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How I Finally Learned to Declutter My Life

Hoarding expert Matt Paxton changed the way I look at the stuff I can’t throw out

Hoarder room packed with boxes, electronics, business equipment, household objects and miscellaneous junk.

I have a lot of stuff I don’t need. Piles of old magazines, my first BlackBerry, 10,000-plus baseball cards from my childhood. Most of it is hidden in closets, the garage and a storage unit that’s stuffed like an overfed tick, so I never really think about it. Out of sight, out of mind.

But this year, I decided it was time to make a change. If I got rid of even a small fraction of that junk, I’d save thousands a year in storage costs. I’ve always wanted to turn my cluttered garage into a nice workout area, and maybe even transform the old hangout room for the kids (both of whom are in college) into an office.

So I reached out to Matt Paxton for help. He’s the author of the new book Keep the Memories, Lose the Stuff, and host of Legacy List with Matt Paxton.

Step 1: Don’t just define your goal, define the why 

If you don’t know why you’re paring down, Paxton says, you’re just aimlessly walking around the house, picking stuff out. 

Your goal might be to eliminate the stress that comes from cluttered living or to save money or to simplify your life, but you need to articulate the point of your decluttering project before doing anything.

For me, in addition to the desire to get several rooms back, decluttering is also about looking to the future. By living simpler, with fewer things that I never use, I’m making fewer headaches for my family down the line. When I’m gone, I’m not leaving them a mess of stuff that they have to deal with and toss out. 

Even if it’s not your problem today, it’s gonna be somebody’s problem eventually.

Step 2: Start small

Paxton suggests 10 minutes a day, focusing on just one shelf or cabinet. Don’t tackle a whole room or even an entire bookcase.

“If you start with the garage, you’re going to quit,” he says. That’s because picking big rooms or projects means that you and your partner are likely to get annoyed, disagree about what goes where and just bail. 

Step 3: Make tough decisions

It’s easy to decide to keep your kids’ baby photos and toss the spaghetti-stained Tupperware. The hard choices are the 90 percent of things that are in the middle.

The other stuff? “Sell, donate, toss or keep” is a multiple-choice question that never seems to have the correct answer. Some strategies from Paxton:

Don’t memorialize. Don’t hang on to something just because it once belonged to a beloved family member who’s passed on. Keep loved ones alive with your memories and stories about them, not the stuff they left behind.

Digitize, digitize, digitize. I have boxes (and boxes and boxes) of old magazines — some as memorabilia and some with my own articles. I should digitize most, Paxton says, and scale down to one box of the most meaningful copies. 

He also suggests taking photos of meaningful objects and telling the story about them with a digital recorder or phone app, then saving the files.

  • Save only the best. Some things can’t be digitized, like my baseball card collection from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Paxton assured me that my kids likely won’t care about my cards after I’m gone, but it wouldn’t hurt to hang on to a few of the most special cards in plastic baggies. Even a single card is more likely to be kept and treasured by future grandkids than a box of old junk that’s just going to take up more storage space.