Why Decluttering Is So Hard

The psychology behind what's most difficult to throw away.

Posted Sep 07, 2018

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At first glance this might not seem like a very psychologically deep topic. However, there are various cognitive factors that can get in the way of us discarding junk and clearing clutter from our lives. Let me explain.

10 Things You Should Probably Get Rid Of (But You Might Be Finding It Difficult):

1. Items you took for free, but shouldn't have.

I've got a bad habit of taking Southwest Airlines peanuts and pretzels home with me. I'm never fast enough to say I don't want them when they're handing them out, and it feels less awkward to put them in my bag than hand them back. This recently got to the point where I had a grocery bag full of unwanted airline snacks (some of which had expired!). When we take something that's free, we typically feel obligated to use or hang onto it. In essence, taking the item is making a behavioral commitment to it.

Try: The availability of a "free" item lights up our brain's reward centers and is hard to resist, so don't be too hard on yourself about taking something that really has no value to you. Sometimes it's easiest to have a personal rule of never taking free items. You then relieve yourself of needing to make case-by-case decisions.  If you needed something, you would've bought it already. You can remind yourself of this decision before situations in which you're likely to be offered "free" items, such as conferences.

2. Old electronics.

For many of us, our phones and laptops are our constant companions. If your phone and/or computer are an integral part of your life, it's understandable that they feel precious to you. When you upgrade to a new device, that precious possession can almost instantly shift to now being a dusty piece of junk (perhaps with some broken keys or scratches). However it can still feel difficult to actually throw it away. If you're typically worried about your device dying and losing critical information, the idea of voluntarily wiping all the data from your device so that you can discard it probably feels emotionally difficult.  

Try: Try a strategy of hanging onto your last device (such as your last phone and your last computer) but not hanging onto earlier devices, like that mp3 player from the 90s.

3. Gifts you don't want.

It can very difficult to discard unwanted gifts. You might have created a self-imposed rule that this is not an OK thing to do.  However, breaking this rule can provide a sense of freedom from obligation. For example, we're extremely touched and grateful for all the gifts our child receives, but one of the gifts we've gotten is Dr. Seuss books, which no one in the family likes. Other people love these books but we don't.

Try: Give yourself permission to discard or give away an unwanted gift.  It doesn't make you ungrateful or indicate that you don't value your relationship with the gift giver.

4. Items where you've been thinking, "I should do something with that," but you haven't, and it's been at least a month.

Sometimes we plan to reuse, recycle, repurpose, or donate certain items but other priorities get in the way of doing that.  There are only so many hours in the day. This point highlights the common disconnect between what we would like to do if time was unlimited and what we're able to get done in reality.

Try: Take this task off your "to do" list and just discard the item.  If you're reluctant to do that, perhaps give yourself an additional week to take action with the item, and plan to trash it if you still haven't done anything a week later.

5. Useful items where you have more than you need.

Sometimes we accumulate way too much of a useful item.  For example, I tend to keep boxes and packing materials when I get deliveries, thinking I'll be able to reuse these.  However, I end up with far more of these than I'll ever reuse. I worry that I'll regret throwing out a box if, a month later, it turns out it was the perfect size box for something I need to ship.

Try:  Calculate the cost of hanging onto excess items (e.g., taking up storage space, time spent reorganizing the items) versus replacing items you later need. On balance, it doesn't make sense to hang onto ten different size boxes because I might need one of them. Try creating a rule of thumb for how much of a useful item you will store, like keeping five cardboard boxes but not more than this.

6. Purchases you regret.

You spent $100 on a clothing item that was a mistake. Perhaps you got emotionally caught up because it was on sale. Perhaps you bought the item for your aspirational self and not your real self (e.g., heels when you don't wear heels, or a dress that's a size too small). Discarding these items involves confronting your regret.

Try: Be compassionate with yourself and ask "What's the best decision I can make now?" We all make purchase decisions we regret. A concept I talk about in my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, is that it can be useful to have a personal rule of not signing up to free trials and introductory offers or purchasing items that are on sale that you wouldn't have purchased at full price. Remember that marketing incentives are purposely engineered to make us spend more overall and wouldn't continue to exist if they didn't successfully achieve that.

7. Items that expired before you used them.

This is similar to the last point, but it's slightly different so it's worth mentioning separately.  Sometimes we buy an aspirational item, like an exotic cooking spice, and it expires because we never get around to making that complicated Indian curry or whatever we bought it for. Sometimes we think, "Well I might still use that item even though it's technically expired" even though we know in reality we won't. You might not regret the purchase so much as you feel guilty about the gap between your real self and your aspirational self. The longer you hold onto the expired item, the harder it becomes to actually discard it.

Try: Same as the last tip.

8. Items you've already kept for awhile (when you never should've kept the item).

Sometimes I'll keep ticket stubs or playbills from plays and musicals. Later I think, "I don't need to keep this to remember my experience of seeing the show." However, once I've already hung onto the item for a year or more, it's difficult to discard it at that point.

Try: Recognize that it's OK to change your mind.

9. Physical manuals, when we're got a PDF copy.

This is a point Gretchen Rubin made in an episode of her podcast, Happier. If you're older than 30, you probably grew up thinking that it was important to keep the manuals that came with any appliances you buy. Nowdays, these are almost always available as PDFs. 

More generally, this point is about when we've been conditioned to believe something is important to hang onto, but our current rational assessment differs from that.

Try:  Create a folder for PDF manuals on your preferred cloud storage option (Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud etc).

10. Items associated with bad memories.

Ironically, it can sometimes be difficult to throw away things that are associated with a bad memory. For example, perhaps you bought a breast feeding pillow and then didn't end up being able to breast feed. Perhaps you have clothing, gifts or other keepsakes you associate with a bad relationship. Hanging onto items associated with bad memories can indicate that you need to do a little bit of personal work to process whatever trauma or upset you've gone through.

Try: Try throwing out an item associated with a bad memory and see how it feels.  Acknowledge the emotions and memories associated with the item and give yourself some psychological space and nurturing to grieve or process your trauma.

If you struggle to discard certain items and have either felt alone in this or not understood the psychology behind it, I hope you feel less isolated after reading this article.  Pick one to two of the tips mentioned in this article and think about how they might apply in your life. If you have a spouse/partner (or friend or sibling) who falls into these traps, considering sharing this article with them. These are easy psychological holes to end up in, so there's no judgment implied if you or a loved one has a tendency to hoard the things we've covered.