March 2017

A Case of the Shoulds: Our Hidden Struggle with Stuff

Author: Ashley Trexler

Junk drawers, garages, attics, and storage rooms – the places people don’t want you to see is where you’ll find stuff. But we’re having trouble finding all of that stuff. Newsweek reported that the average American spends one year of his or her life on the hunt for misplaced items.
From weekends spent sorting and stacking to shopping sprees at The Container Store, it’s a never-ending struggle to win the organizational battle.

Do you ever wonder why you feel the need to keep it all? It’s not making you happy, according to international reports. The annual World Happiness Report ranks the United States as the fifteenth happiest country—not great for a country that has more than most. The report’s editors attribute America’s dissatisfaction to a culture hyper-focused on income and consumption.

The average American woman has gone from owning nine outfits in 1950 to over 30 today. But would the average woman in 1930s America have purchased more clothing if she had the choices that we do today? Yes. She was human, after all. And humans are wired to want more.

It is cheaper than ever to consume. Add disposable income, two-day shipping, and The Antiques Roadshow on cable television to the mix, and you’ve got an epic struggle with stuff.

The problem is bigger than a click-to-order button. There are also the things you’re entrusted to keep: family heirlooms, gifts received, things you or your family may need in the future.

But we’re out of space to store all this stuff. A study from the University of California found that three out of four garages don’t even have room for the cars they were built to house.

Why can’t we just let go of the things we don’t want or need? Meet Guilt. Also known as the reason you keep so much stuff. Guilt ties us to belongings we no longer use. Guilt gobbles up feelings of satisfaction and contentment, telling us we need more. Guilt thrives on one word: should.

We should cherish the family heirlooms and antiques. The clothes should fit. We should get in shape and fit into that too-small dress that’s still wearing its tags. We should use the things we bought in bulk or saved up to purchase. From clearance deals to expensive investments, if we spent money on it, we shouldn’t just give it away. Now that would be wasteful.

But don’t you hate wasting mornings, evenings, and weekends searching for, and sorting through, bunches of stuff you rarely use? What if you gave all that stuff away?

I did. After reading the international bestselling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering, by Marie Kondo, I gave it all away. Well, most of it. Eighty percent of my closet, supplies, family heirlooms, and books headed to consignment, donation, or the dump. The method worked. The book has a long title but a short point: If you don’t love it, don’t keep it.

The benefits of owning more of what I love and less of what I don’t are fulfilling and fun. There’s less time spent cleaning. Figuring out what to wear is easy. I don’t have to search for organizational products, tips, or tricks. Everything has a home—largely because there’s less stuff to house. Folks, there are empty drawers in my house now.

Local shops (and Amazon) still get my business, and dollars. I’ve only become more deliberate about my purchases. I choose quality over quantity. No one ever said winning the battle against stuff required an end to shopping. Choosing to focus on the positives of owning less helped me come out on top of the struggle with stuff. I keep what I use, enjoy, and cherish. The rest is passed on, along with the guilty feelings of having too much or not enough.

The biggest hurdle to decluttering for good is that it seems wasteful to get rid of good stuff. It helps to remember the money’s already spent, and it’s not coming back. The extra set of mixing bowls don’t earn interest hanging out in the kitchen cupboard. Let them go.

You won’t miss it. In the interest of full disclosure, there is one item I parted with that I desperately miss: a pale pink striped boatneck shirt. I pine for it until I remember that I never wore it when I owned it. There will always be things to miss, but we more often miss the idea more than the actual item.

Give yourself permission to let go. You work hard and deserve to surround yourself with belongings that make you smile. If you’re ready to put an end to the battle with stuff, ask yourself one question about every item you own: Do you love it? If the answer is no, you know where it should go. (This guilty “should” is for your greater good.)

If you love it, keep it. If you don’t, pass it on. I’m waiting—donation boxes in hand. Let’s get started. 

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