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  • Writer's pictureCathy Borg

Is there a Wrong Way to Declutter? Science Weighs In!

Updated: Dec 14, 2022

A woman sitting on a heap of clothes
Many people are waste-averse. Decluttering can help items get a second life if they are donated,

Have you ever wondered why it is so difficult to get rid of a few possessions? You're not alone. They're even studying it in academic halls.

I recently read an article provocatively titled "There's a Wrong Way to Declutter." It summarized a study conducted by Penn State University professors to investigate "how people can best go about downsizing and decluttering".

The study attempts to answer some of the most pressing decluttering questions. Like what is the most effective way to pare down belongings and whether we should categorize them first before we declutter. Or whether you should choose what to keep first over what to discard first. What is the main obstacle when deciding to let go of an object. Their findings may have implications that can help us have a better decluttering experience; i.e. make it easier for us to let go of things.

But first... True Confessions from a Professional Organizer.

I feel like I am in a great position to write on this subject since I've had a lot of practical experience working directly with many people to declutter and donate their belongings. And strangely enough, I have repeatedly attempted to declutter in a manner that the professors refer to as the wrong approach because I tried to follow accepted wisdom. Eventually, and happily according to the study, I was compelled to alter my decluttering strategy due to necessity. Let me explain.


Why I changed my decluttering approach.

When things are organized, clients seldom ask for my assistance.

When things are chaotic, they call.

Sometimes it's so chaotic that I really have no choice but to begin purging the items at my feet if I want to be able to enter the room at all. This is where my efforts to follow standard organizing wisdom hits the wall.


You may have heard or used the organizing acronym S.P.A.C.E. as a system or approach for organizing any space. It stands for Sort, Purge, Assign a home, Containerize and Equalize or Evaluate. Well, sometimes it just doesn't work for me.


It particularly doesn't work with really congested spaces. At step one "Sort" I am already running into problems. I just don't have the space to sort the materials into categories before beginning the editing process. What to do?


In a heavily congested space, I would begin to make room by gathering the obvious trash. Then with my client, either advising or helping, we'd sift through the piles.

We'd start by putting the keepers into one labeled bag or box; putting the donations into a clear bag; putting the undecided into their own bag.

In order of activity, sorting only came second; after picking what to keep and purging what was not desired.


So in light of my own experience and with the added findings from the Penn State U. research findings, I've created my own organizing acronym P.L.A.C.E.S.

P = pick keepers and purge for easy wins;

L = lay out the rest into categories and pare down;

A = assign a home;

C = containerize

E = evaluate if the assigned homes and the containers chosen are working. Tweak.

S = system. Schedule upkeep: Daily, Weekly, Monthly, Yearly and WHO is responsible for upkeep.

It works for me and hopefully for you.


The new Penn State University study shows that there is a right way to declutter and downsize.

Remember at the beginning of this article I told you that Penn State University professors had investigated "how people can best go about downsizing and decluttering?" They did discover a few notable factors that you might find very interesting and will inform how you can declutter and downsize the right way.

The studies addresses 3 questions:

1. Should one clean and organize before decluttering and downsizing?

2. Should you first select those things you wish to keep before purging?

3. How we can overcome waste-aversion and let go of the things we don't need or want to keep?

#1. Should one clean up and organize before downsizing?

Their study shows that cleaning and organizing first might deter you from paring down. They found that because it takes a lot of time to tidy, that if you have to organize before getting rid of things, you might not get to the decluttering part of the process.

Not only may cleaning and organizing deter you from decluttering but according to the findings keeping it untidy makes paring down more effective.

They say it is best to choose from disorder.

Keep things messy and pick and choose what 'to keep' from the mess.

They call it selecting from disorder.

Why choosing from disorder makes decluttering easier.

If the main objective of downsizing is to decrease the number of items, then choosing from disorder had the best results; that is people chose to keep less.

Imagine that you organize your closet such that everything is together, even the black clothing. It gets challenging for you to choose from all the similar goods.

The study found that the comparisons we make when things are ordered increases our tendency to keep them.

More comparisons led to indecision which led to inaction.

The result is that we are more likely to hold onto items when they are ordered, according to the comparisons we make.

In one study, the research team distributed saltwater taffy to two groups of participants.

The taffy in one was arranged in an unkempt heap in the other the taffy was arranged according to flavour.

People with organized taffy selected more taffy to keep than those with chaotic taffy.

In another study, people were asked to downsize a pantry.

Some pantries were well-organized, while others were not.

People chose more items to keep from the organized pantry than from the disorganized one.

In yet another study, the research team had participants downsize a closet in their own homes.

The research team investigated various methods of downsizing.

Whatever the method, the one common feature was that when the space was organized the participants retained more when downsizing.

#2. What are most people doing wrong when they declutter and downsize?

The Penn State University research study showed that most people

were decluttering the wrong way!

In fact, what people expected to work was the polar opposite of what actually worked. So people were going about decluttering incorrectly.

It turns out that it is much better to choose what you are going to keep rather than what you are going to discard.

For example, if you have a large number of books and you go through the shelves and select a few to get rid of. You end up with a lot of books remaining on your shelves and only a few purged. However, if you take the books off the shelves, then you can choose which ones to keep. The result is that you keep far fewer books.

The same is true for clothes in a closet. The best way to declutter and pare down is to take the clothes out of the closet and choose what you want to keep. That selecting what you want to keep from a disordered group was more effective than selecting what to discard first. So, definitely. Choose what you want to keep first!

#3. They also discovered why it's more difficult to decide what to get rid of than what to keep. And how to overcome it!

Our waste-averse nature makes it more difficult to decide what to get rid of than what to keep.

This means that people are more likely to let go of an item either through donation or consignment if they know it will be used by someone else rather than thrown away. It's not being wasted. People don't want anything to end up in the landfill.

This is another reason people often hung on to items even when they didn't want them because they didn't know where to allocate them.

Three Rules to Help You Declutter and Downsize

To summarize, there are three working rules to follow when decluttering based on what we learned from the Penn State University Declutter Study.

  • First, don't clean and organize before you declutter and downsize because you may not get around to the decluttering part.

  • Second, select from disorder and choose what you want to keep first. You are more likely to retain less when you do so.

  • Third, because we are waste-adverse, consider where you'll distribute your purged items by pre-selecting a charity or a thrift store. You'll have one less decision to make. Whether you are donating or selling, most people value the knowledge that their belongings will have a second life and not end in land-fill.


Need help deciding where to give your belongings a second life?

Check out our resources page "places to donate or consign".

Connect with us to learn more about our downsizing and decluttering services.

If you have more questions after reading this article, please leave comments below.

5 comentários

Cathy Borg
Cathy Borg
21 de nov. de 2022

Yes, thanks Jonda. I don't go through the whole house looking for like items. I prefer one room at a time. Love your container method.


Jana Arevalo
Jana Arevalo
21 de nov. de 2022

This is truly fascinating, and this is support for the Kondo method. She, too, says to gather everything together (chaos) and then select what you want to keep (what brings you joy.) Very interesting indeed, and the concept of it being hard to downsize when it is organized makes a lot of sense. Thank you for your article!

Cathy Borg
Cathy Borg
21 de nov. de 2022
Respondendo a

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Just to be clear. In the study, there's no mention of gathering the same things together and selecting from them. They did however use natural containers like pantries and closet which one would assume would hold related items. They found that people kept fewer things when selecting from disorder and that if like things were put together as in the closet example, people had difficulty choosing: "It gets challenging for you to choose from all the similar goods.

The study found that the comparisons we make when things are ordered increases our tendency to keep them. More comparisons led to indecision which led to inaction."


Jonda Beattie
Jonda Beattie
21 de nov. de 2022

A very interesting study. Thanks for sharing. Like so many theories I feel we have to pick and choose what fits that particular situation and person. While I don't go throughout the whole house looking for like items, it there is space I do like to group like with like before deciding to discard. That way the client can choose the best one or ones to keep. We do have the discussion of how many of anythign is reasonable to keep and I also like to use the container method - you can keep as many items as you like if they will fit into your container.

Cathy Borg
Cathy Borg
21 de nov. de 2022
Respondendo a

Yes, thanks Jonda. I don't go through the whole house looking for like items. I prefer one room at a time. Love your container method.

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