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I WENT INTO THE conversation expecting to rail against plastic bins and organizational systems. “It never works. None of it! I’m a pack rat and there is nothing to be done!” Instead, Mark Brunetz, author of Take the U Out of Clutter (Berkley Trade, $16) and cohost of the Style Network’s deliciously schadenfreude-laden Clean House, disarmed me with one simple request: that I tell him about my chair. My chair?


“What’s the story of your stuff? We ask people to start with the chair they’re sitting on,” Brunetz says.

Floodgates open. After I detailed my years-long search for just the right chair, my eye caught the piles of books sitting to my right … and so on and so on. Soon I understood that I held on to (most of) my stuff because, well, I might need it again one day. Turns out I’m a cliché. Brunetz says that in addition to mine, there are four other reasons people hang on to their stuff:

Guilt. (But Aunt Martha bought it for me … so what if it’s so ugly that I hide it in the closet?)
Nostalgia. (Aw, look — my artwork from fourth grade!)
It was on sale.
And the oldie but goodie: This isn’t clutter — it’s a collection.

“What is always fascinating to me is how people navigate emotionally through their stuff,” Brunetz says. “People don’t realize they’re attached to their attachment.” So, no big plastic bins here. Instead, Brunetz and his co-author , Carmen Renee Berry, ask people to look at their decision-making skills about purchases and organization instead of looking at the organizational skills themselves.

Once you know the whys of your stuff, it’s far easier to figure out what stays, what goes and how to keep it from building up again in the future.

My new rules for what stays: I have to really love it or use it, otherwise it’s out of here. I’ve already given the heave-ho to a laptop I’d stopped using and a whole bunch of books that I didn’t much like the first time I paged through them.

Better living through clutter therapy? Indeed.

Anxious to start dealing with the goods as you consider your own story? Some strategies from Brunetz:

1. Treat your living space like a suitcase. Don’t fill it with goods you don’t need. “Start treating space as a commodity more than your things,” Brunetz says.

2. Take a photo of the things you’re hanging on to but never use (and don’t even like). You can keep the reminder but lose the clutter.

3. Get rid of stuff that reminds you of failure. Do you really need those longsuffering unfinished craft projects hiding in the closet?

4. Shop your house. Would you rebuy that chair? That lamp? All those books? If not, it’s time to set them free.

5. Know where new items will go. About to buy something but not sure where you’ll stash it at home? Leave it at the store.