Clutter Busting Part 2 – Your Things Don’t Love You Like You Love Them

Yesterday, I shared hard-earned insight (ouch!) into clutter and what it looks like, even when it’s hiding in plain sight. Those 10 Tips came from blood, sweat and tears – mostly from lifting, carrying and dropping.

So, after I figured out how to really get rid of clutter, I wanted to understand it a lot better. What the heck is going on here?

So, being the analytic personality I am, it required a little research for me to be truly comfortable with my decisions around clutter.  My discoveries startled me. So, here goes…

And, it all starts with your brain and biology.

James Burroughs, an expert in consumer behavior at the University of Virginia says that our brains have not caught up biologically with the change from a world of deprivation (which existed for most of human history) to our world of relative surplus.  He says: “If you dump all the food in the fishbowl, the goldfish will eat itself to death.” 

In other words, it’s not easy to stop consuming even if we put our own health at risk.  Too much of a good thing is, well, too much for our human bodies and minds to cope with.

The next piece of research is about something called the “endowment effect”.  It’s all about how we decide what something is worth even if we don’t actually own it.

It was first demonstrated by economist Richard Thaler, who showed that simply owning something causes us to overestimate its worth.  (Maybe that’s why you never get the price you want when you sell something at a garage sale, even if you think you’re being really fair).

Of course, right now I’m very aware of the endowment effect as it applies to the real estate market.  Buyers never think the seller’s house is worth as much as the seller thinks it’s worth. If they did, there’d be no such thing as a counter-offer, right? It’s the endowment effect writ large.

And, this is where psychologist Brian Knutson at Stanford comes in. He did experiments in which people were told they could buy or sell cool objects (like iPods) while having their brain scanned. 

Regardless of whether they were buying or selling, their brains lit up in the area that anticipates reward when they saw something they liked. 

But when they thought about selling a valued object, their brains lit up in the area that anticipates punishment.  And, those brains that showed the most activity  when asked to sell were more vulnerable to the endowment effect .  

Imagine that.  They don’t really own the object, but they still felt bad at the thought of the loss of it.  Wow, our brains are cool.

So, we feel a reward experience when we like something and feel like we are being punished when we think about getting rid of something we like. Uh, oh.

And, then we get this amazing insight from Joann Peck at Wisconsin School of Business who found that simply touching something in a store can induce the endowment effect, and make you pay more for it.

Then, if you don’t buy it you might experience that vaguely sad feeling when you realize that it’s not yours and you won’t be buying it. Isn’t that amazing? 

Just touching something sets off the endowment effect. No wonder, I was drowning in clutter.

Well, I was tired of being tied to clutter, endowment effect or not. And, this scientific proof was enough to convince me that I had to overcome my ‘feelings’ and get started now.

And since almost all the experts agree that you will need a process to get the clutter under control, I created the Top 10 list in my last post to help.

I can’t say it was easy. But what came clear to me as I starting getting rid of things is that this “stuff” has a mental weight of its own and that it gives me nothing in return for being so weighty. 

That thought propelled me through closet after closet, reassured by the fact that donations would be welcomed, and, as for the rest – it fulfilled no purpose so it needed to go.   Here’s how I did it…

Set up a holding area in the basement or somewhere there’s a lot of floor space. Here’s where I deposited the bins and boxes of stuff from all the rooms in the hose.

Rough sortthese boxes into general categories of household things like; kitchen equipment, CD’s and DVD’s, books, magazines, unorganized paper, everything from the “linen” closet, everything from every closet that is on the floor or not hung up, everything else that does not have a designated storage space.

Household and personal records:  Keep only the records that need to be kept legally. Deeds, ownerships, passports, birth certificates, tax records and other documentation all get their own fireproof containers.

All other records can be stored digitally and if you don’t already, start paying bills online.

Photosand Videos: favorite place to get hung up because there are so many.  We’re converting everything to digital formats.  I finally had to go through years of unedited photos to get rid of 90% of old photos, and scan those I wanted to keep.  The very best will get converted to photo books online, which I know we will look at.  The ones that still make my heart sing go into frames for a revolving gallery wall.

Books: book lovers (we are) – you’ll need to come up with a system.  We agreed to keep only reference books and books that still speak to us in some way.  The rest we either donated or sold at the only tag sale we had at the end of the sorting process.

I allowed myself one box of things of my daughter’s childhood stuff that make me feel happy still – handmade cards, and other meaningful pieces. 

Convincing my husband to go light on personal belongings was easy; the college-age daughter, not so easy. She’s young with all that opportunity to acquire her own clutter ahead of her.  But I stuck to my guns, safe in the knowledge that where there was clutter, there is now room to breathe and have new, real family experiences.

One last recommendation – do not think that storing things in one of those Self-Storage units is the answer.  If anything it merely postpones the inevitable need to purge and might take you further into the clutter hole than you could ever imagine. 

Our new motto is “Scaling down lets us live bigger”.  Less stress, more time to live, unencumbered.

Throughout this process, the words of the singer-poet Leonard Cohen kept playing in my head, “I choose the rooms I live in with care: there’s only one bed and there’s only one chair”. Words to live by.

If you would like help creating a home you love or if you want to sell your house for the highest price in the shortest time, please call us for a consultation and we'll get started!


  1. Amazing. Why didn’t anyone ever get me started sooner?????

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