Why We Collect

I’ve always loved these lyrics from the musical The King and I, which Anna sings in the introduction to the song Getting to Know You:

It’s a very ancient saying
But a true and honest thought
That when you become a teacher,
By your pupils you’ll be taught.

As a Professional Organizer for the last seven years, I can vouch for this.  Although clients hire me to teach them how to live their lives in a more organized fashion, I frequently come away with some new knowledge or insight that I can apply to my own life, as well as to future clients.

Recently, a new client taught me something about why we hold on to things.  Her research revealed that we hold on to things for the following four reasons:

  • Useful Purpose
  • Sentimental
  • Custodial
  • Information

I thought this was a very handy way of trying to understand and analyze a complex situation.  Here are some thoughts that have percolated for me.

Useful Purpose:  “I can’t get rid of this — it might need it someday.”   I hear this all the time from my clients.  Some items are indeed difficult to replace, and if there is a likelihood you might need it in the future and it doesn’t take up much room, then go ahead and keep it — as long as you know where it is and can find it again if and when that time comes.  Here are the pitfalls to watch for.

  • Is the item large, unwieldy, or in need of ongoing maintenance?   If it isn’t in use and it is taking up too much space (physical or mental), then let it go.  Saving things “just in case” is impractical if they cause us stress.
  • Is this item so outdated that, if you ever needed it, it would be better for you to buy a newer model?   Be honest about how useful this really would be.

Sentimental:  We all have mementos of our past relationships, triumphs, and failures.  Mementos can certainly contribute to our enjoyment of our lives.  However, there are two pitfalls to watch for. 

  • Do you have so many mementos that you don’t have room to let new experiences in?  Try to pare down your mementos to the truly memorable.  Rather than saving every greeting card you ever got, save the ones that truly move you.  Instead of every t-shirt with your college logo on it, save the few that yield the strongest memories.
  • Are you saving things that make you feel sad or inadequate?   It’s great to save the job offer letter you got when you first graduated college.  But if you ended up leaving that job in a haze of bad feelings, then perhaps it’s best for you to part with that letter.  Hold on to the things that build us up, not those that bring us down.

Custodial:  Many of my clients have legacies from their parents, grandparents, and other loved ones — antique furniture from Grandma’s house, your favorite aunt’s china, your mother’s jewelry.  It can be painful to release these items because we feel that they have been placed in our care and that we are betraying our loved ones if we don’t keep them.  Here are the pitfalls to watch for.

  • Are you using your family’s antiques because you really love them, or out of a sense of obligation?   Perhaps other family members would like to have them.   If not, consider selling or donating them so that you can get them into the hands of people who would truly appreciate them.  Isn’t that another way of honoring your loved ones?
  • Instead of keeping everything tucked away in boxes, pick a few pieces that you can display in a prominent place.  Perhaps it’s piece of jewelry displayed as art, or an item of clothing that becomes a wall hanging.  These can become conversation pieces that will allow you to remember your loved ones and share with others how much they meant to you.   Then consider letting go of the rest.

Information:  Some people can’t throw out a newspaper, magazine, or brochure until they’ve read it.   It may sit there for months, even years, but they will not pass up the possibility of learning the information contained therein.  If this describes you, then watch out for these pitfalls.

  • Are you consistently keeping up with your reading material?  If not, make a plan.  Figure out how much time you need to stay current, and set aside slots in your calendar — for example, 15 minutes every weekday evening, plus an hour every weekend day.  Without a plan to stay current, you will develop a backlog, and you will be stressed every time you look at it.
  • Do you already have a large reading backlog?  If so, don’t let any new reading material enter your home until that backlog is cleared up.   Put all your subscriptions on hold (or cancel them) until you are caught up.   Eliminate habits that put you in contact with materials you are tempted to bring home (such as taking the free newspapers that are given out at the subway entrance).

I hope that you found this way of analyzing the stuff we hold on to as eye-opening as I did.

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