Human beings are pack rats by nature.
We are all attracted to collecting things, particularly bright, shiny objects. Believe it or not, some neurodevelopmental biology researchers think that the reason we are attracted to things that glitter and sparkle is actually a holdover from our Neanderthal roots.
In essence, the reason we seek out such objects is because they stimulate a very primitive part of our brain that equates shiny objects with water.1 Basically, our desire to collect shiny things hails back to our Neanderthal ancestors’ quest for water.
In our current modern world, in which obtaining water is as easy as turning on a faucet, we don’t have that same drive. Nevertheless, we still seem to collect more and more things, but without getting rid of what we already have. So how can we overcome that neurobiological urge to just collect things, in favor of getting rid of all that clutter?
If you have not grown up entirely within the digital age, paper is something tangible and real. It may feel much more safe and comforting than an electronic file. However, going paperless will dramatically reduce the amount of clutter in your life.
The key is to be smart about how you do it. Start by investing in a desktop scanner that allows you to feed in your original papers, particularly if you are only now starting to go paperless. As you get the hang of it, you can branch out to scanning apps on your smart phone or tablet.2
Scan everything into a PDF format as soon as possible to avoid things piling up. Keep the current-year file of your papers on your desktop, using a consistent naming system. Once a month, copy that file to a USB stick or external hard drive with a complete record of all your papers. Once a year, copy the file of all your records to another hard drive stored away from your house or in a fireproof box. Another option is to backup on a cloud-based system so that your files are safe should your computer crash.
A little bit each day
Trying to declutter everything at once is a guaranteed way to make you succeed at not even starting. Quite simply, it is too overwhelming.
Instead, break it down into manageable pieces. Set a goal of 15 minutes per day, or one room per week. Also start by first removing what is obviously trash, items to be donated to charity, or any duplicate items.
Finally, look for the easy things first, such as baby clothes or toys, which can be passed along to somebody else, once your children have outgrown them.
Should it stay or should it go?
One of the side effects of being a packrat is that we tend to hang onto things because we might find a use for them, even if we don’t know what that use will be, or when it might occur. After a while, we may even forget exactly why we were holding onto the items in the first place. This is the point at which the “is this really worth it” questions need to be asked:
- Have you used it in the past 12 months?
- Will you use it again within the next 12 months?
If your answer to both questions is a resounding no, it’s time for you to accept that the item is not likely to be used again. While it can feel very painful to let go of some of these items, think about how much you will benefit by having more space available in your house or apartment.
There’s no doubt that the human tendency to hold on to objects, sometimes long after they have outlived their usefulness, is deeply rooted in our evolutionary past.
However, being able to declutter your life may allow you to both have those objects you treasure most, while at the same time, clearing out those that have long since served their usefulness.
- Coss RG.All that glistens: Water connotations in surface finishes. Ecological Psychology. 1990, 2(4):367-380. DOI: 1207/s15326969eco0204_3
- Make your life paperless with these apps and gadgets. Popular Science. Published 10/2017. Accessed 9/13/2018. https://www.popsci.com/paperless-apps-gadgets