Why do people have so much trouble throwing things out? Turns out, the answer is in our heads; our brains make at least four cognitive mistakes when we try to declutter.
Marie Kondo, the Japanese guru of living a clutter-free life, seems to understand these brain machinations, which is why she’s had such remarkable success with her clients around the world.
Could Kondo have based her approach on basic behavioral economic theory? One economist, Financial Times columnist Tim Harford, thinks yes, at least at an intuitive level.
Here are four cognitive mistakes (as an economist would describe them) that trick us, and how Kondo helps us get around them:
The sunk-cost fallacy. “Sunk costs” are payments (of time or money) that have already occurred and can’t be recovered. We get irrational because it seems a waste to not use something that we’ve poured resources into, even though deep down we know the item is no longer (or never was 😥 ) useful to us. This pain is most acute if the item is relatively new, and/or if it was expensive. If Kondo were American, she would tell us “Don’t cry over spilt milk;” it’s done, now let it go.
The status-quo bias. Most of our stuff stays put because we can’t think of a good reason to get rid of it. Kondo turns things around. When she piles everything in a category on the floor to go through (all your books from all over the house, for example), the status quo for her is that every one of them will get gone unless you can think of a compelling reason why it should stay. You pull out and keep only the ones that “spark joy.” Backwards of how most of us sort our stuff.
Diminishing returns. One of a thing may be good, but two or three or four etc is not two or three or four times better. The more you have of something, the less valuable each successive item is, so let some of them go.
Opportunity costs. We forget that keeping unused stuff around wastes space, wastes time (maintaining, working around, locating), and a consumes lot of psychic energy (guilt, the pull of the past, etc.) When we get rid of our excess stuff, we also get rid of this mental and physical toll—and once you’ve felt that freedom, Kondo says you’ll never go back to your cluttered ways.