letting go of the instinct
to hold on

On the path to simplicity in life, the only obstacle is the value we place on what we own.
Most people remember buying their first car. That first car represents more than just a vehicle to take you from point A to point B—it's a symbol of responsibility. Maturity. Opportunity! Your car becomes a reflection of you: it adopts your scent, your belongings, your week-old McDonalds leftovers which you're saving for just the right moment. Maybe you even gave your car a name...

When it was time for Stefan to give away his car, he felt like he was losing a lifelong companion. His car's name was Ralph. Coming from Kansas, his car was what enabled friendships, brought him to school, and distinguished him from his parents. Then along came college. Because he was going to school in a large city, he neither needed to nor was allowed to bring his car. So Stefan had to do something we all struggle with: let go.

Stefan gave his car to his little sister, Vera. Now its name is "Boo". It has a different smell, it's clean (the horror!), and because of a little fender-bender a while back, it's beaten and bruised. Coming home for Christmas break, learning to share Ralph-Boo, not just let go, was a difficult task for Stefan.

Enosa had an even harder task. Giving away is easy in comparison to disposing of something you cherish. When Enosa moved from Missouri to Arkansas, she was forced to throw away her childhood artwork. Her parents said it was just "too much junk". She did what most children would do—cried for a bit, then did as she was told. Little did she know that the absence of her old artwork would figuratively and literally give her a blank slate to start over. She eventually developed a new, more eclectic art collection. Only through disposing of her past artwork was Enosa able to see her artistic future.

As with Stefan and Enosa, sometimes growing old means outgrowing your possessions. Literally. Julianna from Pennsylvania outgrew her favorite raincoat. But she refused to throw it out. She still wanted to know whoever wore it would treat it with respect. So, using her childhood strength to hold back her tears, she gave her raincoat to her younger cousin. It's been passed on four times now.

Sometimes the act of "disposal" is easy. But when it comes to your few most cherished items, "disposal" can feel like betrayal. You don't want to leave your friends behind—and because they are uniquely yours sharing them is even harder than losing them. One of the fathers of behavioral economics, Richard Thaler, has dedicated an entire career explaining this phenomenon.

Thaler wrote a series of academic papers on the endowment effect: why people put more psychological value on things they own than on those they can acquire. In a classical study of the endowment effect, participants were each given a coffee mug then offered the chance to buy it or sell it for an equally-valued alternative. What scientists found was that participants were only willing to sell their mugs for approximately twice what they were willing to pay for them initially. Why?

We form an emotional attachment to our possessions—and it overrides our rational desires to do away with them. That is also the basis for hoarding. It's why we don't want to get rid of the rancid, torn-up couch in the basement that's so covered in stains one can no longer discern its original color. This emotional bond peaks when we see, touch, and remember our favorite moments with the item. How can we make this torturous disposal process easier? The secret lies in the need to break the tactile bond we have with our possessions.

It's easier said than done. So here are some tried-and-tested tips. First, we should decide what to throw away before actually holding the item in our hands. Alternatively, we can decide what to dispose of and allow someone else to execute the physical "act" of disposal. The key is to distance ourselves and our emotions from our intended behaviors. Ultimately, it pays to be cognizant of the endowment effect and focus on our end goal: to declutter, to tidy up, to simplify our otherwise hectic lives from unnecessary stuff.

That's the key word: simplify. Simplicity is trending. But the one barrier between us and a simpler lifestyle is the unused stuff in our homes. As evidenced by the stories of Stefan, Enosa, and Julianna, this barrier is a difficult one to overcome. The emotional bond we have with our possessions leads us to overvalue them. So, if you are ready to embark on the journey to simplicity, steady your heart, ask those around you for help, and create your rules for letting go before you begin the work.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Iva Teixeira is the founder and CEO of Nestead. Julia Lauer is a Harvard undergraduate working for Nestead, pursuing an honors degree in government with a secondary in economics. Both of them confess: they have a hard time letting go.
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