Why You Should Throw Everything Away

by Sarah Miller
Originally Published: 

When I was a kid, my mother used to stand in my closet with a bag. “Yes or no?” she would say, holding up various items: an old dress-up skirt, a softball glove, a withered doll. “No,” I would mostly answer. Very occasionally, “Yes.” The no’s went into the bag and to the dump. Afterwards I would love how my closet and room felt, so fresh and spare.

I have always been a sort of unsentimental throwout-y kind of person. I just don’t get the attachment to things that you don’t really adore or use. Your dried prom corsage, letters from an old boyfriend, a pair of pants that fit you, once, when a doctor who thought you were way crazier than you actually are put you on Topomax. (That particular story comes from a friend!) They are all just taking up space that you need for—well, for air.

I will throw out anything. I am afraid to tell you what I’ve thrown out because you will think I am terrible. Here’s a hint: Don’t let your children ever give me handmade presents. In fact—hold the presents. If you must give me something, make it Davines conditioner. The green one.

The thing is, it’s not just that you don’t need your high school or college yearbook (mine are both in the Nevada County dump) or all of your photos (with 90 percent of my photos) or those sundresses that you got at Target that just don’t make you look quite as fetching as you thought they would (also at dump). It’s that once you get rid of these items you will never think about them again, at all, not even once. My mom’s wedding photo? Please. I already know my mom and my dad got married, because if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t have to be here, throwing all this crap out.


And here’s the thing. You have a memory. For example, you can think about high school whenever you want. You don’t need to open up a book and see yourself with an asymmetrical bob, surrounded by people who made fun of you, to confirm that you attended high school.

If my own personal interest in throwing things out is not enough to get you to consider the same, well, throwing stuff out is enjoying a moment in the sun and there’s plenty of wonderful material on the subject. Beginners will enjoy the well-titled Throw Everything Out by Leah Finnegan, which contains these inspiring lines: “[M]ost stuff is crap. And there is nothing more beautiful than an almost-empty apartment…Crap breeds more crap. Asceticism is a nice religion.” “It is the privilege of the gods to want nothing, and of godlike men to want little,” said Diogenes of Sinope.

Finnegan’s piece has some directions: “OK now, go throw away three more things,” but it is more for inspiration than anything else. For the nuts and bolts of seriously getting rid of useless items/almost all your stuff, this week’s New York Times ran a great piece about Marie Kondo, a professional organizer and author of the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

Kondo’s advice is all good, but for me the most profound takeaway was about getting rid of any item that does not “spark joy.” Now, the choice of words is a little Amélie for my tastes, but the idea is the important part, and the idea is: If you don’t really love this thing, chuck it. This really let me go deep. It meant, the orange cashmere sweater that’s nice but makes me look kind of fat? Bye. The pink shoes that I get lots of compliments on but I personally think are kind of dumb? Also bye! The really nice bowl that has a chip in it, that makes me mad when I look at it? Why do I need to own an item I resent for no longer being perfect? It was beautiful, but it got a chip, and that’s too bad but it’s over. Good bye. Don’t let the door give you another chip on the way out!

Now, do the Keen boots that I got at a yard sale five years ago when I moved north from Los Angeles really spark joy in me? Meh. Probably not. But the thought of not spending money on another pair that I will probably not love much more—that might spark a tiny bit of joy. So you see how this works. Give it a try.

If you find yourself unable to part with anything (or, conversely, if you love throwing things away and want to make this a way of life), consider this quote from the 2007 New Yorker profile of fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld: “The most important piece of furniture in a house is the garbage can! I keep no archives of my own, no sketches, no photos, no clothes—nothing! I am supposed to do, I’m not supposed to remember!”


I’m not saying throwing stuff away isn’t hard. I’m just saying that Karl’s right—doing is way more fun than remembering.

Photo: Lara604/flickr

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