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It’s true.  You have too much stuff.  So what do you do?

Purge! 

What a loaded word that is.  It’s one of those things that is so much easier said than done.  But why?  I tend to think it’s because there are so many layers of decision.  And too many decisions can lead to feelings of overwhelm.

Decision 1: To keep or not to keep?

That is the question.  (Or, if you’re more of an 80’s music fan, “Should this stay or should this go?”)

Do I keep this can of leftover paint from the kitchen remodel?  Do I keep my daughter’s artwork from elementary school?  Do I keep these receipts?

For most of us, none of these have a clear yes or no answer.

Yes, keep the can of paint…for now.  But maybe only keep it as long as the kitchen is that color.  (And if you move, leave it at the house.)

Of course, you should keep some of your daughter’s artwork.  But maybe only 3 or 4 originals.  (I’ll share in another post what you can do with the things you choose not to keep.)

And those receipts?  For 7-years and then you can shred them.  (Managing paper, especially financial paperwork, is a whole topic of it’s own!)

Just to complicate things just a little more, obligation, sentiment, or memory are tied up in many of our possessions which makes deciding whether or not to keep it just that much harder!

No wonder it can be overwhelming trying to make a decision!

So most of the time, we just don’t.  We leave the paint on the shelf, the papers in a pile, and the receipts stashed in a shoebox and hide them all away out of sight.

I think it there is an easier way to work through the decisions we need to make in order to purge.  And it’s simple enough that your kids can do it. (Bonus: teaching them this skill when they are young will help them make purging decisions more easily when they are older.)

I call it The Stoplight System.

Just like a stoplight, this system operates off of Red, Yellow, and Green.

So, let’s talk about what they mean and how to use it.

The Stoplight Colors

Red is anything that you are going to get rid of.  Simply put – it’s a goner.  Don’t worry yet about how you’re going to get rid of it.  Just know, it’s leaving your house.

Yellow is anything that you could get rid of at some point, but not yet.  That can of paint would fit in this category.  These things would be the first to go once that condition occurs or circumstance changes.  The biggest example would be moving.

Green is anything that stays.  These are your favorites, your most valued, your old stand-bys.  Things that you know you love or use, whether it’s annually or daily, it serves a specific purpose and it stays.

These labels start to give you the language around which to talk about things with your family in a neutral tone.  Often the hardest part of any process is making the decision to let go, and when we’re talking about personal possessions, it can feel like an even bigger decision yet.

Download your own set here: Stoplight System Sorting Labels. (I laminated mine so that they would be easy to reuse and move from box to box or bin to bin.)

The Sorting Station

The next step is to set up a sorting station.  You can make piles on the floor, but personally I prefer to use cardboard boxes (and sometimes I line these with a garbage bag).  Why?

  • It’s easy to label the boxes
  • If you have to stop mid-way through, it’s easy to stack the boxes
  • It keeps your bags from being overfilled.

Once you have your sorting station, let the purging begin!

Where to Start?

There are different schools of thought on this, so depending on your timeframe and end goal, you can do this a few different ways.

  1. By container (such as a drawer or bin)
  2. By type of item
  3. By room

Each of these has it’s benefits and pitfalls.

Purging by container

Plus: This keeps the job small and defined, so you can feel very accomplished.  It can feel good to get through 5 bins in an afternoon.  It’s a measurable accomplishment and can be easy to clean-up.

Minus: You may find yourself doing things redundantly as you discover things in the next bin that belong in this bin.  It has the potential to be too narrow of a parameter.

Tip: The exception may be a highly specific space like that kitchen gadget drawer.

Purging by type of item

Mari Kondo advocates this approach.  If you are working on books, she would suggest that you gather all your books from all your rooms together, purge, and then put away what is staying.

Plus: This can be very helpful in making sure that you don’t have cookbooks in 3 rooms of the house so can make the putting away easier because you know exactly how much space you need to accommodate the books.

Minus: It can be overwhelming!  The job of gathering them all can feel like that’s all you have energy for – there is no more energy left to make decisions.

Tip: A variation of this idea might be gathering all books of a particular genre.  All cookbooks, then all children’s books, then all homeschool books, and so on.

Purging by room

Plus: This can keep the mess confined to a specific space which can be very helpful for managing the purge.

Minus: This misses the stragglers from other spaces that need to be integrated into the room. And if the room is, for example, your bedroom, it may impede progress if you need to clear things away everyday so you can climb into bed or get into your closet.

No right or wrong

Experiment and see what works best for you and your family.  But no matter what: Don’t let this stop you.  If you’re not sure, start small with a bin or drawer.  It won’t be long until you get the hang of it.

Sort!

Whether you are working on your own or with someone, pick up each item and decide if it’s red, yellow, or green.  And then put it in the correct bin.  Don’t do anything else with it at this point.  Putting them in the correct color bin is clearing your mind to decide about the next object without trying to remember anything about the one you just did.  Remember, this is the sorting stage and while it might feel more like you’re just rearranging objects, you’re not.  You’re staging them for the next step which is where our next decision comes in.

If you’re doing this with your kids and their things, be patient.  Resist the temptation to slip back into “keep” or “get rid of” and stick with the neutral descriptions of “green”, “yellow”, and “red”.

Decision #2: where to keep it

Once you have emptied and sorted out the container or space, it’s time to put things away.  Often times this is the last step, but I like to do it next for a couple of reasons:

  1. You have a finished space faster. And this means that you have a visible win.
  2. This gives you an opportunity to reclaim anything mistakenly discarded. You might discover that the mystery tube you put in the red box is an essential piece to something you are actually keeping.

But this step comes with it’s own set of decisions

Settle

Settle the green box

These are things you are definitely keeping.  Before you put everything away, you have to figure how you’re going to organize it and where you’re going to keep it (i.e. which container, drawer, or shelf).

Tip: If it’s something that belongs in a different room, take it to that room now.  If this is a settled space, put it away where it needs to go.  Otherwise, just put it somewhere and integrate it in when you tackle that space in the near future. (Need help knowing how to put it away? Check out 7 Secrets of a Well-Organized Home.)

Settle the yellow box

These are things that you are somewhat ambivalent about.  So as you pull them out, if you choose to hang onto them put a small yellow sticker on them somewhere discreet.  This helps you remember later that this wasn’t something you were attached to.  If while labeling these you discover that you don’t actually need to hang on to it after all, go ahead and put it in the red box.

Some things you will integrate into your space with your green items.  Others you may pack up into a box to set aside.  (If you do this, try this organizing strategy for keeping track of what you store and where you store it.)

If you’re doing this with your kids possessions, this box may be the toys they haven’t played with in forever but are now their absolute favorites.  Negotiating with them how you will know when these move from yellow to red can be helpful.  Maybe they’re outside toys and you can agree that they can be enjoyed over summer but won’t stay once Fall hits.  Or they may agree to play with each item one more time and then pass it along. 

With kids, “Yellow” is a great way to negotiate a compromise that meets everyone’s needs.

Once you finish with Yellow, it’s time for the next set of decisions.

Decision #3: How to get rid of the stuff

Settle the red box

As we settle the red box, we start by sorting this box into specific categories and piles:

  • Garbage
  • Recycling
  • Donate
  • Sell

That’s sounds easy enough, right?  Now is probably a good time to tell you that each of these categories has it’s own set of decisions and tasks. (Depending on the age and ability of your kids, you may find that you have to do more of these things on your own without their help.)

Garbage can mostly just be thrown away…unless it’s a large object.  Check with your garbage collection service, but most will allow one big item to be set out each week.  If you have several large items you just need to plan to set one out each week until they’re gone.  (Tip: If you’re friends with your neighbors, ask if they would allow you set a large item with their garbage.  This will clear it out of your space faster.)

Recycling is not all created equal.  “Regular” recycling can be tossed into your recycling bin, but batteries (some battery stores will take them for you), electronics, and chemicals all need to be recycled in different manners at different places.  Sort them out into boxes and schedule times to properly dispose of them. (Tip: Making an appointment with yourself on your calendar to take care of them gives this task importance and increases the likelihood that you will actually remove these items from your space.)

Donations can all be boxed up and taken to (or picked up  by) one place, or they can be separated out and shared with several different non-profits.  For example, you could take books to the local book bank, clothes to a women’s shelter, household goods to a charity resale shop, and so on. 

Selling items can be done in various ways as well.

  1. Hold a garage sale. This lets you get rid of a lot of things at one time.
  2. Sell on Facebook Marketplace. This lets you get rid of things one at a time but does require a little bit of tracking to make sure that you’re responding to messages. 
  3. Sell on eBay. Depending on the item, it may be worth the fees and the shipping if you can sell it for a higher dollar amount than you could at a garage sale. 
  4. Use a local selling app let’s Let Go or OfferUp.

Tip: Put your description and pricing on your listing photo to keep all the info together

And that’s it!  As easy as 1, 2, 3, Green, Yellow, and Red!

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