The Perils of Too Much Stuff: self-help tips on clearing out the clutter in our lives

By Heather Rolph

The beginning of the school year can be a stressful time for even the most organized of us. We must reconnect with friends, say goodbye to families, and prepare for class. Far worse for me, however, was confronting the pile of boxes taking up most of the second-story floor space in my apartment. There were too many suitcases filled with clothing, too many boxes labeled “yarn,” or “old papers,” or, worst of all, “miscellaneous.” An entire tub filled with desperate end-of-the-year C Store purchases accompanied a large bin overflowing with a mismatched assortment of clothes hangers. But most telling, perhaps, was the small ironing board that I rescued from a dorm building trash can several years ago and have been hauling around ever since. I’ve never used it; I do not actually own an iron. In fact, I’ve never ironed a piece of clothing in my life. But I can’t possibly dispose of the ironing board — it might prove useful at some unspecified time in the future, when I inexplicably transition into a life of housewifery and extreme ironing prowess. 

Photo courtesy of Catalyst Archives

The persistent habit of keeping things around because they might one day prove useful is a trait I struggle to overcome. I blame my mother, in part: she’s well-known in my family for hiding away collections of old sponges, plastic bags, wine bottle corks, holey gardening gloves, and towers of used bike tires. There are only so many old sponges a family will ever use (the answer being virtually none), but she keeps them because some ancient instinct tells her that if she throws them away, they will immediately become an impossible-to-find resource absolutely necessary for survival. Who knows — family resource wars over old sponges could ensue. 

Although I have a lot of items, it’s not hoarding. Hoarding is a serious mental disorder that can pose safety concerns for the hoarders themselves, their families, and their neighbors. But I can self-diagnose myself as a bit of a packrat, and I know I’m not alone. It’s a personality trait that can cause anxiety, self-recrimination, and a certain tendency for friends to stay far, far away during the biannual packing and unpacking of all my stuff. So, to help others who may be confronting similar mountains of boxes — or for those who have recently discovered their own ironing board or pile of old sponges amid their move-in boxes — I’ve put together a short guide to identifying and getting rid of clutter. 

The Simple Steps to Identifying Packrat Tendencies:

1. You rescue items out of recycling bins, trash cans, or donation areas, even if you will never use them, because one day they might prove useful.

2. You have boxes for things like the small shampoo containers you take from hotels or condiment packets you take from fast-food restaurants … or even the toothpicks that occasionally come in restaurant sandwiches.

3. You have boxes of clothing that no longer fits, because a) one day your style may change and you might suddenly be into clothing that no longer fits, and b) everything has sentimental value to you.

4. Getting rid of things gives you anxiety.

5. Other people getting rid of things gives you anxiety.

6. Other people getting rid of things gives you so much anxiety that you offer to take and store the things they are getting rid of, just in case.

If you can relate to any of the above qualities, take a look at these simple steps to minimizing unnecessary clutter: 

1. Take it in small steps. Start by recycling the cardboard boxes under your bed that are not currently in use. It is difficult, as large cardboard boxes can be quite useful, but it brings immediate satisfaction and pride. 

2. Take a few items you haven’t used in years to the thrift store. While you are there donating, try not to look around and bring home more stuff. 

3. Only go to the thrift store if you’re looking for something specific. Thrift stores are dangerous: they have a way of tempting you to buy everything in them. 

4. Make some money while you’re at it! Post things on the CC Free and For Sale Facebook page. The rest of the time, resist the urge to buy unnecessary things from the CC Free and For Sale page. 

5. Give things away as gifts! There is nothing friends appreciate more than the very thoughtful, very useful gift of mismatched old socks, single earrings, or surplus power cords that you can only part with if you know they’re going to a good home. 

6. Finally, and most importantly: never, ever allow yourself more storage space than a dorm room closet.   

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