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How do you deal with too much stuff? Answered

I have a small house and the stuff that comes into it from every day living quickly stacks up (literally). Most of this stuff is good and or important or it goes right in the garbage. It's mostly an issue of taking too much time to process it or it's good stuff that I feel bad about throwing out like books.

So are there any organizational or procedural tricks that you use to clear out clutter? I've built bookshelves and storage space everywhere I can manage. I throw out anything that doesn't have a purpose. I tried to implement the one in one out policy but had a hard time doing so with things like children's artwork and paperwork that comes in the mail.

Please please please!



Best Answer 8 years ago

Re which papers to keep and for how long: this is a quick, off-the-top-of-my-head list based on what I remember of similar lists on variuos de-cluttering sites scattered around the internet. Don't bet the farm on any of this, but it may help give you somewhere to start -

Keep forever in a secure location (fire-proof strongbox, safe deposit box, etc.):
- Land Deeds, stock & bond certificates, T-Bills, & any other pieces of paper directly exchangable for money or property
- Title certificates to any vehicles you own outright
- Birth certificate, passport, social security card, naturalization papers, adoption and/or marriage certifcates, etc.
- Insurance policies (the big sheaf of documents that is the policy itself)

Keep forever in a file drawer:
- Your will
- Tax returns and supporting documents
- Your children's medical records, and your own
- Title transfer records for any land or vehicles you've sold

Keep for 10 years:
- Documentation of any published articles, research data, or other public claims.

Keep for 7 years:
- Bank statements
- Paystubs

Keep for the life of the loan:
- Loan documents, including payment records. (If you might want to use the paid-off loan to support your credit rating, keep for 3 years beyond paid-off date.)

Keep for the life of cars, appliances & other major purchases:
- Documentation of purchase (cash register receipt, credit slip (photocopy in case ink fades), etc.)
- Service records
- Warranty papers (write down serial & model numbers and keep with warranty)
- Owner's manual (write down serial & model number somewhere on this)

Keep for one year:
- billing statements (utility, medical, etc.)

Some things are less hard & fast -

Keep either for one year, 7 years, or the life of the line of credit:
Credit card statements - depending on how secure you want to feel about it and how likely you would be to actually use them to document your case in a dispute.

Keep for one year, one month, or only as long as it takes to get to a shredder:
ATM receipts and credit* & debit slips - one year to be super-safe, one month if you want to reconcile them with your bank statement, the time it takes to get to the nearest shredder if you know you're never going to reconcile them anyway.

*Exception to the above: The credit slip (and a photocopy in case it fades) for any major purchase should be kept, along with the cash register reciept & other pertinent papers, for 7 years; or until you get no longer own the purchsed item, whichever comes first.

In re children's artwork, the lists I remember say something like:

- Display all incoming artwork until it is displaced by new.

- Artwork displaced from display should be placed in a file to be gone through every 4-6 weeks, or when it gets full.

- Every 4-6 six weeks, sort the artwork file into three categories: what you can stand to part with, what you might be able to bear to part with, and what you'll part with only when it is pried from your cold dead hand. Place items from the Third Category in a file to be gone through once a year. Place items from the First Category in the recycle bin.*
For items from the Second Category: if at all possible, pick them up and walk over to the recycle bin. Poise hand over bin, turn as far away as you can without moving your hand, close eyes, open hand to release items into bin, and go do something else as quickly as possible.
If you can't do this, place the Second Category items in a file behind the current artwork file, to be gone through again in 4-6 weeks.

- Once a year, go through the Third Category file and sort again into the same three categories. First and Second Categories get handled as above, Third Category items may be kept indefinitely.

*It may be best to dispose of First & Second Category artwork after the kids are in bed on the night before the recycling trucks come. This can help keep kids' feeling from being hurt, and helps prevent you from pulling items back out of the bin.

That may be much more info than you wanted, but I hope some of it helps.
FWIW, my favorite decluttering help/support site is at http://takeonestepatatime.proboards.com/index.cgi
  They are a great bunch there, and very understanding & helpful.

Although this is a very detailed answer, it doesn't satisfy what I'm trying to ask. I had to think about it and figure out why.

The first part of the answer is a hodgepodge of different rules about how long to keep paperwork. I know what to do with the paper in my house. That's not the issue.

The second part of the answer is closer to what I'm looking for. It follows the three bins approach where you drop everything into categories of bins. It's ideas like that that I'm trying to elicit. 

The problem I have with that approach is that I tried that with books recently. We didn't get rid of many books.

Um, you asked for organizational & procedural tricks for decluttering, especially with prioritizing bills & receipts and for evaluating children's artwork.

I and others here have done our best to offer help, none of which you seem to have found very helpful.

When no solution to a stated problem can be found, sometimes it is because the problem is not really as stated. I could speculate that since you seem to be happy with your house and your kids, the most likely remaining candidates for the cause of your unhappiness are your job, your spouse, or yourself. But I'm not sure I want to see how you're going to shoot me done over that one.

Wow, that was quite a personal attack! I'm not sure why you took so much personal offense to my reply but none was meant.

Yes people have tried to help and I thank them for that. I've also read a lot on decluttering already and have tried a lot. That means that this isn't the first resource I looked to and any answer will do.  I'm also not a stupid person I can solve this myself with enough time but if someone has already come up with a solution then the wise person asks before he re-invents the wheel.

I understand that you answered to the best of your ability with the information you had available. I also thank you for refining my thought process on exactly what I need. I didn't quite know how to express my need before and now I know how to do it better.

My reply is mainly to refine the discussion. I was hoping that you or another member would see it and offer more targeted ideas. Not insult you as you have plainly resorted to with me.

I regret that you took my reply as a personal attack: it was not meant that way.

The fact is that I felt that your earlier reply was an attack against my inital post. You asked for advice on handling paperwork, I gave you advice on handling paperwork - and you replied that you already knew how to handle paperwork.
(And really, describing my moderately-well-organized list as a  "hodgepodge"? That's pretty darned close to what they call a "fightin' word" there, sir; that's what that is.)

My suggestions for handling your children's artwork were met with what seemed like a "Been there, done that, it's no good,"  which also seems to be the jist of your other replies to other suggestions made on this thread. I felt personally "shot down," and that you had also shot down all the other ideas put forward here.

That is to say that my reply was, among other things, an example of me restraining my response to a perceived attack - although apparently not so well as I'd thought.
(Dude, if I were to seriously launch a personal attack against you, you would know it for sure - and I would be immediately be banned for such an egregious violation of Instructables' "Be Nice" policy.)

My remark about the possibility of a deeper unlying problem was not intended as an insult: it was solely intended to suggest the possibility of a deeper underlying problem. As the vast majority of people experience some unhappiness with their jobs, their spouses, or themselves at some time in their lives; it is not something I see as having any shame attaching to it. Again, I regret that you appear to have found it insulting.

And again, I am trying to restrain my tone and and offer this response in as even-handed and friendly a manner as I can. If you find it offense or insulting, that may mean that you and I are not  presently capable of non-mutally-inflammatory discourse and perhaps we should stop trying.

I am often misunderstood especially when writing because there is no tone in the text. Emoticons, although annoying can be very useful. I'm very literal in my use of words so words like "hodgepodge" are not derogatory in my eyes when defined as "a theory or argument made up of miscellaneous or incongruous ideas" as there is no unifying theory to the retention periods of the papers.

Perhaps my brevity was also a factor in making you feel shot down. Also one of my downfalls.

So I freely admit that I was not clear in my meaning and you were justified in you're interpretation of my words but I assure you that was not my meaning.

Okay. I believe that we have exchanged olive branches and may consider hostilites at an end. :)  <= annoying, ain't it?

The following is not meant as criticism, but as explanation:

- Brevity may be have indeed been part of the problem: while synonyms for "brief" include "concise," "succint," "incisive;" they also include "brusque," "abrubt," and "curt."
(I tend to err on the not-so-brief side of things, which is its own ikind of problem.)

- Um, at one point you said "Yes, people have tried to help and I thank them for that." But that is the only place so far that I have seen you use the word "thank." Those little words of politeness do help add tone to our bare text; and, conversely, can sometimes be notable by their absence.

As for "hodgepodge," part of my reaction was due to my own self-indulgent vanity about the quality of my writing. But, as I was fuming about telling myself I should demand that we Duel At Dawn (with expository essays at fifty paces), at one point I paraphrased Douglas Adams and remarked sneeringly to the cat "Perhaps this is some new definition of 'hodgepodge' with which I was not previously familiar."

But that turns out to be exactly the case - I'd never heard of that definition. Webster's Unabridged, my personal dictionary of reference, defines  "hodgepodge" as:
"1. a thick stew of various meats and vegetables.
2. a mixed mass; a medley of ingredients."

It is only the American Heritage Dictionary, apparently the Free Online Dictionary's reference of choice, which includes the "theory or argument made up of miscellaneous or incongruous ideas" definition.

And we're talking about a list here, of generally unrelated papers to be kept for unrelated periods of time for unrelated reasons. There's not going to be a unifying argument or theory; not beyond the idea that this is a semi-static quasi-concensus that has evolved at the chaotic triple point of legal practice, business practice, and human behavior.

So are you looking for a unifying theory of decluttering, like William Morris's "Have nothing in your home which you do not believe to be beautiful or know to be useful"?
Or ways to help yourself define your priorities, like my "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" Suitcase Method for sorting books?
Or practical tips like "While you're waiting for the microwave to reheat your coffee, grab the nearest pile of clutter and sort away at it until you hear the microwave beep"?

I gather that you're still working out that out, but as you get closer to figuring it out, we'll be able to be of better help.

I'm a big fan of unifying theory's, so Morris's is good although I put a stronger emphasis on useful. I have not heard of Balzac applied to decluttering so do tell! My priorities are set but sometimes new ideas can streamline how you think of them so it could be useful. I like the microwave idea it could be good for maintenance cleaning, I'm not sure how my kids would do with that (probably run in circles for 45 seconds) but we could give it a try.

We try to keep our possessions to a minimum. we try to replace unitask items with multitask items. We try to have a place for things to go (bookselves cubbords etc) so they're not just hovering around. We're still missing something. I think it has a lot to do with being rushed a lot, we put things down expecting to get to it later. We get to it later but only after it looks like a bomb went off. That may not be the only problem so don't limit your thoughts to that but it is a problem, lack of time. I need a way of dealing with misc. things quickly and efficiently so in the little time I do have, I can be effective in decluttering.

Thank you for sticking with this Gorfram.

You're welcome. :)

Well, Morris was an artist (he founded th artisitic movement that later became Art Nouveau, & then Art Deco), so it was part of his job description to worry about beauty. He was also reacting to the overdone, overblown, & overcrawded aesthtic of the Late Victorian period - part of his point with that statement was to say that just because the full flowering of the Industrial Revolution means that you can now afford to fill your living room with cheap, shoddy, factory-made "decor;" that doesn't mena that you have to.

More from the Unifying Theory Dept:

A newspaper article I read once about a guy that the City sent to make/help poeple clean up yards with junk piles that had become genuine eyesores quoted his criterion for separating the true junk from the actually useful stuff: "Does it have an articulatable future?"

Thus the empty water bottles that I use to store pourable gardening supplies (fertilizer, seed starting mix, etc.) get to stay here, while the empty yogurt cartons that I'm "maybe gonna use for something someday" have got to go.

I came up with one after a minor flood destroyed half of the contents of one of my closets. It was heartbreaking to have to toss some of the ruined stuff; but there was a lot of stuff ruined that I didn't mind throwing away, and some where I was relieved not to have to decide whether or not to keep it.

So now I try to ask myself "If this object were ruined somehow (or even  just mysteriously disappeared), would I regret its loss?" Anything that doesn't cause a pang at the thought of its loss - I  go ahead and "lose" it.

Got to go scare up some dinner for myself now, but the Balzac-related books sorting method is soon to come. :)

Sorry it took me so long to get back to this. Worse, I now have to reveal that Balzac was something of a teaser here: he's really only peripherally involved -

There's a book (& now a movie) called "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress," where part of the plot revolves around a small suitcase full of great books of Western European literature (including a few by the eponymous H. d'B.). These were forbidden during the Cultural Revolution, making the books an extremely dangerous, but extremely valuable, treasure.

The book goes on to deal with other things (and is very good, as is the movie); but that part got me to thinking - what if I could only keep as many books as would fit into a small suitcase?

I made up a "suitcase collection" of those books that I think I would be willing to smuggle and hide, at risk of death or imprisonment, rather than give up - and itall  fit on one 3 foot shelf. Okay, that would probably take a medium-sized suitcase, but still...

(Note: my making up a "suitcase collection" is sort of a game - I've never been in anything like the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and it's probably reasonable to expect that I will never be in a position to risk my life over a book. In playing this little game, I mean no disrespect to the many hundreds of thousands of people who did risk, and often lost, their lives during the Cultural Revolution; or to the pain that so many millions of Chinese people endured.)

Now, I have hundreds of books, and am presently surrounded by boxes upon boxes of books that I haven't unpacked from two moves ago, plus bookshelves full of more books bought since that second-to-last move. I firmly believe that; while it may be possible to be too rich, and it is definitely possible to be too thin; it is nigh on inconceivable that a person could have too many bookshelves (...well, maybe if they didn't all fit inside the house).

But it is easily possible to have way too many books.

Knowing that the books in my "suitcase collection" weren't ever going to go anywhere made it easier for me to look through my other gazillion books and let some of them go. And having already decided that a given book wasn't one I'd risk my life for, it was easier to decide whether it deserved space on my bookshelves.

That was some years back: I think I'll make up a new "suitcase collection" for myself (just as soon as I clear enough other clutter that I can (finally!) unpack my books :).

Thanks for giving me "Best Answer" :).

Okay, now from the Practical Tips Dept:
In re "microwave time" (or "toaster time" or teakettle time"), you'll probably need to figure out which "mini-tasks" (putting away clean dishes, wiping down countertops, etc.) are age-appropriate to each kid, and maybe even post handy reference list.
(Although I'm now seriously considering spinning around in cicrles for 45 seconds the next time I need to re-heat my coffee :).

I have a (not very hard-and-fast) rule that any time I need a dish that is deep down underneath other stuff in the dish drainer, I can't just move the dishes on top of it out of the way, but have to put each one away as I "excavate" down to get to the item I wanted in the first place.
(I have similar rule about excavating a particular garment from deep within a pile of clean, unfolded laundry.)

Even less hard-and-fast is my other rule that, if I want a plate or mug or fork out of the dishdrainer, I should put away all the other plates or mugs or forks while I'm at it - and the same for glasses, spoons, bowls, & everything else.
(At the clean laundry pile, I'll sometimes do the same with shirts or socks or whatever.)

And whenever I have to look for some item I've misplaced, I try to sort through and organize whatever stuff I wind up searching through, as opposed to just digging and re-piling, until I find the quested-for object.

I try never to leave the house without carrying out the garbage and/or recycling (unless my hands are already full of something else).

Of course I give myself a "bye" on all this stuff whenever I'm in
a desperate screaming hurry, which I am often enough that my house is definitely not the serene citadel of organized cleanliness that you  might have imagined from reading the above. :)

Your answer is in the last sentence to the answer given to you by Gorfram.

You said, " The problem I have with that approach is that I tried that with books recently. We didn't get rid of many books".

There's your problem.  Even when you work on a plan built for success it is bound to fail because you can't let go of anything.

I know how that is because my wife and I are the same way.  It is very difficult to throw anything away.  I have no trouble tossing real trash etc. but I keep way too much hobby stuff even past it's usefulness.  I really hate to toss books or magazines. (Not toss but donate).

Cloths are the same way.  Someday I'm gonna wear that shirt from the 70's.

Learn to actually get ride of some things and your problem with too much stuff will go away.

Today is declutter day. We've got five garbage bags so far. If I'm right we'll have six before the day is done. You are partly right. Most of the things we're down to are very useful or have sentimental value. Things like old kids books that I got for my kids because I loved them when I was little. Other things are an influx problem. We get so many cloths given to us it is a major effort to drive the 30 miles to the nearest Good Will. Another problem is when I want to get rid of something but someone else in the fam is begging to keep it. That becomes an issue with four in the house.


8 years ago

Moving every two to three years works for me. If it won't fit in two pickups (and a small tool trailer), it gets donated, given away, or sold.

My parents moved me too much when I was a kid. I've also custom built my house so it's how I like it.

It sounds that you need to prioritize. What do you really need? Although it is normal to have some clutter around, and specially when you have children, you could start by selecting the clothes or any other articles that you and your family do not need and donor them to a mission or any organization that collects them. That will reduce some of your clutter. Also another option is a garage sale and profit from the things that you do not need.

It's actually the process of evaluating for priority that is bringing me down. For instance how do you prioritize receipts and bills? I've frequently needed all of them when a bank or other nefarious agency requires four months worth of bills? I need all of my receipts for my business for the current year and last year. How do you evaluate which artworks of you children to keep and which ones to throw away? We've taken repeated trips to goodwill. We have garage sales every year where EVERYTHING is $0.25

Freecycle. makes getting rid of useful things less painful, since you know it's going to a good home rather than just being trashed.

Nearly new shops have a triplex purpose. First they offer low cost used items to people who cannot otherwise afford them. Second, they provide other collectors with a method for finding clutter for their own homes. Finally they offer sober collectors a method for discarding otherwise salvageable items without the onus of having to do what they would otherwise have to do to rid themselves of excess clutter, ie, throwing them in the garbage.

There's a great book called Throw Out Fifty Things by Gail Blanke.  It isn't just an organizational plan.  It deals with the underlying psychological issues that make our lives cluttered.  The book really made a difference in the way I saw my life as well as my house.

I recommend getting the book from the library and reading it to understand her approach, but then she also has a workbook available on her site as a free .pdf.  You can use that to keep track of your progress.