When it comes to stuff, most of us have more that we don’t use regularly than stuff that we do. Our vital, infrastructural stuff such as keys and forks tends to speak for itself. It’s obvious why we have it and how we use it. The other stuff tends to sit around, waiting for us to notice it and bodily protect it, acting as its defense lawyer. We keep it because we intend to use it. One day. When we change our lives in the way we fantasized we would when we bought the darn thing, that’s when we’ll use it. This is when it helps to ask ourselves whether that day will ever come. There it is, sitting there, staring beseechingly at you, because of course it has a soul and a personality. Ah, but... how long have you had it?
The stuff we don’t use can be readily divided into Past and Future. The Past stuff, we keep to represent memories, heritage, legacy, and what we think of as our identity. Without my stuff, who would I even be? I still have my Self-Manager badges from the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades. If I throw them away, how will anyone know I was a self-manager?? (Nobody knows about them but me, or likely cares). The Future stuff is anything we’ve bought and carried around that we haven’t yet used. There’s no way to prove that we never will! Future Self just called and says we’re going to! Totally! One day!
Future stuff falls into categories.
Supplies. We are CONVINCED that we need to stock up on stuff, to keep certain levels of supplies on hand. I used to be, too, until I wound up downsizing from a house with a two-car garage to an apartment about a quarter of the size. Now we don’t even stock up on toilet paper! We live a quarter-mile from the grocery store, and there’s a pharmacy in the same strip mall. When we get down to the last roll of paper towels, last sliver of soap, or last serving of dishwasher detergent, et cetera, we just pick up a replacement later that day. We’re at the store three times a week anyway. It’s easier than figuring out what we could get rid of to make room for something. Most Americans have more than one closet and significantly more kitchen storage than we do, so they fail to recognize that we literally, actually, factually do not need to “stock up” on household supplies.
Craft supplies. Now this is different. It’s different because we crafty types are viscerally certain that our yarn, fabric, paint, scrapbooking, or whatever supplies are more vital than the cleansers, canned foods, and other pantry staples. Those supplies are optional. Craft supplies are NEEDS. They are! If I don’t have at least an entire closet filled with completely unused, untouched craft supplies, I might physically die. We’re never going to admit that our true hobbies are 1. Shopping for it and 2. Stroking it.
Reading material. Guilty as charged. There are nearly 1600 books and audio books currently on my library wish list. I have thirty-four unread physical books on my shelves, although I’ve been consciously trying to read through and cull my collection for the last eight years. I typically have at least two hundred news articles bookmarked, even though I am constantly reading through that queue. What does it mean when my “to be read” list represents more than a quarter of the amount of books I have read in my entire life? That I’ve marked out my next ten years’ reading already? Or that I think I can suddenly start reading 10x faster?
Aspirational. The category of aspirational items has no limits. We can decide that Future Self is totally going to want this particular item about absolutely anything. Future Self is going to want to read this! Future Self is going to want to cook this! Future Self is going to want to try this complicated recipe! Future Self is going to decorate in this way, dress that way, and behave in this way. Future Self will act differently than me, exercise differently, eat differently, and do all the cool stuff I’m not actually willing to do today. It’s like we think Future Self wants to do Present Me’s scutwork (washing dishes, creating a filing system, organizing photographs, etc) while also somehow finding time for the awesome stuff. Future Me is going to file those tax papers while climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. Future Me is going to clean out the pantry while learning to speak French. Future Me is going to lose the weight and be delighted to wear these ten-year-old unstylish jeans I’ve saved for so long.
The reason it’s relevant to ask how long you’ve had something is that it’s a check on those aspirations. Aspirations are great. They make life interesting. They pull us forward into being better people than we are today. Yet - if these aspirations are so meaningful to us, why don’t we start on them today? This very hour? Are the aspirations actually better than the way we’ve currently dedicated our time?
How long have I had this skein of yarn?
When did I buy this unread book?
What is the date on this unread magazine?
(UGH! If I have three pet peeves in this line of work, one of them is the stacks of unread magazines that people insist on saving). (The other two are anything with DNA, like old teeth or cat whiskers, and anything at all that a parent has hoarded in a child’s bedroom).
Picking up an item and really asking how long you’ve had it can be really enlightening. Sometimes the question answers itself; for instance, I often use bookstore receipts as bookmarks. Magazines have dates, and food packaging has dates, and unused purchases are often still in the original shopping bag, complete with receipt. It’s archaeological.
Another aspect of this sorting technique is to ask yourself how long the item takes to use. I can knit up a skein of yarn in two or three nights. A complicated cross stitch might take me three months of working for three hours a night. I read about 50 pages an hour, or I can read an issue of a particular magazine title in 40 minutes. A bag of flour is enough for X number of cakes, batches of muffins, or loaves of bread, which I might prepare X number of times per month. Other than decorative items, which I usually tire of after several years, I’ve found that everything in my home has a natural expiration date. Almost everything is consumable, in that it’s designed to be used. Clothes, linens, reading material, toothpaste, dog food... it’s all created to be here, to be used, and eventually to be gone.
When we keep things that were designed to be used up within a week or a month or a season, and they’re still in the closet or on the shelf ten years later, what does that say? Do we really prefer having our lives mapped out that far in advance? What’s our track record here? Have we actually done a good job of predicting what Future Self was going to want?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.