How to stop assigning value to objects: A professional organizer shares downsizing and decluttering tips

Professional organizer Bonnie Borromeo Tomlinson (left) and Tyler Memorial Library Director Kim Gabert at the library for the discussion on organization.

Professional organizer Bonnie Borromeo Tomlinson (left) and Tyler Memorial Library Director Kim Gabert at the library for the discussion on organization. STAFF PHOTO/BELLA LEVAVI

By BELLA LEVAVI

Staff Writer

Published: 11-13-2023 3:09 PM

Published author, professional organizer and designer Bonnie Borromeo Tomlinson’s biggest piece of advice about getting your house organized is to stop buying bins. 

Tomlinson visited the Tyler Memorial Library last month for an event sponsored by the Charlemont-Hawley Cultural Council to teach people about downsizing, getting organized and emotionally letting go of things and getting rid of them. 

Tomlinson has two published books, “Stop Buying Bins” and “Stop Pushing Perfection.” In the books, she teaches about home organization through personal stories of her life as a professional organizer. She has a third book in the works about the younger generation’s relationship with “stuff.”

She discussed many tips in the nearly two-hour lecture, but the main argument Tomlinson pushed was that organic things (such as people) create energy, and inorganic things absorb energy. Often when people feel a lack or unhappiness in their own lives, they start to assign a higher value to their things, which can often lead to over-accumulation. 

Having too many things can be detrimental because it not only clutters someone’s living space but it also clutters their mind. 

“I want to get you to a place where you can find what you are looking for and live free and comfortable,” Tomlinson said. “I have seen what happens when people are surrounded by stuff they can’t get rid of: they are unhappy.” 

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Over-accumulation, she explained, began in the 1940s and 1950s, with the advent of credit cards. People began mindlessly shopping, not needing to worry about paying for the object right then. Today, people feel they need to buy brand-new things constantly, leading to the over-consumption of poor-quality items that fill our homes.

People often assign too much sentimental value to their things as an excuse for not getting rid of them. Tomlinson explained that often people hold onto the possessions of their relatives thinking, “This was owned by a person I loved.” She challenged people to think, “Did my relative even like this object?” She explained the memory of our relatives is within us and that the candy dish we are holding onto is not necessarily needed in our homes.

“Just because it is mine doesn’t mean my grandchild must keep it,” Tomlinson said. “You need to let go of assigned value.” 

One tip she gave for objects of sentimental value is to offer them to your children. If your children do not want them, it might be a sign to get rid of them.

Tomlinson brought up the concept of what she called “Swedish Death Cleaning,” a practice where, as a person approaches death, they go through their things and downsize, so their family doesn’t have to do it once they are gone. 

There are many things people can do with their stuff instead of throwing it away. They can donate it to organizations such as the Salvation Army, or they can try to sell it or take it to consignment shops. Tomlinson said people should expect to get a quarter of what they paid for an object, at best. 

Things are created with a purpose in mind, Tomlinson argued, so if the owners of those things are not using them, then the things have no value. She said we can give things value by finding homes for them where they will be used. This will in turn also benefit the old owner as it declutters their homes and their lives. 

As advice for downsizing, Tomlinson says, “Think of shopping from your stock.”

Tomlinson says to think of the purpose of a room and fill the room with the possessions and furniture that fit that purpose — and get rid of everything else. She said that often one-third of rooms are filled with trash and this becomes apparent through simple organization. 

She said people can start small with their organization projects. They can start with a closet or a shelf. 

“When you have too many things, you are compensating for something you are holding onto. It can be an emotion but it has nothing to do with the item,” Tomlinson said.

Bella Levavi can be reached at 413-390-4579 or blevavi@recorder.com.