Hoarding Tools

Although Hoarding Disorder can create significant stress, impairment, and interference in the life of the individual, the good news is that there is a treatment that can help. Below we outline a variety of solution-focused, practical tools designed to help you (or your loved one), to sift through and organize possessions, so that you can learn to let go of unnecessary items cluttering your home (and life), as well as to challenge unhelpful ways of thinking that lead to urges to acquire and possess. Although building a toolbox of strategies will help you deal with your urges and behaviours over the long term, for many individuals who have been struggling with hoarding for years they may need additional help. We highly recommend finding a Cognitive-Behavioural professional with expertise in Hoarding and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) who can provide you with support and guidance as you begin this process. Our years of clinical experience dictate hoarding is a challenging disorder to address alone, and having a professional to guide you is advised. To access a list of qualified providers managed by the International OCD Foundation.

Tool # 1: Get Motivated

Not all individuals struggling with hoarding are motivated to tackle their problem. Motivation often needs to be cultivated. In reading this, you might be feeling ambivalent about making change, as for most of us, change can be a scary endeavor. However, you CAN become motivated.

  • Step 1: Identify your thoughts and beliefs that might be getting in the way of feeling motivated to make change. The following are some common examples, although this is not an exhaustive list:
    • “It might be important or useful someday.”
    • “Its not that bad of a problem.”
    • “I must not be wasteful.”
    • “Its my responsibility to ensure its used.”
    • “I cannot make mistakes.”
    • “I’m really attached to it. Its part of who I am.”

  • Step 2: Look at the reasons to change your behaviour. Take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the centre. On one side list all the reasons to change, and on the other list all the reasons not to change. It can also help to give each item an importance/value rating. Not changing because you don’t have sorting bins should not be weighted the same as, changing so you can have a better social life. Is one side weighted more heavily than the other? And if it is the not change side, can some of those items be easily solved so they can be removed (such as, “I don’t have sorting bins.”)?
  • Step 3: Look to the future. It can help to map out what the future may look like for you should you choose to begin to make changes, or not. Develop the following lists:
    1. I want to get rid of hoarding in my life because….
    2. If I work on my hoarding problem, the following will happen….
    3. If I don’t work on my hoarding problem, the following will happen….
    4. My personal goals are…  (Goals can range from small, e.g., I can sleep in my bed again, to big, e.g., I can entertain in my home). List as many specific goals as you want.

For more information about goal setting, see Guide For Goal Setting

Tool # 2: Get Organized

Becoming organized is best achieved by taking small, baby-steps, one day at a time. Breaking large goals into small individual steps will help you to reach your goals faster, rather than adopting a do-it-all-at-once approach. Consider some of these ideas to assist:

Do... 

Don't... 

Set specific, measurable goals.

E.g., I’ll clean out one drawer.

Set vague, hard to measure goals.

E.g., I’ll clean the kitchen

Establish a small time to work, daily.

E.g., 10 minutes, twice a day

Try to do too much at once.

E.g., I’ll work every morning, this week.

Eliminate distractions.

E.g., Turn the ringer off, keep TV or radio volume low, if on, and focus only on the task before you.

Multi-task.

E.g., Watch a movie, cook a meal, take a call, all as you are sorting, etc.

Be flexible.

E.g., If you planned to clean out one room but you are finding it too overwhelming, set a smaller task. I’ll start with this pile first.

Be rigid.

E.g., I must clean this room otherwise I’m a failure.

Determine the outcome.

E.g., Each possession needs to have a dedicated outcome. Typical options are: Garbage; Recycle; Donate; Sell; and, Keep.

Postpone the outcome.

E.g., I’ll decide what I want to do with the “go” pile later. I’ll make two piles for now- Go and Keep.

Categorize.

E.g., Every item gets placed into a category, which in turn belongs in a specific location. These might include: Papers (desk draw), clothing (bedroom closet), souvenirs (living room shelf), toiletries (bathroom), etc.

Generalize.

E.g., Items are placed in generalized groupings that make minimal sense. E.g. Keeping items from a vacation, in a pile in the hallway.

Be systematic.

E.g., Use the OHIO principle. Only Handle It Once. As soon as you lay hands on the item, determine it’s outcome and place it in a category and location. 

Be chaotic.

E.g., Handle items multiple times until you “feel” ready to determine it’s outcome and category.

One specific area of organization involves learning how to manage paper products in the home. Many people are unaware of how long to keep paper receipts, contracts, documents, etc. Fortunately, there are well-established guidelines that can assist (However, these guidelines may differ from country to country).

Keep for a month

  • Credit-card receipts
  • Sales receipts for minor purchases
  • Bank deposit slips

Keep for a year

  • Paycheck stubs/direct deposit slips
  • Monthly statements from bank, credit card, brokerage, retirement, etc.

Keep for seven years

  • Government materials for tax returns
  • Year end credit card and banking statement summaries

 Keep for indefinitely

  • Tax returns
  • Receipts for major purchases of importance
  • Real estate and residence records
  • Wills and trusts 

Keep in a Safe-Deposit box

  • Birth and death certificates
  • Marriage Licenses
  • Insurance policies
  • Automobile titles
  • Property deeds
  • Passports

NOTE: It can be a huge help to opt for online record delivery rather than paper mailings. This includes monthly bank statements, business billing statements, etc. This prevents having to deal with extra papers coming into the home. Many stores are also starting to shift to offering email receipts. This is advised.

TIP! In order to support your organizational efforts, locate supports in your area. Many charities will pick up donations from the home. Some recycling centers will make curbside pickup for large items such as electronics. Many websites allow you to post items for sale (e.g., E-bay, Kijiji, and Craigslist). And the Internet is a wealth of information about how to handle specific items and situations. For example, a simple search can yield advice on how to dispose of excess pharmaceuticals, what to do with unused cleaning supplies, and more.

Tool # 3: Problem Solving & Decision Making

Problem Solving. Individuals with hoarding often struggle to problem solve. Unfortunately, this is a much-needed skill to assist with organization. Problem solving can help you identify key problems, and generate effective solutions. For information on how to use problem-solving skills, see How to Solve Daily Life Problems

Decision Making. Indecision is a common struggle for most adults with hoarding. This may be due to perfectionism and fear of failure, among other problematic beliefs, intolerance for uncertainty, as well as neurobiological factors that impede thought processes that are needed to make decisions in life. The following questions can assist in increasing comfort in making a decision to discard items, given this is most often the desired decision in sorting and organizing. 

  1. How many do I already have, and is this enough?
  2. Do I have enough time to use, review, or read this item?
  3. Have I used it in the past year?
  4. Do I have a specific plan to use it within the near future?
  5. Does the item fit with my values and goals?
  6. How does it compare to the things I value highly?
  7. Does this seem important just because I am looking at it now?
  8. Is it current/up-to-date, or in good, useable shape?
  9. Do I have enough space for it?
  10. Do I really need it?

After answering these questions, you may notice you are better able to make a decision about an item. Even if you remain apprehensive or fearful about this decision, that's all right, as the last tool (#6), can assist further.

Tool # 4: Making Behavioural Change: AKA Clearing Out!

Once you have learned how to use tools 1-3, you are likely ready for the final, and perhaps most important tool, clearing out! There are two methods to support making behavioural change towards clearing out your clutter. The first involves establishing a hierarchy, or list, of easiest items to discard, to hardest items to discard, and gradually moving up your hierarchy or list, item by item. The second method can be used alone, or in tandem with the first method. This method involves developing a behavioural experiment, to test out beliefs that might be preventing you from discarding an item for fear of the consequences, even though feared consequences are not guaranteed. To learn more about these methods, please link here exposure therapy for hoarding

Tolin, D. F., Frost, R. O., & Steketee, G. (2007). Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding. New York, NY: Oxford University Press