Why Is It So Hard to Get Rid of Shit You Don’t Need?

Think about the last time you had to do “spring cleaning” or move. Were you able to get rid of your wonderful belongings with cold-hearted ease? Or did it feel like you were sacrificing a kitten with every item you had to discard?

I’ve had to move at least nine times since 2002. Each place was my home for about two years before I had to shove every one of my things back into cardboard boxes and schlep them elsewhere, wherever that was.

Over time I gradually got more “efficient” about packing. I figured I could cut the work of packing by not unpacking some of my stuff in the first place. Duh, I’m smart.

Despite such genius, every time I moved I’d mutter under my breath, “Why the fuck do I have so much shit?”

This incantation usually helped steel my resolve to initiate the Great Moving Day Purge. As you are probably familiar with, it involves going through the potential candidates for Goodwill donations or lying crumpled under a heap of other junk in a garbage bag. I’d always hem and haw over every little thing, using one of the following thought processes to justify keeping it:

  • Oh, this shirt? I bought it at the first Weezer concert I attended with a close college friend in 2007–the memories!
  • Hm, this disarray of birthday and holiday cards? People took the time to write them so I couldn’t possibly throw them away.
  • This random pin from a show? It’s proof that I was there.
  • A bracelet and collection of hats that I never use? I might need to use them for a very specific outfit.
  • Ugh, I already bought this blender so I might as well find a use for it…some day.

Over the years, I barely got rid of anything because I’d always be able to convince myself that I’d need this thing at some unpredictable point in the future…some day. Some day I’ll look back and relive the fond memories; some day I’ll finally have a change of heart and use it; some day I’ll hate past me for having thrown it away–the heartless bitch.

Some day will come…You just never know!

I imagine that’s exactly the monologue that goes in our head when we’re faced with “decluttering.”
Decluttering is the material possession’s version of “less is more.” By having less, the thinking goes, you spark more joy with the things you do have and can focus better in life, or something like that. This notion has been popularized by the whole minimalist movement and Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

I can understand that getting rid of things sounds and feels liberating, like trimming excess fat. And I think there’s merit to reducing the amount of stuff you have in your life, especially if you plan on making your life more conducive to a nomadic and traveling lifestyle. But there’s only value in it if we’re actually able to free ourselves from the cyclical paroxysm of guilt about decluttering and desire of wanting more stuff somewhere down the road. And on and on the cycle goes.

But that’s the thing: it’s just so damn hard to let go of anything. We know we need to get rid of the clutter in our lives, but at the same time we resent doing so. Why is that?

The Fear of Loss

Throughout my many years of moving around, I have left almost a dozen boxes unpacked, and every moving day, I hauled them along with me. Like a sucker. I just couldn’t bear to part with the smallest, dumbest thing. It was simply more painful to throw away a silly keychain than to keep it.

If you think about it, that’s what all this is: a fear of loss.

Rather, it’s an aversion to loss. In Robert Cialdini’s book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasionhe explains that we’re much more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something. In other words, we just don’t want to lose or have to give up shit because it’s too hard.

It’s crazy that losing $50 hurts us far more than the feelings of warm and fuzziness of gaining $150 can offset. And when you compound this with a complementary cognitive bias called the endowment effect, where you tend to grossly overvalue the things that belong to you, you can start to see why you’d rather swallow a shoe than part with your stuff.

It’s kind of like how all parents think their baby is the cutest ever. By virtue of something being yours, you think of it as your own child. It’s the cutest. It’s the greatest. Everyone else’s sucks.

So when it comes to eliminating clutter, the combination of the endowment effect and loss aversion works together to guilt-trip you to never letting anything go. It’s a real bummer.

What’s Done is Done

There were a few catalysts and subsequent realizations that reframed my perspective around stuff and facilitated the whole getting-rid-of-things-without-feeling-like-I-was-killing-a-puppy. The first kick in the pants should be credited to my ex-neighbor in Boise, who gave me Kondo’s book to read.

Kondo’s book taught me to detach my emotions from inanimate objects, though not in a way where I’d callously kick the thing aside once I was done with it; but in a way that showed reverence and gratitude toward it. Stick with me here.

Kondo’s initially strange philosophy stems from what I believe to be is a hybrid of sunk cost and gratitude practice. Sunk cost is an idea in economics that is defined as the costs–whatever they may be–that have already been incurred. That is, you’ve already paid for something (with money, time, energy, or all of the above) and no amount of wishing, kicking, crying, cursing, or cake-eating can return those costs to you.

In the professional world, this can muddy our judgment because oftentimes the logic follows that: if we’d already sunk our time, sweat, and tears in a future-less project, we need to see it to the end, potentially wasting more time, sweat, and tears, so that our previous expenditure of time, sweat, and tears “wouldn’t go to waste.”

So really, it’s the idea of having spent four hours, later realizing that you need to kill a project, and sucking up the fact that you’d already spent those four hours and moving on; versus realizing that you’d already spent four hours on something, decided that those four hours were worth too much to you that you’d rather spend another 10 hours trying to salvage those four hours, and go on to spend 14 hours altogether on a project that had no chance anyway.

That is sunk cost.

Similarly, we have this natural inclination to want to cling to physical objects that we’ve already paid for with our own cash or energy and hope to squeeze every iota of value from it. You’ve probably heard your parents or friends put it this way at a terrible, all-you-can-eat buffet: “We have to get our money’s worth.” That, too, is sunk cost.

The item you’ve bought will, after a certain point, have already more than served its purpose or provided the value or happiness–however brief–you wanted out of it. It’s here where Kondo suggests that you be a grateful weirdo and tell the item aloud, right before discarding it: “Thank you for helping me and my happiness. You may go now.” Well, something like that.

What you say exactly doesn’t matter. What matters is that you acknowledge the item for having served what it was designed to do. Kondo says it best here:

Have gratitude for the things you’re discarding. By giving gratitude, you’re giving closure to the relationship with that object, and by doing so, it becomes a lot easier to let go.

I remember when I first started doing this. It was still really damn hard, and I felt like a dork. But I had to move all my stuff again and figure out what to do with them before vagabonding around the planet. The “purge” had to be done. I started with my clothes and the battle of “oh, but some day…” dialogue raged on in my head. To combat this, I matched my questions and thoughts with my long-term goals–related to travel and being mobile–and asked:

  • Would I pack this with me right now to wear or use during my travels?
  • How heavy (or light) is this?
  • Would I be okay with wearing or using only this for the next couple of months?
  • If I ever had to replace this item, is it easy to get something of similar or equal value?

If I couldn’t give appropriate answers to those questions, I’d thank the item and get rid of it.

This gratitude and acknowledgement that the item has already served you are effective at silencing the cacophony from your loss aversion and your daydreaming of “some day.” And look at it another way: if you do decide to hang onto the item but put it in storage indefinitely, that’s a fate worse than dumping it (for the object, not you). Not to mention it’s a waste of space and more weight for you to tow when you have to move again.

The objects you own should always enhance or help you remove a negative from your life. If it starts to feel like a burden or is kept simply out of a superficial sentimental attachment, then maybe it’s time to look at it as having already fulfilled its duty. Then chuck it and never look back.

Just Let It Go

Just like that song in Frozen. (It’s stuck in your head now, huh?) It’s easier said than done, of course.

Now don’t get me wrong: Wanting stuff doesn’t make you a bad person. Keeping a bunch of stuff doesn’t mean your life is a literal and figurative mess.

Decluttering, or getting rid of your junk, simply is a helpful and liberating practice for anyone. Even if you don’t plan on living a life of flitting to and fro place to place, you can probably benefit from finally throwing away those towers of Amazon cardboard boxes or your collection of video games that has been stashed away for more than a decade (guilty).

Letting go of things–whether it’s a material object, your control, or your fear of letting go–is a skill. It’s a skill that begins with first recognizing it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s a whole ordeal and you’ll have plenty of moments where you second-guess yourself or wonder if what you’re doing is a mistake.

But honestly, you’ll never know if you just clung onto things forever and never had the courage to let go and move forward.

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