UnStuff Your Life

Why do we hold on to things we don’t need? A guide to clearing clutter and forming new habitsAndrew Mellen


We love stories. It’s how we connect with each other. It’s how we create and sustain meaning for everything that surrounds us. But the stories that we tell ourselves over and over again bind us to the objects around us, and they can become the source of great suffering and inertia in our lives. Our minds are not the most useful tools when it comes to shifting our behavior. Few people are successful at thinking their way out of disorganization. One of the most common stories we tell ourselves when dealing with objects that we intellectually know are no longer useful is that letting a particular thing go makes us a bad or insensitive person. If it weren’t for this story, we’d be able to let something go, but right now, it feels like a significant betrayal. Ask yourself, “If this story were no longer true, what would this object mean to me? Is there any good and current reason for this to be here?”

Whether the objects we’re dealing with are piles of papers that need to be filed, articles of interest clipped out of magazines and newspapers, books in stacks waiting to be read, clothes to be washed or put away or given away, or sentimental objects and touchstones of past experiences—the story that’s attached to each of them is most likely an old story.

Look around right now at any piles that might be near you. As you observe the individual items that are stacked on top of each other, think about the stories you tell yourself about why these things are still in your life. Maybe the story is about “someday,” the fictional day when you’ll finally get around to starting that knitting project or scrapbooking or visiting the website on that page you tore out of a magazine. Or maybe the story is about an object that was essential to the successful completion of a project and now has a place of honor as a result. Or you’ve created a story about an object that holds tremendous potential for an undefined future project and it would be a shame to let it go prematurely.

Do any of these stories ring true? Are you beginning to recognize that these kinds of stories, like many good stories, may contain more than a little bit of fiction?

If you’re pushing back now, declaring that you are the exception and not the rule, that you actually will do something with this object, bring your awareness to that resistance. Look at how powerfully you can fight to defend a position that doesn’t serve you. Soften into the possibility that the story you’re telling yourself may not be the truth. And remember: without your story, the object reverts back to its initial state.

As you loosen your grip on an object, you’ll begin to see that the object existed before your story and can exist beyond it as well. Once you’re able to really experience this, that the object exists solely on its own merit and purpose, separate from you, you’re finally in a position to objectively determine its current place in your life. Sit with that for a while and then look around.

What you see now will be objects and stories. They are no longer bound to one another; they exist independently. Explore the possibility of either a new story you can tell yourself about these objects—a story in which you are complete with each item and clear about your new relationship to it, which may involve its leaving your life for its next chapter someplace else. Or even no story. Both are acceptable. In either scenario, be aware that the old story may resist your new point of view, so again, instead of digging in your heels, greet this opportunity as an invitation to freedom.

The word “spring-cleaning” conjures up images of sheer white curtains gently undulating in front of an open window, an unseasonably warm breeze blowing as we shake off winter and its sleepy, inactive rest. Everything feels bright and sharp and full of hope, and hope is a great tool when it comes to forming new habits and letting go of older, obsolete habits. Hope opens the door to possibility and allows us to envision change, particularly change that we desire. But hope alone will not affect change—that requires movement.

Just as small green shoots push up from beneath the ground this spring, we too start to stretch upward and reassert our claim to fresh air, sunlight, and room to spread out. We’ve finished huddling in a corner, trying to keep warm in our nests of papers and accumulated stuff. If you’re ready to embrace spring-cleaning and its promise of order and growth, if you’re ready to build on your hope and move into action, here are some guaranteed ways to be successful, both inside and out.

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