Decluttering Hacks: How to Deal with Too Much Stuff

Too much stuff. After the gift-giving holidays – Hanukkah for Jews and Christmas for Christians – homes are bursting at the seams with more stuff.  Knick knacks, novelties, gewgaws, tchotchkes and odds and ends of all sorts are crowding out space where the familiar stuff currently resides.

Assuming that building or renting extra space is not the path you plan to take (though some do), closed systems, such as homes and apartments, require organization.  With a fixed amount of space, the addition of some new things will likely require the extrication of some old things. However, most of us don’t do that. We rearrange a bit here and there, so we’re not forced into traumatic decisions to say goodbye to Auntie Marguerite’s knit cap from 11 years ago. Due to our enormously strong bias for defaults (the status quo bias), things that are already in our closet are likely to stay in our closet.

In short, most of us won’t send a single item to a charitable organization.

For most of us, parting with some old familiar goodies requires a change in behavior.  And if you want to make that change, there’s hope! Our minds can be terrifically powerful decision-making machines and if you want to do it, you can! (Mind over matter works here.)

Biases & Heuristics

Biases (blind spots) and heuristics (rules of thumb for making decisions) can either enable us or disable us when it comes to letting go and making room. Some of these are likely to work against you and some can be tailored to work for you.

Status Quo Bias. This is the big hairy elephant in the room. We love to hang on to old stuff, in part because our default is to keep stuff, not get rid of it – that’s the status quo. Ridding yourself of old stuff to make way for the new requires overcoming this intensely powerful default. To do so, you’ll need to work against the status quo bias.

Here are some ideas on how to do that.

Priming. Begin your journey to unload stuff by opening up 3 or 4 bags or boxes and laying them in plain sight. You’re more likely to fill them if they’re open and ready to use than if you must fetch a new one each time you fill the previous one. Make the choice to give something away as easy as possible.

Choice Architecture. Inventory the stuff in the part of your life where you need more space: kitchen, bathroom, clothes closet, etc. For example, if your focus is on decluttering your clothes closet, then bring the clothes that you want to wear to the most prominent part of your closet. Maybe it’s hanging the exciting/happy things more to the right than your left, if you’re right dominant. Or you might organize by frequency of use, color, season, texture or use (work, exercise, leisure, etc.). Or if you’re sorting with shelves, bring the most desirable items to shelves at eye level. Or use separators in drawers to keep certain items in specific places so they’re easily grabbed. And put the things you like the most into the closet first and in the most desirable locations. That way, things with lower priorities will naturally struggle to find a place. That makes it easy to give away items that just weren’t important enough to keep.

Availability Heuristic.  We tend to recall things more easily that are more in our memories and those memories are often stoked by recent experiences – like wearing the super fancy dress last week (first time in 12 months) or making a fondue dinner (first time in the last 4 years). Both cause us to give them greater value than the not-so-vivid experiences. Consider two rules to overcome them: A. If you haven’t worn/used it in a long time – some experts favor the 6-month or 12-month rule – then label it with high likelihood of moving on.   B. If you recently wore/used it and you know it’s the first time in a long time, make sure you compare it jointly with other similar items. The important part of this is that using simple rules – that can be broken – helps overcome basic biases by making the process more attractive (by making in less difficult).

Social Accountability. The best solution for cleaning out a kitchen, bathroom or garage to make way for newer things is to enlist the help of a trusted friend or relative. Ideally, they could become recipients for some of your gently-used items; however, the important thing is that having a comrade-in-arms will reduce the probability of assigning ‘save’ to the vast majority of the items. A social dynamic helps keep everybody on task.

Be Timely. What’s your best day of the week to do it and the best time of day to make decisions? Whatever that time is, commit to it. Put it on your calendar – but don’t make the date 3 months away. Do it now! Waiting until the end of the day, when your decision-making powers are at their lowest, sets a collision course with disaster. Use time wisely and you’ll make better decisions.

When/Then Statements. Use a commitment statement to orient your actions, such as, “When I get home from work on Friday night, then I’m going to set out my packing boxes.” And, “When I wake up on Saturday morning, then I’m going to start cleaning out my closet.” 


Yes, getting rid of stuff can be difficult, but when space begins to run short, you’re going to be forced to make some decisions. A great decision is to buck the status quo bias and say so long to all the things in your life that are not contributing to a more enriched you. And why shouldn’t you? You want plenty of room for all the new stuff, right?