Q:I have so much stuff! What is the rule of thumb for knowing when to give away what I am not using? I've always heard it is either one or two years. Do you offer any concrete ways to know when to eliminate?
A: Here's my motto: "When you buy something new, give away two." Isn't this suggestion radical? Now is always a good time to consider whether your accumulation of goods is ruling your life--or at least taking up too much space.
When I began helping people organize their lives, most seminars had to do with stuff at home rather than in offices, stock rooms, warehouses, and the boardrooms of industry and the technical world. In those home seminars, I was (and still am) constantly sharing the need for all of us to cut back, cut out and cut down. The facts are indisputable. The vast majority of us simply have too much stuff, and much of our stuff is drowning us and blocking out light and air. I like to encourage people to keep that little saying in their mind and when they buy a new sweater or a pair of shoes. Give away at least two of something for each new item--maybe a shirt, a pot or pan, that old sweater, the pair of shoes you're replacing, perhaps an old jacket. That way, you will never get into the hoarding mentality. Instead of your stuff controlling you, you will take control of your stuff.
In the office environment, this saying translates into when you bring something new into the office, try to eliminate two of something else--such as people printing out e-mails yet still keeping them in their computers. When you print out an e-mail, delete the e-mail along with another e-mail. When you file something into your filing cabinet, purge two files. When mail enters your office, eliminate as much as possible. When you buy a new business book, purge two. Give away old computers to young businesses in the area or to your local schools. Old chairs or desks would much appreciated by some not-for-profit offices. You get the idea.
Am I simply trying to promote charity? Not at all. Your giving habits are--and should remain--your own business. But think about it. Just look at the amount of stuff we bring in to our offices and homes and compare that to how much goes out. The old movie scene in which the retiring worker takes a single cardboard box of stuff home after 25 years is humorous in today's cluttered world. Now it takes a moving van! We need to buy a suit, a sweater, shoes, a couch, a table or a TV, but rarely do we spend any time focusing on the need to eliminate stuff, to make the pile smaller. When was the last time you intentionally gave away two of anything when you brought a new item into your home or office?
Our cabinets can only hold so much stuff. Our drawers can only hold a certain number of socks or stockings or sweaters. Our filing cabinets are stuffed so full, we break a nail every time we try to pry loose a file. When the drawer is bulging, that's the sign we must eliminate. But no one is saying it's easy: The sweater was a gift from a special friend; the socks remind us of that fabulous vacation; that old, rickety table brings fond memories of college days; that report took three years to complete and it's a honey, no way am I going to throw it away. So on we go--hanging on instead of releasing.
Sharing our good fortune with those less fortunate is a freeing, liberating experience. So think about gathering, packing and then taking your used furniture, clothes or whatever to the nearest Good Will Center, Salvation Army Thrift Store, Purple Heart or perhaps a church or synagogue with a giveaway closet for the disadvantaged or families temporarily homeless because of flooding, fires or other emergencies. The act will set you free from the hoarding mentality and allow you to enjoy simplicity at its fullest and the knowledge that your leftovers have served others.
Sue McMillinequips and encourages her clients to clear office and home clutter, enabling them to find anything they own in seconds, recover 40 percent of the space in their environment, gain up to an hour a day in productivity and save as much as $5,000 per employee per year. Some of her clients include 3M, ABA, Boeing, Eli Lilly, Fannie Mae, Intel, Kodak, Marriott, MCI, NEA, Steelcase, Toyota and Xerox.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.