Coping techniques: Cluttering behaviors

Please note that you should always consult with your physician before making any changes in your diet, your level of exercise and activity, medication or behaviors related to substance use.

The best way to make use of these techniques is to read through them, select three that stand out to you and practice them. I would be glad to hear from you on your responses.

  1. Learn to organize possessions. Because cluttering is linked to procrastination and difficulty making decisions, consider implementing a “24-hour rule.” This means that within 24 hours of bringing a new object into your home you’ve taken it out of its packaging, found a place for it and put it away, rather than leaving it on a table or counter. It also means that within 24 hours of using any object you put it back into its place.
  2. Sometimes every object that we own seems too precious to let go of. Another way to organize your possessions is by assessing their value to you. Consider: If your home was on fire and you had only limited time to select and carry things out, what would they be? Why those? Or, if there were a fire and everything was lost, what would you try to replace first? Second? Last? What would be truly irreplaceable?
  3. Sometimes the feeling “I may need this” can be very strong and can seem to apply to everything equally. Here a way to organize is to ask yourself, “When was the last time I used this? Have I needed this in past year? Two years? When is the next time I think I would need this? Within this coming year?
  4. Because cluttering behaviors, specifically the acquisition of new objects, are related to anxiety, become familiar with what events or thoughts act as triggers for anxiety for you. When are you most likely to act on impulse—in what moods, environments, with which people?
  5. Develop relaxation and self-soothing skills that you can practice when you become anxious, rather than self-soothing by shopping or otherwise acquiring more objects. You can also practice these skills before, during and immediately after discarding something, in order to reduce distress.
  6. It can be useful to distinguish between cluttering and collecting. Objects in a collection frequently form a set that the collector wants to complete, so that the objects are selected from a narrowed range (German stamps, old coins, first editions, etc.) and have a specific value in relation to that set. Cluttering is more wide-ranging and might include objects that the person doesn’t value, apart from the soothing experience he or she had when acquiring the object.
  7. Because cluttering is associated with indecisiveness, practice making immediate decisions about material that comes into your home. For instance, junk mail. Ask yourself if this mailing is something you will use? Not something you might use or could imagine yourself using, but a much smaller and more specific category: Will you use it? One way to distinguish between “will” and “might” is whether or not you’ve needed such a thing in the past year. This practice of decision-making can be applied to objects you already possess: Have you needed to use this in the past year? If you haven’t, consider letting go of the item. Please note, this step does not apply to legal or financial documents and records. For guidelines on how long to retain these consult with a community legal resource, accountant or bank officer.
  8. Find ways to pause before acting. For instance, rather than making a purchase when you first see an object, leave the shopping environment (even if it’s online) and give yourself time to consider whether you need it, what you need it for, how likely will you be to use it, is it within your budget.
  9. With daunting or potentially overwhelming tasks it’s a good idea to divide them into small enough steps that no step is itself overwhelming. So when you begin to downsize your possessions begin with something relatively easy. Throwing out spoiled food could be a relatively easy place to start. Or throwing out the rubbish. Gradually move on to small—perhaps the top of a single table—and brief—fifteen minutes. Congratulate yourself every step of the way.
  10. When sorting possessions with an eye towards downsizing it helps to have as few categories as possible. Use boxes that you mark with the names of the categories. These can be “Things to keep” (because you use them on a regular basis), “Things to say goodbye to” (because you haven’t used them in the past year) and “Undecided.” As you fill the “Keep” box empty it by putting those things away into their own permanent place (ideally not on the counter or in a corner of the floor). Find a place where you can put away the “Undecided” box. Check it in six months. Did you need any of these things? Perhaps it’s now time to segue them to the “Goodbye” box.
  11. At least once a week empty the goodbye box, whether than means giving gifts to friends and family, making contributions to Goodwill or Out of the Closet, or visiting your local trash bin. Once you’ve put something into your goodbye box don’t retrieve it. If you find yourself becoming anxious or stressed around this practice your self-soothing techniques.
  12. Once you have your household in the condition that you want, consider having a rule about bringing new objects in. Something like “For every new thing I bring in I will get rid of one thing of comparable size” will help you maintain the ground you’ve cleared.
  13. What would it be like to download images from the Internet in place of acquiring objects that take up space and cause problems in your home? Consider how little space even a very large jpg requires.
  14. Consider making contact with Clutterers Anonymous for a local meeting where you can support and be supported by people with similar issues around cluttering (group support can be a big help with the issues that may come up when discarding items), or visit and review their website.