How I Help My Clients Break the Accumulate-Toss-Accumulate-More Cycle
Introducing the “Holding Box.”
Updated Jan 24, 2023 3:59 PM
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In Home Therapy, a new book from licensed family therapist–turned–interior designer Anita Yokota, the journey to attainable mental wellness goals starts inside…your house. Through her thoughtful insights, reflective prompts, and calls to action, Yokota breaks down how to organize your home so that you can be your best self—including a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that hack for the moments when you just can’t decide whether to keep that sequined blazer you bought for NYE five years ago or not. (You’ll probably never wear it again—but you might, though?) In this excerpt, Yokota shares a few gems for sorting things out with intention.
Most of today’s popular organizing methods are based on creating “save,” “throw,” and “donate” piles as we go through our things. While it may be tempting to chuck items from your past that no longer serve (sayonara, ex-whoever!) and bring only bright, shiny ones into the new future you will create, this strategy assumes we’re mostly savers who need to become sorters or tossers quickly. Because the emphasis is on the past and future, and not the present, the act of organizing can only be a Band-Aid. There is no moment for contemplation. There is no silence or pause—however uncomfortable that may be—only rapid-fire decision-making. Rarely is the focus on the decision-making itself.
Well, friends, from a therapeutic standpoint, there are more helpful and lasting ways to organize your home, but living in the moment, with no guaranteed answers and plenty of uncertainty, can be scary. However, if you start flexing that muscle when it comes to the things you own, it feels incredible not to have that old movie of the past playing in your head or any fear of the future creeping in.
In order to face the present, you need to clear the space you intend to organize and create a blank slate. If you don’t examine why you accumulate or purge things, then you will continue the cycle no matter how many times you sort, toss, categorize, or label. Our human tendencies will overtake us, and we’ll end up back in the same place. So let’s confront our “now” and use a few tools to solve what might be under the hood.
Enter the Holding Box, a temporary container to hold your clutter, until you can make decisions about what to do with it. I like to use a pretty woven basket, but the box itself can be any receptacle that works with your decor, whether a beautiful leather case or a clear bin. What’s important is that it feels special. This box will hold all the belongings that you’re clearing out for 24 hours (if you’re a saver) or 48 hours (if you’re a tosser). In the process, it will help you live in the gray rather than default to black or white thinking (keep or toss), so you can practice balancing your attitudes toward your stuff and staying present.
Now pick a small area or surface—like a corner of your family room or a desktop—and clear it out, placing all of the items in the Holding Box. Take in your new blank space. How do you feel about it? Is it uncomfortable to see your space without any of your belongings? Or do you feel refreshed with the clutter gone? However you feel—good or bad—make peace with those feelings. You want to assess the energy each item brings to the space and whether or not it helps fulfill your goals for this area. In therapy, we’re always talking about assessing your own decision-making. Your goal here is to strengthen your decision-making muscle so you can create a truly intentional and honest home. In essence, consider whether this item meets your needs and goals for one of the domains explained in this book: Individual, Organizational, Communal, or Renewal.
You might ask yourself:
- Does this item empower me as an individual? (Individual)
- Does it help keep my home neater and more organized? (Organizational)
- Does it bring me closer to another family member? (Communal)
- Does it give me a sense of calm or refreshment? (Renewal)
For savers, pay attention to the types of things that you tend to overbuy and hold on to. Are these things serving you? What feeling are you trying to buy? For tossers, what feelings get thrown out and what gets accomplished (or doesn’t) when you do so?
Be honest! Over the next few days, keep thinking about what you want to do with the items. This waiting period—the not knowing what you’ll end up doing with all this stuff—will likely be uncomfortable, but don’t worry. There is a deadline. At the end of that time period, you’ll need to take action. After 24 to 48 hours, you will revisit the items you feel ambivalent about and decide if you will save or toss them. For the items you save, they have to serve a Core Desire for you or a family member in the home. They should be things that uplift you and have working intentions, not just memories or sentiments. For things that you toss, identify a person or organization you’ll donate them to, or a specific purpose you have for them (old towels for washing the car). Avoid mindlessly throwing items into a trash bag for a pickup.
I had a client who had an expensive red dress she was ambivalent about. After a couple of days of keeping it in the Holding Box, she decided to wear it for date nights with her partner, which supported her Core Desire to improve her marriage. Not only did she think she would never wear that dress again, she also had long wanted to bring back date night. With some creative thinking and intention setting, she doubled up on her organization and improved her relationship. Talk about a win-win! The smile on her face when I saw her several months later was priceless. The motivation of keeping that dress in her closet was intrinsically positive: There was no way she was going to miss a date with her partner. The tools work!
The Holding Box might seem like a simplistic exercise, but it’s a powerful tool. Some boxes belong to families confronting intense feelings, as grandparents who lived through the terror of Japanese internment camps might do, where any possessions were rare or nonexistent. As a result, the homeowners now have trouble letting go of their grandchildren’s toys, even in a cluttered space. Others belong to moms who felt attached to baby clothes for a variety of reasons, from difficult births to deciding not to have more children. These are uncomfortable feelings to explore in a 24-hour period, but it’s the best way to create a genuinely thoughtful home, organize it in a way that will shift the energy, and make it a therapeutic place of clarity. In the end, your space won’t be just sorted or coded; it will also tell your authentic story and allow you to grow.
Home Therapy. Copyright © 2022 by Anita Yokota. Principle photographs copyright © 2022 by Ali Harper. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.