The recent trend away from overconsumption and the popularity of simple living — think tiny houses — raise the question of how people can best go about downsizing and decluttering.
Penn State University professor of marketing and business administration Lisa E. Bolton and two colleagues decided to try to find out.
Their research turned conventional wisdom on its head, indicating most people go about the process the wrong way.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Q. You and two colleagues published research late last year on decluttering. What got you interested in the subject?
A. I was visiting a friend and found a book by [Japanese organizing consultant] Marie Kondo on her shelf. I couldn’t imagine doing some of the things she suggested. Marie Kondo has these five steps she talks about — keeping things that only spark joy and so on. I was struggling with whether that would really work. We went out and talked to a professional organizer for her thoughts and tried to devise research on the best way to downsize and declutter.
Q. What was the answer? Could you sum up what you concluded?
A. One of the things that particularly interested us is whether you needed to tidy up first. It’s a lot of work to tidy, and if you have to organize before you get rid of things, you might not get to the decluttering step.
The bottom line is our research suggests it’s best to select from disorder. Keep things messy and choose what to keep from the messy items. We call it selecting from disorder.
Q. Why is that the best approach?
A. The lay belief is quite the opposite — you should reject from order, [meaning] choose what to get rid of from tidy items.
Let’s imagine I tidy clothes in my closet and have all the black together, etc. When you try to make choices from [like items], it becomes hard. The comparisons you make when things are ordered increases your tendency to retain them.
We had an interesting time coming up with studies to examine this because we needed people to downsize items they own. We surveyed people who downsized, and they described what they did.
[In addition], we had to come up with tasks in the lab. We would give people saltwater taffy. Some of the taffy was organized by flavor. For others, it was in a disorganized pile. Then, we would see how much they would keep in the end.
In another study, we set up a pantry and had them downsize the pantry. Pantries were organized or disorganized.
We actually had people downsize a closet in their homes, so we tried to look at a number of ways people would be downsizing.
Turns out being organized means you are going to retain more.
Q. What was the most interesting thing you learned?
A. It was what people thought would work was the opposite of what seemed to work. So people were going about it the wrong way. Our gut instincts work against us when it comes to downsizing.
I have a lot of books. I go through the shelves and pick out a few things to get rid of, which does me no good. The pile is small.
The way to go about it would be to take all the books off the shelf and pick the ones you want to keep. Same thing with your closet.
Q. I’m curious. How organized is your house?
A. I do like to run a fairly tidy ship. I have a few weak spots, and books might be one of them.
Q. How messy were you as a child?
A. I was pretty tidy. My attitude is to keep on top of it.
Some of the experts providing advice are looking at situations that have really gotten out of control. What some people do is put it in storage instead of making the difficult choices.
Q. You say your research has implications for consumers, the burgeoning home organization and storage industries, as well as sustainability. Briefly explain what you are talking about.
A. How you go about downsizing to be effective. The second is where does all this end up? A lot ends up in landfills. One positive is people are waste-averse. We don’t like waste in general. Maybe that needs to be leveraged more. [Stress that] things are accumulated and won’t get used, and ultimately, you will end up disposing of it. If people were more forward-looking in that way, maybe it would help solve the landfill problem.
A strange twist is if you get good at decluttering, you are generating more waste. Maybe you can give it to charity. There is a growing secondhand industry, too.
Q. Does the notion of decluttering take on more significance during the pandemic with people stuck at home more?
A. We felt a certain segment of workers did have extra time on their hands at home and were downsizing. I managed to get the old paint cans out of the basement. People were doing things like that. There were reports some of the centers that accept donations [were filled], but there is just a growing interest in decluttering. People accumulate pretty easily in our society, but the aesthetics are streamlined and modern. So there is this tension.
Q. What’s up next on your research agenda? Are you planning a follow-up on decluttering or what?
A. We do have a project on secondhand goods. We are trying to understand how people judge value when assessing secondhand goods.
Q. What keeps you up at night? Is it anything having to do with clutter?
A. I would like to get a handle on COVID around the world.
And climate change. We need to act now. We can’t put this off.