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Have You Taken the Ex Test?

Feeling stuck, sapped and bogged down by clutter? One surprising question about a past love may help you create a happier future.

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illustration of woman decluttering house
Mlle Belamour
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Recently, my family moved to a new home. What better time to get rid of all the extra stuff that’s been crowding my space and making me feel overwhelmed?

As you’ve probably already heard before, clutter isn’t good for us. And it’s not just because it makes it difficult to find what you need when you need it. Clutter can impact your mood, productivity and happiness. According to a Princeton University study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, visual clutter can negatively affect our ability to focus on a task. And a study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that moms who described their homes with words like cluttered, messy, disorganized, chaotic or sloppy had increased levels of cortisol — the stress hormone — throughout the day. Another study, published in Current Psychology, suggested there’s a link between clutter and procrastination, and stated that older adults who had clutter issues reported having lower life satisfaction.

Knowing all of that, I went in with what I thought was a good plan: I would toss out (or donate) anything I hadn’t used in the past year, any clothing items I could no longer fit and anything that didn’t hold the highest sentimental value.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

You know how it goes. “Aww, this dress is so cute! One day I’ll be able to fit into it again.” “Oh look, this is my son’s artwork from kindergarten! I have to keep this because it’s so adorable.” Never mind that said kiddo is now 17, and even he told me to “throw that crap away” in a very deadpan tone.

I struggled to part ways with my possessions and almost said forget the whole decluttering thing. But then I came across what’s known as the “ex test.” It gave me a much-needed kick in the butt.

What’s the ex test?


Basically, when trying to decide if you should keep something, ask yourself if you would contact your most despised ex (you know the one) to get this item back if they had it.

The idea is if you wouldn’t make an effort to reach out to the ex to get that particular item back, it’s probably not all that important to you. In other words, you can probably do without it.

The ex test in action


Baby, when I started applying that question to the many items that I thought I just had to keep, decluttering became so much easier.

Nope, I wouldn’t contact him about that dress that’s a size too small. If he had the vase my aunt gave me a while back, I wouldn’t dare text him about it. It’s ugly anyway. And I definitely wouldn’t reach out about the kitchen gadget that I forgot I even had.

Suddenly, I realized there were tons of things I could gladly get rid of to cut back on clutter.

And for the items that I was still a little iffy about after the ex test, I found a couple of other helpful tips.

Rethink the “past year” advice. Instead of the whole, “Have you used it in the past year,” shorten that to 90 days. If you haven’t used something in the past three months, will you use it in the next three? If not, give or throw it away.

Snap a pic. A 2017 study by researchers at Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Texas at Austin found it’s the memory associated with a particular item that makes it difficult to give up. Taking a photo of the possession — say my son’s first artwork — can help you preserve the memory even if you part ways with the physical object.

These tricks, specifically the ex test, helped me go on a major decluttering spree. I got rid of so much stuff that I feel like a new woman. A tidier, less frazzled one!