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Are You Surrounded and Stressed by Clutter?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked


Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers questioned three groups of adults in different stages of their life to find out clutter’s effects across generations
  • A strong association was found between procrastination and clutter problems, and clutter problems also led to a significant decrease in satisfaction with life among older adults
  • Women living in cluttered homes had increased depressed mood over the course of the day, while the opposite held true for women with restorative homes
  • When you’re in an organized, uncluttered space, your brain has an easier time processing everything that’s there, which frees up space to focus on other things

When you look around your home, is your mind sidelined by stacks of papers, piles of toys, heaps of laundry and an array of random stuff cluttering up your countertops, desk, dressers and virtually any other flat surface? Clutter is not just an eyesore but something that can have a significant effect on your mind, mood and even your productivity.

You may intrinsically feel the weight of clutter when it surrounds you, but research also bears this out, putting into more concrete terms an otherwise subjective matter. The recent popularity of Marie Kondo, a Japanese organizing consultant, and other decluttering methods is a testimony to the number of people who are affected by too much stuff — and desire to do away with it.

"Clutter is an overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces," Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, told The New York Times.1

The truth is, though, that not everyone is affected by clutter in the same way, which is why Ferrari and colleagues questioned three groups of adults in different stages of their life to find out clutter's effects across generations.2

Clutter Linked to Procrastination, Life Dissatisfaction

Ferrari's study involved college students, young adults in their 20s and 30s, and older adults in their 50s. In particular, the researchers were looking at how chronic procrastination may lead to clutter, as putting off getting rid of things you no longer need or want inevitably leads to clutter.

A strong association was found between procrastination and clutter problems in all of the groups, and clutter problems also led to a significant decrease in satisfaction with life among older adults.

The results suggest that having a tendency to procrastinate enables a "lifelong pattern of responses to one's environment that become increasingly maladaptive throughout the life cycle," while at the same time contributes to people putting off the decision to dispose of unnecessary items. According to the study, which is published in Current Psychology:3

"Procrastination and clutter are remarkably common problems for many people. Virtually all adults have spaces in their homes filled with unused, unwanted, or neglected possessions waiting for the possessor to find an opportune time to take action, whether that action is to keep, sell, donate, give away or dispose of those objects.

Disposition of possessions can be an unpleasant task, one that if left undone can create a distressing amount of clutter."

Clutter May Increase Stress Hormones, Especially in Women

Your home can be a peaceful sanctuary or a source of stress. Which one is dictated, in part, by perceived levels of clutter.

Researchers at University of Southern California analyzed 60 dual-income spouses' self-guided home tours for the frequency of words describing clutter, an unfinished home, restfulness or nature.4 Those who spoke of their home more frequently as cluttered or unfinished had higher stressful home scores.

In turn, women with higher stressful home scores tended to be stressed at the start of the day, and stress levels persisted throughout the day, as evidenced by cortisol (stress hormone) levels. On the other hand, women who perceived their homes to be more restorative had cortisol levels that declined throughout the day.

What's more, women living in cluttered homes had increased depressed mood over the course of the day. The opposite held true for women with restorative homes. Overall, women who described their homes as disorderly were more likely to suffer from depressed mood, fatigue in the evening, poor coping skills and difficulty transitioning from work to home.

Men didn't seem to be as stressed out by clutter as women, but this could be because they didn't spend as much time on housework after work as women did. Among men who did more housework, cortisol levels tended to be raised similarly to the women's.5

Clutter Disrupts Your Focus, Contributes to Unhealthy Eating

Entering an environment that's cluttered is like entering a state of chaos. The fact is, your visual system's ability to process information from multiple objects at the same time is limited.

As researchers wrote in the Journal of Neuroscience, "Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system."6

In other words, when you're in an organized, uncluttered space, your brain has an easier time processing everything that's there, which frees up space to focus on other things.

A cluttered kitchen can also make you more vulnerable to making unhealthy food choices, particularly if you're also in a chaotic frame of mind.7 People with extremely cluttered homes are also 77 percent more likely to be overweight or obese.8

Why Do People Accumulate so Much Stuff?

Getting to the bottom of clutter requires looking into why people have so much stuff in the first place. Most experts on the topic will agree that half the battle lies in accumulating less to begin with, so make a conscious decision about whether you really need to bring a new item into your home.

Not only does buying stuff you don't need have environmental consequences, but it will also end up stored somewhere in your home, where you'll need to expend mental and physical energy cleaning it, moving it and deciding what to do with it. The latter part is harder than it sounds, and people tend to avoid making decisions about getting rid of their stuff for a variety of reasons, including:9

  • A desire to avoid wastefulness
  • Loss of self-identity associated with disposal of the item, especially those associated with personal meaning or attachment
  • Overattachment to items

"Even disposal contemplations that involve seemingly ordinary, mundane possessions can induce feelings of uncertainty and ambivalence. As adults age, they typically amass more possessions, making clutter more problematic for individuals who don't routinely take time to purge," Ferrari and colleagues wrote.10

Digital Clutter Is Similar to Physical Clutter

Is your email inbox in the six figures? Do you have digital files, photos and folders stored in so many different places that you'd be hard pressed to find something important when you need it?

This type of digital clutter creates much of the same anxiety and stress as physical clutter. An unorganized inbox or online photo album, for instance, drains your mental energy and time. And you may feel anxious about how to deal with all of your digital files — what should you keep? Where should you store it? What's safe to delete?

While digital clutter doesn't take up the same physical space as other clutter, and may be easier to detach from, since you can turn off your computer or phone and ignore it if you so choose, you should still make a point to minimize digital clutter in your life.

For starters, be very choosy about giving out your email and try to deal with emails as they come in, responding right away and then deleting. If it's something you need to save for later, move the email to a folder you've created for that purpose.

Overwhelmed by Clutter? Start Small

Clutter can be overwhelming, causing you to avoid going through it and making matters worse as piles get ever larger. There are many ways to get started that will break up the monotonous task into manageable bits:

  • Set a timer for 10 minutes and declutter until the timer goes off, putting items into bags to donate or trash/recycle — if you do this daily, you'll notice a tremendous difference
  • Choose one room, drawer, closet or cabinet and tackle that first
  • Designate several bins for the purpose, labeling them "donate," "trash," "put away" and "recycle" — as you see items out of place in your home, put them in the appropriate bin
  • Start by getting rid of trash
  • Give away one item each day, or fill one trash bag with items to donate once a week or month

If you tend to hold on to items because of a sentimental attachment, Ferrari recommends using a hands-off approach. "If you're going to declutter, don't touch the item. Don't pick it up," he told the Times, "Have somebody else hold the pair of black pants and say, 'Do you need this?' Once you touch the item, you are less likely to get rid of it."11

Get Your Mind in the Right Place

Often, we fail to declutter out of fear that we will miss an item or find a use for it later. You may also feel like you should keep items out of obligation because you paid money for them or received them as a gift. Changing your mindset here is important, because ultimately those items are keeping you from mental peace and calm.

Let go of any items that bring you down mentally or emotionally. Using the one-year rule can help — if you haven't used it in a year, get rid of it. It can help to visualize what you want your space to look like.

Then schedule time to declutter on your calendar so you'll commit to the "appointment." You may want to start with the worst, most stress-inducing spot in your home, because once it's done, you'll feel like you can tackle anything.

Starting with items in plain sight works well. Once you've cleared off countertops, nightstands and dressers, you can move to decluttering your cabinets and drawers. Be sure to designate a spot to handle incoming papers, and anything you don't need (like junk mail) should be recycled immediately.

If you have significant clutter, hiring a professional organizer can help, but resist the urge to start out by buying a bunch of organizational bins and containers. Do the decluttering first, and then choose storage options that fit the items you have remaining. Further, it's not necessary to have professional help — if you tackle clutter one object at a time, you'll still reap great rewards.

For times when you feel resistant to parting with an item, and you can't figure out why, try using the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to tap away any anxiety, fear or other negative emotions that come up when you think about clearing clutter, and live by these basic ground rules:

Handle an item only once — Once you pick it up, either put it away, give it away or throw it away. Do not simply put it back down again in the same cluttered pile.

If you buy something new, get rid of something old — If you buy a new set of glassware, donate the old set you no longer need. Likewise for new items of clothing, shoes or bedding and even computers, toys and electronics.

You only need one — You probably have multiples of many objects unnecessarily. You only need one wine opener, one set of barbecue tools, one hair dryer and so on. If you have multiple items of the same object that you don't need, be ruthless in getting it down to one.

This applies to items you may need multiples of too, like bedsheets or towels. You may need two or three sets, but do you really need 10?

The more you tend to and remove physical and digital clutter in your life, the more space you'll clear up to focus on what makes you happy. Removing the distracting clutter is a first and necessary step to achieving inner peace, focus and, ultimately, a more satisfying existence.