How to Live Clutter-Free

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Understand the psychological forces behind clutter — and then outsmart them. From Lucy Jo Palladino, author of Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload

Clutter is distracting. Your eyes and your brain have too many places to wander. Photos, artwork, and pleasing decorations provide stimulation that helps you stay in your focus zone. But piles of paper and stacks of stuff are petty thieves that sap you of your attention.

Clutter is deferred decision making. Think about it for a moment. What’s the real reason you don’t want to deal with that file, magazine article, financial record, old letter, or child’s artwork? It’s indecision, isn’t it? You don’t want to throw it away, but you don’t want to commit to keeping it, either. So into a stack it goes.

It’s no problem to throw away junk mail. And it’s no problem keeping records you’ll need for your tax returns. But what do you do with all that stuff in between? You don’t know for sure. And because uncertainty causes anxiety, you duck the decision by putting it off. “For now” you can put it on that shelf over there.

We all know: Handle paperwork only once. Act on it, then file it or toss it. But this is like saying, “Eat your vegetables.” The problem isn’t knowing what to do; it’s doing what we know. This is true of clearing all kinds of clutter — computer files, household items, even social obligations. One way to improve is to understand the psychological forces behind clutter and then outsmart them.

Loss Aversion

In 2002, Daniel Kahneman, PhD, shared the Nobel Prize in economics for his work on human decision making under conditions of uncertainty. He and Amos Tversky, PhD, conducted a series of experiments that showed how emotions affect decisions, and how framing affects emotions.

Their findings showed that human beings demonstrate loss aversion. In other words, people will risk more to avoid a loss than to realize a gain. In one study, when given a hypothetical choice between getting $3,000 with certainty or having an 80/20 chance of getting $4,000, about 80 percent of all respondents chose the sure $3,000. But when given the same choice to lose $3,000 with certainty or take the same 80/20 chance on losing $4,000, only 8 percent opted for the sure $3,000 loss. Most people — in this case, 92 percent — didn’t want to face the moment when they’d have to part with something of value, so they put it off and hoped they wouldn’t have to do it at all.

Loss aversion helps explain the accumulation of clutter. We aren’t certain what’s of value and what’s not. So we put the decision off, even if we wind up losing more. We’ll give up our living space rather than come face-to-face with the pang of throwing something away that we might need later.

The Endowment Effect

Another force contributing to clutter is the endowment effect: Most people who are given an object will instantly value it more than they did before they received it and more than others value it.

The best-known demonstration of this effect is an experiment conducted at Cornell University, in which researchers randomly gave students either a mug or a chocolate bar, with identical market values. Beforehand, the researchers had established that half of the students preferred each item. Afterwards, they gave all the participants a chance to trade. Only 10 percent made the swap, compared to the 50 percent that would have been predicted strictly by economics theory.

The contents of your house have more value to you than they do to anyone else—you chose them; you use them; they meet your individual needs. According to the endowment effect, though, you value them for reasons beyond the functions that they serve. You value them for the simple reason that they are yours.

Fight Back by Reframing
Research on decision making shows that the way you phrase a question can change the outcome you get. In one survey, people were willing to accept inflation to reduce unemployment from 10 percent to 5 percent, but not to increase employment from 90 to 95 percent. Our actions often depend on the way choices are presented.

To clear clutter, reframe the questions you ask yourself when you’re about to defer your decision. Think less about what you might lose if you delete something, and more about what you certainly will gain: space, order, and an efficient workspace.

Here’s some reassuring self-talk to get past the pangs of loss. Add your own, too:

  • I’m creating space — to work, to relax, to breathe.
  • When my desk is clear, my thinking is, too.
  • I feel more relaxed when I can see open space in front of me.
  • An orderly room, an orderly mind.
  • I’ll save time looking for things.
  • I like the feeling of knowing I can find what I need when I need it.
  • I like feeling free. I own my things; they do not own me.
  • ____________________________________________________
  • ____________________________________________________

Another way to thwart loss aversion is to reframe the concept of loss itself, and give it a positive connotation. For example, you can use the metaphor of weight loss, which most of us regard as desirable. Try these and add your own:

  • I like to feel lean — in my body, my office, and my house.
  • It takes months for me to shed extra pounds, but I can lose this weight in one afternoon.
  • In my workspace, less is more.
  • ____________________________________________________

For Sentimental Reasons
In some ways, it’s harder to eliminate clutter at home, because of the personal memories we attach to our things. How can we part with stuffed animals, old greeting cards, and souvenirs when they connect us with feelings we want to keep all our lives?

On one hand, digital technology is an enormous help. You can take photos of keepsakes before you let them go. This is especially helpful for children when they have to say good-bye to favorite toys that they’ve outgrown. On the other hand, digital technology is responsible for new forms of clutter. When cameras used film, you’d have about ten photos of a special event. Now, by the time others send you their digital photos of the event too, you have hundreds. As computer sizes grow in gigabytes, digital clutter does too.

You can reduce digital clutter by sitting down, organizing your files, making the best use of your software, and adding an external drive. But giving up old books, tapes, and knickknacks requires a harder kind of emotional letting go. You need to say goodbye to the experience of holding those memories in your hands.

A useful reframing for clearing clutter at home is to make yourself look forward, not backward, in time. The space you create is your living space for the future. When you give your discards to charity, they’ll do more good for someone else than they’re doing for you now. Think more about where you’re going and less about where you’ve been.

Here’s some helpful self-talk for letting go of home clutter:

  • These memories are in my heart, where they matter most.
  • I trust in life to give me what I need to recall these feelings anytime I want.
  • Someone else could use this much more than I can.
  • I’m grateful I had this, and I look forward to what comes next.

Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D., is the author of Find Your Focus Zone: An Effective New Plan to Defeat Distraction and Overload (Copyright © 2007 by Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D.) and Dreamers, Discoverers, and Dynamos. She is an award-winning psychologist and attention expert with thirty years of professional experience. Dr. Palladino, who lectures nationwide, has received several federal research grants, published numerous articles in professional journals, and presented papers at national conferences. Her research findings have been featured in Family Circle, Men’s Health, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and Web MD. You can learn more about her work at


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