Culling the Herd (of Objects and Paper)


30 Apr
30Apr

If you’ve been reading my posts, you know I am a fan of culling items as one downsizing route, especially when you have a large number of certain kinds of items. So, I thought I would spend more time exploring this helpful process. 

First, a definition of culling: (Merriam Webster): To select from a group (choose); to reduce or control the size of (something, such as a herd) by removal (as by hunting or slaughter) of especially weak or sick individuals. (Me: Since we are dealing with inanimate objects as we downsize, you can apply your own meaning to “weak” or “sick.”) 

Most of us cull as a part of our regular lives. Three common examples are throwing out the molding food in the fridge, going through our closets once or twice a year, and shredding tax-related documents that are more than seven years old (with some exceptions).

In my mind, culling is NOT the same as curating. Curating is the desirable end state—it involves choosing rather than eliminating. I will write more about curating in future posts. (Marie Condo favors curating only.) Culling is an elimination process. 

Culling as a downsizing tactic has several key purposes: 

  • It eases us into the downsizing process.
  • It allows us to decrease the number of objects from a common category (e.g., books, papers, correspondence, clothes, etc.) to a more manageable and less overwhelming quantity without having to make final decisions.
  • It helps us to sort the wheat from the chaff and define the scope of our task.
  • It reminds us of what we have.

In other words, culling gives us an opportunity to make progress without that final commitment. There are those who would argue that culling is a waste of time—it means handling objects more then once. But that is one of the points of slow downsizing—to make reasoned rather than rushed decisions! 

Here’s how I have approached culling. I will use my paper files as my main example, but you may want to apply the culling approach to any category of thing that you have a lot of. 

GROUPING: As you’ve probably realized, I am a relatively organized person with a tendency to keep everything. But when I first began my downsizing, the state of my basement files horrified me. I spent some time grouping them into big categories, like financial, travel records, correspondence, school records, job records. I didn’t bother to review the contents at this stage, and if I needed something, it might have required a substantial search. But at least I had some overall sense of what I had. 

SORTING: At this stage, I became more granular. For example, I sorted my vast collection of letters and postcards into categories of senders (childhood friends, classmates, old boyfriend, relatives but not immediate family) and then before I was ready to dive in, I sorted by individuals. With jobs I’ve held, I first made sure that items from the same job were together, and then I sorted my longer held jobs into relevant sub-categories, like workshops given, handouts created, publicity. How much sorting you do and into what types of categories is a matter of your own preferences and what is meaningful to you. 

INITIAL CULL FOR DUPLICATION, RELEVANCE, AND LIKING/: With a long work life in several careers that produced vast quantities of paper (before the era of permanent computer files), some of it became irrelevant after I retired. I covered this topic in one of my earlier posts on low-hanging fruit. I shed a lot of paper with that initial cull, through shredding, recycling, or finding a new home for it. Likewise, I gave away kitchen objects, dishes, linens that I didn’t like, was unlikely to use, or duplicated what I already owned. At this stage I kept everything that was generally interesting or meaningful to me.

ADVANCED CULLING: Now I had a more manageable amount of paper, I could tackle one file at a time and prune further with a more discriminating eye. With paper and with objects, my key questions are: Is this sufficiently interesting to me to keep, and/or does it tell something important about my life story? And if I have a lot of one kind of item, will a small sampling suffice? 

PRESERVING: If yes to either of the above questions, I needed to decide in what form I wanted to preserve an item. I find it useful to consider the options (e.g., keep, photograph or scan, make note of/tell a story about, etc.) but not necessarily act on it immediately following a cull. I’ve discussed some preservation options in other posts and will do so again in the future. 

I’m happy to report that I’ve done an initial cull of all 30 basement file drawers, and for much of it, an advanced cull. For household goods, I’ve done as much as I want to for now. Culling my book collection is an iterative process as is culling my clothes, requiring repeated culls. For childhood souvenirs (the dolls and doll clothes, the miniatures), I still have a way to go. 

My principles for culling: 

Group and sort initially so you aren’t attacking too many disparate types of objects when the time comes to cull. And sort again, if you need to, especially with papers or anything where the number of items warrant it. 

Don’t spend time looking at or making decisions (unless very obvious) at the grouping and sorting stages. This should be a quick and dirty process intended to provide some order. Keep moving along. 

Once grouped and sorted, start culling with something that’s manageable and that once culled will give you a feeling of success. Maybe you want to cull from your items that take up a lot of space, those you are less attached to, or those that are more important to you. My now retired professional photographer husband is spending time going through his hard drives. They don’t take up a lot of space, but the photographs on them are central to who he is. 

Use your first instincts on the initial cull. Be realistic: Do you or can you use it? If it’s something you can use, do you have more of this object than you need (e.g., bed linens, books on a particular topic)? Is it still relevant or of interest (e.g., something related to a hobby you still pursue rather than one you’ve given up)? Are you going to look at this again (e.g., the answer was “no” regarding my college notebooks with their tiny writing from decades ago)? What kind of condition is it in (e.g., I have some newspaper articles that are of interest, but they are falling apart—maybe scan and discard originals)? With objects as with paper archives, it is also worth asking whether you like it/it interests you and/or whether it has meaning.

Leave time between the initial cull and any advanced culling. Decisions may take time to marinate. Your initial cull gives you a sense of what you have so that you can ponder it at odd moments. I find myself thinking about the contents of my file cabinets as I ready myself for sleep!

If you are anxious about disposing of some items you cull, put these items in a holding bin and review the contents later. With clothes I’ve culled, I often put them elsewhere for a few weeks. Mostly, I agree with my initial decisions, but occasionally, I will change my mind. 

If you find downsizing difficult, use iterative culling as a way to get you closer to your goal. With each cull, particularly if spaced out, your standards about what is important might change, and you will find it easier to part with additional items. You may even forget about what you disposed of!

Be kind to yourself. If you find a category of items hard to cull, put it aside for awhile and do something that is easier.

Record your befores and afters. There’s nothing like a visual proof of your progress to motivate you to do more—whether it’s a photograph or a list. 

Make culling a habit in your future!

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