How I continued to deal with my hoarding habit

I worked out what makes me keep things: it’s the fact that throwing things away is hard.

Throwing things away is hard because it involves making decisions.

Making decisions is hard. I’ve blogged several times about how decision-making uses up cognitive resources. I’m not the source of this idea; many others have written about it too. It’s becoming widely acknowledged that decision-making drains your “tank” of willpower, energy, emotional intelligence, decision-making ability.

A decluttering session involves making lots of micro-decisions, one after another: do I get rid of this? How should I get rid of this? What about this? And this? As if that wasn’t enough, your tank is being drained still further by the emotional resonance these objects have for you: reminders of paths not taken, of people who made you unhappy, of people you miss, of things you did wrong.

It’s a massive tank-draining headfuck. And we make it worse by trying to do massive decluttering sessions where we go through loads of things at once, treating it as a chore on a par with laundry, berating ourselves for not getting round to it sooner, generally being unkind to ourselves.

I am no decluttering expert, believe me. But what’s finally worked for me personally is acknowledging all the problems and pain involved in clearing out stuff, not being nasty to myself for being nervous about a “trivial” task like emptying a cupboard, and setting boundaries. I set an alarm so that I get to choose an end to the decluttering session in advance, rather than ending when I get exhausted. That way I don’t have to feel bad about stopping. And I plan things to replenish the “tank” of cognitive resources: a nice meal, a frivolous book, a trip to the pub, whatever. If really fun things aren’t an option immediately after the declutter, my fallback strategy is to at least do a task that’s straightforward and doesn’t involve decision-making: ideally housework, but routine admin tasks are OK too.

I also know that forming habits is useful because it reduces the amount of decision-making you have to do. Again, not my own insight, just one that’s doing the rounds at the moment. So I try to make decluttering a habit too. If I’m choosing a book to read, I take a quick look along the shelf to see if there are any books I don’t want any more. There was a time when taking things to the charity shop was a big deal for me. Now it’s a habit.

I have a specific place in the house where I keep stuff for the charity shop. Before a pile of stuff leaves the house, I go through it to make sure there’s nothing I actually want to keep. This makes it much easier to let go. At the point of adding something to the pile, I know I can change my mind; at the point of taking the pile to the shops, I know everything has already been sitting there for a week or two, marked for departure.

Many people would look at my crazy piled-up desk and say I have a long way to go. And maybe I have. But I try not to feel bad about it, because feeling bad about clutter is mental clutter. And the more I try, the easier it gets. The easier it all gets.

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3 Comments on “How I continued to deal with my hoarding habit”


  1. […] written before about why decluttering is depressing rather than uplifting – because of the battery of micro-decisions you have to make, with the attendant drain on your […]


  2. […] written before about decluttering in the sense of evaluating your possessions and getting rid of what you no longer need (in a responsible way). More recently, I’ve written about decluttering in the sense of removing […]


  3. […] a hoarder and understands the psychological stuff behind it. When I had my revelation about the link between decluttering, microdecisions and the draining of cognitive resource, I thought I was maybe the first person to get it; but in 2010 Issendai […]


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