Overcoming the clutter: Understanding accumulation and organization

As we get older our stuff tends to grow as well and it’s hard to declutter, especially if it has been handed down to us from loved ones.
Published: Feb. 2, 2023 at 10:37 PM CST|Updated: Feb. 2, 2023 at 10:46 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - Most of us have too much stuff. As we get older our stuff tends to grow as well and it’s hard to declutter, especially if it has been handed down to us from loved ones. So why do we accumulate so much stuff and why is it so hard to let things go and get organized?

“So much of our sense of identity is caught up in the stuff that we could afford to buy,” UW Madison Clinical Professor of Consumer Science Christine Whelan said.

The accumulation of stuff is a central topic of her course called “consuming happiness”.

“When we talk about buying happiness and buying things, what we’re really talking about is how we create that story, that narrative of who we are,” Whelan said.

Through her studies she said the act of buying happiness is only a temporary feeling, our mind is always wanting more.

The act of buying happiness is only a temporary feeling… our mind is always wanting more.
The act of buying happiness is only a temporary feeling… our mind is always wanting more.(Christine Whelan)

“One of my favorite graphs to show in class is a graph of the happiness that somebody gets just after buying something which is really super high. And then the happiness that they have a week afterwards, two weeks afterwards, three weeks afterwards, and how the happiness really diminishes because that thing that you want and just becomes another thing that you have,” Whelan said.

The last bar on the graph is very high, illustrating that the value of something increases after you’ve lost it. This why it’s so hard to let go of your things.

“People hold on to things in part because they are part of their identity. And they worry that if they don’t have them, they will somehow either need them in the future or somehow be lacking a part of themselves,” Whelan said.

If your stuff is piling up, and purging is a problem, you may want to call in a professional.

“I help people make decisions about their stuff,” professional organizer and owner of Simply Organized Jill Annis said.

For more than 20 years, Annis has been helping people clear their clutter.

“They’re at their tipping point they just see something has to change. Their spaces are full. They’re stressed out. They may be embarrassed. They feel some shame about all the stuff that they have in their house,” Annis said.

Here are some of Annis’ tips on how to get the most out of organizing your space:

Constantly be downsizing.

“Don’t wait until the day that you’re going to do this massive organizing project. Don’t make a big deal out of it,” Annis said.

Always have a container for items you want to get rid of.

“You’re going to want a container near you ideally in your closet or somewhere in your house where you can put that item to donate it, sell it or whatever you do with it,” Annis said.

Detach the memory from the object.

“Keep in mind that it’s just stuff, it’s not the event, it’s not the trip. It’s just part of that memory and you really have the memory within you or maybe some photographs that you’ve taken. And you can always take a photo of those T shirts or that item of clothing or whatever it may be, and then let the item go,” Annis said.

Avoid a “maybe” pile when decluttering.

“We’re not doing a pile for let’s put it here for now and think about it. It’s best to avoid that and make a decision. If it’s a maybe you’re waffling. It’s probably a let go,” Annis said.

Find a friend to help you.

“It is nice to have someone support you whether it’s a professional or nonjudgmental friend to someone to keep you on track and to prevent you from like beating yourself up or you know, being afraid of letting go,” Annis said.

When you have items that you are letting go but are good quality, you could potentially make some money on them by taking them to a consignment store like The Cozy Home in Monona.

“They’re just so happy to know that their relatives’ things are staying out of the landfill and the most important part is that someone else is going to love them,” The Cozy Home Owner Leah Hernandez said.

Some of the stuff in her store has been passed down for generations.

“It made me feel good to know that the pieces that I had, we’re going to move on to the younger generation who would refurbish it, and it would just continue to go on because less things go in the environment, the better,” Consigner Dennis Sokolik said.

As an avid consigner, seller and shopper, Sokolik has a rule for his home.

“If I bring something in, something has to go out. So that way I don’t have clutter,” Sokolik said.

Our stuff can add stress to the story of our lives, but Professor Whelan says letting go of possessions can turn the page to a new, calm, chapter.

“Now you can’t judge a book by its cover. You cannot judge somebody’s inner calm by their outer chaos. However, as a general rule, it does help us to be organized,” Whelan said.

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