Spring clean: The art of letting go

Have you ever held onto things that you no longer use or never used at all? Perhaps it is a Christmas present that just wasn’t for you and now lives in a cupboard collecting dust, or an impulse buy that you feel guilty about and keep telling yourself that you’ll use it. 

In a consumerist society, we often buy things for a multitude of reasons other than necessity. These might include impressing others, retail therapy, or an impulsive purchase that we later regret – we’ve all been there!

Problems can arise when we purchase items that we don’t need, and then hold onto them until they surpass their point of utility. 

Two people clearing out a box of old items to donate or recycle.

There are many strategies that can be employed to change our complex relationship with objects. For example, recycling presents an opportunity to give an item a second life, or to be re-used multiple times. Knowing this can make it easier to part with something – yet many people still have difficulty letting go.

We caught up with Associate Professor Melissa Norberg at Macquarie University, to unpack the psychology of “letting go”, and to seek her expert tips on how to say goodbye to things you don’t need. 

Melissa Norberg – How to have less stuff

1. Make a concrete commitment to change your buying and storing habits

Goals go by the wayside when we haven’t really thought through what we want, why we want it, or how we are going to do it. We might say we want to buy less, only to later buy a new item because it was on sale. With each opportunity that confronts us, it’s easy to make more and more excuses for allowable purchases. 

To nip this in the bud, we need to make clear decisions in advance of temptations. Stay in control of your behaviour by writing a binding contract. Give detailed advice on how you will change your behaviour. Share your contract with others. You can make the change more critical to you by talking about it with others. Sharing your goals with others can also help with accountability.  

2. Identify what triggers and reinforces your buying and storing behaviour

We’re often driven to buy new things for a variety of reasons – to look good, to impress other people, to celebrate a special occasion. Essentially, we use possessions to make ourselves feel good. More often than not our motivation to buy new things isn’t out of necessity. 

There are many internal and external pressures that drive us to buy new things. It might be a store running a deal or a sale. If you consider yourself to be a thrifty person, you might be driven to buy something in this instance. Doing so will help us to feel good about ourselves. 

When you’re about to purchase something, stop and ask yourself: what is your motivation or desire for buying that item? What purpose will this item have in your life? How do you think you’ll feel after buying that item? Ask yourself the same questions when you have difficulty parting with something you haven’t used in a while (or ever).

Example trigger: Spring cleaning – finding an item in your wardrobe that you haven’t worn in years.

The rationale for keeping: “I’m gonna get back in shape and wear it again someday.” “I spent money on it and don’t want it to go to waste.” “I like it. It looks like something I would wear.”

What prompts these rationales: I want to be physically fit. I want to use my money wisely. I want to care for the planet. I want to look good.

Now, pinpoint strategies that target your reasons for buying and saving possessions you don’t need. Once you’ve recognised your triggers and motivations, you can put together a plan to stop yourself from giving in to urges. If you can engage in different behaviours and achieve the same outcome, you’ll have less of a need to acquire and store possessions.

Reason for acquiring/saving: I want to be physically fit. 
Replacement behaviour:  Exercise.

Reason for acquiring/saving:  I want to use my money wisely.  
Replacement behaviour:  Put money into your savings account and keep it there.

Reason for acquiring/saving:  I want to care for the planet. 
Replacement behaviour:  Buy fewer items. Reuse your items for as long as possible. Give away unused items to people in need. Recycle what other people do not want. 

Reason for acquiring/saving:  I want to look good.
Replacement behaviour:  ‘Shop’ your closet and mix and match what you already own. Exchange items with a friend.  

3. Develop rules to resist keeping possessions you do not use

We often hold onto items because we imagine scenarios where we may need that item in the future. No one enjoys making bad decisions, so the thought of this makes us feel uncomfortable. That distress, no matter how slight, encourages us to hang onto items we aren’t using and perhaps haven’t used in years.  Similar to making a contract to achieve an overall goal, you can create rules to follow under all circumstances to help you avoid challenging,  in-the-moment thoughts and feelings that might weaken your resolve and derail your goals.

Spring cleaning is an excellent time to set and develop your rules and put them into action. Think of the reasons you hold onto items you do not need and develop relevant rules. Example rules include:

Rule #1: If I  haven’t used an item during the last year, I must part with it.

Rule #2: I have no reason to own it other than I own it. Get rid of it.

Rule #3.  I like it, but I have no space for it. Say goodbye.

Rule #4. It’s more than two sizes away from fitting me. Donate it. 

The more you follow your rules, the easier they will become. If it ever feels difficult, just remind yourself that thoughts are just thoughts. You don’t win a million dollars simply by thinking about it. Likewise, you won’t end up needing that sleeping bag you haven’t used since your university days just because you think you might. By testing out your expected outcomes, and learning that they don’t eventuate, pesky thoughts will arise less and less. Even if you do end up “needing” a sleeping bag someday, you’ll likely learn that it was OK that you gave yours away.  You’ll likely discover that a few blankets or a borrowed sleeping bag did the job.

4. Track what you buy, store and discard

It’s important to start recording the things that you buy and the things you discard. You might start to notice that the same things crop up over and over again. Take for example fancy dress items that you buy for one-off occasions. You might notice that you’re continually buying and then throwing away the same types of items. This can be a useful way to question whether you should be buying those items in the first place. Perhaps you can just wear the same fancy dress over and over.

5. Reward yourself for meeting your goals

Letting go of items can be rewarding for you and others around you. You may notice your pocketbook has increased as a result of selling old items or preventing yourself from indulging in things you don’t need. Those around you – friends, a charity and the environment – may have benefited from your rehoming or recycling activities. 

The most important thing is just to get started.

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