I like to periodically clean up the spaces around me because I hate clutter but we all know people who seem to be minor or major hoarders, reluctant to give or throw away things that they have not used in years, are unlikely to ever use, or are even totally useless to them. They seem to not even be bothered by being surrounded by piles of stuff or to even notice it.
If I had been asked to guess the causes of such behavior, I would have suggested that part of the reason is undoubtedly thriftiness, the feeling that one is throwing away something that may have some value however small, while another reason is fear that one might in the future need exactly that item, and would regret having thrown it away.
But it seems that a different reason might be dominant and that is that hoarders have poor decision-making skills. Although the number of hoarders studied was small (just 24), researchers said that they scored significantly poorer on the “Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, which tests subjects’ organisational skills by requiring them to arrange differently patterned cards into categories.” As a result they tend to create too many categories for disposing of items, thus feeling overwhelmed with too many choices and making decision-making hard. This results in them soon getting exhausted, and giving up by taking the easy route and keeping everything.
The article suggests that the problem with treating hoarders is first that they have to realize that there is something wrong. Once that is achieved, encouraging them to throw things away by telling them that the pain of loss will be fleeting turns out to be not that effective. One may need to go deeper into their cognitive processes, and train them to develop mental flexibility and attention.
I realized when reading the article that I had been operating using a decision tree when clearing up stuff. I find that for me, the optimum number of categories for decision-making is three. I first divide everything into three categories: keep, throw, and not sure. This is very quick because even the slightest hesitation on an item makes me throw it into the not sure pile. I then go back to the not sure pile and sort them into keep and throw. It turns out to be easier to decide the fate of the not sure items in the second go round because in the course of the first round I have developed a sharper sense of what to keep and what to throw.
Once I am left with just two piles, the keep group gets sorted into two categories: easily accessible and deep storage (i.e., basement) while the throw group now gets sorted into another three categories: destroy, recycle, or trash. It is actually quite quick.