The Clutter Problem

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Storing Memories

I can't throw away mementos.

"I still have every note passed to me in junior high. I've got birthday cards and old journals, piles of photos from college and more, all stuffed into bins I keep stacked in my office," says Alexa Stevenson, 33, St. Paul, Minnesota. "The stacks of storage containers bother me, but even though I want to sort through them, it feels overwhelming. Where do I start? How will I find the time? And the idea of throwing any of it away is stressful, too. Since I've saved these things for so long and they represent important moments of my life, it almost feels like I'd be throwing out old friends."

The Experts Step In

"Alexa is having trouble discriminating between important and less important moments in her life, which is why she has so much stuff," says Steketee. It's a common problem. Pack rats also tend not to trust their own memories, she adds. They worry that without the keepsakes they won't be able to remember the past.

No single strategy works for everyone, so brainstorm ways to help yourself let go of your junk, Steketee suggests. Ask yourself, "If the sea were rising and I only had one hour to evacuate, what would I save?" or "Would I buy this again?" or "Would I advise my daughter to save the things I'm saving?" Or you can create rules, like saving only firsts: Letters from your first boyfriend get saved, for example, and the rest get tossed.

To make the process easier, go slowly, advises Jonathan Abramowitz, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Get rid of a single item and then keep track of your response. "After two hours, six hours, two days, and so forth, most people find they're not nearly as upset as they thought they would be," he says. "Once you get started, and you realize that throwing away a memento isn't the end of the world, it gets easier and easier."

"You've got to get honest about the past," adds Paxton. People hold on to stuff because they feel like the old days were better. But were you really happier back then, or was life just easier? "Embrace your present life," Paxton says. "If you're holding on to the past, you have no physical space for the memories you're making now."

Alexa's Spring-Cleaning Success

"I decided to start slowly, and over the course of about two weeks I got rid of a lot. The key for me was to reframe the way I thought about the process. It was less about throwing stuff out than it was about organizing it in a such a way that I could actually enjoy it rather than having it all shoved randomly into bins. For example, I scanned some of my daughter's preschool artwork, which I added to photo books I assembled over the next few months. Obviously, some mementos were worth keeping, like a copy of my wedding invitation, but I reluctantly conceded that I really didn't need a whole roll of ultrasound pictures of my daughter before she was born. A few of the things I saved I framed, like a teeny-tiny preemie diaper the size my daughter wore when she was first born. The rest I put in smaller, more decorative boxes that are organized and labeled. I kept waiting for the regret to hit, but it never did! Paring things down actually made the memories of past experiences far more vivid."

Continued on page 3:  Never-Ending Inbox


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