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Linda Samuels, CPO-CD®

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« How to Find Some Calm For Your Cluttered Mind | How to Recognize Clutter That's Keeping You Stuck »

Why Do We Hold On to Treasures, Clutter, and Stuff?

It’s the month of books, lots of new books! Most of my latest acquisitions are about clutter. I don’t know about you, but I love books, as does the family I come from. I grew up in a house of books. There were books in every room. Family excursions would often include hours spent “browsing” at bookstores like Rizzoli in New York City. Every time my mom returned from a trip, she’d bring back more books filled with places she travelled or art she’d seen. Sundays were often spent sitting around reading The New York Times, listening to music and reading books.

I’ll admit that when I was younger, I wasn’t as avid a reader. I preferred drawing, painting and dancing. But over the years, I have turned into my mother. What can I say? I have a lot of reading to catch up on.

While the books in our home are neatly stacked and stored on shelves, we have a lot of them. To visitors they might seem like clutter or too much stuff. To us, they are treasures. There are periods when I’ll scour the rooms with a bag in hand, hunting for books that can be released and donated. As I look, I rediscover some great “old friends,” which I can’t part with. However, there are some that I’m ready to let go of and put into the “donate” bag. Each book released represents a small success.


The newly published book, Junk – Digging Through America’s Love Affair With Stuff  by journalist and author Alison Stewart, is one of the books that recently joined my collection. About a year and a half ago, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Alison. The inspiration for her book came from her experience emptying her parents’ home after they passed away. She became fascinated with why we hold on to things. This led her to a three-year journey investigating all about our culture’s obsession with stuff: collecting it, releasing it, and upcycling it.

Alison cites resources like the Institute for Challenging Disorganization and interviewed many people including junk removers, some of my colleagues and me. She used part of my interview in her book and quoted me saying,

“I don’t think it is so odd that we define ourselves by certain objects. If you think about your space, you have things around, colors you like. What you see is the variation in the volume. And whether the stuff is enhancing your daily experience or it is causing stress. That’s the dividing line. Is it preventing you from living the life you want, doing what you want, causing problems with your family? That’s the slippery slope.”

The need to hold on and collect is a common phenomenon. As Alison asks, “Why do smart, successful people hold on to old Christmas bows, chipped knickknacks, VHS tapes, and books they would likely never reread?”

Junk has many great stories, facts and connections with our shared experiences. It’s well worth adding this book to your collection or borrowing it from a friend.

Is your home filled with things that are too good to let go of, yet they no longer are serving a purpose? Have they become clutter? Do they represent postponed decisions? How do you decide if something is a treasure or clutter? I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Come join the conversation.






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Reader Comments (19)

Great post Linda, I have loved books as long as I can remember, most of my books come from the library, but there are a couple of authors that I allow myself to buy, and books that are useful to me professionally. I set a limit of storage for the books I own, when that is full I start to weed out the ones I can live without.

May 10, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJill Robson

Love this topic! In a few weeks I am publishing my favorite organizing and productivity books in a list too.

It's understandable that we are stuff collectors. Our nature as humans is to gather and collect. However, it's about where to stop collecting. Sometimes we have no gauge for that. I love Allison's perspective - "where does 'stuff' keep you from living the life you want." It's the question that really hones in on our personal decisions about clutter and gives us a reason to stop collecting and start decluttering.

May 10, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterEllen Delap

@Jill- Our older daughter is a huge library user. She always was, even as a little girl. It makes so much sense too. There are a wealth of resources, for free, and it helps with the clutter/storage issue. I like how you set a limit based on your available storage. Smart!

@Ellen- I can't wait to see your list! Love your point about "where to stop collecting." And that sometimes we have challenges with determining what is enough. It's so true. There is that balance between collecting and letting go. I guess we all have to determine the ratio that works.

May 10, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterLinda Samuels

I'm going to pick up this book and add it to my professional collection. It sounds like a wonderful read and resource. Thank you for bringing it to our attention!

I love this discussion about how to determine enough. I think what is enough for one person may be too much or not enough for another. It's such a personal decision. The problem arises when a limit is never set or reached. I teach my clients to look at the available space and let that help them set a limit to their collections.

May 10, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Quintana

@Diane- It won't disappoint! I'd love to hear your thoughts after you read it.

You're right on that what's "enough" is such a personal decision. I like your strategy around setting boundaries, which is what Jill also mentioned about how she manages her book collection. The idea of limiting the collection to the available space is one way to go. It works in all kinds of situations including physical possessions, commitments, and food.

May 10, 2016 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

I love that question about why we hold onto stuff.. intelligent, informed, educated people grasping chipped and broken object. Obviously, there is emotion involved, and emotion isn't always rational. De-cluttering requires that we temper our feelings with facts and perspective. Sounds like a great read!

May 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSeana Turner

Something else to add to my own ever-growing reading list! I've always been amazed at what people will hang onto, and clearing out my own parents' home in preparation for sale has been really eye-opening. I never thought they kept too much (they moved around a lot, and I never considered our home to be cluttered), but it seems I was fooled. I think one reason people hang on to excess stuff is because they now actually have too many drawers, closets, nooks, and crannies to squirrel things away in. "Nature abhors a vacuum" and all that...

May 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSara Skillen

@Seana- Going through the questioning process is a big part of the letting go process. We question why we're holding on and asking what we DO want? But it is difficult to completely remove the emotion from the process. So the questions help because they set boundaries, address important issues, and help us move to the action we want to take. Hope you enjoy the book! Would love to hear your feedback post-read.

@Sara- Great! I'm sure you'll enjoy it. And I hear you on the "ever-growing" reading list. It is amazing how much stuff a home can hold, even an uncluttered one. And as you said, with all the drawers and closets, we don't even realize how much we have...until it's time to clear things out.

May 14, 2016 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

I'm going to have to check out that book. I am always curious as to why certain clients keep certain things. Some they have just neglected to get rid of but others they are curiously sentimental about.

May 14, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAndi Willis

@Andi- Let me know what you think after you read it. The holding on is a fascinating thing. It's something I encounter almost every day when working with my organizing clients. And as you can imagine, there is a long list of reasons.The interesting part is helping them to figure out how to make decisions to support their goals. That's where conflict often comes in. They want less clutter, yet they are attached to their things. Lots of questions. Lots of patience. Enough time and trust to work on the process. People move at different paces.

May 14, 2016 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

I've identified another challenge in my home: framed pictures. Whether they're family photos, needlepoint projects made by loved ones, or other types of art, they tend to stay on the wall long after I've stopped enjoying them, and then they sit in a corner until I'm willing to part with them. I think it's because they will have little or no value to anyone else, so it's harder to get rid of them than more useful items.

May 15, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterJanet Barclay

@Janet- Thank you for bringing this one up. You're not alone. Framed pictures are often a source that gets ignored and forgotten. But in addition, as you mentioned, they can prove challenging to let go of. I have a small stack of framed pictures in one of my closets that remain unhung, but I can't quite let myself part with them...yet. They used to be up, but were removed to be replaced by other images.

May 15, 2016 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

You and I like each other's stuff, Linda... I wrote a blog post about how I declutter books. It's called (with more than a nod to Judith Kolberg): Are Your Bookshelves Full of Friends? Or Strangers and Houseguests? On

May 21, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterHazel Thornton

To me, clutter is an item that is not useful or helps me contribute to my goal in life which is to serve others. I weekly go around the home and clear out a few items at a time and place it in a donate bin in the garage, and within a month I usually drop off stuff at Goodwill or other fundraising event at my kids school. It works for me and my family. My kids tend to keep things so we do a give away when the seasons change or a request of need come up from friends of friends. It motivates them. Thanks for sharing.

May 22, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterSabrina Quairoli

@Hazel- I'll check it out. Judith is an original. I had a blast with her this week at the NAPO Atlanta conference. Got to see her at her best.

@Sabrina- That's awesome how regularly you release the things that are no longer of value. I've been doing it more regularly than usual. Normally I tend to do it twice a year, especially with clothes, for the seasonal switch. It's always a good cue and time to evaluated what stays or goes.

May 22, 2016 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Great post Linda. I was a big reader as a kid but don't have the time to read as much as I would like to now. Thanks for letting us know about the book, Junk – Digging Through America’s Love Affair With Stuff. I will have to put it on my list of books I want to read.

May 23, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterKathy McEwan

@Kathy- Happy that Junk got added to your list. Time is funny, isn't it? I heard a quote this week while attending the NAPO conference in Atlanta. "Time takes time." It's simple and so true.The same 24 hours exist, but our priorities and responsibilities change and shift. I remember when our daughters were little. We used to read to them every night. By the time we were done, we were also ready to go to sleep. So for years, most of my reading came in the form of One Fish, Two Fish and Goodnight Moon. There's a time for everything.

May 24, 2016 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

Just today I met with a client who has turned the corner with clutter. She is ready to let give cause she knows the stuff she has is holding her back.

May 2, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterElen Delap

@Ellen- How wonderful to hear about your client's progress. I like the term you used, "turned the corner with clutter." It's fascinating how it's like a switch that goes on quickly when we're able to recognize when our "stuff" is preventing us from living the life that we want. It's an inspiring experience to walk that journey with our clients as they release the stuff and embrace next.

May 3, 2019 | Registered CommenterLinda Samuels

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