The desire to save things “just in case” is one of the major root causes of clutter. We can always think of many reasons why any individual object might come in handy. Even when we’re actively in the process of trying to cut back on the amount of stuff we have, we decide to keep almost everything. We’ll even go out and get it back out of the donation bag or carry it back inside from the yard sale table. What if we need it and it isn’t there?
This is anxiety talking. Our primal brains revert to the worst case scenario. This is perfectly natural; the impulse to hunt and gather and preserve useful items is what built civilization. What’s funny about it is that almost all of the stuff that we save would be no good to us in an actual crisis. What’s scary about it is that our impulse to collect things against future calamity may be taking up all the space we need for things that would get us through that calamity.
My pantry is full of stuff we’ve canned. It looks glorious. There are our own garden tomatoes and collard greens and dilly beans and pickles and jam and soup stock, in my mother-in-law’s legacy jars. The entire closet probably adds up to about 1000 calories. Realistically, my canning pantry is nothing more than a set of attractive accessories for whatever else we will hopefully have on hand during any kind of emergency.
Once upon a time, my house was full of hundreds of books, boxes of papers and memorabilia, and so many clothes that my closet rod snapped. I didn’t want to get rid of any of it because I thought it would be useful at some point. None of it ever has been. I have about 20% of the volume of stuff I used to have, and it’s plenty.
What I have now includes: a fire extinguisher; several first aid kits, including a first responder kit; at least three days’ emergency water supply; go bags for us and our pets; flashlights and backup batteries; and enough complete meals to get us through at least a week without power. It’s an ordinary part of my household routine to rotate through the food and water rations. We hope we never need these things, while remembering my husband’s experience of the 1994 Northridge Earthquake.
For most of my life, I “knew” what to do to be prepared for an emergency, in the same way that we “know” how to organize our finances before Tax Day or floss more than two nights before going to the dentist. In other words, all I would be able to do during a crisis would be to kick myself, cry, and hope someone else was better organized than me. All the space that is currently used for emergency preparedness in my home would formerly have been full of stuff like old magazines and balls of yarn.
I’m a firm believer in emergency preparedness as a civic virtue. We’ve done what we can to be self-sufficient and not be burdens to anyone else. Further, we’ve done what we can to be able to lend a hand to at least a few other people, if necessary. Not everyone can be self-sufficient, including the elderly, injured, or disabled. Taking emergency responder classes and learning to operate a fire extinguisher are interesting skills to have. Making an escape plan and making sure emergency supplies are fresh and accessible are basic common sense. We can channel our anxious feelings of wanting to hang onto stuff and focus on the things that might be most useful of all. Recycling an old magazine probably won’t be a matter of life or death. Being able to find a fully stocked first aid kit might be.
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.