My wife and I spent this past three-day weekend cleaning out our garage and purging many unwanted items. This was a project that was long overdue, and we finally set aside the time for it. It seemed a daunting project at first, but it felt really good to sort through and purge those old items. We donated several carloads of stuff to charity.

As aggressive as I am about staying organized and purging what I don’t need, I noticed that time plays a big role in determining whether or not an item is worth keeping. Some items seem like they were worth keeping at the time we stored/archived them, and perhaps they were, but years later those same items may be seen as worthless junk. In many cases our needs had changed, and so did the items that we thought might be helpful in filling those needs.

There are a few rules that have served me well whenever I go through a purge cycle:

  1. When in doubt, throw it out.
  2. Ask, “What would be the worst-case outcome if I threw this item out by mistake?” If the answer is little or nothing, throw it out.
  3. Could someone else benefit from this item more than I would?

This is in contrast to the rules that many other people seem to use when deciding what they’ll keep vs. what they’ll toss out. I think the rules most people follow are these:

  1. When in doubt, keep it. I might need this someday.
  2. Ask, “What would be the best-case outcome if I kept this item?” If the answer seems moderately good, keep it.
  3. Could I possibly benefit from keeping this item?

I think this second rule set is one reason certain people have a serious problem with clutter. By setting your default to “keep” instead of “purge,” you’re obviously going to keep a lot more items. And over time it would be very easy to outstrip your capacity to effectively utilize and enjoy every item you keep. Eventually your home becomes filled with items you rarely ever look at, and you have to devote more space to storing them and more time to managing them.

I’m not suggesting you need to be so severe that you junk everything you might want, but perhaps if you haven’t touched an item in two or more years, you may be able to live without it.

Many years ago I learned a valuable lesson about material possessions: Too many worthless old possessions block the flow of worthwhile new possessions. Clutter becomes clog.

Whenever I’ve taken the time to clear out “dead” items, I create more empty space, and that space will eventually be filled by new items that I actually value. For example, if my bookshelves are packed with books, and I thin them out a bit, that empty shelf space will soon fill up with new books I enjoy. The same goes with clothes. When I need new clothes, I find that purging old clothes is a better first step than going shopping.

I often ask myself, “Does this item still have energy for me?” when considering whether or not to purge something. Although the phrasing may be a little new agey for some people, I just think of it as a short-hand method for consulting my intuition. If I don’t sense that a part of me is invested in keeping the item, I feel confident that purging it is the right choice.

I also think that if a certain item is just sitting around unused, perhaps there is someone else who could benefit from owning it. Old books, clothes, toys, and furniture provide no value sitting in my garage, but they can serve someone else quite well. Imagine how much untapped value there is in all the “junk” people have clogging their homes. The rapid rise of online auction sites has proven there can be monetary value in our closets, basements, and garages. But putting aside the financial considerations, the items themselves are doing no one any good unless they’re being used and appreciated.

Recycling dead items puts them back into circulation, and I think that on a certain (albeit new agey) level, this helps increase the flow of new wealth and possessions into our lives. At the very least, there’s an emotional boost to clearing out a significant amount of junk. Simply going through this process has left me feeling lighter and less burdened by stuff I don’t need.

If you have a big purge to do, you might find it helpful to read Getting Organized. That will give you a step-by-step process for cleaning out any area of clutter.