Photo: Kari Shea
Psychologists have found an amazing answer to the problem of clutter that has baffled many Americans at work and at home, and fueled an industry of multi-sized baskets, closet organizers, and of course, the advice of Marie Kondo.
Here is the answer: If you want to get rid of your clutter, take a picture of it. Then throw out the object, and keep the picture.
That’s what a new study in the Journal of Marketing finds. Consumer psychologists Karen Winterich, Julie Irwin and Rebecca Walker Reczek wanted to figure out how to help retailers that rely on clothing donations. Retailers were encountering one consistent roadblock to the supply chain: people get too sentimentally attached to their stuff to let it go. Papers we don’t need on our desk or clothing that we’ve outgrown transform from stuff to treasured, hoarded stuff.
We need to be better at letting things go. Maintaining clutter on your desk and in your home life has financial and emotional consequences. The average U.S. household has 50 unused items worth $3100 that they’re letting go to waste. Beyond saving us money, learning how to get rid of clutter can also decrease your stress levels.
To increase donation behavior, researchers conducted a series of studies to test out ways that would preserve the memories we attach to our items. Researchers recruited 151 participants to describe a beloved but unused item and asked them how they would preserve the memory of the item.
To donate your stuff, take a photo of it
Photography was the most popular choice with almost two out of three participants choosing this method. “I would definitely take a few photos and tuck them away into a memories file. I would also send the picture to my parents so they could remember my baby crib that I spent time in and that my son spent time in,” one participant wrote. Writing about their beloved item was the next best option with 22% of participants choosing to do this.
After they had photographed or journaled about it, participants reported that they would be more likely to donate the item than the control group. In a separate field study at a thrift store, researchers would take photos of donated goods with “meaning” for donors to keep. That Polaroid photo made a difference. After the donation, all of the participants were asked if they had lost of piece of themselves. The participants who got photos reported less identity loss than the ones who didn’t.
However, there are limitations to how much we’re willing to part with.
We’d rather donate than sell, for instance. When participants were asked to attach monetary value to an item, they became more reluctant to give it away even if they took a photo of it. Researchers believe that this is because memory preservation tactics don’t overcome the emotional taboo of attaching monetary value to personal sentiments. No one likes putting a price on a memory; alternatively, no one likes to throw away money.
The next challenge, of course, is organizing your photos. Both Google Photos and iCloud for Macs offer ways to create photo folders. Remember to back up often.
This study shows that we can clear our minds and desks through simple memory preservation techniques. Next time you’re reluctant to part with an item collecting dust on your desk, take a photo it. The memory will last longer than the object will.