We talk a lot about decluttering, but some people get absolutely stuck on the emotional side of letting go. Just the idea of removing your things from your home or office might give you the jitters. Did you know that there are some physiological reasons that decluttering is harder for some people than others?
Being emotionally attached to stuff is not a character fault or a personal failing. It is what makes us human. It’s guided by brain anatomy and chemistry, which is good news, because we can take steps to improve our brain functioning. These 14 strategies will allow you to decide how to gently unhook from the emotional clutches your stuff has on you.
Always start your decluttering when you are well-rested, well-fed, well-hydrated, and not already stressed. You’ll make better and easier decisions about decluttering when your brain is feeling fine.
Physically test the space. Measure. Place. See what will fit. Make a pact with yourself that you will only keep what fits in the allotted space. It becomes a simple physics experiment.
Start small. Many people are defeated before they even begin. No one wants you to get rid of all of your memories, but there may be a few items that are in a “room full of memories” that you have absolutely no trouble parting with. Take even the small wins. Declutter just a desktop, just a shelf, or just one small space at a time.
Put blinders on. It’s perfectly natural to be overwhelmed by clutter in a small space. Use a paper towel roll as a “telescope” to scope out the small areas you want to focus on. Put a sheet over the clutter on the bed. Close the closet door. Take cartons of donations out of the room as you work, to remove them from your field of view. By reducing the overwhelming amount of stuff in your view, your brain doesn’t have to work as hard to stay focused, and you can make better decisions on items, one by one.
Avoid the “I might need it some day” syndrome. Do the math. I was recently asked about a kitchen gadget, a melon-baller that I purged. It is easily replaced if I ever do need it again. Since I haven’t needed it in over 10 years, the chances are pretty slim. I’ll happily trade the certainty of more space in my kitchen drawers for the slim possibility that I might need to spend a dollar to replace it “someday”.
Age-out your items. Don’t part with them yet, but box them up, seal the box, and date it for destruction or donation in the future. You decide when. A month. A year. Five years. Whatever is right for you. If you don’t open the box within your time-frame, then you’ve proven to yourself that you don’t need it.
Recognizing that the feeling of loss is not proportional. Researchers have documented that our brains fear loss more than we anticipate future rewards. It’s not rational, but it’s hard wired from caveman days. So we are more likely to hang onto things, even if they have minimal value. Is your brain getting in the way of a rational decision?
Is it in your way? If it’s not, then it may not be a problem. However, if your clutter has to be moved to get in the door, make dinner, or get into other areas like a dresser or closet, then think how much safer and more energetic you’ll be when you are not literally fighting with your stuff. Your day gets a lot easier when you aren’t moving stuff to get to other stuff. And you want easier days, right?
Digitize it if you can. Scan paper keepsakes and photos, or take a picture of a 3D item or a person holding a meaningful item. Once it’s digital, you can preserve it before it decays, and you can share it with more people by emailing, placing it in a book, online, or in a framed keepsake.
Repurpose old stuff you don’t actually love (but night still be meaningful) into new stuff you’ll actually use. People who run races end up with a lot of T-shirts, for example. A colleague makes memory quilts from race t-shirts and college sweats. Furniture that has been in the family for years can be painted, refurbished, or repurposed to make it useful in your living space.
Recognize what you WANT more: Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct, uses the, “I will, I won’t, I want” model as a framework to build more willpower and intention. As in, “I will declutter this dresser. I won’t get distracted for at least 30 minutes. I want a place for my guest to feel comfortable when she visits.” By stating these simple goals, you are telling your brain how to follow through on your intentions.
Visualize the end result. More space for you. Something useful passed on to someone who can use it. Doesn’t your room look better already?
Trust your decisions. Brain researchers have documented that our brains continue to grow and learn throughout our entire lives. Neuro-plasticity allows us to get better at things we are good at, and things we are still trying to learn. We can get better at making decisions by making decisions over and over, like what to keep, what to preserve, and what to remember. How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer, is a great book about what’s really happening when we make decisions. We are not slaves to our lizard brains/amygdala.
Hire a professional organizer. You’ve probably tried some of these strategies, think some sound silly, and maybe don’t believe that some of them will work for you. A professional organizer has the experience, the training, the tools, and the physical stamina to help you get through the physical part of your project, and gently work through the emotional aspects as well. Rather than wanting you to throw things out, what we want you to do is find and make space for stuff you love. And through repeating the process and repeatedly using these strategies, we can not only help you be more successful with the project, we can help you be happier with the results. Visit NAPO to find a professional organizer near you.
Need more strategies? Yes, indeed, there are more on Part 2 of Emotional Strategies for De-cluttering.
We are learning so much more through research being conducted with MRI’s in the last 15 years or so. We now have documented evidence that we can choose to improve functions of the brain, develop new neural pathways, and better regulate our body chemistry with things like diet, exercise, sleep, and medications. We can change what we learn and how well we learn it. We can teach old dogs new tricks. That’s good news for all of us. And it means that when we have to break up with our things, we can use strategies like these to make it easier for our brains, so that we can be more successful and live in less cluttered homes.