Cleaning out that dreaded closet

Cleaning out that dreaded closet

“Do you need this?” I ask, holding up the ballerina music box.

“…And this?” I hold up a handful of seashells and a crushed sand dollar in a plastic baggie.

Julie shakes her head. I quickly sort things into piles, pulling her back into the room when she starts to wander out and look for the TV.


Some of my fondest memories, in fact, are of cleaning my friends’ bedrooms… although inviting over a stern eleven-year-old Super Organizer was probably not how they’d envisioned their birthday sleepovers turning out.

And some of my mother’s least fond memories, I suspect, are of me trouncing down the stairs with a large bag for Goodwill, announcing that I’d “cleared out” all the gifts she’d carefully selected for me the prior Christmas.

As a teen, I moved from filing for my dad’s business, to sorting out storerooms while on the clock at work, to being paid to help an acquaintance organize and clear out her whole house in one large, several-day sweep. And now, I work as a librarian, regularly bringing in new things and evaluating the old.


All these memories came back this evening, as I read Jaycee Dunn’s rather entertaining memoir, How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids.

(I know, I have no kids.)

(But I have a husband, and the standoff over household tasks is somehow exactly the same.)

Anyway, at one point, Jaycee tags along with a professional organizer, Barbara Reich, who earns $275 an hour (!!) to coach people on what to keep and what to give away. Reich works quickly (as one would hope, given her pay scale), having people ask themselves:

  • Is it useful or beautiful to me?
  • Would it help someone else more than me?
  • Does it make me happy?
  • Am I saving this for some imaginary life in the future, or the life I’m living now?

Harrumph. And with that last one, there go all my exercise clothes, my old scuba flippers, and the flip-phone I’m saving in case the apocalypse—with cell networks—ever comes.

These are great questions to get started with.

And, based on my experience with friends not quite so sorting-obsessed as I am, I have a few other tips as well:

1. Invite over a friend–or organizer.

Who wants to go through a closet by yourself? You’ll find a dog-eared Sudoku book and it will be riveting. Or earrings, and you’ll sit in front of a mirror and try them all on…

So grab some snacks and drinks, and a motivated friend—or hire a personal organizer. They don’t have the same emotional attachment to your stuff, so they’ll notice and re-orient you when you stop sorting and start tossing everything back into the drawers.

2. Take pictures.

I get attached to things I’ll never use, especially if I care about a gift. I mean, I’m saving Grandma’s hideous brooch and Grandpa’s nerdy engineering slides… but other gifts inspire fondness mixed with shame, as I’ve never quite used them but love the person who gave them.

I suggest you take a picture. Label it with the giver’s name, and why it was special. And then let it go. You can even put all these emotion-laden photos into an album, which will be much more special to flip through than a closet full of unused scarves and journals.

3. Think generously.

In my experience, sitting in California and asking “Will I use this?” leads to the optimism of Sure! I’ll need this pocket thermometer next winter at my in-laws, when I need to go snowshoeing in fifteen layers and carry a small nephew on my back just as an eclipse meets the polar vortex

Unlikely, but persuasive.

Instead, start asking, Can I be generous? Is there someone with limited money, hoping to find this right now?

And be similarly vivid in imagining their story, and how they might use it.

An Indian family's stuff, from Menzel's
All of an Indian family’s stuff, from Peter Menzel’s beautiful book, “Material World”

4. Let bygones be bygones.

You spent a lot on that leatherworking kit, and never used it. I’ve done that, too.

Yet when investing money, you don’t throw good money after bad. If it’s not useful, you don’t keep buying it.

Similarly, each thing you have takes up space in your mind, your heart, and your house.

Some people find this heartwarming. But if you’re the one who now finds things overwhelming and guilt-inducing, let them go. Take a picture, if you need. Find a friend or neighbor who really wants it. Say a prayer or intention for it to bless someone else. And let it go.

5. Consider what you really want.

It’s great to move things out, but it doesn’t help if you’re left with a void you need to fill with more stuff–or new stuff–or better stuff!

One person calls this the Diderot Effect, after a philosopher who found that a beautiful new robe meant he needed a pretty rug, table, and mirror to match.

As James K. A. Smith writes in You Are What You Love, the things we desire orient us in the world. And to change our desires, we need to change our habits and what we’re exposed to. So unsubscribe from email ads, take a break from wandering stores or websites, ask for time with people instead of gifts, and choose to buy things you can enjoy with others now (rather than trying to buy the person you want to be!).

Buy when it’s in line with what you love, not to fill up the empty space.

6. Choose to limit storage space. 

If your challenge is finding things, bins are helpful.

But if your challenges is a life overflowing with things, bins only buy you a bit of time before you need even taller, more stackable storage bins.

So pause when your shelves get full, and find something to share away, so you can enjoy what you want in your life in a more comfortable space.


An idea from libraries may be useful here. As librarians, we like to store things. We have a book addiction. It’s kind of a problem.

But being so oriented to things, we also see our shelves getting “impacted.” We see the digital clutter of too many databases. We see the books weighing down physical shelves. Outdated books are crammed together. Their precious spines start warping. It’s hard to enjoy exploring the library. And there’s no room for new books.

Dolls from UCLA study of American life,
Dolls from a UCLA study of American life, “Life at Home in the 21st Century”

Houses work similarly, once they’re crammed full of stuff.

And the solution, as in libraries, is “weeding” — giving away some lovely things that don’t fit your life and your community’s needs, so that others can shine.

As in a garden, weed regularly. Take a look and pull things before holidays, school terms, or moving house.

This has a triple benefit: it reminds you to give, it lets you move on from what you’ve outgrown, and it lets you better enjoy the things that remain with the people you care about.

7. Celebrate.

Once you’ve done all this, enjoy a dinner out, a walk in the park, or a movie!

And reward your trusty friend. If I’m around, you can likely ply me with Starbucks (or a bit of cash!).

But most of all, celebrate family and friendship. Having someone to sit with you in this process goes a long way.


These things have been helpful for me, but everyone’s different. So I’m curious: how much do you feel that material things add to or pull away from your life? And what responses have worked for you?


  1. Two reflections: both you and your grandma like to clean closets when life gets stressful! And I’ve finally realized is a very good thing you like to organize and weed out…ands that you visit occasionally. Otherwise my stuff would fill the house completely! Haha!

  2. Pingback: How to do the bare minimum in the kitchen – Paper Humans

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