt/uncle/cousin/best
friend would never forgive me if I ever got rid of the (fill
in the blank) they gave me." A reminder: The choice is
yours. Ultimately you will keep whatever you want to keep, so
don't waste time justifying your choices or making excuses.
Just try to let go of anything you feel ready to shed, and
keep moving forward.
B) Save Only What You Have Space for.
If you've shed your negative memorabilia (the Good and Bad
stuff), then perhaps you now have sufficient space to keep all
your positive and poignant mementoes (the Happy and Sad
stuff). Or not. Since the Happy category alone contains
options for as many types of potential clutter as all the
other categories combined, you may still need to do some
Obviously, the amount of space you feel comfortable
devoting to storing and/or displaying your memorabilia will
dictate how much of it you can keep. (Reminder: Mementoes,
like other forms of stuff, will expand to fill whatever amount
of space you allocate for them. So even if you now have
sufficient room for everything you've decided to save--watch
Saving only the memorabilia you have space for requires
making difficult choices--choices you'd prefer not to make,
and that you're not used to making. But sometimes we need to
shock ourselves into making choices that we're not used to
|The Fire Fantasy
I've lost count of how many clutter sufferers have said to
me, "Sometimes I wish it would all just burn up!"
Maybe you've thought that, too. Of course, no one really wants
a fire to happen. (I tell people, "Fire is an
option--it's just not one I recommend.") But I think that
what I call the "fire fantasy" is symbolic of how
desperate so many people feel about their clutter-clogged
lives. It's not that you really want it to "burn
up"--you just wish the detritus of delayed decisions and
the overflow of opportunities and obligations would simply
vanish (like magic, in a puff of smoke!) so you wouldn't have
to deal with them.
C) Keep Your Meaningful Mementoes in Simple,
Back in B.C. times (Before Clutter, that is), our ancestors
stored their few precious items in a wooden trunk called a
Hope Chest. This, of course, was the humble, old-fashioned
equivalent of our charming plastic Rubbermaid Heavy-duty
How many of these modern-day Hope Chests you'll need
depends on three factors:
1) how much space you've allocated for your memorabilia
2) the types of stuff you've chosen to keep
3) how much stuff you're planning to keep
Of course, you don't have to use plastic storage containers
by Rubbermaid (or any other brand, for that matter). If you
prefer, you can obtain antique or old-style cedar chests and
other kinds of wooden trunks. Other options include
archival-quality cardboard boxes--there are even round,
hat-box-style units. Or utilize a roll-top desk, an old
dresser, or any article of furniture that's appropriate and
available for your purposes.
In fact, most units with drawers work well for storing many
types of mementoes; it's particularly effective to assign one
drawer per category, if possible. For example, a small
four-drawer bureau could have one drawer each for old letters
and cards (birthday, valentines, holidays, etc.), children's
artwork and school papers, photos, and travel souvenirs.
The key to maintaining any memorabilia management system is
to establish an annual or twice-a-year "Reminiscence
Ritual." This is when you spend at least one afternoon
(or whatever part of the day you prefer) to lovingly revisit
your sentimental stuff, either alone or with family. Holidays
can be a good time to do this, and/or summertime. The purpose
of the Reminiscence Ritual is to allow you to reminisce as you
weed out stale mementoes--a great way to make room for next
Focus on keeping only the best and most representative
items from the past year. If you "can't" seem to let
go of enough items, remind yourself that you can keep them all
if you really want to--but you'll have to figure out where to
|Stuff to Remember
Designate "memory boxes" or drawers for storing
sentimental stuff you choose to keep. Go through the contents
periodically--the process should bring up happy memories and
also help you weed out anything that is no longer as
meaningful. And it will help cut down on clutter elsewhere,
Excerpted from Chapter 6 of Let Go of Clutter (2001,
McGraw-Hill) by Harriet Schechter.
All Rights Reserved.
of Clutter" Retreat
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Harriet Schechter (a.k.a.
"The Miracle Worker") is an internationally
acclaimed organizing and time management expert, author,
and speaker. Dispensing equal doses of help, hope and
humor, she specializes in providing effective and
realistic options for anyone juggling too much stuff, too
many decisions, and too little time. Since 1986 Harriet
has helped thousands of people conquer chaos and clutter
through her San Diego-based company, The Miracle Worker
Organizing Service. She is the author of three books,
including Let Go of Clutter (McGraw-Hill, 2001),
which is based on the popular "Letting Go of
Clutter" workshop series she has taught regularly
since 1988 for the Learning Annex. She has appeared on
numerous radio and television programs, including Good
Morning America and CNN, and has been featured and quoted
in dozens of publications such as the New York Times, the
Chicago Tribune, Entertainment Weekly, Ladies Home
Journal, Family Circle, Woman's Day, and many others.
Harriet writes an online
advice column and offers helpful tips and resources through
her main web site, www.MiracleOrganizing.com,
where you can also find information on her books and
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