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Want to Kondo Your Home? Learn Why Letting Go of Things Is Hard (and How to Overcome These Cognitive Traps)

February 13, 2020 - Rhys Branman, MD

Pile of organized towels

We’re on the cusp of springtime, and many of us find ourselves yearning to break out of old ruts. Reducing household clutter is one way to bring proverbial fresh air into the home and, indeed, every aspect of day-to-day life.

It’s a noble undertaking, which many of us go into with great enthusiasm—only to find ourselves quickly running out of steam. Letting go of things is hard! And that’s not just a truism; there’s real science behind it.

If you can’t get rid of clothing pieces you’ll never wear again, the sunk cost fallacy may be to blame. Your mind is whispering, “but I paid $50 for that shirt…I’ll wear it again and get more value out of it”—when the truth is you probably won’t.

Often, the problem is “cognitive traps,” systematic human thought patterns that create roadblocks in our minds. Thankfully, we have some practical ideas for overcoming these cognitive traps which can help you make good on your desire to Kondo your life.

Why is it Hard to Get Rid of Stuff?

So why is it hard to get rid of stuff, exactly? A recent Psychology Today article offers some helpful reasons. Two cognitive traps in particular really hit home for us:

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy means we keep things after they outlive their usefulness because we’ve invested money in them. We have a hard time admitting that something we paid good money for has lost its value—and that the cost can’t be recouped.

If you can’t get rid of clothing pieces even when there’s a 99.9% chance you’ll never wear the piece again, the sunk cost fallacy may be to blame. Your mind is whispering, “but I paid $50 for that shirt…I’ll wear it again and get more value out of it”—when the truth is you probably won’t.

This fallacy can also keep you from getting rid of all kinds of things that no longer match your current lifestyle: sporting gear, kitchen gadgets, camping paraphernalia, record collections, and more all lurk unused in people’s homes thanks to this cognitive bias.

The IKEA Effect

There’s also what is known as the IKEA effect, which basically says that we assign greater value to things we helped build, assemble, or create. If you can’t get rid of a collection of stuff, the IKEA effect might be in play—after all, you spent so much time and effort assembling that collection of toys, baseball cards, Reeboks, vintage glassware…you name it.

This trap can even apply to things others have made, making it hard to get rid of things your kids created. Sure, it’s lovely to keep a lumpy mug that feels good in your hands and reminds you of when your teen was in second grade, but it becomes a problem if you feel a need to keep every scrap of paper they ever colored on.

These cognitive hurdles combine forces to make it difficult to part with unnecessary physical possessions. For those who’ve resolved to Kondo their lives in 2020, here are ways to overcome them.

Organization Tips for the New Year

Conquer the sunken cost fallacy by realizing that, while you may have invested in acquiring a particular item, the time and money you spent on it is gone. Keeping the item around certainly won’t help you get those resources back—and the item is continuing to suck up resources in the form of time and storage space.

Gain some easy wins by looking at your lifestyle now. If you only watch and listen to media on digital devices, ditch the piles of CDs and DVDs. And, if you do all of your reading on a Kindle, you might narrow down your book collection to nothing but the truly sentimental items. If you now much prefer an AirBnB over camping, get real with yourself and ditch the tent, stove, and hammocks.

Get past the IKEA effect by remembering there’s a big difference between having pride in your work and keeping something useless just because you (or someone you love) had a hand in building it. Take a few deep breaths and seat your thoughts in the present moment. Now, when you think of this object, ask yourself if it is adding value to your life today. If it’s no longer useful and simply adding clutter to your home, free the space up for you and your loved ones to better enjoy life in the present. If it’s a collection of objects you assembled, the same idea applies.

Still having a hard time letting go? Take a few photos of the objects or collection so you can remember the effort you or your child put into the endeavor.

Beauty product collection tips from our Little Rock skincare experts

It’s easy to hoard all kinds of items—and that includes beauty products. If you’ve amassed a big collection of skincare and cosmetics, take the time to review the expiration dates and toss anything that’s past its prime. While you may find the sunk cost fallacy urging you to keep that older bottle of serum, it’s a bad idea to put stale products on your skin! There’s a good chance they are harboring a range of bacteria and any skin-enhancing ingredients have likely become ineffective over time.

If you want to start fresh with a coordinated line of medical-grade skincare, we invite you to come to our Little Rock medspa, Exhale. We’ll use our deep knowledge as well as the latest technology to find out what your skin truly needs and help you design a streamlined, effective skincare routine.

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