Remove Clutter to Reduce Stress (+ 5-Step Decluttering System)

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Last updated March 7, 2022.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

Get rid of clutter to make yourself more focused, relaxed, and productive. Use our simple decluttering system to unleash your mental energy and creativity.

Clutter, in all its many forms, can be a chronic source of stress.

You may believe that clutter is a matter of having too much stuff, too little space, or not enough time to keep things organized.

But the latest scientific evidence shows that clutter is an “inside job.”

It’s not the stuff that’s the problem, it’s a mindset that physically manifests as a messy desk or overflowing closets.

First, let’s take a look at the real reasons you’ve got clutter and how to know when it has gotten out of hand.

Then, we’ll look at how to get rid of clutter in a way that lasts.

The Psychological Reasons We’re Attached to Clutter

We live in a materialistic society and it can be very hard to resist all its trappings.

We’re bombarded daily with thousands of ads telling us that the right stuff is going to make us happier, healthier, more attractive, and more successful. 

You may think your decision to buy most things is based on logic, but, in reality, that’s not usually the case.

A classic sales quote is that “people don’t buy products, they buy better versions of themselves.”

Our possessions embody our memories, hopes, and dreams, who we believe we are now, and who we plan on being in the future when our best self finally shows up.

So, getting rid of things you’ve bought can be an admission of your failings.

For example, tossing your skinny jeans or your exercise bike means you’ve finally admitted defeat in your battle to lose weight.

The main underlying reason for hanging on to things is fear

The things we own are wrapped up in our feelings of security, status, comfort, and love.

We are particularly afraid of regret

What if you throw something out and wish you hadn’t later?

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" Americans spend a mind-blowing nine million hours every day looking for misplaced items.

This “just in case” syndrome can paralyze you, keeping you from making the decisions needed to declutter.

We may also feel guilty for money wasted, so we hold onto things we don’t want or use to justify our purchases.

The Tipping Point: When Clutter Causes Stress

Based on recent evidence, clutter causes a lot of people stress and emotional pain:

  • One survey found that one-third of respondents admitted that they avoided spending time at home so that they didn’t have to deal with their mess. 
  • Another survey found that 90% of respondents feel that clutter has a negative impact on their lives and work. 
  • It’s estimated that getting rid of clutter could reduce the time spent doing housework by 40%!
  • And it’s not just adults that have too much stuff. Shockingly, only 3% of the world’s children live in the US, yet they possess 40% of the world’s toys

So, how do you know when you’ve reached the tipping point between an acceptable level of clutter and an intolerable amount?

To paraphrase organization expert Julie Morgenstern in her book Organizing from the Inside Out, if you can find what you need when you need it, are happy in your space, and don’t feel like your clutter is causing you stress, then you are sufficiently well-organized.

She believes that being organized is more about function than appearance.

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If you are ashamed of your home, avoid going home, or feel stressed at home, these are signs that your clutter is problematic.

At work, if you can’t think when you sit down at your desk, if you waste time looking for lost items, or if you aren’t as productive as you would like to be, clutter may be controlling you.

On the flip side, it’s possible to be too organized and rigid.

A little chaos can actually be a good thing.

Traits like flexibility, spontaneity, and imagination go hand in hand with a certain degree of chaos and can boost creativity.

But too much chaos has the opposite effect, shutting down creativity.

The sweet spot is a matter of balance, is different for everyone, and can vary by place as well.

Steve Jobs famously lived in an austere home, yet pictures of his office reveal that he had a messy side at work.

How Clutter Contributes to Stress

Using MRIs and other diagnostic tools, researchers have found that clutter affects the brain’s ability to concentrate and process information

UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families (CELF) explored the relationship between 32 families and the thousands of objects in their homes over a period of 4 years.

Researchers found that clutter has a strong effect on mood and self-esteem. 

Women in the study were particularly stressed by the presence of clutter.

When they were asked to talk about the clutter in their homes, their level of the stress hormone cortisol shot up.

In fact, according to the CELF study, the amount of stress they experienced at home was directly proportional to the amount of stuff they and their family had accumulated.

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Similar to multitasking, physical clutter overloads your senses, makes you feel stressed, and impairs your ability to think creatively.

Clutter robs you of mental energy, leaving you feeling anxious, tired, and overwhelmed.

It causes you to lose things and waste time, frustrating you.

It decreases your focus and concentration, drawing attention away from what’s important.

Clutter is a nagging reminder that your work is never done, reinforcing negative self-talk that you are messy, lazy, and a procrastinator.

It’s a constant “should” hanging over your head, burdening you with guilt.

Why the Brain Loves Order

While a little chaos is beneficial, the human brain is wired to respond positively to order.

Psychotherapist and professional organizer Cindy Glovinsky says that order feels good because it’s easier for our brains to deal with.

In an organized space, your brain doesn’t have to work so hard.

This leaves you feeling calmer and energized.

When you enter a pleasing, uncluttered space, you can more readily concentrate and focus

Decluttering often acts as a gateway to taking better care of other aspects of life.

Organizational experts report that their clients often lose weight, stop bad habits, and get out of toxic jobs and relationships after they’ve decluttered their environment.

Clutter: A Haven for Dust & Toxins

Clutter doesn’t just stress you out, it can make you physically and mentally unwell too.

Clutter provides a haven for dust.

The average American home accumulates 40 pounds of dust every year! 

This dust consists of pollen, hair, dead skin, pet dander, dust mites, fibers, dirt, and whatever else you drag in from outside.

According to research, typical household dust contains 45 toxic chemicals, some of which are linked to behavioral and neurodevelopmental disorders, especially in children. 

By providing a dust haven, clutter can affect your health by contributing to inhalant allergy symptoms, such as brain fog, coughing, sneezing, asthma attacks, and itchy eyes.

It can also sabotage your mood, since allergy sufferers have a 66% greater risk for psychiatric disorders, including anxiety, depression, ADHD, schizophrenia, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, sleep disorders, eating disorders, and dementia.

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When Clutter Becomes a Hoarding Disorder

For some people, out-of-control clutter can be a sign of a psychiatric disorder. 

Currently, hoarding disorder is considered a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), but this categorization is still under evaluation. 

It’s estimated that one in four people with OCD are also compulsive hoarders.

Compulsive hoarding can also develop along with other mental illnesses, such as: 

  • depression
  • attention disorders
  • eating disorders
  • dementia
  • psychosis

Hoarding can affect the mental health of those around them as well.

People who live with hoarders often experience anger and resentment.

It’s hard for them to understand why these people can’t just throw things out.

But brain scans show that a hoarder’s brain reacts differently to decluttering than that of a non-hoarder. 

Trying to decide what to keep and what to toss lights up the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in decision-making.

Hoarders find that these kinds of decisions cause debilitating stress and anxiety.

Fortunately, help is available.

Weekly cognitive behavioral therapy sessions over a six-month period resulted in dramatic improvement in the well-being of patients with a hoarding disorder. 

How to Get Rid of Stress-Inducing Clutter

Experts agree that decluttering is a skill that anyone can learn.

But, they don’t always agree on the best ways to get rid of clutter.

Most organization experts like Cindy Glovinsky and Julie Morgenstern recommend creating pockets of order, doing one area at a time.

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They suggest starting with the area that bothers you the most, even if it’s an area as small as your purse.

Julie admits that she was naturally disorganized and that her first step to getting organized was tackling her baby’s diaper bag.

Marie Kondo, author of the international bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has a different point of view.

She believes that decluttering piecemeal sets you up for defeat.

Instead, she recommends having a decluttering marathon and doing your entire house at once to prevent relapses.

One of Marie’s mantras is that everything you surround yourself with should “spark joy.”

A Simple, 5-Step Decluttering System

We’ve had a fair amount of experience with decluttering.

In one of our previous careers, we were real estate investors.

Sorting through copious amounts of clutter accumulated in some of houses we bought was a regular part of the job.

(In case you need another motivation to declutter, note that clutter significantly reduces the value of your home.)

Here’s how to go about decluttering.

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5-Step Decluttering System

First, get a generous supply of heavy duty trash bags and boxes.

Then pick one room or area (such as a closet) to declutter. 

Set a timer and work for 30-60 minute bursts, depending on your stamina.

If you try to make too many decisions at one time, you’ll get stressed and end up with a case of decision fatigue.

Sort your belongings into 5 categories:

Items to Keep

These are items you use or that bring you happiness.

Items to Sell

If you think an item has potential resale value, put it in this pile.

Later, you can research prices to see if it would be worth your time to sell on Craigslist, eBay, or at a yard sale.

If an item turns out to not be worth selling, move it into the “give away” pile.

Items to Give Away

Give these items to someone who could use them or donate them to your favorite charity.

When you’re done with your current decluttering project, bring them to a charity drop-off or arrange to have your donation picked up. 

Items to Toss or Recycle

Get rid of items that would be of no use to others.

Recycle if possible. Throw away the rest. 

If you have a lot of things that fall into the toss category, consider paying someone to haul it all away or rent a dumpster. 

Undecided?

If you really can’t decide about the fate of an item, don’t let yourself get bogged down — this can destroy your momentum and motivation. 

Box it up and write the date on the box. 

Put a reminder on your calendar to open the box in six months.

You may realize that these items weren’t that important if you hadn’t thought of them all that time. 

More Decluttering Tips

When deciding how to sort an item, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • If this item was lost or destroyed, would I spend money to replace it? Or would I be relieved to be rid of it?
  • Is there someone I know who would appreciate this rarely used item?
  • Would a homeless person appreciate the coat I never wear?
  • Would my library welcome a donation of books I won’t be re-reading?

A mindset tip that can help is to give away with an attitude of gratitude, rather than fear.

Feel grateful that you have SO much stuff that you have the ability to give to others.

And remember that feeling and expressing gratitude reduces stress and increases emotional resilience

If you’ve tried unsuccessfully to control clutter, you might employ the help of a professional organization consultant.

You can find one in your area by googling “professional organizer near me.”

Stress and Clutter: Take the Next Step

Clutter is an unfortunate side effect of prosperity that does not do your mental health any good.

Clutter contributes to stress in many insidious ways.

It can interfere with relationships and make you uncomfortable in your own home. 

Clutter can wreak havoc on your productivity at work.

It can become a health hazard that makes you physically unwell.

Find a good clutter-busting system and stick with it — there are many to choose from.

If you suspect that you have a hoarding disorder, help is available at the International OCD Foundation’s hoarding disorder resources.

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