by Susan McCarthy
Your parents’ home may be neatly organized with well-labeled boxes sitting on shelves. Your first thought may be that you’re grateful they were organized. But when you start opening those plastic bins, you’re overwhelmed by all the stuff! How can you sort through what seems to be condensed clutter?
When I was eight, my family moved from an apartment to an 800-square-foot ranch (with an attic, basement, two-car garage, attic over the garage, and shed). Over the years, we bought more and more stuff. But we also received hand-me-downs of furniture, blankets, sheets, curtains, towels, dishes, etc. every time an older relative downsized.
To bring order to this constant influx of stuff, we bought plastic storage bins, boxes, freestanding cabinets, and shelving units…all with the intent of organizing these things. See, we rarely threw out anything.
For example, if you bought a book or received a magazine, you kept it whether you read it or not and even if you read it and didn’t like it. When you filled one set of shelves (books crammed on top of other books as well as perched in front), you bought a bigger bookshelf, or you bought a stack of banker’s boxes to hold the overflow.
I had a natural ability to organize things (by which I mean, I could fit a lot of things into a space) and starting when I was a teenager, I was always asking my mother if I could help organize things.
Since both she and my father were vehement about getting rid of anything, I learned that organizing meant putting things in boxes, on shelves, in cabinets. With a lot of stuff to fit into limited spaces, my organizing was really just hiding stuff with a veneer of organization.
Because it was difficult to access the things in boxes, once stored, they stayed packed away.
Sure, a bunch of boxes looked neater that a random pile of stuff, but all I was truly doing was organizing clutter. If we never needed the stuff in the boxes, they why did we keep it for years?
This also meant that when I started to clean out my parents’ house, I was faced with many, many overpacked boxes of random stuff.
Did Your Parents Have Organized Clutter?
When you visited you parents, you may have noticed that they had a lot of stuff. But you weren’t too concerned. They didn’t have piles of stuff dumped on the floor. The countertops were fairly cleared. Even the dining table could actually get used for a meal without requiring a half hour of sweeping stuff from the surface.
You may have been pleased to see the neatly labeled boxes sitting on shelves. The horror stories that some of your friends told about sorting through their parents’ or in-laws’ belongings would not be your concern.
If you see a lot of containers and shelves of boxes and bins, you may be looking at organized clutter.
Until you found yourself tasked with cleaning out your parent’s estate. Each of those neat-looking boxes contained dozens (maybe hundreds) of items. Suddenly, your thoughts start skittering all over the place. How could you have not realized that your parents were living with so much clutter? And how are you supposed to figure out if any of this stuff was important to them?
The Challenge of Organized Clutter
The biggest challenge of organized clutter is that it is difficult to judge how long it is going to take to sort through the contents of a room. You need to go through each box and every item even if you end up returning the items to the boxes and donating or selling the lot.
Depending upon how your parents grouped the items in boxes, you may have a box of the little junky toys you might hand out at a kid’s birthday party or for Halloween treats…that also contains a single photo from your grandparents’ wedding. In some cases, items may have been swept from a surface because company was coming over and then the contents of the box was never looked at again.
One thing to consider when you’re faced with boxes like these is that chances are that this stuff wasn’t important. Important things – things that are used or looked at with fond memories will be handy, not closed in a box that may be covered with dust.
Putting things in labeled boxes and tucking those boxes on shelves gives the aura of usefulness. You “know” where things are and so you feel prepared when you do find a use for the item. But chances are that by then you’ll forget that those things are in boxes, or it may seem like a hassle to root around in a box or two in search of something you can buy for a few dollars at the hardware store or pharmacy.
What all this means is that you shouldn’t exert too much energy in making sense of all these boxes of things. Yes, you may feel safer looking through each box to see if there is a hidden treasure within, but it’s likelier there’s nothing to miss.
Before Sorting through these Boxes, Set Your Intention
Before you start going through endless boxes of potential minutia, decide on your purpose for looking through the boxes. What do you hope to rescue from this organized clutter?
For example, you could set your sights on finding photographs or old letters. This way, the old store receipts, unused gifts, books, craft supplies, etc. will sift through your consciousness.
By setting an intention, your turning your attention to what you want to find. It’s sort of like buying a new car or jacket and thinking that you haven’t seen the color everywhere…only once you own the item you keep seeing its matches everywhere you look.
Determining what you want to find will help you focus.
Does this mean that you’ll ignore some nifty tchotchke that belonged to your great-grandmother that somehow ended up in one of these boxes? No, unusual items will stand out while you’re mind won’t dawdle over the box of winter clothing from the 1980s.
How to Sort through Organized Clutter
Sitting at a table and sorting through boxes could be an ideal task for a relative with health issues that prevent them from bending, reaching, and hauling.
Set a timer. You could look in the box first to determine if it’s filled with large or small items and then set the timer for 10-to-30-minutes. How do you know how long it will take to sort through the contents of a box? Unless the contents prove to be surprising, going through the box will take the amount of time you give it.
So, if you give yourself 20-minutes, the task will take 20-minutes but if you give yourself 30-minutes for that same task, it will then take 30-minutes. It might not work out this way all the time but make a guess and set a timer.
Empty the box. Unless you feel confident about what’s in the box, don’t just poke through the contents, shifting things in the box. Take things out of the box so you can see what’s there and so you can make certain there’s nothing that you’ll overlook.
Make decisions. Next to you, have other boxes labeled “trash,” “donate,” “keep,” “sell,” and any other designation, like “give to art teacher” or “personal papers.” As you take things out of the box, make a quick decision about where it belongs.
In most cases, this is the type of stuff that get donated to a charity that takes everything (as opposed to something specific, like career wear). It it’s broken, stained, or otherwise damaged or unusable, toss it. Your parents may have held onto it because they thought they’d fix the item. They didn’t. It’s not your job to take on those fiddly tasks.
You’re emptying the contents of one box into several boxes, each which has an assigned action or destination. If the box has one type of item in it (say, rubber stamp supplies), then you may end up putting everything back in its original box.
Deal with questions. You may find some items that you aren’t certain what to do with. You could either have a box labeled, “maybe” or “questions” or “look at again.” Make it your goal to put few items in this box or category. Remember, when your parents organized these items, they put them in boxes and likely didn’t use or look at these items after they closed the cover.
It’s your job to realize that the items can better serve someone else who can use or appreciate the things now as opposed to holding the items in limbo for even more time.
Finish. When the timer goes off, direct the contents where they belong. This could be the trash bin or the hallway where you’re stacking boxes that will get donated. Don’t fuss. You don’t want it to take as much time to put things back in the box as it did to take them out.
Move onto the next box. Repeat.
Sorting through Boxes of Organized Clutter
When you’re emptying your parent’s estate, it can be a challenge to deal with boxes of organized clutter. Even through the space looks neat, the contents of these bins, boxes, drawers, and cases can contain a baffling array of items.
But chances are these were things that your parents set to the side just in case they needed the things someday. They may have even forgotten about some of this stuff. When you go through these boxes, set in your mind what things you consider important enough to grab from the boxes.
Then take down one of these containers and:
Finding a lot of organizing supplies in your parent’s house may seem reassuring at first. However, if these containers were your parent’s way of dealing with items, they didn’t know what to do with, weren’t using, and likely didn’t care for all that much, then you want to think ahead and decide what is important enough for you to look for and then give those items to people or organizations who can use or appreciate them.
If you want a clear PLAN for handling everything in your parent’s estate, get the free Empty the House Starter Guide which will show you how to focus on little spaces, such as boxes.
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Hi, I'm Susan
Emptying my parents' overpacked 800-square-foot house left me popping handfuls of peanut M&Ms and doing a WHOLE lot of comfort-crocheting. The experience of sorting through mom and dad's stuff also encouraged me to become a professional organizer...so now I can offer techniques that work much better than chocolate.