Savour memories without building clutter (with tips from a professional declutterer)

By Katie Scott,
updated on Apr 18, 2024

Savour memories without building clutter (with tips from a professional declutterer)

Investigating the power of possessions to evoke emotions, and transport us through time – and how we can treasure them, without them taking over our homes

There are four boxes still sitting in my lounge long after the end of our three-month renovation. It has been an exercise in logistics, but also a chance to (begrudgingly) rethink what I actually need in my life.

Without finishing the task of sorting kitchen utensils, whose functions remain enigmatic, I have now delved into other rooms. I have found piles of school books, scraps of paper with teeny doodles, shells, pebbles, and countless paper maché creations. I have kept them because they prompt memories – small fingers unfurling to proudly show me a creation, or hours of digging my hands among pebbles on a beach to find the perfect shapes for a wobbly tower.

Objects have power. They are evocative. Juliet Landau-Pope is a productivity coach and author of What’s Your Excuse for not Clearing Your Clutter? She says: “Material things tie us to the past, due to associations with both individual and collective memories. From gifts that we receive on special occasions to souvenirs that we bring back from holidays, things trigger memories of meaningful moments.”

Even more than that, they place us within families, communities, and cultures. She adds: “The silver candlesticks inherited from my grandmother not only link me to my family traditions, they’re also part of my Jewish heritage.”

The BBC show, The Repair Shop, illustrates the power that objects have in helping us recall memories, and even re-live emotions. In the programme, objects are restored, but so too are memories, argues Chris McCarroll. An assistant professor of philosophy, and author of Remembering From the Outside: Personal Memory and the Perspectival Mind, he wrote a paper called Repair Shop of Memory. In it, he states: “These objects arrive as treasured possessions, which, despite their dilapidated state, still hold memories and meaning for their owners, albeit memories that may have faded as the object itself has aged. Something magical seems to take place after the objects are restored, however. The restored objects seem to reanimate and revive the memories that their owners have invested in them.”

Chris McCarroll describes objects as “vibrant materials” that “help scaffold memories held by the subject”. They prompt our remembering, but they are also imbued with whatever we have invested in them – be it time, meaning, or emotion. But is this always positive? Can objects become emotional anchors, dragging us back to the past? Not all memories are positive, after all. Do we keep possessions that might prompt the painful instead of the joyful? McCarroll says this is tricky. He explains: “In some cases, it might be that the negative memory is important, and something we need to learn from and guide our future behaviour.”

Professional declutterer and organiser, Siân Pelleschi adds that there is a differentiation here between objects that make us feel bad, and possessions that prompt sadness. “While it might sound strange, sadness can be a good thing to reflect on. I like to call it a happy sadness – for example, an object that reminds you of a loved person in your life who is no longer with you. These are positive memories.”

However, both recognise that some objects might just be too triggering. In this case, move it from your home. “We can shape our environments and manipulate memory in this way, so that we might be less likely to remember some negative event if the object that can trigger it is removed from the external environment,” McCarroll says.

But getting rid of possessions is far from an easy process. There is a fear that if we discard the object, we will lose the memory, too. In her work, Landau-Pope says that this is a huge concern for her more elderly clients. They feel guilty at even considering giving something away that someone they loved gifted them, and experience pain at the thought that their memories might be lost, too. It is a delicate process.

“I encourage them to explore other strategies, such as creating a memory box with a selection of items, or taking photos of things and compiling albums,” she says, along with suggesting that people share stories with their loved ones “to pass on memories not memorabilia”.

McCarroll suggests a curated approach. He explains: “If we have a number of meaningful objects from a place or time, my wife and I often try to choose one from this context, and get rid of the ones that seem less important. We pick the object that best captures an important memory.”

In her tips above, Pelleschi also advocates being selective. Have pieces on show that make you smile, but remember that the eye also likes to linger on clear spaces sometimes. A home packed full of treasures could become a space we cannot relax in, and struggle to function practically in, too. Our homes shouldn’t be museums.

McCarroll describes objects as “focal points of narratives, things to weave a family history around, and a means of keeping these stories and the memory of the original owner alive.” You can weave these objects into your home but also leave space for practical needs, calming elements, and for making new family history. It is a difficult balance to achieve but is a freeing process. As Landau-Pope states simply, our homes should be places where we can “honour the past, aspire to the future, but focus on living in the present”.

How to decide what to keep

Siân Pelleschi is owner of Sorted!, and president of the Association of Professional Declutterers & Organisers (, Here are her top tips:

. Keep the objects that prompt good memories. You’ll know which items these are by just looking at them or by touching them. Surrounding yourself with these positive memories will provide joy.

. Understand what you want to create in your environment – do you want the space to be filled with lots of happy memories, or just one or two? Do you want to be reminded of times gone by all the time, or just be reminded every now and again? 

. Where there are more items than space allows to comfortably display, consider your home to be a working gallery. Curate your space with different themes or topics, and rotate your items to reflect those themes. These can be changed seasonally, quarterly, or yearly even, but this allows you to really see and enjoy what you have rather than squirrelling them away for another day. 

. To not overwhelm your home, create groups of three items on open shelves with space in between. On walls you can create picture galleries in groups so that there is still open space for the eye to take in.

. Put items that you are not displaying into boxes, but make sure they’re accessible. Perhaps store them in their groups that you want to display together. Lastly, label all of the storage boxes so you know what’s in the box, and even when you might want to get them out.

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