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5 tips to help you declutter and organise sentimental items

Even the most minimalistic amongst us will have some sentimental items they keep ‘just because’. The problem comes when everything becomes sentimental, or it all becomes just too much. Tackling sentimental items should be the very last thing you declutter and organise, as it is so emotional and there are so many decisions you need to have practiced your decision making skills beforehand. Once you set up a system that works for you it means you can enjoy your items so much more, and know in the future what’s appropriate to keep. It also means that when things are stored correctly you don’t have to worry about them getting damaged through going mouldy or dusty. As you move through your declutter journey, when you come across an item that is sentimental try to collect it together with others so they are in one place. An airtight plastic box is ideal for this. When you're ready to go through it it’ll be easier as everything is in one place. When your decision making skills are up to it, and you’re feeling strong and emotionally in a good place, here’s a few tips to help you declutter and organise your memory box. Please note, this blog contains an affiliate link, but I only ever promote items I have used personally or have had excellent feedback about.

1) The first thing to be aware of when tackling sentimental items is that it is very time consuming. It takes much longer than any other category. Not only because it is usually heavily paper based (and paper is a category that takes a long time by itself!) but every item has memories and emotions attached to it. Add on the fact that these items at one point were precious enough to keep, you need to make sure that every decision you make is the right one. Make sure you schedule time in to go through the items, and also relaxation time afterwards. It is likely you will feel very tired, maybe even emotional after a session. It should only be done when you’ve already done lots of decision making and are feeling decisive and positive, and emotionally stable. If you are struggling, it is OK to just do a small amount (15 minutes) daily to go through it to keep motivation going and for you not to feel too exhausted afterwards.

2) The second thing is to ask yourself some questions when going through your things.

Question one - Who are you keeping it for? Do you think that your children or grandchildren will be interested in the things you are saving for them? An item is only valuable if you sell it, so wouldn’t they prefer cash rather than being placed in an awkward position of being the keeper of an item they don’t like, they need the money but are too afraid of letting you down or letting go of that link to you to actually sell it… in which case it isn’t giving them a valuable item at all. The burden put upon children once a parent dies is immense, but having to go through a parents cherished and personal possessions has to be one of the hardest things imaginable. Anything that can be done to minimise and simplify this process should be done whilst you are alive. Swedish death cleaning has become popular based on this very concept. If you are keeping it purely for you, and not for others then move on to question two!

Question 2 - You are writing the story of your life - what were the highlights? In my opinion a stranger looking through your things should be able to accurately guess the kind of things that made you happy, and what things were important to you. If they have to wade through things that aren’t important they will never be able to figure out who you were and what was important to you. A memory box should only contain the utmost treasured items and memories. Someone should be able to look at them and see the highlights of your life. So what were they? Were they really all the exercise books you wrote in during your time at primary school, the receipts from countless big name coffee shops during a trip abroad? If you had to write a timeline of your life - what were the standout moments? The firsts? The trips? The amazing times and people? Those are the things to keep. By keeping less those items stand out more and can be looked after better and enjoyed more. Once you’ve done that, move on to question three.

Question three - why keep negativity? Trigger warning, this paragraph contains talk of abuse, death and miscarriage.

It may be a diary from when you went through a tough period in your life, or a Valentine's card from an ex that turned out to be toxic. There’s a tendency to keep items that make us recoil or feel sad upon looking at them. Sometimes I think that is because we are scared to let the negativity go so we either can continue to hold on to the negativity, or to remind ourselves of how bad it was so we don’t make the same mistake again, or can somehow feel justified in our view (ie look at this letter he wrote, look at how nasty he was, I wasn’t making it up’). The thing is, most of the time we are only keeping it for ourselves, no one else is actually going to see it. So we keep holding on to, and making room for, things that only ever reflect pain and sadness. That is not how the story of your life should be written - remember - we are collecting highlights not lowlights here. Why keep something that makes you sad? It may be that you went through a bereavement, so you may feel that of course you will feel sadness looking at items relating to that person. No matter what happens, that person will always be remembered as long as you live. There will always be a record of them in some way, whether it be a birth certificate, a death certificate or in the case of the loss of a baby you may have a scan or a footprint taken, or an item of clothing you wish to keep. Of course you will always feel sadness when revisiting those items, and that is absolutely OK. It's healthy to grieve. That person was a highlight and an important part of your story, so choose the items that through the tears you can also smile a little too.

3) The third thing to remember - and this may be the most important, is that by letting go of items, you are not erasing the history or the memories of what they represent. By letting go of a leaflet from a place you visited, it doesn’t erase the fact you went there. It doesn’t turn back time - it is not a case of if you forget it, it didn't happen. One of the biggest issues today is that we fear that if we don’t record an experience in some way it makes the experience less in some way. Strangely enough, you do not remember more by holding things in a box for years or by having them in a dusty loft! You remember by creating more experiences, and in later life by talking about them, not necessarily by the things you kept of them. I know this is a tough leap - so try an easier alternative first. It may be that you wish to keep an item from a concert you went to. So save ONE item from that event. You do not need to keep the ticket, the wristband, the programme, the T Shirt, the photo, the mug and the receipt. Keep one, or if that's too hard, try to only keep the most important items from that memory instead of them all. You are not erasing the past, just making your present easier.

4) Memory boxes quite often becoming dumping grounds for things. As our lives change and as do we, sometimes we look back through our stuff and think ‘why on earth did I keep that?!” Just because you have kept something for a long length of time should not be the defining factor for keeping it. It’s OK that it may have been so important to you then, but now it isn’t. Simply how you feel about that item right now is OK. We all go through phases in our lives and it's positive if you can let go of items that no longer resonate with you. You evolve as a person, so let some of the ‘old’ you go if it doesn’t bring a smile!

5) One of the most fun parts of my job is helping clients display and store their treasured possessions. Some items are useful to be in decent airtight storage but it’s always lovely to have items you love dotted around the house making you smile whenever you catch sight of them. When it comes to ephemera such as leaflets, ticket stubs and programs, I think it's nice to have them in an accessible format rather than thrown into a box together. If you are crafty you may enjoy scrapbooking your items. For those of us that we love the idea of it, but will never get around to doing it I find that putting items alongside the photos of that era works well. A favourite item with clients and in my Facebook Community Group is using photo pockets in a lever arch file. These can then be stored on shelves or in a bookcase. You get to file them in the order you chose (by theme or chronological order) and you can move them around easily. They are also acid free and you can write on them with a sharpie if you need to remember dates etc. You can buy them easily here from Amazon (Affiliate link).

Other items you may have such as clothing either of yours or from a loved one, you can turn into memory bears or memory blankets. I did this recently with my daughters baby clothes and I adore the outcome. The bear has pride of place in my room rather than the clothes going musty in the attic. A client I know had a blanket made with all her childrens football shirts from his time playing football. That way you get to use and enjoy the items again but in a different way. Repurposing items can give new lease for life for old items. There really is no end to what is possible. I have known Judo belts turned into hammocks, Jumpers into cushions, Earrings turned into bookmarks, Medals turned into light pulls. If the idea of repurposing items scares you, consider displaying items instead. Framing a T Shirt, Cards cleverly cut or pin badges turned into a picture. For bulky items (ie your childs first pair of shoes, consider using a box frame for objects like this one from IKEA. To reduce visual clutter look at hidden areas like inside drawers, and the inside of wardrobe doors, these when closed are clear of clutter, but once opened you get to see the items stuck on there prettily displayed.

Remember you’re editing the highlights of your life. It doesn't matter what anyone else thinks of them - they are only for you. Don’t hold on to negative emotions - continue to be a survivor of your experiences not a victim. Embrace who you are and what you love. Show off what is important to you. Look at how often you revisit those memories - can you surround yourself with them in positive ways rather than keeping everything and it hiding the story of your life amongst the mundane and clutter.

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