The Clutter Problem
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The Clutter Problem

We convinced three readers to examine the emotions behind their pack-rat tendencies -- and got them expert help.

Finders Keepers

I Have Kept Every Toy My Son Has Ever Gotten. And He's 9!

"I started saving Sam's toys when he was a baby," says Carina Yervasi, 48, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. "Then, when Sam was 7, my mom passed away and I became even more fixated on saving all the presents she'd given him over the years, because I worried he'd forget her. I wanted to make sure his whole childhood -- and the evidence that he'd been loved by all the people who'd given him presents over the years -- was right there for him to see. But when Sam's friends come over, their eyes practically bug out at the sight of his playroom! It's clearly gotten out of control. I'm caught between wanting to preserve everything and knowing that I need to start making decisions about what to keep -- if only to set a good example for Sam. I worry that he'll become a little hoarder himself."

The Experts Step In

Toy buildup isn't unusual, says Matt Paxton, author of The Secret Lives of Hoarders. Still, you have to get real about how many is too much. "Use math," he says. "A kid can only play so many hours a day." Paxton suggests getting the child himself to help pare down the toys by giving him a specific limit of how many he can keep. And keep your focus on your child. "We adults are the ones who tend to have emotions around these things. The kid's not likely to be as attached as you are," he says.

Be more discriminating, advises hoarding specialist Gail Steketee, PhD, a dean at Boston University. "If you're saving something as a memento of a particular person, ask yourself, 'Do I have other mementos of that person, like a photo or a letter, that would serve that purpose better?'"

"If the toys are just collecting dust, you're not honoring your relatives," Paxton says. Donate them to a church nursery or women's shelter, where they'll get immediate use.

Carina's Spring-Cleaning Success

"I realized it would be much healthier to build family closeness in the present and future instead of clinging to the past. Last year my brother and his wife had twin boys so Sam and I played one last time with the toys from his first year, then we boxed them all up and gave them to his new cousins. I watched as Sam cuddled the infants and talked about how much fun they'd have playing with his old toys. He even pointed out which ones their grandmother had given him. He really does remember her. Since then we've passed along other toys. Sam hasn't really missed them, which makes me realize the issue was mine, not his. I never saw it before, but the toys aren't the link to anything important, really. The link is Sam."

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."

Never-Ending Inbox

I store unopened mail because I'm too scared to toss it.

"I know lots of people have a table covered in envelopes and catalogs and circulars and junk, but I'm much worse: When my table gets completely full, I move all the mail -- still unopened and unsorted -- into boxes, which I store in the basement!" says Judy Davids, 53, Royal Oak, Michigan. "I'm too lazy to go through it all, and too overwhelmed even to know where to start, yet I'm afraid to throw it away. The mail is just such a chore. I set it aside, intending to deal with it later when I have time, but then I don't. I fish the bills out, eventually, though I'm often late, but the rest just accumulates. I keep everything that comes from a bank, because I worry that it's important, even though most of it is actually junk. And every day more mail arrives. I feel like it'll take hours to deal with it all, so I don't deal at all."

The Experts Step In

Judy's behavior is incredibly common, Paxton says, and not just among bona fide hoarders. "Tons of people do this," he says, "and it's not just mail -- they hang on to newspapers and magazines, too. I call it 'information hoarding.' There's all this glossy, important-looking stuff coming into the house every day, and you feel like you've got to go through it carefully if you want to stay on top of things. Busy perfectionists are the worst offenders -- they worry that they'll throw the wrong things away and that they'll never have time to catch up with the mail."

His advice? Toss it all. "That stuff that's been in the basement for months? Forget it," says Paxton. "They'll resend bills if they're urgent."

After clearing the slate, a new system is in order: For bills, go paperless and set up automatic payments. Then change the way you deal with the paper that remains. "Devise a system where you sort the mail right by the door and have a shredder and a recycling bin right there," says Abramowitz. "If you get a thank-you note, read it and recycle it on the spot. Only stuff you really need -- invitations, bills, checks -- gets to come in the house."

Judy's Spring-Cleaning Success

"I did switch to online banking and it's great. We just refinanced our house and I had everything I needed at my fingertips without a single piece of paper. I was too scared to just throw everything away, so I scheduled a Saturday, gritted my teeth, and attacked all the mail. It didn't take nearly as long as I thought and I realized that 80 percent of what I'd saved was worthless. And I realized, as I did this, that the mail is actually manageable. After all, unlike e-mail, it only comes once a day. Can't I take five minutes a day to stay on top of it? When I thought of it that way, it seemed easy. It feels so good to be able to see my dining-room table."