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How to Fix a Hoarding Problem

Corey Kagan Whelan
Oct. 16, 2014

9 tips to help with hoarding.

No one intentionally decides to become a hoarder. The American Psychiatric Association describes it as a mental disorder -- one characterized by the strong, compulsive need to hold onto possessions, independent of their value or worth, as well as feelings of distress if items are discarded.

Despite the overwhelming behavior associated with hoarding, you can eliminate or greatly reduce the behavior. If you or someone you love has a hoarding problem, consider consulting a professional for support and follow these self-help steps.

Getting to the Bottom of the Piles
 

1. Demonstrate a Desire to Change
"The hoarder has to have the will to change, first and foremost," says Laurie Palau, founder of the Pennsylvania-based organizing firm, simply B organized. While not all hoarding is preceded by emotional trauma, many hoarders begin manifesting the behavior after some sort of life crisis. "Identify the source of the pain, if the hoarding is a symptom of something bigger," she adds. Until you get to the root of why the person is hoarding, it's difficult to change.

2. Set a Realistic Pace
Correcting hoarding behavior will be emotionally and physically exhausting. "This is hard work, so expect to get tired easily and go at your own pace," says Robin Zasio, Psy.D, LCSW, a clinical psychologist and author of "The Hoarder in You." You may not be able to simply go through everything in one afternoon.

She suggests starting with the easiest room first. "Make an inventory and begin with the items you can most easily make a decision about, but schedule time to clean up in a very specific way so you have it on the calendar."

3. Create a Plan
Cleaning up can be overwhelming and confrontational. Group like items together, before making decisions about what stays and what goes. "Ask questions such as, 'when is the last time I used this?' and 'what's the worst thing that would happen if I let this go?'" Zasio suggests.

4. Follow the Three-Second Rule
Zasio recommends Randy Frost's OHIO Rule: Only Handle It Once. Give yourself three seconds to decide what to do with it by placing it in one of four categories: keep, throw away, donate or recycle. Any items leaving the home should be taken out right away. Don't wait for recycling day; bring the items to the recycling center and leave them there. The same goes for thrift store donations or trash. Zasio suggests making a 24-hour plan to get rid of all of the stuff you won't be keeping.

5. Take Small Steps
Don't expect to get it all done in one day. A hoarder's home becomes cluttered and unmanageable over time, so it only makes sense that it will take time to get it cleaned and organized. Taking on challenges in small bites helps. Consider tackling one dresser drawer or closet shelf at a time.
 

Curbing Hoarding Down the Road
 

6. Develop Buying Strategies
Rules that prevent hoarding behavior from continuing are key. If you bring an item into the home, such as a pair of shoes, you must also eliminate one pair of shoes, for example. "If you stick to pre-determined rules, it makes things much simpler," Zasio says. She also recommends identifying how an item will be used before you buy it.

Professional organizer Allison Flinn agrees. "Clutter forms when items do not have a home," says Flinn, who is the vice president of the North Carolina chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers.

7. Avoid Freebies
The lure of buy one, get one free items is a common trap for hoarders, Zasio says. Free gifts with purchase and BOGO deals might seem like great bargains, but unused, extra stuff can quickly turn into clutter that overtakes your home beyond its expiration date.

8. Forget DIY
According to Zasio, procrastination is a trademark of hoarding. "Don't buy things that need to be fixed," she cautions. Buying broken items is representative of a hoarder's cognitive distortion. Broken things tend to stay broken, creating additional chaos and clutter.

9. Stay Involved
Again, hoarding doesn't go away overnight. It's a constant battle. And the person suffering from it needs help. Flinn recommends ongoing maintenance visits to the hoarder's home, in order to ensure he or she is staying on track and being held accountable for purchases.


Hoarding is not a simple problem, nor is its fix. Once the desire is there to change, simple steps and a clear organizational plan can go a long way toward turning an unlivable home into a comfortable and beautiful living environment.

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