James Wallman's

Top 10 tips for dealing with your guilty treasures

The research conducted recently revealed some fascinating insights into why so many of us find it so hard to get rid of stuff in the home that we don’t need.

It turns out the biggest problem us Brits have is that we’re so sentimental. More than one in two (56%) British women, and four in ten (43%) British men, said they struggled to get rid of things that have sentimental value.

And the time many of us pine for? Our childhood. Four in every ten (40%) are holding onto things we had when we were children, and just as many of us still have things we’ve had for 30 years or more.



Since writing Stuffocation, I’ve come into contact with all sorts of people struggling with stuffocation — from people with serious hoarding issues to everyday people who can’t quite figure out why their homes have ended up so cluttered. And like a mirror to the research, one of the things that people always seem to ask is “But how can I get rid of this old stuff when it still means so much to me?”

These ten practical tips are for them, and for all those millions of people — perhaps even you? — who realise they have too much stuff, who’d like to have less, but who struggle to deal with all the guilty treasures from their past.

I hope they help you deal with yours too.


Finding a practical use for something sentimental is like magic. You get to keep it! And you get to use it!



First — know that guilt is a choice.

Second — realise that guilt controls way too much of way too many of us, and is one of those controlling things that make us hold onto gifts, hand-me-downs, and heirlooms we can’t stand and don’t use but feel like we should.

Third — remember that you don’t have to keep something just because someone gave it to you!



If you’re going to keep stuff, there’s no point in it just sitting in a faraway box, being ignored and getting dusty. Far better you actually see it. That way, it’ll decorate your home and you’ll actually access the memories that come with it.



I’ve heard people sometimes say they really want to get rid of something, but can’t, and can’t figure out why. I think it’s because it isn’t the stuff they’re struggling to let go of, it’s what it represents. That could be a person, a place, a moment in life, an opportunity — like the one that got away. The way to loosen the ties that bind you to that thing is to give yourself permission to let go of this past. Do that and you can spend more time and energy on what really matters: the present, which, after all, is the only thing we really have.

If you’re still struggling with this, try the “black bin bag” method: put the object out of sight, out of mind. Mark a note in your calendar to go take a look a month later. Isn’t it time to say thank you and goodbye, to give yourself the present of the here and now?



As the old saying goes — the more stuff you own, the more it ends up owning you. If you hold onto all those trinkets from the past, they’re ultimately weighing you down.

I’m not saying there's anything wrong with holding onto something because it reminds you of someone or something. But realise that you don’t have to hold on to everything to keep that person or that place in your heart. The key word here is “edit”. Choose the best pictures of that holiday you went on or that time in your life, not every single one. Keep a few items that really matter and let the others go — especially the bulky stuff. Chances are, with fewer things, you’ll appreciate the ones you do have much more.



Sometimes things that felt so meaningful at one point lose their fizz after a while. This is an easy one to test. Rummage through your sentimental stuff, pick a memento up, and ask: does it really make your heart flutter like it used to? Does it still make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck? If yes, keep it! But if it feels a bit flat, what are you waiting for? Perhaps have an A-box of memories, and a B-box. Over time, try to let go of the stuff in the B-box. 



This is one of my favourite ways to have less stuff. Create digital clutter instead! Only joking. There are two major problems with too much stuff. One is the waste of space and the waste of time sorting and cleaning and clearing. Two is the mental space they take up. You can solve problem one by taking a digital snap and getting rid of it. And that makes tackling problem two much easier. After all, sifting through some computer files, naming them, putting them in folders, is much easier than climbing into the loft and moving boxes. 



A lot of people find it’s easier to get rid of something if someone else is going to use it. Rather than thinking of yourself as the destination for a particular item, see yourself as a waypoint on its journey. If your sentimental stuff could be used by someone, perhaps it’s served its time with you, and it could help someone else.



Just after I’d written Stuffocation, my mum knocked on my door, with a huge smile on her face and clutching a big cardboard box with a Wookiee and a Stormtrooper sticking out of the top. “I’ve read your book, so I’m de-stuffocating!” she announced. “Here, you can have your Star Wars toys back.” Although of course this was annoying for me — and you should have seen my wife’s face — my mum had done the best thing she could have done: don’t look after other people’s stuff. If they want it, they have to use it, get rid of it, or store it. Not you!



Finally, there’s no point piling pressure on yourself to throw things out. Some declutter experts say you have to be tough, and either keep it, or throw it — decide now! But I think that’s nonsense. I don’t think it respects who we are as people, and the feelings bound up in our stuff. Besides, you’ll kick yourself, and blame me if you end up getting rid of things you wish you’d kept! Don’t get rid of stuff, only to end up with a bunch of regrets about things you wish you’d kept. Instead, try the black bin bag method mentioned in note 4.


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