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Everyday Junk: The Clean Sweep

Learn to let go and get rid of everyday junk, even if you think you might use it—someday.

Thor Spangler, of Albuquerque, paid a visit to his aging mom, but found it hard to get through the front door. At well over six feet he scrapes the top of many doorways, but that wasn't the problem. It's just that his mother holds onto old newspaper clippings, Snapple bottle caps, junk mail and just about anything else you could name. There they sit, in stacks throughout the house. Each pile taller than Thor himself.

His mom is not unusual, just turn on the TV. Shows like Clean Sweep and How Clean Is Your House? reveal exactly what's inside America's closets. The answer: Lots and lots of junk. We are becoming a nation of hoarders.

What drives a person to hoard perfectly useless objects like bottle caps? The urge to collect may derive from the need to store supplies such as food—a drive so basic it originates in the subcortical and limbic portions of the brain. But it doesn't end there. We use the prefrontal cortex, a brain region involved in decision-making, information processing and behavioral organization, to determine just what "supplies" are worth hoarding. In a small percentage of cases, hoarding may be the result of damage, such as a stroke, to the prefrontal cortex.

For most, however, hoarding is the reflection of anxiety, sometimes raised to the Nth degree of obsession and compulsion. In such instances, it vastly, pathologically, overcapitalizes on the virtue of saving.

True hoarders may have habits of the extreme, but we all know someone who holds onto items of little to no utility. In fact, we all do it to some degree. You never know when you'll need that ab crunch, though you never used it before and you never learned how. And what about that box of old magazines? There might be a story you'll want to read—someday.

How can we clean up the mess and live reasonably orderly lives without drowning in stuff? Here are a few tips to keep your home, office and head organized:

  • Let go of nostalgia. Okay, you wore that old sweater when you dated your first boyfriend 20 years ago, and you really know you'll never wear it again. But's time to give it away. Ask yourself whether you use the item in question and whether it has been sitting idle for years. Some people impose a two-year rule. If they haven't touched an item in two years, out it goes.
  • Share the wealth. Donating your things contributes to society, and altruism makes you feel good.
  • Uncover the real problem. Do you make new purchases and then hoard them to relieve the anxiety of spending money? Don't hide your real issues behind wayward acquisitions. If you have a problem, seek professional help.
  • Adopt the in-out rule. What comes in must go out. If you buy a new item, make sure you throw out, sell or donate one you don't use (don't worry you'll find one).
  • Avoid the "I'll fix it someday" trap. If the toaster is broken and can't be repaired, why is it still in your possession? Let it go, let it go.
  • Similarly, avoid the "I'll use it someday" rationalization. Don't buy more than you need now. You might not even use it; your needs, or your taste, may change.
  • Streamline your space. You've been searching for that important bank document for three days, but it's nowhere to be found. Once you start organizing your space with shelving and filing cabinets, you'll waste less time looking.
  • Make a priority list. Jot down what you plan to keep, and what you plan to toss. And don't forget to stick to the list.