Ridding clutter from your life can make you more focused, relaxed and productive. Follow these recommendations to feel more mental energy and creativity.
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 matter of 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’s causing you problems.
Then we’ll look at what clutter does to your brain and how to declutter your life in a way that lasts.
The Real Reasons We Hang on to Clutter
Let’s face it, we live in a highly materialistic society and it can be very hard to resist all its trappings.
We are bombarded with hundreds of ads per day telling us the right stuff is going to make us happier, healthier, more attractive, and more successful. (1)
You may think your decision to buy an item is based on logic, but in reality it’s far from it.
Along with material possessions comes emotional baggage. (2)
Our things embody our memories, our 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.
Getting rid of things you’ve purchased 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.
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The main underlying reason we all hang on to things is fear. (3)
Our possessions are wrapped up in our feelings of security, status, comfort, and love.
We feel guilty for money wasted so we keep our stuff to justify our purchase.
We are particularly afraid of regret. (4)
What if you throw something out and wish you hadn’t later?
This “just in case” syndrome can paralyze you, keeping you from making the decisions needed to declutter.
Americans have 3% of the world’s children yet purchase 40% of all toys. (5)
Drawing the Line: When Is Clutter Too Much?
Everyone’s tolerance to clutter is different.
You may have a family member that is either extremely organized or disorganized.
How do you know what is normal?
There’s no doubt that clutter is causing a lot of people pain.
A survey done by About.com found that one-third of respondents admitted they avoided spending time at home so they didn’t have to deal with their mess. (6)
Americans spend a mind-blowing nine million hours every day looking for misplaced items. (7)
Clearly this is not desirable.
How do you know when you’ve reached the tipping point between an acceptable level of clutter and an intolerable amount?
To paraphrase what organization expert Julie Morgenstern writes 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 getting in your way, you are sufficiently well organized.
She believes that being organized is more about function than appearance.
If you are ashamed of your home, avoid going home, or feel stressed at home, these are signs your clutter is problematic.
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At work, if you can’t think when you sit down at your desk, if you waste hours looking for lost items, or if you aren’t as productive as you should be, clutter is 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 of shutting down creativity.
The sweet spot is a matter of balance and is different for everyone and can vary by place as well.
Steve Jobs famously lived in an austere home, yet pictures of his desk reveal he had a messy side.
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Clutter: When It’s Serious
Clutter is not a “stuff” problem, it’s a behavior problem.
For most people, not being in control of clutter is only an annoyance but it can be a sign of a psychiatric disorder such as depression, ADHD, or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). (8)
Currently, hoarding disorder is considered a subtype of OCD but this categorization is under evaluation. (9)
It’s estimated that one in four people with OCD also are also compulsive hoarders.
To the non-hoarder, it’s hard to understand why these people can’t just throw things out.
But brain scans show a hoarder’s brain reacts differently to decluttering than that of a normal person. (10)
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These decisions light up the orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in decision making, causing extreme, debilitating stress and anxiety.
Fortunately, a recent study found that six months of cognitive behavioral therapy resulted in a dramatic decline in hoarding patients’ clutter.
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What Clutter Does to Your Brain
If, in the past, your mother told you to clean your room or your teachers told you to straighten your desk, science can now back up their good intentions.
Using MRIs and other diagnostic tools, research shows that clutter affects your brain’s ability to concentrate and process information. (11)
UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families (CELF) explored the relationship between 32 families and the thousands of objects in their homes and concluded that clutter has a strong effect on mood and self-esteem. (12)
Women were particularly stressed out by the presence of clutter.
In fact, according to the CEFL study, the amount of stress they experience at home is directly proportional to the amount of stuff they and their family have accumulated.
Similar to multitasking, physical clutter overloads your senses, makes you feel stressed, and impairs your ability to think creatively. (13)
According to Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter, author of High Octane Women, clutter robs you of mental energy, leaving you feeling anxious, tired, and overwhelmed. (14)
It frustrates you. It makes you lose things and waste time.
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It ruins 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 lazy or a procrastinator.
It makes you feel ill, at least in your own home.
It’s a constant “should” hanging over your head, burdening you with guilt.
By providing a dust haven, clutter can affect your health by contributing to allergies and brain fog. (15)
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Why Your 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, in part because it’s easier for our brains to deal with.
In a decluttered space your brain doesn’t have to work so hard. This leaves you feeling calm and energized.
When you enter a pleasing, uncluttered space, your mind sharpens and increases your ability to concentrate and focus. (16)
Decluttering often acts as a gateway to taking better care of other aspects of life.
Organizational experts report their clients often lose weight, stop bad habits, and get out of toxic jobs and relationships.
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How to Declutter Your Life
The experts agree that decluttering is a skill that anyone can learn.
But they don’t agree on the best ways to declutter your life.
Most organization experts like Cindy Glovinsky and Julie Morgenstern recommend creating pockets of order, doing one area at a time.
They suggest getting started with an area that bothers you the most — even if it’s an area as small as your purse.
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Julie admits 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, disagrees.
She believes decluttering piecemeal sets you up for defeat.
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.”
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A Simple Decluttering System
I’ve had a fair amount of experience decluttering.
In one of my previous occupations I was a real estate investor.
Sorting through copious amounts of clutter accumulated by the owners of houses I bought was a regular part of the job.
Plus, my husband and I have moved three times in the past five years — including one cross-country move — so we’ve pared down our possessions considerably.
Here’s how we go about it:
First, get a supply of heavy duty trash bags and/or boxes.
When you are ready to get started set a timer and work for 30 to 60 minutes at a time depending on your stamina.
(Setting a timer and working in concentrated bursts is a popular concentration hack called the Pomodoro technique.)
If you try to make too many decisions at one time you’ll wind up with a case of decision fatigue.
Sort everything into one of these categories:
- Keep. These are items you use or that “spark joy.” 🙂
- Sell. Check prices to see if it would be worth your time to sell on Craigslist or eBay. If not, set aside to sell at a yard sale. If you aren’t interested in having a yard sale, move these things to the “give away” pile.
- Give away. Give these items to someone who could use them or donate them to your favorite charity.
- Trash. These are things that would be of no use to others. Recycle if possible.
- Undecided. If you really can’t decide immediately, do not let yourself get bogged down. Box it up and date it. Look at it again in six months.
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When deciding how to sort an item, here a few pointers and questions you can ask yourself that can help.
If an item was lost or destroyed, would you spend money to replace it?
For example, would you pay money to buy skinny jeans that don’t fit you now or that exercise bike you use only as a clothes rack?
Is there someone else who could make better use of an item you rarely or never use?
Would a homeless person appreciate that coat you never wear?
Would your library welcome a donation of books you won’t be re-reading?
Another mindset tip that can help is to give away with an attitude of gratitude rather than of fear.
Feel grateful that you have SO much stuff that you have the ability to give to others.
Declutter Your Life: The Bottom Line
I’m going to wrap up with a quote on the effects of clutter on your mental state by Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor Joyce Marter: (17)
“Our environment is a direct reflection of our internal mental health and vice versa.
So, if our home is disorganized our minds may feel scattered as well.
By purging unneeded items from our homes, it is like deleting files to create disk space on your computer.
Suddenly, the whole operating system is more efficient.
There is less stuff to manage, tasks take less time because you know where to find things, and this decreases stress and increases your effectiveness personally and professionally.
Organization promotes serenity and wellness in your life.”