This Genius Trick Will Make Decluttering Easier

Feeling guilty about tossing out an old possession? Try this trick.

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Photo by JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Whether you’re downsizing, clearing out your garage, or simply aspiring to live a more Marie Kondo lifestyle, decluttering your home can be easier said than done. One obstacle we can all relate to is the sentimental value that so many old possessions hold: We no longer use them, but we can’t stand the thought of getting rid of them for good.

Now, researchers say they may have a simple solution: Snap a photo of those keepsakes and you may be more willing to part with them for good. In a new study published in the Journal of Marketing, people who were encouraged to do just that were between 15 and 35 percent more likely to donate sentimental items to charity than those who weren’t prompted to take pictures first.

Interestingly, the research was sparked by an old pair of gym shorts belonging to lead author Karen Winterich, PhD, associate professor of marketing at Penn State University. “They reminded me of beating a major rival basketball team in junior high,” Winterich says. “I didn’t wear the shorts; I wanted the memory of winning that game, and that’s what I thought of when I saw the shorts.”

Winterich realized that a photo could easily preserve that memory for her, and that she could then donate the shorts so someone else could use them. She wondered if her experience could also translate to a wider audience.

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So she and her co-authors conducted a few experiments. First, they coordinated a Goodwill drive for 797 students living in female residence halls at Penn State. Advertisements in all of the dorms asked students to think about items that carried good memories but that they no longer used. Some of the fliers also instructed students to take a photo of their sentimental goods before donating them, while others simply asked people to collect and donate the items.

A total of 1,146 items were collected in donation bins placed throughout the residence buildings—613 in the dorms with photo instructions and 533 in the ones without. Those 80 additional items amounted to a 15 percent increase in donations, which the study authors believe is likely due to their helpful hint. (They can’t say for sure, since the donation bins were unattended and donors were not interviewed about whether they took the advice or not.)

The researchers also conducted five follow-up experiments with slight variations. In one follow-up involving male and female students at the end of the year—when rooms had to be cleaned out—dorms that got photo instructions donated about 35 percent more than those who did not.

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In another follow-up, however, the researchers found that taking photos did not have the same let-it-go power when people were asked to sell their secondhand goods, instead of donating them. “When you put a monetary value on something sentimental, it can be a big turn-off,” she says. “People were more likely to say they’d never sell, whether they were told to take a photo or not.”

When it comes to making donations to a good cause, though, a photo may be just what people need to overcome their hesitation. “What people really want is to hold onto those memories,” says Winterich. “If they realize they can take a photo of a favorite sweatshirt—or even if they just remember that they already have photos of themselves wearing it—it can make it easier to let go.”

Getting rid of clutter can have financial benefits, say the authors. They cite a survey conducted by eBay and Nielson which found that the average American owns 50 unused items in their home, including clothing, accessories, and electronics. Many people pay for unnecessary storage units or large living spaces when a smaller one (with less stuff) will do, they wrote in their paper.

Plus, it can be good for mental health. “There’s other research out there that shows how not having constant clutter and overwhelming disorganization in the home is great psychologically,” says Winterich. Plus, the authors wrote, donating unused items can also help non-profits—like Goodwill Industries, the American Red Cross, and Dress for Success—stay in business.

Winterich says the people encouraged to take photos in the experiments were more likely to donate items of all kinds, not just obviously sentimental objects. “I think that when we start to declutter, we can come across a sentimental item and think, ‘This is going to be so hard; I’m not going to get into this right now,’ and we don’t even try,” she says. “Once people realize they can take a photo and keep the memory, maybe it makes the whole process easier and could increase donations overall.”