Throw Out Fifty Things

Clear the Clutter, Find Your Life


By Gail Blanke

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“A perfect guide to getting the non-essentials out of the way, so that simple joys can make their way into our lives.” — Marianne Williamson, author of A Return to Love

“If you want to grow, you gotta let go,” is the mantra that bestselling author, columnist, and life coach Gail Blanke lives by. That means eliminating all the clutter – physical and emotional – that holds you back, weighs you down, or just makes you feel bad about yourself.

In Throw Out Fifty Things she takes us through each room of the house – from the attic to the garage – and even to the far reaches of our minds. Through poignant and humorous stories, she inspires us to get rid of the “life plaque” we’ve allowed to build-up there.
  • That junk drawer (you know that drawer) in the kitchen? Empty it!
  • Those old regrets? Throw ’em out!
  • That make-up from your “old” look? Toss it!
  • That relationship that depresses you? Dump it!

Once you’ve hit fifty (you’ll be surprised how easy it is to get there) and once you’ve thrown out that too-tight belt and too-small view of yourself, you’ll be ready to step out into the clearing and into the next, and greatest, segment of your life.


Copyright © 2009 by Gail Blanke

All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

The individuals who have been identified in this book by first and last name have granted me permission to use their real names. The individuals who have only been identified using a first name are based on real people or composites drawn from my work as a life coach. I have changed the names of those individuals and modified personally identifiable details.

Parts of Chapters 14, 15, 17, 18, 23, and 24 were originally published in Real Simple magazine in a slightly modified form.

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First eBook Edition: March 2009

Springboard Press is an imprint of Grand Central Publishing. The Springboard name and logo are trademarks of Hachette Book Group.

ISBN: 978-0-446-54434-4


The truth is, this book wouldn't have been possible if my mom hadn't threatened to turn all my dresser drawers upside down and told me to "Get crackin' and throw out all that junk, and I mean now!" that summer day when I was fourteen. And it wouldn't have been possible if my dad hadn't told me to "Get rid of anything that drags you down, sweetie. Moving through a bunch of negative clutter is like walking underwater. It's hard to get where you want to go." I sure was a lucky kid.

Look, I didn't come by this "throwing out" thing naturally, in spite of my otherwise pretty good genes. I had to acquire a passion for letting go, throwing out, and pressing the "delete" button in more than a few areas of my life. Chances are, if you've picked up this book, you aren't exactly the oracle of organization or the diva of decluttering either. But you've got a longing—okay, maybe not yet a passion—to clear the decks so you can "get crackin' " with the next segment of your life.

And the people you'll meet inside these pages have that same longing, too. And they also have something else that you have: courage. It takes courage to let go of the past. It takes courage to actually make a decision to throw something—anything—out. As you'll see, for many of the men and women who have been generous enough to share their stories, actually throwing out fifty things wasn't always (frequently, but not always) a laugh a minute. But they found the courage to do it anyway. And in some cases, it changed their lives. It'll change yours, too.

In particular, I'm indebted to Laurel Bernstein, Jane Blecher, Dan Blodgett, Eddie Brill, Sally Carr, Beth Comstock, Lue Ann Eldar, David Evangelista, Martha Gilliland, David Hoffman, Phil Hough, Parvin Klein, Alan Matarasso, Marychris Melli, Patricia and Roger Miller, David Molko, Pat Perkins, Richard Pine, Scott Preiss, Kathy Robb, and Ray Sclafani.

Richard Pine, my dear friend and literary agent, kept me motivated throughout the entire process of putting this book together. "Just keep writing, Gail," was his daily dictum. It worked. And Karen Murgolo is simply the world's best and most supportive editor. In fact her whole team is terrific: Matthew Ballast and Erica Gelbard are superb publicists, while Tom Hardej became, among other things, my "organizational muse." And Laura Jorstad, in my view, is the queen of copy editing. And anyone who's ever called or come to my office knows my indomitable former assistant, Jane Blecher, stand-up comic, resident pharmacologist, and one-of-a-kind friend. But most of all, I'm grateful beyond words to Jim, Kate, and Abigail, the best family any gal ever had. Ever.

We are all passionate pilgrims on the road to an uncertain but glorious future, shedding as we go everything that's a drag, and anything that causes us to pause, second-guess ourselves, or—heaven forbid—turn around and go back.

I'm really glad you're with us.

Chapter 1

Your Bedroom

Okay, let's remember the Rules of Disengagement: If it—the article of clothing, the shoes, the lamp, whatever—weighs you down or makes you feel bad about yourself, or if it just sits there taking up room and contributing nothing positive, it goes out. If you find you're spending a lot of time trying to figure out whether or not to keep it or toss it, it goes out. And finally, don't be afraid. This is your life we're talking about, and we're going let go of anything that clutters it up. Starting now.

Okay, it's always easier to start with the low-hanging fruit. Just walk into your bedroom and look around. What do you see? How do you feel? Are you glad to be there; do you feel relaxed, serene, even clearheaded? I don't, at least not as much as I'd like to.

I'll tell you what I see: I see decorative pillows from five years ago that really depress me. I don't know how to explain it, but they're too dark and ornate for what I want to be a light, airy room. And two of them are slightly chewed at the corners thanks to our ten-month-old golden retriever. (Her name's Willa and if I threw out all the stuff she's gnawed I could easily get to fifty things… but there might not be much left.) Anyway, those pillows are going. (Remember, groups of things, for the most part, only count as one, so although I'm throwing out five depressing pillows I can only put down a "one" next to them.) They're going into one of those big black Hefty bags labeled donations, and eventually I'll give them to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. It would be easy to put them in the attic or the back of my husband's closet (he'd never notice them, believe me), but they'd still be here and that just doesn't walk the dog. We're talking about throwing stuff out, not moving it around.

So let's open our first drawer. Everything okay in there? Are there socks that don't match? What about all the single gloves—are you going to wear two different-colored right-handed gloves or wait another couple of years for their mates to show up? And what about the too-small sweaters that your sister-in-law keeps giving you Christmas after Christmas? She won't really know that you threw them out, and actually you'll give them away. They're perfectly good sweaters, just not for you. And how about that T-shirt from the old company outing you dragged yourself to (you referred to it as "forced fun," remember?) two weeks before you and your entire department were so unceremoniously eliminated? It really has to go. It's no longer worthy of your wearing it—even just to jog in—seriously. Because every time you put it on it's going to make you feel that somehow the firings were your fault, that you should have done something differently, that maybe you're not all that good and you somehow deserved to be downsized. Sounds ridiculous, I know, but that's what we do: If something goes wrong, we make it all about us. Too bad we don't do that when something goes right! You get the picture. The T-shirt goes out. And the shoulds go with it. Throw them out.

While we're in our drawers, let's consider my dear friend Barbara Brennan's throw-out technique, which she refers to as "periodic purges." "I grew up with piles," she says, "so I feel oddly comfortable having piles around. That is, as long as I know what's in the pile."

I like the idea of being "oddly comfortable" with piles. It's good to know what you're okay with and what drives you crazy, and not buy into someone else's idea of the neatness imperative, don't you think?

"But I live in a cozy New York apartment," Barbara continues. "Cozy is a code word for 'limited closet space,' so I can't let the piles get too high." The way Barbara keeps from being overrun by her stuff, not to mention her piles, is by taking it one drawer or shelf at a time. "Every month or so, I do an area cleanout. Maybe I tackle a jewelry drawer or a shelf in my closet. Nothing overwhelming, nothing too time consuming. But I always feel better, lighter, and more clearly focused, not to mention extremely pleased with myself." I like her attitude: Do it, but don't make it a big deal.

Speaking of a jewelry drawer, I bet you have one where you keep all your costume jewelry. I do and it's a real mess. I used to work at Avon, and I received new pieces of jewelry every two weeks that were featured in each new Avon brochure. Wait a minute, where did all these giant metal earrings come from? I must've looked like a freak wearing them. Still, they weren't all that cheap and they do have a certain charm to them. Sort of. I can't just throw them in the wastebasket. They'd clank when they hit bottom. I hate that. But I'm done with that old look so what am I hanging on to this stuff for? I'll put them (five pairs, but one "thing") in a small ziplock bag and keep them with the stuff for Goodwill or maybe for someone I know who might appreciate them. Actually, the young daughter of a friend of mine might like them for playing dress-up. Are you going to throw out those old beads from that trip to Jamaica? Go ahead. At least give them away. You haven't worn them in over four years and someone else might be absolutely delighted by them. How many things have we got so far? I've got three and you've got three, too. We're not doing badly.

Listen, as you're rummaging through your stuff, keep your eye out for things that you might be done with but that could absolutely delight someone else.

Here's a great story that illustrates my point: Several years ago, we were conducting a Lifedesigns workshop for working women to help them create not only successful, enriching careers, but also happy, fulfilled lives. On the first day of the workshop, we were discussing various things in our lives that had caused us to be angry or disappointed; things or events that we'd like to get over. One woman, Carrie, talked about how disappointed she'd been on her tenth birthday when she failed to get her heart's desire: one of those expandable heart bracelets that were all the rage among little girls decades ago. What made it worse was that her cousin, who lived with her family, had celebrated her birthday the following week and she got the bracelet. Carrie was hurt, jealous, and furious at her cousin. In fact she held that birthday against her for decades, somehow blaming her for having been given the bracelet she'd wanted so much. "I know it sounds funny, but I still haven't quite gotten over it," said Carrie, who was now forty-seven years old.

Well, that afternoon I asked the participants, as I always do at the end of the first day, to go home and throw out fifty things and be ready to report back the following morning to the other women. Another participant, Mary Beth, turned up early with a big grin on her face. "Guess what I found," she said, beaming. "An expandable heart bracelet! It was at the bottom of my junk drawer in my bedroom. Let's give it to Carrie!" Well, not only did we give it to her, but we gift-wrapped the bracelet, bought a small cake with ten candles on it, and sang "Happy Tenth Birthday, Dear Carrie" at the tops of our lungs. She was knocked out, of course, and very moved. We all were. Then Carrie put on the heart bracelet and went outside to call her cousin and tell her how much she loved her.

Let's move into our closets. I don't know how it happened, but my closet has gotten considerably more crowded and messy during the last year. I'd like to blame it on the fact that I've been really busy, or maybe on the fact that the seasons are all messed up in New York and I've needed lighter-weight clothes in the winter and heavier clothes in the summer so that's why they're all crammed in there together. Or it could be because my daughters, Kate and Abigail, and I share some of the same clothes from time to time, and somehow they all end up in my closet. We all wear the same size shoe (which is good) and we all share a shoe fetish (which is bad), so the floor of my closet is a repository for whatever shoes they're not particularly interested in at the moment—but I'm allowed to borrow. Actually, none of these excuses is valid.

The real reasons my closet is a mess are: (a) I could never make it as neat as my mother's so why try; and (b) sorting things out and throwing things away involves making decisions. And making decisions can be an exhausting process.

Green Tip: Recycle Your Sneakers

Did you know that you can actually recycle your old athletic shoes? Nike has a program called Reuse-A-Shoe ( in which the company collects worn-out sneakers of any brand and then processes and recycles them into materials for playgrounds and athletic courts.

You know, I've got to figure out what's important, what's not; what I really need, what I don't; what might come back into fashion, what won't in a million years; what really looks good on me whether it's in fashion or not, what looked wrong from the beginning; what makes me feel heavy physically or emotionally; what makes me feel light and upbeat; what's me, what's not. I could get exhausted thinking about it. And look, it's always easier not to decide. That way you leave all your options open, right? Deciding not to decide, or deciding to decide later, is hoshmahoken (a word my parents and their friends in Cleveland made up as a substitute for, well, I guess, BS). Not deciding is the number one cause of all the clutter—physical, emotional, and spiritual—in our lives. And if we can't decide what to throw out of our clothes closets, how in the world are we going to decide what to throw out of our mental closets—closets that are overflowing with the debris of indecisions? This thought alone gives new meaning to the term mind boggling, doesn't it? But we don't have to be seduced by the appeal of not deciding—we can grit our overly whitened teeth and just do it. I can tell you my mom didn't spend a lot of time weighing the pros and cons of what to keep and what to discard. She decided and that was it. Smart people make things hard. Brilliant people make things easy. My mom was brilliant. Okay, my closet, not to mention my drawers, will never look like hers. It's okay. I bet somehow it's even okay with her. I'll do it my way.

So once again, here we are in the closet. And it's no accident that we're standing here together gathering up our strength to actually decide who we are, or who we could be, based on what we keep in here. Get out the cardboard boxes and Hefty bags, ziplock bags and sticky notes. Keep them open and handy. Smile as you fill them up.

I'm definitely deciding to throw out three suits I see hanging here. I haven't worn them for at least seven years. They're still in good shape, but they're just no longer me. I've been dressing slightly less corporate since I started my own business ten years ago; I have more fun and am much more creative with my outfits—and my clients seem to get a kick out of it. So these stiff suits go out.

Swap Your Clothes

Another great way to get rid of the clothes from your old look is to hold a swap party. Send invitations to all your friends and ask them to bring the clothes they're ready to toss, too. Serve food and drinks and make it a true party. You can even set up mirrors or a small runway so everyone can show off their new looks. If all goes according to plan, each of your friends will leave with something new that complements her style and makes her feel good about herself… even a heart bracelet!

A wonderful and very funny woman I know named Tara took the closet decision very seriously. In fact, she took it to the ultimate. She threw out everything and I mean everything. She threw out every article of clothing she had: from evening gowns to jogging shorts, from flip-flops to Pradas, from suits for working to suits for swimming. She even threw out all her underwear and lingerie. Everything. Well, not everything. She kept a beautiful suit that her mother had given her years earlier to celebrate her first "real" job. It didn't fit anymore and it wasn't in vogue, but it represented a milestone in her life—one that was worth re-celebrating from time to time. It's interesting to note what we keep as well as what we throw out, isn't it? The point is to have a reason for both—keeping and throwing out. That's where the deciding comes in.

Remember, if it makes you feel bad, it doesn't add anything to your life, or you have to agonize over your decision too long, let it go. If, on the other hand, it makes you feel good just to have it; if there's a positive emotional attachment to it, regardless of whether or not you'll ever "use" it again: Keep it. Our aim is not to create a merely tidy or well-organized life. Our aim is to clarify who we are now, to decide what's important to us now, and to answer the question, What the heck am I doing here?

In the case of Tara, she threw out all her clothes (except for the "special suit") because she wanted to entirely reinvent herself and she decided, rightfully, that if she changed the way she looked, the way she adorned her body, it would help her think of herself differently. "I'm done with the old me," she said. "I feel like I'm coming out of a cocoon." It's true, the new Tara was ready to emerge. Not all of us are in a position financially, or even emotionally, to go to the extreme Tara did. But you've got to admit it's impressive and even inspiring for the rest of us. Eventually, she even changed her hair color and style, lost weight, worked out, and developed a totally toned-up persona.

How many things have we thrown out so far? By my count I've got in the neighborhood of three, since all the pillows only count as one, and so do the suits and the jewelry. You might have more, though, depending on how you did with your socks, gloves, and jewelry. See? This isn't all that hard, is it? Well, okay, some of it is. But a lot of it's wonderful.

A man I know who was committed to making it to fifty was going through his closet looking for throw-outs when he came upon a beat-up envelope that had been shoved inside an old shoe box. His name, michael, was hand-written on the front. There was no address, so it must have been delivered by hand. He'd forgotten all about the envelope, and in fact he'd never opened it. He couldn't even remember who had given it to him or under what circumstances. He was about to toss it into the wastebasket but then, on a whim, he decided to open it. Inside was a piece of yellow, lined paper with writing on both sides. He looked at the signature: "Justine." Justine? he thought. Who in the world… wait, wasn't that that very smart girl in my class at business school? Yes! She was the one who helped me with statistics. If it weren't for her, I'd never have… He started to read the letter and immediately started to kick himself for somehow stashing it away, unread, fifteen years ago.

"Dear Michael," Justine had written, "Now that we're graduating and will probably never see each other again, I've finally gotten up the courage to tell you what I meant to tell you a million times when we were working together. I'm in love with you… " Michael was dumbfounded. He'd thought of Justine as his tutor and friend. Never as a potential girlfriend. (Michael had dated just one girl all the way through college and graduate school and eventually married her—and, unfortunately, divorced her.) Justine went on to explain that she knew he was very much involved with someone else and that there was no chance of their ever getting together but that nevertheless, she wanted him to know how she felt, that he was, in her mind, the most wonderful, talented person she'd ever met—and that it had been an absolute joy working with him. She wished him all the very best. She wouldn't forget him.

Well, you know what happened next. Michael, thanks to the wonders of Google, located Justine. She was working in an investment banking firm in New York (Michael lived in LA), and according to the Google data she just might not be married—at least not at the moment. He called her up and told her about finding the letter and how sorry he was not to have opened it fifteen years sooner. They decided to meet for dinner in New York (sounds like An Affair to Remember, right?) and, yes, it was nothing short of kismet. They've been having an incredibly happy relationship for nearly a year now. Who knows where it will lead? Someplace good, I bet.

When You Can't Do It Alone

If you're more like me (and less like my mom) and just can't seem to get your closet organized, did you know that you can hire someone to help? If you can't afford a professional closet organizer, like California Closets, the Container Store also offers a service where they will take a look at your closet, make a plan with you, and help you pick out the various products you'll need to sort things out.

So dig around in that closet of yours, okay? Out of the clutter and chaos could come, well, something or someone you've been looking for.

Gail's Throw-Out Scorecard:

5 decorative pillows

3 old corporate suits

6 pairs of shoes

Total: 3 things

Your Throw-Out Scorecard:

Your Total:

Chapter 2

Your Bathroom

Let's move into your bathroom. There are a lot of throw-out candidates in there. Take a look at your medicine cabinet. I'm looking at mine and I'm embarrassed to say that there are very old containers and tubes of over-the-counter drugs—some of them are actually dried out or with expiration dates that have long passed. And there are prescription drugs from more than five years ago. I've read that they lose their potency and effectiveness after a certain period of time. Whether that's true or not, it doesn't seem healthful—physically or mentally—to keep old drugs for old ailments, or even potentially new ailments. I'm a great proponent of the Mind Over Matter philosophy. In fact, I wholeheartedly believe that we are what we think about, which I'll talk a lot more about later. Suffice it to say, surrounding ourselves with a lot of old medicines is negative, robs energy, and may even warm the way for those old ailments to remake their homes in our bodies.

So what are we deciding here? That we might get sick and need these old, expired drugs, or that we intend to be well and not need them again? Tiger Woods was interviewed right before a recent National Open at the Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh. The reporter asked him why he wasn't practicing getting out of the "Church Pews"—the course's infamous bunkers, so deep and so treacherous that they had wrecked the games of many a would-be championship golfer. Tiger's reply was simple: "Because I don't intend to get in them."

Don't Let Your Expired Medication Leak into the Food Chain


On Sale
Mar 20, 2009
Page Count
304 pages

Gail Blanke

About the Author

Gail Blanke is a world-class motivator and is president and chief executive of Lifedesigns, a company whose vision is to empower men and women to live truly exceptional lives. She has been “The Motivator” columnist in Real Simple magazine, is a contributor to Body+Soul, a Martha Stewart publication, and appears regularly on CBS 2 Sunday Morning. Gail has written three other books, including Between Trapezes and In My Wildest Dreams, a New York Times bestseller. Gail and her husband, Jim Cusick, have two daughters, Kate and Abigail, and live in New York City. You’re invited to visit Gail on

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