The One Thing Science Says You Need in Order to Declutter
How to let go without actually letting go
It’s not about the items, it’s about the memory.
Intellectually, we know this, yet we still hold onto items that remind of us of the past. That’s because our brains are wired to look back on days past with rose-colored glasses, say researchers who study memory.
This can make decluttering a challenge. It’s hard to let go of your college graduation gown when it reminds you of sorority parties and favorite lectures rather than fights with friends and disappointing grades. Or boxes of baby clothing that your children outgrew more than a decade ago that bring back memories of birthday parties and laughter instead of sleepless nights and exhaustion.
Luckily, science has also found a way to help us declutter when we have a hard time letting go:
Take a photo.
“What people really don’t want to give up is the memories associated with the item,” says Rebecca Reczek, associate professor of marketing at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business. Reczek co-authored a study on preserving memories and found that people are more willing to part with sentimental items if they’re encouraged to take photos of them first.
As part of the study, Reczek and her fellow researchers held a donation drive at Penn State and promoted it using two different advertising campaigns. Students in the memory preservation campaign were encouraged to keep a photo of sentimental clutter before donating it, while those in the control campaign were only advised to collect their clutter then donate. At the end of the donation period, the researchers found that students who were prompted to photograph their possessions donated more items.
But it’s not just the memories associated with sentimental items that keeps people from decluttering. It’s the reluctance to give up the identities linked to those memories, says Reczek. That box of baby clothing is hard to part with when you still feel connected to your identity as a new mother — even if your children are fully grown. Reczek explains this type of identity loss can also be minimized by the simple act of taking photos before decluttering.
“It is not terribly surprising that we can keep the same memories alive just by taking a photo of these possessions, but it is not a natural behavior,” she says. “It is something we have to train ourselves to do.”
• Decluttering in the Digital Age (May 2018 issue)
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