When was the last time you decluttered your life? And I’m talking about real decluttering, not just cleaning up the kitchen counter. Maybe you didn’t try yet, but at least you looked up an article on how to declutter. That means that you are not a completely lost cause. You have some awareness about the mess accumulated around you, and you don’t know what to do about it. Others are not so lucky. They push that overstuffed closet door like it’s a bus that needs to go, but it goes nowhere. Whether you have the awareness or not, there are many literal and figurative closets in your life that accumulate stuff. Sometimes, it’s scary even to open them up. Let’s go on this journey together and see how we can make some room!
When You Have Too Much Stuff
Two kinds of people exist at the end of a spectrum: those who keep everything and those who keep nothing. However, between those two typologies, there’s an infinity of sub-types.
You have those who keep just one or two things because they happen to relate to something they care about deeply. Then you have those who keep things for eternity, while others are unsure whether they should keep something or not, so they keep it anyway, just in case.
Either way, most people will lean toward one side or the other. However, I’m here to argue that even those people who tend to not keep too many things around them for too long will still accumulate too much stuff over a lifetime if left unchecked.
It’s a mere part of life. We are all consumers, especially in this modern, online era. Most stuff around us is affordable, and it’s plenty. So, we buy it, or we get it as a gift. Right now, at the press of the button and just a few days away, I can get pretty much anything I want from Amazon or similar sites.
That’s a phenomenon growing with the increase of Internet availability and the capabilities of online stores that urge you to buy things with just a few clicks or taps of your thumb. That’s above and beyond the constantly lowering prices driven by a more and more crowded online marketplace.
So, you buy things on an impulse, and then stuff comes to your doorstep. And it comes, and it comes, and it comes. It never stops because you always need more. After all, there’s always the next version, the better quality, the simpler usage, the extra features, what have you.
But why can’t we let some of this stuff go? What stops us?
Why Can’t You Let Go?
There is an interesting concept in psychology that is heavily used in behavioral economics by marketing people. It’s called the endowment effect, and it means that you are more likely to retain an object that you already own than to give it away and repurchase it should you ever need it. Sometimes this idea is called divestiture aversion, which means that you are less likely to throw away something you’d bought, even though its value on the market today might be close to zero.
Picture this: you went out and bought yourself a nice suit. You spent an eternity browsing through stores, trying on outfits, the whole nine. Now you bring it home, and you wear it for work. Then slowly, you gain weight, and the suit goes out of style. It also gets a tiny stain on the pant, but you know you can get by with it.
So, you put it away in the closet. Now it’s ten years later, and that suit is still there. Why?
It’s because your brain will never let you forget two critical things:
- That you put effort into getting it (time, energy, money)
- How you felt when you got it (happy, proud, satisfied)
The Endowment Effect
That exact suit on the market today would probably cost a fraction of what you paid for due to being out of style. Still, the value you put on it is not its current monetary value but the emotional value you connected with it, stemming from those two bullet points above.
You cannot let it go just because you have it.
That happens across all areas of life, and it’s quite prevalent with electronics. Electronic gadgets of any kind are cool as hell, I know. I have a thousand of them. Most of them don’t stand the test of time because technology evolves so darn fast. That’s a good thing for us as a society, but it’s terrible for those gadgets.
Sooner rather than later, they all become obsolete. Unnecessary. Unused. They are merely taking space in your life because they represented something that had value at some point in time.
However, the endowment effect blinds us and forces us to put the same initial value on our possessions because they are in our possession.
Then, there’s also the problem of hoarding.
Are You A Hoarder?
Please don’t take this question jokingly. I’m asking it because knowing where you are on the hoarding spectrum will be a good indication of how complicated this process will be for you.
There is a vast difference between being unorganized, messy, lazy, or experiencing some level of the endowment effect and being an actual hoarder. Hoarding is a psychological disorder that should not be taken lightly.
In psychological terms, hoarding disorder is a persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions because of a perceived need to save them. A person with hoarding disorder experiences distresses at the thought of getting rid of the items. Therefore, excessive accumulation of things occurs, regardless of their actual value.
The point of this article is not to address those cases of extreme hoarding. If you want to go deeper down that road, watch some episodes of the American Reality TV Show Hoarders, and you’ll see what I mean.
I brought this point up because when we discuss ways to analyze the things you must get rid of, you need to have this awareness. It’s important to know if you are a hoarder or not.
It’s okay if you are. I believe all of us have a bit of it in some areas. But you need to be aware and acknowledge it. Doing so will make it much easier to learn how to declutter and be able to do it.
How to Declutter Your Life?
To begin the process of decluttering your life, you’ll need to take a systematic approach. If you are like most people and just started on this journey, there will be a lot of work at the beginning.
That implies getting first to a clean slate. In the beginning, the process will be excruciatingly painful because, most likely, you are dealing with years and years of accumulated piles of crap.
The next step will be maintenance. That will imply creating a schedule where you declutter regularly at shorter intervals and establish a proper system to address new incoming stuff.
Declutter Your Physical Space
When it comes to learning how to declutter your life, I believe there are three areas you must address:
- Physical space
I firmly believe that the road to full life decluttering begins with organizing your physical space. Much like your physical body needs to be in good health before you can address your emotional, mental, and social issues, decluttering your life begins with decluttering your home, office, and car.
Creating space and clarity in your surroundings is key to leading an organized life. That organized life will represent a platform to manage your mind and your relationships. Also related, I’ve written before about organizing your digital life. Although a similar subject, it should be a discussion of its own.
Therefore, we start by looking at how to declutter your physical space.
Decide What Needs to Go
First things first: what do you get rid of? To do so, you will follow a simple framework that involves five elements. I first learned about these years ago from an article by Leon Ho, the founder of Lifehack.org. The author called this the “declutter formula,” and it goes like this:
- Recency – “When was the last time I used this?”
- Frequency – “How often do I use this?”
- Acquisition Cost – “How difficult/expensive is it to get this today?”
- Storage Cost – “How much space and maintenance cost is it tied to?”
- Retrieve Cost – “What costs are associated with retrieving it or becoming outdated?”
Let’s go over these points one by one to understand how to do this analysis.
This dimension represents the leading analysis in my view. You need to look at the things that you have and genuinely ask yourself when was the last time you used them. You can best categorize the objects in your life by regency into:
- within the last year (High)
- 1-3 years (Medium)
- 3-5 years (Low)
- for more than five years (Very Low)
The second thing you need to ask yourself is how often you use something. While asking this, you need to separate objects between regular and emergency. For example, even if you haven’t used your fire distinguisher ever in your life (and I hope you never have to), you must keep that object out of this analysis. Items that you own to prevent a risk should not be part of it.
You will categorize your objects as follows by frequency of usage into:
- Never (Very Low)
- Very Rarely (Low)
- Rarely (Medium)
- Often (Medium)
- Very Often (High)
This doesn’t necessarily mean how much you paid for it when you originally bought it or even adjusting that original cost to inflation. Instead, it means finding a similar object with the same age and style on the market today and realize how much it would cost. You can then categorize items as follows:
- Low cost (you can buy this easily on the market today)
- Medium cost (it’s not the cheapest thing out there, but not that high either)
- Expensive (you’d have to shell out some serious dough to get this today)
- Unique (this is a collectible item that retains its value over time or even appreciates)
- Priceless (nobody would buy this, nor will you be able to buy it anywhere, but it has a sentimental value)
The cost to store your stuff is quite elusive. If you own a home and start packing things away in the attic and the basement and closets and behind doors, it almost feels like you are not paying for it. But you are. Every square inch of your home has a value. Take your home’s market value and divide it by its square footage. That’s the amount that a square foot is worth in your home. Now, you need to evaluate how much space the items in your home take. Also, if you use an actual storage facility where you pay a monthly fee to hold your stuff, evaluate the objects by the annual cost of storage:
- Low (small items that you can easily hide away)
- Medium (larger size or kept in low-cost storage space)
- High (very large or held in higher-cost storage space)
This is the cost associated with getting the item or making it usable again. For example, if you have a VCR, you might be able to view the ten movies you still own on videotape, but the truth is you can easily stream those movies with the plan included in your cable bill. So, the VCR takes space, and to use it, you need to go through hoops. The same goes for clothes that are out of style. You might need to modify them or adapt them to fit the new trends.
- Low (this object is easy to retrieve and maintains its usability over time)
- Medium (medium difficulty to retrieve and somewhat outdated)
- High (this object is difficult to retrieve or is quickly outdated)
The formula you are looking for is this:
Regency (Low) +
Frequency (Low) +
Acquisition (Low) +
Storage (High) +
This object is not worth keeping
Get Rid of The Things That Need To Go
How to actually do it, you ask?
From a practical perspective, you should divide your spaces into groups and tackle them one by one. The best way I found was to look at each room in your house individually, then split each room into individual storage spaces.
Start with one room with a pen and notepad in hand. Go through every nook and cranny and spare no object from the analysis. Open every drawer, every closet, and look on every shelf. For every single thing you see, as yourself: is this object worth keeping?
After a while, you’ll start to make that assessment easily in your head, but in the beginning, it might take you a bit of analysis to apply the formula above. You can do one room per day or weekend. If a room is too large, you might even work in that room over a few days. The important part is to have a plan of attack and approach it with a decluttering mindset. You are cleaning up your life and creating space.
To help the process, create a donations box and a garbage box or bag, and keep them nearby. As you go through the analysis, start moving objects either to donate or trash. It will be hard, believe me. I recommend you don’t keep those boxes lying around for too long. Take the trash out as soon as you’re done, and drive the box of donations to the charity of your choice sooner rather than later.
It will sting, and it will sting badly, at least for starters. Once you get those things out of the way and you start to create space, you’ll get a different kind of feeling—a feeling of freedom and new possibilities.
Keep at it—day after day, drawer after drawer, and shelf after shelf. Spare no object from the thorough analysis, and be honest with yourself. If you don’t need it, you don’t need it. That’s it.
Everyday Things That You Can Probably Get Rid Of
Here’s a list of things that find their ways in the darkest corners of our homes and that we could all discard without impacting our lives. It’s not all-inclusive; it’s just something to get you started.
- Old clothes that don’t fit you anymore and are out of style or damaged. And no, not all of them qualify to be turned into house clothes.
- Shoes you haven’t worn in many years
- Unmatched socks (come on!)
- Chipped dishes and glasses
- Excess cups – when you constantly use five cups, but you have twenty because of some potential party you might host one day.
- Old magazines or newspapers that you’ll never read
- Cables and plugs that don’t fit anything anymore or you have way too many of them
- The many keyboards and mice combos you keep just in case the primary one breaks down
- Old electronic devices that don’t work or are outdated
- Damaged furniture that looks like crap
- Unmatched plastic containers and lids
- Old medications that are either expired or were prescribed for something specific
- Plastic utensils you’ve collected over the years
- Board games with missing pieces
- Puzzle boxes with missing puzzle pieces (why, oh why??)
- Kids’ (freaking) toys, especially headless dolls
- Old (and smelly) towels and bedding
- Old makeup and sunblock
- Product manuals (if you need one, they are all online)
Maintenance – A Master Declutter’s Dream
A massive decluttering project takes a lot of energy out of you. It’s critical to have one, but if you do it only once every five years, you’re in a lot of trouble.
An annual decluttering project is better, but it should not be the only process in place.
Instead, the best practice here is to have several decluttering mini-projects planned throughout the year.
- Daily—you need to clean all the crap that you accumulate daily and resist the temptation to just “put things away for later.” Catch yourself stuffing receipts in drawers or saving spammy magazines just in case. When you hold an item in your hand, always run it through the analysis above. If you don’t need it, toss it.
- Weekly—every week, you need to go through your mail, clean up the fridge and your bathroom. That is the perfect chance to get rid of old stuff. Weekly, you should also bring all spaces to their neutral state and clean up.
- Monthly—once a month, at least, you need to do a more thorough decluttering. Get rid of your recycling, clean your clothes closet, go through your drawers, and so on.
If you maintain your spaces properly, your annual decluttering project won’t be that massive, and it won’t take so much out of you. During your annual decluttering process, you may also consider organizing a yard sale where you put some items up for sale for your neighbors. This might include furniture and other objects that are in good condition.
If a yard sale is not your thing—I know it’s not mine—don’t forget about eBay or eBid or other similar sites where you can auction your objects away. It’s a great alternative, especially since most of these sites allow you to request the buyer to come and pick the item directly from your home.
Out with The Old, In with The New
Look, I know you are looking at some of these items that you’ve been holding on to, and you think to yourself, “Wait, maybe I’ll give these to…” and fill in the blank.
To whom? Your kids?
Unless it’s some family heirloom loaded with meaning, your kids don’t need it. Anything in the future is already ten times better than what you have. So, drop that excuse.
But wait, maybe I WILL need it one day. So what? Buy a new one when you do need it. As seen above, most of the items you hold on to have a low acquisition cost, and the only reason you hang on to them is because of the endowment effect. Just because you have it, it seems more valuable to you. It’s not.
You need to practice decluttering, and I know it’s hard. But start small and work your way from there, step by step. Over time, you’ll get more comfortable. And if that’s not compelling enough, guess what? Once you get rid of the old stuff, you get to buy new stuff! And the cycle starts again and again and again.
Other Decluttering Resources
- Total Eclipse of the Hoard: The Art of Throwing Stuff Away
- A Declutter Formula to Help You Throw Stuff Away Without Regret
- How to Throw Things Away Like A God Damn Grown Up
- How to responsibly get rid of the stuff you’ve decluttered
Now, before you go, I have…
3 Questions For You
- When was the last time you did a complete decluttering project and got rid of things?
- What kind of things do you tend to hold on to forever but, upon analysis, you realized you don’t really need them?
- How are you dealing with separation anxiety when it comes to parting with objects you’ve been holding on to forever?
Please share your answers in the comments below. Sharing knowledge helps us all improve and get better!
Hi there! I’m Iulian, and I want to thank you for reading my article. There’s a lot more if you stick around. I write about personal development, productivity, fiction writing, and more. Also, I’ve created Self-Growth Journey, a free program that helps you get unstuck and create the beautiful life you deserve. Enjoy!