For a while now I’ve been offering my services as a Professional Organizer. At least, that’s what I introduce myself as. In truth, I think Professional Declutterer is more accurate. Because to me it’s not about how you organize the things you have, it’s about getting rid of the things you don’t need.
My sister Nikki asked for my help with a couple big boxes of cables. She’s not a super techie person, so she didn’t know what half of the stuff she had was even for. I once worked for a computer cable manufacturer and as a result I’m pretty good at looking at a box of cords and telling you what everything does.
Nikki had five boxes and bags of various sizes full of old electronics and peripherals. We started sorting and found several categories for immediately removal:
1) Old cell phones
I can accept an argument for a person having at most two cell phones. One phone that they use, and one feature phone that’s kept fully charged in case of emergencies. That’s more than most people need, but it’s defensible. My sister had five old cell phones, including a Blackberry she doesn’t remember ever owning. Many cell phone providers take old phones to be wiped and repurposed for organizations that deal with domestic violence victims. The phones are included in bags that victims can take in case they need a safe and private way to call the police. Nikki and I put together her collection of old phones and chargers for donation.
2) Orphan Chargers
The good and terrible thing about chargers is that they are usually generic. This means you can sometimes charge your phone or camera at a friend’s house if need be, but it also means that once a charger is separated from the intended device there is no way to know what it’s for. Nikki had a large collection of chargers, many identical, and none identifiable. Over the course of the morning we were able to pair a few up, but many were left without a match. It can be difficult to part with such items, since for all you know you still have the things they charge. My solution was to have Nikki label a gallon zip-top bag with the words “Orphan Chargers” and the date. If she ever needs a charger she knows where to look, and if she comes across the bag again in five years and has never opened it, she’ll know it’s time to let them go.
There are explanations for how my sister ended up with three routers. There are reasons why she owned eleven coaxial cables. We all end up with duplicates from time to time, and we all have our reasons. The important thing is periodically taking stock and asking a simple question: how many extras will I ever really need? Nikki was already using the best of the three routers for her wireless network, and the other two were so old that they’d likely be obsolete by the time her current one broke. Most things that require coaxial cables come with coaxial cables, so we picked the best two just in case. We went through each duplicate cord and picked the best of the bunch to keep. Nikki has a cord-chewing cat, so some duplicates are reasonable.
As we were separating the wheat from the chaff in her electronics, I also found that she had a lot of unnecessary boxes. Old box clutter is pretty easy to acquire, since anyone who’s ever had to return something knows not to get rid of the box right away. However once your manufacturer’s warrantee has expired (usually one year after purchase), the box is only worth what it’s worth to you. Some boxes are so perfectly fitted that it’s worth keeping them around just so you can properly pack the item next time you move. Some boxes are easily repurposed for storage of other items. But a box for the box’s sake is just clutter. Every time I saw an old electronics box I asked Nikki the same question: “Have you had this for more than a year?” The answer was always yes, and the box always went away.
By the end of the day Nikki’s five boxes and bags were down to a single box, with cables organized by function (computer cables in one bag, TV cables in another, etc). But we didn’t stop there. We also fixed up and cleared away unnecessary parts of her TV setup and downsized her remotes. But the real gem of the day for me came when we were taking a lunch break. I asked her a question that had been bugging me for the last half hour.
“Why do you have a shelf of VHS tapes if you don’t own a VCR?”
It honestly hadn’t occurred to her. She’d had most of them for a very long time, probably going back to a time when she did have a VCR hooked up to her TV. We pulled them off the shelf and she gave them away without protest. If anything, she seemed upset that she even had some of them.
“Why do I own The Core?” she asked.
“I wasn’t going to say anything,” I told her, “But I was wondering that myself.”
One of the things I’ve struggled with in trying to build my personal decluttering business is explaining to people why they might need outside help to get rid of their own belongings. I think Nikki is a great example of that. Sometimes we own things for so long, we become blind to them. Sometimes we’re so use to our lives as we’ve built them, we don’t stop to think about how we’ve changed over time. In the hours I’ve spent helping people clear out their homes, I’ve realized that the majority of the time is spent saying goodbye to the people they used to be, and the things that used to matter.
I said Nikki gave away her movies without protest, but that’s not entirely true. She did briefly resist giving away a copy of The Boy Who Could Fly, a drama from 1986. “We used to watch it all the time,” she told me. I couldn’t remember it at all. She started to describe it and realized she didn’t remember much of it either. She shrugged it off and it went in the give-away pile with all the other things. Nikki has been making some big and wonderful changes in her life over the last few years. She needs room in her home for the person she is now and the person she is becoming.
Everything else is just something that used to be important to the person she used to be.