10 Steps to Overcoming Hoarding

Photo by Evelyn Giggles

Maintaining simplicity, internally and externally, is a crucial part of moving to a more sustainable existence. Why? Because being overwhelmed with what we no longer need, or with more than we need saps our energy. Whether that’s extra internal stuff, such as limiting beliefs, attachment to drama and gossip, or fantasising or whether it’s external stuff such as material goods, rubbish or simply an overgrown garden, it all contributes to our attention being commandeered by the meaningless rather than dedicated to the meaningful.

As a recovering hoarder and ‘just in case ‘ fanatic, I’ve explored a variety of approaches to keeping  mess and clutter at bay.
Here are some ideas I’ve come up with for how to overcome hoarding and live more simply:

1)    Monitor usage – to begin with just observe how you use technology, clothes, books, kitchen equipment, tools etc. You will probably find that your usage follows the 80:20 rule (The Pareto Principle) that you use the same 20% of something 80% of the time.

2)    Sell, freecycle, recycle or give away anything you haven’t used in the last year.

3)    If that’s too big a step in one go, put everything from 2 (i.e. that you haven’t used in the last year)in a holding space e.g. spare bedroom, loft space, cupboard. Anything that’s still there, unused, after 6 months, get rid of (mark a date in your diary to do this). You’ve then got 6 months to get used to living without those items and to test to see which you really have a need for.

4)    Then go back to 2.

5)    Keep a box, or other space in the house where you put items that are leaving your living space and preferably separate items for sale from those to freecycle, recycle or give away. Completely clear this space once per month.

6)    Own up to underlying beliefs that support hoarding:

a)    I’m keeping it just in case
b)    I’m keeping it because someone else would want me to (often someone who’s not longer there e.g. has passed away.)
c)    I’m keeping it for someone else
d)    I’m keeping it as a momento of my past
e)    I’m keeping it because it’s too good to throw away.

7)    Recycle those beliefs:

a)    Keep for the foreseen, not the unforeseen. The only way to plan for the unforeseen is through building personal resilience, not through hoarding.
b)    Keep for myself and what feeds me only.
c)    If it’s someone else’s, they can take responsibility – give it back, renegotiate a storage arrangement for a limited time only, or get rid of it.
d)    Living in the past holds me back. I let go of the past with gratitude for all it’s taught me. (For someone who’s died, and with whom I want to keep some material connection, keep one small item, or one small box of treasures, if this serves me in some way e.g. by supporting me through the grieving process.)
e)    If it’s too good to throw away, then it’s too good to keep and not use. Let it go to someone else who would use it and appreciate it. Take steps to sell or give it to them. Pass it on with joy.

8)    Think carefully about anything you bring into your living space. E.g. through shopping, accepting items from others etc. Do I really want this? What is the underlying need? What do I already own that would fulfil that need?

9)    When introducing anything new into your living space that is definitely needed, create a space for it from the outset, so you’re clear on where it lives/where it can be stored.

10)     Apply all of these principles to electronic hoarding too e.g. files on your computer. Have a place for everything and everything in its place. Delete anything you haven’t used in the last year. For any new information you receive and want to keep, create a folder for it straight away that’s clearly labelled.

I know this can be really challenging, because at the root of hoarding are likely to be some pretty strong feelings about my identity and security (and maybe the identity and security of those I care about too.) In my experience, what can be especially self-supporting and self-empowering with this process is to begin by setting an intention, for example to reclaim my energy for meaningful work, to benefit others by passing on useful items, to enjoy living and working in a clutter free environment. It can also help to take some baby steps in order to get the momentum going and to make it easier to embed the new simplicity habit.

An intention I find particularly effective  for those about-to-depart-from-my-life items is:

‘ May these items be well used and bring happiness and benefit to others, either in their current form, or after being transformed by nature or by man.’


What is it that most helps you to overcome hoarding?


14 Responses to 10 Steps to Overcoming Hoarding

  1. Jamie Robe July 19, 2012 at 4:31 am #

    Great post Sally – thanks!!!!!

    I have some issues with hording. Part of it involves “important papers”. I am always programming and working on web apps and sites, and I often end up noticing that my light laptop is like 25 pounds… I look in the case and I have 20 pounds of papers and folders in there.

    At that point I end up putting them all in “safe place”, which of course ends up a bigger train-wreck later.

    The best method I have found is to really limit myself from using paper, unless it is a page or two that I am actually scribbling ideas and diagrams on. I keep almost everything of importance on a free Evernote account online. I have found that a great way to de-clutter, as it is an online notebook(s) with note pages. I can get to it from home or work or even my phone. I also keep notebooks on it for organizations and stuff that I belong to and need to keep info.

    I also bought a wand scanner, to scan paper, and although it is easy and works great, I almost never do it. Again, it is easy to search Evernote by words, but a scanned PDF of a paper drawing is not searchable.

    I have a very hard time going back up to my “desk” area where I shove those old papers… I have like 3 years of web stuff there and I am sure I would never use them (I could never find anything in all that jumble anyway). I think I might try to follow your ideas and get rid of it.

    I find that those papers inhibit me from even wanting to use my nice glass desk I bought and put together for my computer work… I am sitting at the dining room table with my laptop instead LOL


    PS BTW are you using WordPress for your site? I like your comment system with the subscription without commenting option…. Is that a plugin?

  2. Sally July 23, 2012 at 4:24 pm #

    Hi Jamie,

    Good to see you back and glad this post appealed to you. You seem to me to be on the right track with reducing your input of paper. Smiled at the image of you sitting at the dining room table while your nice glass desk doesn’t get used! At least you’ve spotted yourself doing that. That sounds like a good first step to doing something about it. Keep us posted!

    I’ll email you separately about the WP plugins…

  3. Claire Harrison July 24, 2012 at 11:30 am #

    …really enjoyed this piece and appreciate hearing about the practical and effective sounding Evernote system from Jamie. As a passionate de-clutterer (who grew up with two hoarders for parents), I particularly support item number 6…to be conscious that whatever I/another brings into my living space will need my (& possibly some of the Earth’s!) precious life energy to somehow handle it or make decision about.

    To keep me on track philosophically, I also much enjoy occasionally revisiting Breakdown, a project by the artist Michael Landy. In Feb 2001 he engaged in a public systematic destruction of the 7,006 things he owned (from car to postage stamps). All reduced to dust, I find comments on the Art Critical website give a good overview of the implications of/response to this event. When watching the conveyor belt go around with trays of items heading for the shredder I feel immense inner freedom and a giddy release from the suffocation of STUFF!

  4. Sally July 25, 2012 at 11:19 am #

    Claire – I wasn’t aware of the Breakdown project and have just googled it. Quite a statement!

  5. Karl Craig-West August 8, 2012 at 11:27 am #

    Brilliant post Sally,
    I’ve already sent it out to a bunch of folks and I’m hoping that Mrs C-W doesn’t suddenly decide (after reading this) that I’m no longer worth keeping.
    All the best,,

  6. Sally August 9, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    In that case, Karl, seems very brave of you to forward this to Mrs C-W ;) Seriously, though, I’m glad you’re enjoying the post and and very grateful for you passing it on.

  7. Louise Brandwood March 11, 2013 at 7:30 am #

    I know I don’t want another book but have you written a book on this subject as I am finding your thoughts and tips very useful we live in a very small house and I finding my collection and hoarding is stressing me out very much and it is very much my own fault

  8. Sally March 11, 2013 at 2:08 pm #

    Hello Louise,

    I haven’t written a book, no. But I’d be open to hearing what is it specifically that’s stressing you out. You might prefer to discuss that with me by private email – sally [at] sallylever [dot] co [dot] uk.

  9. Patricia Giles October 23, 2013 at 5:56 pm #

    Dear Sally, I have just found your post above on 10 steps to overcome hoarding. I wish I had known then what I know now… I was brought up in a home full of clutter, so much so I didn’t like to bring friends home as I was ashamed. How sad!!! Having reached the point of despair myself at the age of 54 I have filled in the clutter/hoarding scale to find that my own clutter is in the centre of that scale. I have now taken a step by step approach during the past year to address it and its working. I have a long, long way to go as its a life-time habit which cant be changed overnight but at the end of Year 1 I am celebrating all that I have achieved. I am also hoping to set up a self help group for others in my local area. As a coach and mentor myself I am be able to help just a little bit. Meanwhile I am getting my life back and it feels great. Thanks for your work and I look forward to future posts. Tia

  10. Sally October 24, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

    Hello Tia and thanks for sharing your experiences so far. A self-help group sounds like a useful idea.

  11. Pallavi October 11, 2014 at 9:33 pm #

    Hi Sally
    I love your post- just read this one as its something that I’m having great trouble with, but I think that I am taking small baby steps now in the right direction.

    Some time ago, I set myself a goal of getting rid (recycle or give away or bin) of 2 carrier bags of stuff per week.
    I have managed to do that for about 6 weekends, spread over a year.

    I have a problem mainly with books/paper, but also just about everything and am always on a back foot it seems.
    I tend to find excuses such as, not having the time to do it, but the fact is, I find tidying up tedious to do after a day’s work- so maybe I need to do it first thing in the morning?

    thanks for this post but all the others too.

  12. sallylever October 13, 2014 at 5:32 pm #

    Hello Pallavi. I guess awareness of what’s behind the excuses is a great first step. It might be worthwhile to see how it goes with tidying up first thing in the morning. Does this strategy work for you? If not, what other options might there be? (See if you can come up with say 6 or 7 and then choose the one you like the best and experiment with that one next.)

    If you’re up for making some deeper inquiries into what it is that’s at the root of the resistance, you might also like to notice what’s going on in your head at those moments when you’re tempted to omit the tidying up. What are you telling yourself about it?

    Hope that’s useful.

  13. Susan July 2, 2015 at 6:46 am #

    Sally I am looking for the best way for a small group of us from church to assist our friend, who is a hoarder. She has taken some steps to decrease clutter and stuff, and gave away and trashed things.Unfortunately she had to move out for where she was living due to failing inspections to may times. In Looking for new housing we are trying to assist her and avoid this issue from taking her to being without housing in her budget which is limited.
    Thank you for your insight through living with this issue. I feel we all hoard to some extent. ( which can included sneaking food after dinner and putting in mouth to feel “good….yes I am overweight).
    Please share your thoughts on how we can assist her and let her feel released from the hoarding.

  14. sallylever July 8, 2015 at 4:41 pm #

    Hi Susan. You don’t say whether you’ve already tried the tips in the article above. If not, perhaps you could work through them as a group so as to help your friend that way through example, role modelling and mutual support. It might also encourage her to be shown the benefits of living simply and without the clutter, so that she can get a strong impression of what she’s aiming for.

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