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I'm anxious and cautious by nature, and this leads to me hoarding too much stuff just in case I need it.  Here are some tips that work for me for improving this problem.

1. Take a photo rather than keeping it.

I like to re-purchase certain items, or I want to record the model number of an item I've bought in case I need to look up information about that item online.  This can lead to me keeping, for example, tags from clothing and boxes that electronics came in. 

Solution: I take a photo of whatever it is that I'm driven to keep and toss the actual item.  My photos are auto-backed up from my phone to the cloud, so I know I won't lose the photo.

Examples:

  • I bought a pair of headphones for my toddler recently and took a photo of the box with the model number.  I also tend to photograph receipts, in case I need them for warranty or other purposes.
  • If I buy a clothing item that I might want to re-purchase in the future, I take a photo of the tag so I can remember the style number and the size I bought. 

2.  The 1 month /  3 month / 6 month box.

When I'm cleaning up, there are many items where I think "I might use that."  This especially applies when an item has just passed it's expiration date, or will soon.

Solution:  When you're doing a big decluttering, pick a time frame and set aside a cardboard box.  If you think you might use an item, put it in that box.  Write the date on the box with a Sharpie.  If you don't use (or donate) the items in the box by the time the date rolls around, throw them out.

This strategy works well when you're clearing out a particular area of your home e.g., your kitchen or bathroom cupboards, or for items your child/ren used when they were younger.

Examples:

  • Vitamins that I haven't used that are due to expire soon.   
  • Food that has been randomly acquired, that no one in the household wants to eat.

3. Calculate the cost of regret versus the benefits of decluttering.

One category of items I hoard is cardboard boxes and packing materials.  I occasionally sell items on eBay or Amazon, and I need shipping boxes to send out these items.  Where possible, I like to repurpose shipping boxes I've received from retailers. 

Since I don't know what I'll be selling, it could be any size box that I need.  Therefore, I keep boxes in all sorts of sizes.  These build up, take up space, and are an eyesore (I live in an 1100 sq foot house).

My reasoning for keeping boxes is partly environmental, but it's also because I don't want to buy a box when I could've kept and used a box I already have.

Solution:  I can actually do a quick back of the napkin calculation about this.  If I need to drive to Walmart once a month to buy a box size I don't have, that will cost me around 30 mins and let's say $2-3.  Therefore, the cost of not living surrounded by boxes is around $30 and 6 hours per year. 

(I'm mainly basing this calculation on the ballpark number of times a year I'd need to make a special trip to Walmart to buy a box in order ship an item immediately.  If I throw out boxes, I also gain some time back by not needing to store and re-organize the cardboard boxes.)

Examples: 

  • Anything you keep because you think it might come in handy one day, like extra parts you have leftover from a project, or that come with an item you've purchased.

4.  Use "stuff" in other ways.

Another item I accumulate too many of is paper shopping bags from Whole Foods or Trader Joes.  I plan to take them back to the store but, in reality, if I bring my own bag to the supermarket, I usually use my backpack and small cooler bag rather than the store's paper bags. 

Solution:  One day I ran out of trash bags and realized I could use those paper supermarket bags as trash bags (by hanging them on a hook.)  If you have extras of items that you are keeping for a specific purpose, think about whether you could use them for another purpose.

The psychological block here is sometimes thinking beyond the "perfect" use for an item and seeing other options.

Examples:  

  • I use extra cardboard boxes when I have too much paper recycling to fit in my recycling bin, or use them for organizing (often cutting the top off the box so I can see inside).
  • Old clothes you could cut up for cleaning rags.

5.  What would (name of person) do?

If you have someone in your life who is well-organized and not a hoarder, you could ask yourself "what would (such and such) do in this situation?" when you're making decisions about what to keep and what to throw out.

As an alternative to a real person, you could imagine a highly optimized version of yourself and ask the "what would they do?" question.

Examples: 

  • When you're feeling guilty about something you've purchased but not used.
  • When other strategies haven't worked, or as an adjunct to other strategies.

Wrapping Up

If you have pack rat tendencies, try aiming to improve the problem rather than completely solve it.  By using these strategies, you can make incremental improvements and gain confidence in your capacity to be psychologically flexible.

Understanding the psychology behind your hoarding/accumulating can help you solve the problem.  After all, clinical hoarding is most often associated with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), which is an anxiety disorder.  Mild, non-clinical versions of patterns usually share some underlying mechanisms with the severe, clinical versions.  For example, people with anxiety often have difficulty with decision making under conditions of uncertainty, such as when you're not sure if you'll need an item in the future or not.

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Note: I'm not using the phrase "hoarder" in a clinical way in the title, just a colloquial one.

Photo by Khara Woods on Unsplash

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