A few years ago, I was asked to speak about decluttering and organizing. As my audience took their seats, I offered a basket of letter openers bearing my company name, and invited them to help themselves. Then I began my talk. I mentioned the trap of freebies, suggesting that “a freebie isn’t really free.” Once we take them home, they are no longer “throw-aways”; they are possessions. They are now OURS and suddenly tough to part with. Possessions have us in their grip! (Bringing items into our homes and lives and not taking any out is what leads to clutter, after all.)
At that moment, one of my listeners held up the letter opener. “I don’t really need this,” she said. “I’ll put it back,” placing it back in the basket. Most of the others in the room followed her.
I paused…oops! Lesson learned.
Why do clients (and the rest of us) hold on so tightly –- are we…possessed?
“We overvalue what we have,” says behavioral economist Dan Ariety in Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter. He calls it the “endowment effect.” It explains why is it so difficult to sell our own homes, our possessions at a tag sale, even when we claim to be eager to get rid of them! There is a psychological bond we have with our things, even those we’ve had for only a few minutes. This bond, over time, can lead to an unanticipated epiphany: “I have too many possessions – but I can’t bear to get rid of them!”
How do we loosen this connection to possessions when it’s time to let go?
Some professional organizers helping declutter will hold up items for clients to decide on—keep or toss—never letting the client actually hold the item, to avoid strengthening the bond. Another technique for “separating” from possessions comes from author Marie Kondo. She suggests a “gratitude practice” to give ourselves permission to let go of unnecessary things: recognize that you enjoyed having an item for years but that you no longer need it.
Here are some questions to ask when deciding what to keep and what to discard or donate:
- Is it an item you truly need, or can you ‘make do’ with something that can do the task as well?
- Is it something that can be borrowed when needed?
- Is it something you need or just want?
Does this psychological bond exist with papers?
We’ll have to explore that another time. Paper organizing, my specialty as a financial organizer / daily money manager, also deals with helping clients make choices on what to keep (and how to best organize it), and what to dispose of (whether discarding or shredding).