Updated on 04.21.09

Review: Throw Out Fifty Things

Trent Hamm

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal development, personal productivity, or entrepreneurship book of interest.

to50tWhenever I see clutter, I see money lost. For one, the clutter itself is usually made up of unused items that have value. Books, decorations, games, DVDs, and so on – they all cost money to purchase and many have at least some degree of resale value. For another, clutter takes up time, and time is money. It takes longer to find things. It takes longer to clean. It takes longer to rearrange and to organize.

Thus, over time, I’ve begun to look at clutter as an enemy of sorts. Stuff that just takes up space, particularly stuff with very limited aesthetic appeal, is stuff that can easily be eliminated.

That’s not to say that I’m entirely successful in my war on clutter. There are many places in our home that are quite cluttered (starting with my office, for example), but I often have difficulty sifting through that clutter and determining what exactly I should keep – and what I should get rid of.

Throw Out Fifty Things by Gail Blanke offers an interesting solution in the title itself. Blanke’s premise is that by going through your cluttered spaces and choosing fifty things to get rid of, you push yourself through the psychological barriers that cause you to create clutter in the first place.

Blanke identifies four key rules of disengagement (how to decide what to get rid of):

One. If it – the thing, the belief or conviction, the memory, the job, even the person – weighs you down, clogs you up, or just plain makes you feel bad about yourself, throw it out, give it away, sell it, let it go, move on.

Two. If it (see above!) just sits there, taking up room and contributing nothing positive to your life, throw it out, give it away, sell it, let it go, move on. If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward. Throwing out what’s negative helps you rediscover what’s positive.

Three. Don’t make the decision – whether to toss it or keep it – a hard one. If you have to weigh the pros and cons for too long or agonize about the right thing to do, throw it out.

Four. Don’t be afraid. This is your life we’re talking about. The only one you’ve got for sure. You don’t have the time, energy, or room for physical or psychic waste.

An interesting start, but is there more meat on the bone than that? Let’s dig in and find out.

Getting Rid of the Physical Stuff
Throw Out Fifty Things starts with a room-by-room walkthrough of one’s house (bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, living room, dining room, attic, and garage), highlighting lots of specific areas and specific tactics for getting rid of clutter.

A few particular themes seem to come up throughout this section.

First, memories are in your head and in your heart, not in items. Many people have closets crammed full of things that are kept for sentimental reasons, but they’re things that will almost never be looked at again – and when they think about the prospect of digging through all that stuff, it’s not a happy thought. So suck it up and go through it. Find the stuff that you’d actually like to have out and about for decoration because it really gives you a positive feeling – then chuck the rest. Seriously.

Second, just because you used an item a lot in the past doesn’t mean you have a use for it now. You read that book a year ago, spending an hour with it each night for weeks – and now it’s finished. Will you ever read it again? If not, toss it. Apply that same litmus test to everything you remember using frequently in the past – will you use it frequently again?

Another regular theme: digitize it. Got old documents in boxes taking up space? Scan them in and burn the originals. Got lots of old pictures in photo albums? Scan them in and share the digital images with your friends.

Your Office: Paring Down the Professional Clutter
Here, the “digital” theme really comes to the forefront. In a professional environment, there’s really not an extensive need to maintain a huge amount of printed documents – they take up space and are very cumbersome.

Blanke encourages anyone in an office environment to digitize everything they can. Scan documents, make sure they’re searchable (most modern scanners do this, enabling you to save a scanned document as a searchable PDF), and save them in a place that’s backed up regularly. You can turn boxes and boxes and boxes of documents into digital files stored on a hard drive – and it’s now searchable and much easier to use.

Yes, this takes a lot of time. It’s a tremendous project, in fact, but if you feel like you’re simply overrun with documents in your office, this is the way to go.

Another interesting tactic: get rid of old digital files that are simply outdated. Stick them in an archive folder somewhere and simply forget about them. I’ve found that most presentations and documents that are more than a year old or so tend to age quite seriously, so it’s usually best just to archive them (in case you ever need them again for some reason) and get them out of the way. Out of sight, out of mind – and you’re ready to create new ideas.

Attacking the Mental Mess
Here, Throw Out Fifty Things dips heavily into the “power of positive thinking” realm. Blanke argues that mental clutter is just as limiting as physical clutter and encourages people to get rid of it. A few examples:

“Throw out” negative terms you use to mentally describe yourself. Instead, focus on the positives about yourself. Visualize situations where you come through and succeed instead of imagining scenarios where you fail.

Let the past be the past. Particularly failures. Once you’ve failed, reliving it does nothing but bring you down. Absorb the lessons you can, then move on – don’t think about the mistakes you once made.

You’re not perfect. No one is. Stop focusing on your little mis-steps – they’re going to happen. Instead, work on preparing yourself for success in the future. Picture yourself doing everything right in the future.

You’ve grown. You’re not the same person you were ten years ago. Look at the things you define as your true interests and passions. Quite often, many of these things simply don’t match up with our self-definition. That means it’s time to toss out those old impressions.

Stepping into the Clearing
Once you’ve eliminated the clutter, what’s left? It’s likely much more minimal than before with just the essentials left behind. Those essentials are a fertile breeding ground for some essential redefinitions of your life.

Things that reflect who you are. If you strip things down to a minimal home decor, you’re left with only items that make you feel positive. From this state, you can be very careful about adding new things – again, add only stuff that contributes to your overall positive sense.

Culture that reflects who you are. Perhaps you’ve realized you’re no longer passionate about alternative rock and now you’re interested in personal development. That means you ca stop using mindspace for those old things and devote your time and mental energy to the areas that reflect where you are right now.

Ideas that reflect who you are. Getting rid of the many things cluttering your mind and your life frees you up to explore new ideas that previously intrigued you. Your kitchen is clear of clutter, your time is free of unfulfilling activities, and your mind has let go of old concepts – time to learn how to cook.

Is Throw Out Fifty Things Worth Reading?
Take a look around you. Do you feel happy about what you see? Are you surrounded by things that provide real value to you and are easy to find, or are you surrounded by mountains of stuff (and simply looking at that stuff makes you feel bad)?

Throw Out Fifty Things is a very thought-provoking book if you find yourself in the latter camp. If you can actually get out of the chair and do the things that Blanke suggests (and in this review, I’ve mostly just focused on general themes – there are a lot of great specific tips in the book), you’ll go a long way toward improving the environment around you and the environment in your head, too.

If you’re already organized, Throw Out Fifty Things won’t do much for you. If you’re not organized – and you’re willing to try – Throw Out Fifty Things can be a godsend.

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  1. John at PlainCents.com says:

    Digitizing my old documents is something I’ve been considering doing. My concern with digitizing is having to secure the information on my computer. I’ll have to figure out a way to secure documents in a folder on my Mac. I’m sure it can be done. As for the book, seems that it would help a lot of people out there who tend to hoard items. I’m always looking for ways to simplify my workspace. Great review Trent! Your book reviews are always appreciated.

  2. kara says:

    I did this last year, except I got rid of 100 things. It was one of my 101 things in 1001 days goals. It was surprisingly easy, once I got started. I set myself a few rules to discourage cheating: A bag of clothing culled from my closet only counted as 1 item, for example. Same for a pile of useless kitchen gadgets from a “junk” drawer. I found that I not only looked at things *in* my house with a new eye, it made me think twice before buying new things to bring into the house. I plan to do it again this year – to get rid of another 100 things. I’m finding it very freeing!

  3. Jessica W says:

    My first apartment cost 2/3 of my monthly income and was just 325 square feet. It was stacked floor to ceiling with books, and “stuff” until the day I figured out monthly what it was costing me to store all that stuff.

    Then I purged… like nothing I’ve ever seen before, and got rid of so much *stuff*. It felt great and I could feel much better about my already over-priced little apartment.

    It’s a good way to evaluate your piriorities. Is your stuff worth what it costs you to store it? Do the math and see. :)

    Great post–Thanks!

  4. Lynette says:

    Each time I purchase something new and bring it into the house (like a DVD, Book or CD for example), I make sure I throw out something equivalent. I use to say “I’ll sell it on eBay” but I never get around to it and it would just build up.

    Every day, I go through the house and find 1 thing that I don’t use and dispose of it.

    I’ve heard of people who use the garbage bag technique which I think is a good idea. Once a week, make it a habit to fill a garbage bag with things you don’t need. Then either sell, donate or give to charity your unwanted things.

  5. antiSWer says:

    We’re going to be moving to go away to school soon, so we’re getting rid of some clutter. It’s the emotional part that gets me. Oh, the memories I have of my garbage! And the money I’ve wasted!

    It’s pretty satisfying when you’ve cleaned it out, though.

  6. archdiva says:

    I like the idea of finding 50 things. That’s a great start for a yard sale, actually!

    Sometimes the biggest hurdle to get over when decluttering is the memories and emotional attachment we have to our stuff. I find if I give myself permission to take a picture of the item to rmeind myself of the memory attached to it, I am able to let go of a lot more items. And a picture is much easier to tote around than boxes of stuff we don’t need.

    I keep a file on my computer called “Rememories” for just those pictures!

  7. Kari says:

    Thank you for this post Trent, I’ve been contemplating how to organize and get rid of the clutter. I’m going to check into this book.

  8. This sounds like a great book, I will look into picking it up at my library. I have to admit that I would be terrified of throwing out things with sentimental value, but I understand the thought behind it. Thanks for the review!

  9. Andrew B. Watt says:

    I love throwing stuff away. One of the things that I really like is uncovering the reasons why places become crowded and messy, though.

    For example, a few months ago I cleared off my desk, which had gotten crowded with junk. I cleared off the desk one item at a time, filed what needed filing, and tossed the rest. I was so happy to sit down at my desk, my clean desk… and I almost fell over.

    Turns out the chair under the desk was broken. It stopped being comfortable, so I started working elsewhere, and the desk gradually filled up with crap. Now the chair is gone, I use my desk, and it’s clear.

    Places get messy for reasons. Figure out what the reasons are, and you’ll find the junk doesn’t pile up as quickly, either.

  10. KC says:

    The least cluttered I’ve ever felt in my adult life was the months before we moved. We were making a big move (over 500 miles) and had scaled back accordingly. I wasn’t working so I could systematically go through the entire house and de-clutter. It was so cathartic. I’ve tried to continue that feeling in the new home, but it is so much harder. Its a larger home and thus more space for things to collect. But I think having a deadline of a moving date helps you draw a line and say “I’m getting rid of this.” When you don’t have that deadline set you think, “Well, I’ll just put it back on the shelf, I might need it one day.”

  11. Jen says:

    Cleaning out my filing cabinet last summer was one of the most emotionally difficult things I’ve ever done. I had junk in there dating back to middle school (I’m 26). I sure felt good when it was done, though!

  12. BJ says:

    Thanks for the great review! It sounds like a book well worth reading, for folks like me who seem to have greater than average difficulty letting go of objects that are no longer important or useful. (like that wide-carriage dot-matrix printer that I paid $650 for eons ago, but just couldn’t part with for half of that a year or so later. Of course, it then became close to worthless – lesson learned?) I enjoyed your post so much, I think I’ll print it out, frame it, and — hey, wait a minute!

  13. Foxie says:

    I have SUCH a hard time getting rid of the items with sentimentality attached to them. I have a lot of things from older generations in my family that I really don’t need or have a use for, but I would feel WAY guilty of getting rid of the stuff… Anyone have any advice for that??

    Otherwise, I try to limit myself to the cedar chest that I have for the stuff with memories and that serve no other purpose. It has limited space, and then I can hang on to stuff I’m not ready to give up yet.

    As for new stuff, I make sure it’s something that makes me smile whenever I look at it. My biggest indulgences are hot wheels cars and fox things. The cars are fairly cheap and let me indulge my car hobby for very little. I have foxes from various places, and each item in that collection has its own memories attached to it. Lucky for me, neither collection has run out of room yet, I have plenty of unused wall space. :)

  14. Christine says:

    I just read this book and really like it. She motivated me like no other clutter reducing book has. She actually motivated me the most with rules 3 & 4

    Three. Don’t make the decision – whether to toss it or keep it – a hard one. If you have to weigh the pros and cons for too long or agonize about the right thing to do, throw it out.

    Four. Don’t be afraid. This is your life we’re talking about. The only one you’ve got for sure. You don’t have the time, energy, or room for physical or psychic waste.

    #3 convinced me to end a relationship that I have only been keeping out of guilt! What a load off!

  15. Torv says:

    Reading the title alone is getting me motivated to throw out 50 things today… the wife might not care for that.

    I am going to get rid of 1 thing a day for the next 2 months. I will see if she notices.

  16. TPol says:

    Lately the clutter at home was weighing me down. My problem is lacking the energy to go through closets and cabinets. Whenever mom comes to visit, she somehow energizes me. Last week she and I did a thorough cleaning of closets and I donated several bags of clothes. Documents and books are still waiting to be sorted out. One of these days…

  17. Anna says:

    Tory #10: Why the secrecy? Why not share your insights with your wife? She might become enthusiastic about decluttering, too. You could make this a joint project, or even have a friendly contest to see who can throw out more things.

  18. Jo says:

    I already have the book, have glimpsed through it enough to realize that this is a workable solution. With an impending move in the very near future, it’s to the detriment of this that the book will come in handily.

    Fifty things to pitch, give away or sell in a garage sale is realistic.

  19. tammy says:

    As the daughter of a hoarder, I am super aware of how things that pollute quality of life.
    I keep a bag in my closet. 27 things a month are given away. I blog about it at my Frugal Musican site. I don’t know how I arrived at the number 27, but it totally helps me be ON TRACK about decluttering
    Great post Trent! I want to read this book!

  20. clc says:

    the concept is great – but this book is unnecessary. flylady.net uses this same idea, and so many more!

  21. Meg says:

    My apartment complex is going to have a community-wide yard sale in a couple weeks. Thats what motivated me to start cleaning out closets.
    My mother would probably benefit from this book. she is a major packrat and keeps tons of stuff for sentimental reasons. The stuff sits in the garage in boxes unused.

  22. Torv says:

    Anna, it’s not the fact that she won’t do it, it is the fact that she will think I am off on a tangent doing something goofy again… :) . If i say anything about … i read it in a book, I saw it online… she usually assumes that I am nuts. So, i bring it up here and there as more of a ” I would like to clean up the clutter ” and she goes along with me… so it’s all good.

    I did get rid of a bunch of stuff yesterday, i have 4 full garbage bags to put out this week on the curb. ;)

  23. Amphritrite says:

    I actually picked this up like three weeks ago, and I concur… it’s a pretty decent book, even for us pared-down packrats.

  24. I’ve started digitizing all of my paperwork at home. I’ve done this at work for quite a while, ever since we installed scanners. At work, I don’t even have a calendar on my desk, and everything that can be scanned gets filed on my computer. I have my eye on a Fujitsu Snap Scan for my home.

  25. George says:

    Foxie – the obvious way to get rid of the sentimental stuff is to pass it to another family member. Yeah, I’m stuck with some, too :-)

    My mother-in-law is going through her purge now… fortunately we’ve been able to turn away or give away most of it. My wife can be quite ruthless when it comes to sentimentality!

    I do pretty well at turning away such gifts up until “family history” rears its head. Thus we have a small collection of papers and books and photos from the early 1800s, when my ancestors kept moving westward from Europe, up through the 1940s, when they’d completed their westward migration because the Pacific Ocean stopped them.

  26. Bill in NC says:

    We used the recent resettlement of refugees in our area as impetus to declutter.

    I felt better donating the new, but bright pink towels from my late mother’s house to families I know will use them.

  27. Jack says:

    Digitizing everything sounds fine in theory, but in practice, there is nothing like having the paper original (or copy).

    When you digitize something, you are forever having to “update” the item, so that it remains readable over time. Just think: if you would have digizited an old document and put it on a 5″ floppy a decade or so ago, could you still access, much less read, the document now?

    Personally, having a few boxes of old documents isn’t that great of a burden. And knowing that I will always be able to read/access/use them, without being subject to the whims of technology, is priceless.

  28. Stephanie PH says:

    George – if no one in your family has the space or inclination to keep family history “stuff” consider a college or state archives or a local library. Your info can be “loaned” or gifted and others can appreciate your family history too.

  29. katy says:

    Right after readingyour post, I took what amounted to four garbage bags full of paperback and hc books. Much neater. I won’t reread them and my neighbors will enjoy them. (it’s our building ‘home shopping network’). I won’t buy envelopes to sell them online/shlep them to the PO today.

    A good beginning…thanks for the nudge.

  30. Check out FlyLady.net! That’s exactly what she endorses, among other “house-blessing” tips. Very cathartic. I love all the personal testimonials that share how much it’s helped.

  31. Lisa says:

    Hi! I have it on interlibrary loan request.Thanks for the review.

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