November 3, 2008
"Have nothing… that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
William Morris's words still ring true.
I keep this quote on my refrigerator, where I see it everyday. It is both a literary reminder and a succinct way of describing my philosophy on "stuff". In one brief sentence, we have two foundational criteria for what comes into our household – and what gets to stay in our household.
If you find yourself internally conflicted over the sheer volume of "stuff" that has infiltrated your home, perhaps you need a clearer filter for your possessions. In order to make some meaningful decisions over what goes and what stays, let's break down the meaning of the word useful and how it applies to clutter control.
There are certain possessions that are either necessary to survival, such as food or basic clothing, or are aesthetically pleasing to us, like a cozy wool blanket or a child's artwork. It is within these two categories that we find the elusive formula for clutter control.
Let's begin with useful. Useful, in the context, means something that we either need to survive or that, by its presence, enables us to be more efficient or effective in our work. (Work can be homekeeping, business, philanthropy, child-rearing, etc.) Examples of useful items include:
- Winter coat (especially if you live in Wisconsin:-)
- Knitting needles (or other items that facilitate recreation)
Now that we have a working definition of useful, the question becomes, "How do I decide if something is useful?" The answer seems intuitive, but it is more complex that it first appears. For example, think back to when you last went through your basement and decided to keep that sewing machine because you'd be able to use it… someday. What does "someday" mean? In this context, "someday" becomes a synonym for "not useful."
You probably just said, "What? How can she say that? Is she crazy? It would be such a waste to part with something that has such practical application!"
Before you smack your computer screen, let's look a little closer. A bulky piece of equipment + taking up valuable storage or activity space in your basement + something that you do not use = CLUTTER! A reminder, everytime you look at it, that another year has gone by and you still haven't taken up sewing = STRESS! An asset that sits and gets older and less valuable and more susceptible to damage and breakdown = WASTED MONEY! Do you see where I am going with this?
Looking at your stuff with this drastically different mindset will be hard at first but remember, the goal is to create a haven where you work and play surrounded by that which lifts you up.
So, take a gander around your home and practice. See those size 4 clothes in your closet. They used to say, "You'll wear us again… just lose 30 pounds." Now they say, "If you donate us to the local women's shelter, we can help someone in need. Oh, and we won't torture you anymore!"
Or take that cappucino machine you received as a wedding gift. It used to taunt you. "Are you ever going to get the counter-top space for me?" Now it says, "Sell me on eBay, and you can repaint your powder room."
How about those boxes of baby clothes that you just can't let go of? They are telling you to keep a couple of meaningful pieces and give the rest away. By doing so, you just freed up a corner of the basement that you can turn into a play fort for the kids.
Useful means that an item is relevant to your life right here, right now. If something is truly meaningful to us, we seldom wait for "someday" to do it. Our priorities are evidenced in the stuff that we keep front and center. By making our possessions congruent with our current priorities, we can eliminate a great deal of clutter.
So, if you are ready to get started, here is a list of places to start using the Usefulness Test:
- Kitchen specialty items (breadmakers, mandolines, or that little tea set that has a 1/4 inch of dust on it)
- Hobby materials (10 yards of fabric that you bought because it was on sale, 4 boxes of tiles to make mosaics, enough yarn to knit a cover for your whole car)
- Clothing and personal items (too small, too big, too old, etc.)
After you have done a once-over and you've used the Usefulness Test to control your clutter, you will have probably pared down quite a bit. Congratulations! The next step is to focus on what you believe to be beautiful. This step, which will be coming soon, may be a bit more challenging because it brings in the emotional element of your possessions. For now, revel in your progress and go have a nice cup of tea!