De-cluttering and Decision Fatigue

De-cluttering brings on decision fatigue. If you want a headache, backache, and a pain in the neck — all at the same time — decide to sell your house!

Purging, de-cluttering, organizing, and cleaning are all necessary to prepare a house for sale.

Since early January, we’ve been clearing ‘stuff’ from the basement. We began in the basement as it contained most of the clutter in our house.  The finished area of the basement had become a catch-all after our son moved away. The unfinished area housing the furnace, deep freezer, water heater, and many storage units was the real disaster area.

The process has been arduous and painful.  It seems that every seldomly-used possession collected during almost 50 years of marriage and 25 years of living here found some spot in the basement. When placed in the basement, the item was out of sight and easy to ignore or forget!

Over the years, we organized, cleaned, and kept building more storage as collections grew. There were shelves of flowerpots, vases, baskets, candles, small appliances, pots, pans, coffee makers, and sports shoes.  There were paint cans with bits of paint, partly used aerosol spray cans, insecticides, fishing gear, various tools and, horror of horrors, boxes of things we brought when we moved here 25 years ago! Its amazing how much useless stuff two people own.

We aren’t buying another house until this one sells, so we don’t know the  kind or amount of storage space that will be available.  Thus, the decision to toss or donate most of the things in the basement.

Emotional attachment to ‘stuff’

Despite this resolve, I still find myself handling stuff and not tossing.  The extent of emotional attachment to things that I don’t use, things that don’t really matter to me, and things that don’t really make me happy has been a surprise.

Sometimes the feelings are sentimental because I’m looking at an item that was a gift or something handed down from my mother.

Sometimes the feelings are materialistic especially when I paid a lot of money for something that I ‘had to have’ but didn’t use.  It seems wasteful to dispose of such items until I remind myself that letting things go  is part of down-sizing.

What if I need it?

The question of whether I may need something arises frequently.  I find myself estimating the cost to keep, store, and move the item relative to its value.

Cost may include storage containers, closet space, book shelf space, or extra square footage.

Cost may also involve space in my cluttered brain.  In the process of purging, I’ve found  many items I don’t remember owning.

In terms of sentiment, owning something for a long time sometimes means it’s value increases. I’ve often looked fondly at something (a sign of emotional attachment) and tried to rationalize that I could need it soon (a sign that I’m holding on).

Perhaps there is a mathematical equation showing that emotional attachment — and not need — increases by the number of years owned.

Sorting Books

To date, sorting books and sending them out has been the most difficult in terms of decision fatigue.  Both my husband and I accumulated many professional and clinical books during 40 plus years as helping and management professionals.

Having a library in the basement provided quick reference sources before the internet.  Each of us had favourite books that represented landmarks in our careers, difficult graduate courses, or source material for a presentation or achievement.

Because the library represented the security of a professional designation, tossing the books somehow meant another, more final good-bye to an important part of life. Last week, at I wrote about the feelings around disposal of books.

Decision Fatigue

The purging and de-cluttering for the past five weeks has resulted in severe decision fatigue.

Every week, on garbage day, we haul bags and bags of stuff to the curb. I’m waiting for the feeling of ‘lightness’ that getting rid of things should promote; instead, it’s mostly exhaustion and stress.

Sorting brings tension between what is necessary and the childish urge to hold on.  I know these conflicted feelings come from  overwhelming decision fatigue. It’s easier to talk about or think about de-cluttering than to do it!

For encouragement, I’ve read a current New York Times best seller by Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  Kondo makes excellent recommendations discarding things.  Often I worry that I’m discarding things that should be kept or that I’m not sufficiently ruthless.

To cope with decision fatigue, anxiety, and physical exhaustion I’ve been using simple coping strategies.

  1. Taking breaks. Sometimes a cup of tea or some goof off time brings new energy.
  2. Keeping the end goal in mind. The decision to down-size is right for us at this stage of our lives.
  3. Staying focused. When overwhelmed with memories or the sheer amount of stuff, it’s good to remember the progress made.
  4. Setting time limits.  I use a 60 minute rule as a starter especially  on the days when I feel that I can’t face more sorting.  The time limit usually results in momentum to keep going.
  5. Practising forgiveness. As I move along I try to forgive myself for  over-buying stuff and allowing excess to accumulate. When I’m tired, I remind myself that I can’t work as long or as hard as I did 10 or 20 years ago.

Ultimately, our de-cluttering process comes down to keeping things we love. These things will help us to create a living space that suits our needs at this stage of our lives.  We’ve lived the other chapters fully.  Now it’s time to let go and move on.

10 Replies to “De-cluttering and Decision Fatigue”

  1. One of the methods I have of getting rid of stuff: would anyone be happy to find this and keep this after I am dead? Usually the answer is NO. So out it goes.

    I had to clean out a friend’s home when she died, unexpectedly. She always thought her sister would come across country and take care of that task and that her sister would want all the stuff she had saved for her. NO. The sister did not come, nor did she want very much from the house.

    Throw the stuff away. Give the stuff away. Keep only what you currently need.

    1. Your excellent advice is similar to that given by one of my Face Book friends. Her technique is to look at an item and ask if you would buy it today–even if it were on sale! Paring down to what is useful, needed or loved is the goal I’m working toward achieving.

  2. Jeanette,
    I can SO identify with decluttering and decision fatigue! Since I started trying to sell my home 6 years ago, I have been decluttering – giving things away mostly.

    I had one garage sale, but only sold one of the 12 items I wanted to get rid of. So mostly, I give things to charitable organizations for resale, to friends, to my daughter or her friends, etc.

    I even gave away my king-size bed recently, through a service called Freecycle online. It turned out that a mother needed a bed for her teenage daughter. They came and got it the same day I posted it. It was great. Then they sent me a photo of the daughter laying on here new bed in her room. I loved that!

    The sentimental values and the monetary values are the hardest issues for me to cope with. Same with books. I have a HUGE library of books from my 28 years of teaching. I have given several boxes of reference books to the local historical society, along with a wooden shelf to put them on. It’s so hard to part with them!

    Thanks for your detailed, well-organized description of what you are going through. I feel less alone, having read it!

    Dr Rin Portger

    1. Hi Rin,
      The de-cluttering and purging journey is one that I’ve avoided for many years. When I retired five years ago, I had a few false starts but just could not bring myself to stay with it. Necessity is truly the mother of invention as real estate agents are ruthless about what should stay in the house once it’s listed.
      There are still many things that will need a new home. I love your experience with Freecycle especially the ending with someone enjoying the bed you didn’t want or need. I wish you strength as you continue to find ways to dispose of books and other items that hold emotional attachment.
      Be well,

  3. Reading your blog, Jeanette, reminds me of how ‘entitled’ most Canadians appeared to me on arrival here from South Africa, which is generally a much poorer country. It doesn’t make them less likeable, simply different. I’ve read recently that most people use only 20% of their belongings; be it clothing or anything else they own. However the trick for you is deciding which it should be for your new abode. I’m also convinced you’ll be taking a lot more than a fifth of your present possessions to your new dwelling. It’s incredibly difficult to part with items that belonged to your parents, or grandparents, for that matter. Be grateful that you’re only moving to another city in the same country.

    1. That 80/20 rule applies to many aspects of living. I know that 20% of my clothes get all the wear but I keep things with the rationalization that I’ll wear it when the weather changes!
      I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to move to another country half-way around the world! Such a move would mean leaving behind so many loved possessions as well as all that is familiar including friends and family. Getting rid of stuff is tough, as the emotional attachments mean a bout of anxiety each time something gets tossed!

  4. Wow! I wish I had your stamina to get at it and keep going. I too have bought and read Marie Kondo’s book. But I still procrastinate. The feedback I get from my husband and daughter, is… Throw It Away. We need a dumpster… but my husband is the better hoarder than me. My daughter daughter’s idea is if she hasn’t used it or seen it in 6 months to a year… out it goes.
    I know, I just have to start. But your will and determination has got me wanting to start to purge and declutter!
    Loving your blog!

    1. Isn’t it interesting how our children give so much advice when it comes to de-cluttering and purging! If the job were left to my son and daughter-in-law, most of the items in the basement would have gone to a dumpster weeks ago. I’m from the old school where I learned to take care of possessions, to repair things rather than replace them, and to use things until they wear out. With this mindset, I’ve likely spent too much time and effort evaluating stuff that should just get tossed without further thought. It’s produced a good case of anxiety on some days!
      Good luck with your own de-cluttering.
      Be well,

  5. Sounds like you’re making progress! PS: As you dream of your future living areas, it’s worth visiting a modern showroom like IKEA to see all the imaginative ways available to organize and utilize space.

    1. Thanks for a great idea for a break! A visit to IKEA was also suggested by my daughter-in-law who is super-orgainied and keeps a stream-lined de-cluttered house! IKEA would also provide inspiration on those days when I can’t face sorting another box.
      Be well,

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