Declutter your life

Understanding why you find it hard to give stuff away, and how to easily overcome it.


Q: How do you instantly double something’s value?
A: By thinking about giving it away.


If you’ve ever felt overly possessive about your regular parking space, a pair of shoes, or your collection of Harry Potter DVDs, then you are experiencing the psychology of ownership. These items are likely the same as many others available, but they are special to you in some way, because they are yours. The endowment effect is the psychological phenomenon of people giving more value to things simply because they own them.

The endowment effect is the reason things reach a higher price at auctions, as people become attached to the thing they are bidding for, experiencing a premature sense of ownership that pushes them to bid more than they would otherwise. It is also why car dealers want you to test drive the car, so you can think what it would be like to own it. Even imagining ownership can increase the value you give to something.

If you think about an item you own, something you’ve considered giving away or selling, chances are you’ve experienced the endowment effect and have placed a price or value on the item well over what someone else would give for it. This effect of psychological ownership may be stopping you from letting go of lots of things you own, stuff which may actually be cluttering your life, and your mind.



Mental clutter is anything that keeps you from thinking straight. Similar to the difficulties we face when trying to find our way through a cupboard, room or garage that’s full of stuff, mental clutter is the accumulation of worries and unfinished tasks that make it difficult to focus and think clearly. Having a cluttered home often leads to the feeling of having a cluttered mind, but the powerful effect that possession has on your psychology can make it hard to declutter your home.

Say for instance you’ve decided to clean out your spare room or garage. You go through things one by one and try to make a decision what to do with each item, asking yourself “should I let this item go from my life?”. At this point the endowment effect kicks in and you make up all kinds of reasons why you should keep it, based on a mistaken estimate of how valuable it is. After hours of moving stuff around you have kept everything, including the box of staples (because they are useful), the 5 year old birthday card (because it has a thoughtful message), and the random computer cable (because it looks expensive).

Alternatively, now you know about the endowment effect, you can ask yourself a simple question; “If I didn’t have this item, how much effort would I put in to obtain it?” If the answer is not a lot, then overcome the endowment effect and give the item away, or give it a reasonable price tag to sell it. This works on decluttering emails you receive as well. If someone sends you a link or attachment to something you ‘must see’, ask yourself “If I hadn’t just been sent this, how hard would I try to find out this information for myself?”. Then delete the email, because you didn’t want that information before the email was received, so it’s unlikely you really want or value it now.



Knowing the powerful influence that possession has on your psychology, you can take simple steps to counteract it. Use your knowledge of the endowment effect to help you put more realistic values on the items you own, to let the stuff go that you don’t really need but are somehow overvaluing just because it’s yours. Try this brain hack today to declutter your home, and your life.



Stafford, T. (2012). Why we love to hoard. BBC online.

Kahneman, D., Knetsch, J. L., & Thaler, R. H. (1991). Anomalies: The Endowment Effect, Loss Aversion, and Status Quo Bias. Journal of Economic Perspectives.

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