You may be wondering, "I don't have hoarding disorder, but I do have trouble getting rid of things and some clutter. How can I break this habit?" Simply put, the best way to break a bad habit is to build a new habit.
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You are flipping through the channels, and suddenly you come across something that makes your body freeze. It is an image of a bedroom filled from floor to ceiling with stuff. Magazines, toothbrushes, clothes, detergent -- it's all in there. The owner of all these things, Sally, seems quite comfortable and describes not wanting to get rid of an empty toilet paper roll because it may come in handy. You shout to the TV, "Sally, why can't you just throw it away? Don't you see that is too much stuff?!" Sally can't hear you, of course. She is on TV.

While Sally's behavior may seem extreme, trouble getting rid of things is actually quite common. In a study I led as a researcher at Columbia Psychiatry, 43,093 people from across the United States were asked: "Do you have difficulty discarding worn out or worthless possessions?" To our surprise, over 20 percent said "Yes." That's 1 in 5 people who say they have trouble getting rid of things. You may even find yourself relating to Sally, which is why you don't flip the channel when Sally moves on to an expired coupon for tires.

Of course, not everyone who has trouble throwing things away will be in the same situation as Sally. Sally most likely has hoarding disorder, which is characterized by difficulty discarding AND large amounts of clutter that make it hard to use rooms for their intended purpose -- like not being able to cook in your kitchen or sleep in your bedroom. This condition causes lots of distress and problems in a person's life. And these problems can be made even worse if the person also has the problem of buying lots of things (or picking up free things) and bringing those home too. Hoarding disorder may begin during childhood or teenage years and may affect over 6 million people in the United States. Individuals with hoarding disorder tend to seek treatment in mid-life. If you think you may have the same difficulties as Sally, the good news is that help is available (see resources below).

Now, going back to the question you originally shouted at the TV: Why does Sally (and so many of the rest of us, for that matter) have trouble letting go of things?

People can have many reasons for keeping things, but here are a few:

  1. Emotional Attachment -- Objects have sentimental connections, including reminding us of a loved one.
  2. Aesthetic Appeal -- The item looks beautiful in and of itself.
  3. Usefulness -- You never know when that may come in handy.

This third reason can be trouble for highly creative and intelligent individuals who can find a million uses for a single item. Seen in this light, objects are full of promise and excitement. But, if you don't have the time follow through, what was once promising can turn into clutter.

Now, you may be wondering, "I don't have hoarding disorder, but I do have trouble getting rid of things and some clutter. How can I break this habit?" Simply put, the best way to break a bad habit is to build a new habit. In our clinic, we encourage patients to take it "one square foot at a time." Start with small goals -- try just 10-15 minutes a day of decluttering. Then, make sure you take time to celebrate small successes, that square foot or multiples of it. Many people forget this step, but it is a key ingredient. Decluttering can take time, and for sure it can be difficult at times. But, if you stick with it, and push through the feeling of "I'll never be able to do this," you will have success.

And next time you are flipping channels and freeze when you see clutter, you may even shout to the TV, "Sally, one square foot at a time!"

Carolyn Rodriguez, M.D., Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Director, Hoarding Disorders Research Program
Columbia Psychiatry

Amanda Levinson, B.A., Research Assistant, Columbia Psychiatry, contributed to this post.


International OCD Foundation -- Hoarding Center --
Anxiety and Depression Association of America --
National Association of Professional Organizers --