Use the “habit loop” to turbocharge decluttering


Have you ever read The Power of Habit? It’s one of the books I recommend the most, and I read a LOT (hat tip to my sister for recommending it to me). At its core, the book is about why we do what we do, and how individuals, companies, and communities harness those habits to create change. It’s a quick read and super interesting.

I swear this isn’t an ad; it’s just that I just reread The Power of Habit over the past couple of days. You know the feeling of total motivation and power and control that you get when you read an inspiring article or book that seems to unlock the key to success? I’m rolling on that high right now. And that’s why you get this article, you lucky ducks.

There’s a lot of material out there about habits. Creating virtuous new habits, breaking bad habits, using habits as an excuse to do the wrong thing, being a creature of habits. But every habit comes down to what’s called a “habit loop”:


Whether you realize it or not, everything you do automatically is done because your brain has perceived a distinctive cue and is in search of a defined reward. As an example, maybe you find yourself craving a salty snack every afternoon. Your cue might be seeing the clock hit 2:30, or finishing up a draining daily meeting, or walking your dog down a street that passes a pretzel stand. So, automatically, you grab a handful of chips or buy a pretzel, and you get the reward of delicious salt and grease hitting your tongue—which reinforces the habit.

Or, as a more relevant example, take shopping. Most people have a habit of buying things they don’t need or even want. Why? What causes you to make the extra trip or put another t-shirt in your basket? I bet that for a lot of you, it’s because you see the cue of a great sale, or a “limited time only” flyer, or a promise of free shipping. When it feels like you’re getting a deal, you’re more likely to buy things you wouldn’t have ordinarily spent money on, and buy more of it—without meaning to or even thinking about it. It’s automatic, a routine that gives you the reward of a brief rush: “I got something new!” And, of course, advertisers and retailers know this.

That’s why a lot of advice toward declutterers and minimalists focuses on removing the cues that make you want to buy more stuff. Get off mailing lists, turn off apps that notify you of sales, avoid the mall, make a grocery list and stick to it—all of these tips (which are effective) focus on breaking the habit loop by removing the cues that encourage you to buy.

The good news is, we can absolutely use habit loops to become masters of decluttering. Now that you know what a habit loop looks like, you are empowered to create new loops of your own. Remember that the key is to be able to point at a definite cue and a clear reward. Here are a few suggestions:

Goal: You want a clean kitchen at the end of every day.


Goal: You want your bedroom to have zero dirty clothes on the floor.


Goal: You want a consistently decluttered living room.


Goal: You want to declutter your closet/kitchen/medicine cabinet for once and for all.


Notice that the cues can be flexible, based on actions, behaviors, or times; and that the rewards can be anything from feelings of accomplishment to tangible prizes (just don’t reward yourself by shopping!). It’s up to you. You’d be amazed at how well you can cement a habit by using “just” a feeling as your reward.

For example, when I run to work, it’s a hilly route that can be tiring and discouraging. Now I’m building a habit where every time I run to the top of a hill, I clap my hands, tell myself (out loud) that I did a great job, and just generally carry on jubilantly for a few seconds. Already, this loop is encouraging me to run all the way up the hills instead of giving up and walking, because now I’m expecting and anticipating that tiny reward.

And that’s the trick. When you start anticipating the reward that you’re going to get for doing something, it stops being a chore and starts becoming automatic: a habit. And once you cement healthy decluttering habits, your house—and maybe, thereafter, your life—will truly begin to show permanent change.

What’s a healthy habit you’ve built into your life recently? Have you read The Power of Habit? Do you have questions about how to set up a good habit loop? Let’s chat!


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