Three Questions to Ask When Decluttering

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter

Decluttering, the question of what to keep and what to get rid of, has been weighing on my wife's and my mind for the last year. We just went through a massive downsizing from a three-storey house with full basement to about a third of the house, 830 square feet above grade and 300 in the lower level (I don't call it a basement anymore), in which we both live and work.

So I read with interest a new post on Lifehacker that purports to help you decide whether to keep sentimental items with three questions. They are actually a quote from Jacki of the Unclutterer:

  • If you had to purchase the item yourself, at full price, would you?
  • If someone you didn't like gave you the item as a gift, would you still keep it?
  • Does the item invoke happy memories?
There are dozens of these types of posts, longer and shorter. A commenter to Lifehacker cleverly distilled it down to even fewer words:
  • Do I use it?
  • Do I love it?
  • Can it make me money?

However nobody beats William Morris, who got to the essence. It is commonly quoted like this:

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

The British Museum, which one would think would be definitive, has a subtle but important difference:

Have nothing in your house that you do not know to use, or believe to be beautiful.

And indeed there is much that falls under the second quote, from kitchen and computer parts and construction tools that I knew to be useful but I was never put to use, things that I collected that "some day..." I was going to put to use or learn how to use. Hard to part with.

corb books

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

There is often the issue of books. We had thousands, but agreed to keep no more than would fit into our new bookcases. In this day and age of digital books, there really isn't much reason to keep any unless you still haven't read them, unless it is for those memories that come back when you look at it. It's expensive sentimentality, really.

But that's hard, many of them have become part of our identity and persona. We gave many away to friends and probably kept a third. And even among the ones we kept, there are questionable choices. I am well over my obsession with Le Corbusier, and could sell that Oeuvre Complete for serious money, but it is such a strong link to my architectural education, I can't.

This is where it gets complicated. Because tea cups.

tea cups

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

They belonged to my wife's recently deceased mother and grandmother and now are in a cabinet in our dining room. The minimalist modernist in me really wishes they were somewhere else. But they are beloved to her.

radio stuff

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I get to keep a Motorola radio that doesn't work, a movie camera with no film, an inkwell when I don't have a fountain pen and a tarnished silver box.

plaster corn

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Then there is outright overt sentimentality; my first big job as an architect was renovating the Heintzman mansion in the West end of Toronto, turning it into three units. Just as construction was starting, vandals started a fire that burnt out the inside. I pulled this piece of plaster out of the rubble, an ear of corn that was part of the moulding in the dining room. Totally worthless, nothing but plaster, but I have hung on to it through thick and thin. It should have been garbage decades ago.

storage unit

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

We have gone from having a basement and third floor totally full of stuff to an 8' x 8' by 4' high space under a stair landing. We are proud of it. But we are not done; there are still a few boxes in the garage and a rented storage locker full of my mother-in-law's stuff that still has to be dealt with.

If you can keep asking those three questions, and keep quoting William Morris, it will help, but it's still really hard. Sometimes our possessions define us and root us. Sentimentality does get in the way of practicality, it never ends, and you have to be sure you don't backslide or your lovely new minimalist interior will be clutter city once again.