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Why Do We Hold On To Clutter?

Even organizational expert Marie Kondo isn't immune to clutter.

By Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi
Feb 6, 2023 2:00 PMFeb 15, 2023 7:30 PM


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For years, organizational expert Marie Kondo advised people to declutter their homes. An object that didn't "spark joy" needed to be let go, and a person had to be mindful not to "relapse into clutter" by buying things they truly didn't need.

Kondo recently admitted her own relapse into clutter. She told a reporter from The Washington Post, "My home is messy." She's now the parent of three young children, and culling her bookshelves is no longer a priority.

Household clutter is such a universal issue that it launched Kondo and her decluttering method into international fame. But it's also such a consuming problem that even Kondo isn't immune. 

Social scientists are learning more about the human desire to hold onto things. It's a complex issue, and they're finding there isn't just one reason behind our clutter habits. 

Saving Clutter for Later

From a young age, kids are taught to save for the future. They are told to put money in piggy banks and not eat all their Halloween candy at once. Some watch as their parents turn their old clothes into hand-me-downs for their younger siblings.

As adults, many people hold onto items with the thought they might need it in the future, or they hope their children will want it one day. You likely have a bag of random cords that may come in handy, don't you? This save-for-later mentality has come at a time when most people live in small, urban spaces that clutter quickly.

Read More: Why Deep-Cleaning Videos Are So Satisfying to Watch

People also have a sense that an object might one day be worth money. Programs like Antiques Roadshow portray people as they learn items they pulled from the attic are worth thousands of dollars. Scholars have suggested the program gives viewers a sense that their own "mundane belongings" have value and, in doing so, gives significance to their consumerism.

The save-it-for-later mentality doesn't profit most people. But it has paid off for the self-storage industry. There are more than 50,000 self-storage sites in the U.S. filled with forgotten items their owners don't use but hate to toss.

Getting to Later

Although some people accumulate clutter because they think they might need an object in the future, others hang onto items because they struggle in the moment to make a decision.

A 2023 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health was inspired by the stay-at-home orders during the Covid-19 pandemic. The researchers wondered whether all that time at home would prompt people to declutter their living environments. They defined clutter as an "overabundance of objects" and noted it was distinct from hoarding, which is considered a psychological condition.

Read More: The Many Health Risks of Animal Hoarding

The researchers recruited 227 participants who said they were considering a decluttering project. Participants completed a questionnaire that included items addressing decision-making, procrastination, the livability of their home and their feelings toward clutter.

The study found that indecisive people struggled with decluttering more than people who scored as decisive and action-oriented. The authors explained how decluttering is a sequence of decisions intended to reduce disorder. It's a planning process that can overwhelm indecisive people who hesitate to take action. The act of decluttering can then seem overwhelming, and the person might avoid organizing tasks while the problem only gets bigger.

Studies have also found a link between people who procrastinate and clutter. A 2018 study in Current Psychology asked 346 young adults (mean age 21.5 years) to complete a questionnaire that included items addressing procrastination, clutter and identity with possessions. The study found that having a cluttered home predicted high procrastination scores.

Stressed By Clutter

Studies have found that clutter is subjective. One person might feel a shelf overloaded with books is charming, while another feels those books belong in the donation bin.

If a person feels bothered by clutter, studies have found that it is an ongoing source of stress. Many people feel their homes are a reflection of themselves, and they believe their homes should be sanctuaries away from the worries of the world. When a cluttered home fails to provide that haven, people have reported the mess negatively impacts their well-being and can disrupt their ability to sleep.

Organization experts like Marie Kondo tell people only to keep items they genuinely love. Others recommend people avoid shopping and bringing new things into the house. Although this advice may be helpful for action-oriented people who can quickly work through the process of decluttering, indecisive people may need outside help.

In the past few decades, businesses specializing in decluttering have popped up in major cities. Upon request, cleanout teams descend on homes or storage spaces and quickly decipher which items can be resold or donated (the remaining items are trashed). For many customers, realizing their goods will have continued use helps them let go of an item they no longer need or want.

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