A walk-in closet, full of clothes and clutter

Clutter And You:  Part 1

Are you feeling stressed, or worse, distressed?


A study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that unlike causes of stress that take time to resolve, de-cluttering your environment can provide immediate stress-reducing results.  Yes, that’s right:  de-clutter.

The reasons are measurable.  In the study, women who described their environments as being cluttered were more fatigued and depressed than women who described their homes as being restful and restorative.  Research showed that women with messy homes had higher levels of cortisol.  I can hear you saying, “Hold on a minute.  Maybe the women who were naturally more rested had the energy to keep things tidier.”  It could be a reverse correlation, right?  While it’s possible that this could factor in, more than one study confirms that clutter negatively affects the brain.

Princeton University researchers, for example, found that clutter leads to decreased focus, confusion, tension, and depression.  More specifically, they found that a person’s visual cortex gets “overwhelmed” by objects not related to a particular task, making it neurologically harder to complete projects efficiently, which directly triggers negative emotions like tension and irritability.  People in organized, clean homes do not have this stimulus.


Your Brain Perceives Clutter As Stress

To the brain, clutter represents unfinished business and this lack of completeness can be highly stressful for people.  This fact is especially true when people have significant concerns pressing in on their lives.  Significant concerns like difficult relationships, health concerns, or adapting to life changes brought by a world pandemic?  Yes.

We at Susan’s Green Cleaning see the benefits a clean home has on our clients every day.  We’ve heard time and again from our customers that they feel more peaceful in a clean home.  They say we help them regain control of their environment.  “I may not be able to control chaos in my life, but I can control it in my home.”

But what if you like clutter?  You are not alone.  New York realtor and blogger, Liz Steelman says she knows she has a clutter problem according to others, but gains “spark joy” from the things around her.  In her own words, “I know that I could potentially change my life if I just relearned to fold my t-shirts” but still uses the “I love mess” GIF almost daily as a humorous confession.

Then she writes, humor aside, about the deeper reason for her mess:

“From what everyone says, I really, really need to tidy up.  I know I have a clutter problem:  I have moved around a box of magazines I know I will never read from apartment to apartment since 2011.  My bag of cords is actually an entire shoebox.  I still have some clothes from high school that no longer fit.  In short, I am less than perfect.  It may sound like I am a hoarder lite—and maybe I am—but it’s not that I can’t get rid of things.  I have a Scorpio’s finesse for cutting things (and people!) out of my life.  Once a year, or so, I will get in a mood and decide to go through small portions of my bedroom to see what feels dead to me.  But instead of moving all this out of my apartment, I get tired and end up just putting them in another box under my bed or in my building’s storage unit.

What’s keeping me from saying the final goodbye?  Going through the things have already taken a lot more time and energy than I thought, so I’m rather exhausted when it comes time to do the heavy lifting.  But, also, I don’t really know what to do with them once I’ve decided I don’t want them anymore.  Throwing that much stuff in the trash seems irresponsible…”

Clearly, de-cluttering is about more than cleaning and sorting.  It is about dealing with things you are attached to, which may explain why one in 11 Americans have so many things that they pay for storage space outside of their home.

Podcaster Gretchen Rubin weighs in with advice she calls The One Minute Rule.  In a nutshell, The One-Minute Rule is a way to do things you have been putting off, whether it is making a quick phone call, paying a bill, or washing breakfast dishes you left in the sink.  We first learned about The One-Minute Rule in Gretchen’s post where she writes:

“This is an incredibly easy, incredibly effective rule—but it must be followed consistently if I want to see results.  And it does take work.  It’s very simple:  I must do any task that can be finished in one minute.  Hang up my coat, read a letter and toss it, fill in a form, answer an email, note down a citation, pick up my phone messages, file a paper, put a dish in the dishwasher…and so on.  Because the tasks are so quick, it isn’t too hard to make myself follow the rule—but it has big results.  Keeping all those small, nagging tasks under control makes me more serene, less overwhelmed.”

Brooke  at Happy Simple Mom agrees:

“I battle with anxiety, and I hate it.  I hate that my worries and my emotions can dictate my mood and general well-being.  Decluttering didn’t cure my anxiety, but having a clutter-free home has greatly reduced my anxiety and stress.  There’s a good chance decluttering can help you too if you are dealing with anxiety or stress.  Our first big clutter was when my two children were fairly young.  I was a very busy mom, working full time outside the home with a traveling spouse.  Life was not always easy.  Home management was nothing short of impossible many days.  It was during the act of decluttering I discovered how peaceful I was making my home and how much the feel of my home contributed to my overall mental health.

Clutter is visual chaos.  It usually looks like a giant mess, even if it’s organized into piles or has some ‘system’ assigned to it. If you suffer from anxiety, this visual chaos will fuel it like gas poured on a fire.  It’s intense.  I didn’t realize how intense these feelings were until the clutter started to disappear…When we surround ourselves with outer order, we feel calmer inside.”

A drawing that says "new mindset, new results"

Photo credit:  Ivelin Radkov

As a seasoned green cleaning company, we clean houses in all kinds of conditions, both cluttered and tidy.  From our perspective, it is easier to clean a tidy home.

Nineteenth century British designer William Morris spells out the goal perfectly:

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”   – William Morris


Advice from De-cluttering Experts

Marie Kondo says to ask yourself if an item you’re keeping sparks joyJoshua Becker says to hold an item in your hand and ask, “Do I need this?”  Gretchen Rubin says to ask yourself if an item energizes you.  Francine Jay asks you to assess if something is relevant to keep after moving it from its usual place.

Look at their suggestions critically for a minute, and then decide why YOU want to de-clutter.


De-Cluttering Via The Feeling Method

On the surface, Marie Kondo and Gretchen Rubin agree that you should keep things that add value to your emotional state, but they diverge in their approach.  In Rubin’s book, Outer Order, Inner Calm, she warns about keeping things that don’t apply to your current life, such as books you aspire to read but never touch, gear for sports you hope to take up someday, or an instrument you’ll probably never learn to play.  For her, these things feel like failures and reminders of things not accomplished.

For Marie Kondo, items that “spark joy” could be things you don’t use, or may never use.  Contrary to Rubin’s warning to “not furnish a fantasy identity”, Kondo allows for items to be seen not as failures, but as sources of inspiration, such as the unused pair of shoes that Nick Vujicic, born without arms and legs, keeps in his closet as a reminder of what brought him to become a motivational speaker.


De-Cluttering Via The Location Method

Francine Jay, author of The Joy Of Less asks you to de-personalize items by removing them from their normal place in the house.  She writes:

 “The broken chair that’s been in the corner of your living room for as long as you can remember seems to have staked its claim to the space; it’s like a member of the family, and it feels disloyal to move it.  But once it’s out in the backyard, with the light of day shining on it, it’s suddenly nothing more than an old, forlorn broken chair.”

It’s a good idea because it removes the association of that thing belonging in your home.  From this premise, she established a sorting method.  Jay recommends dividing things into three categories:  trash, treasure, or transfer (give away).  She instructs you to place the items into black garbage bags so you can’t see them and second-guess your decision.  Then you are supposed to divide the treasure bag items into three more categories:  Inner Circle, Outer Circle, and Deep Storage, based on how often you use them, not by what inspires you.

Joshua Becker, author of The Minimalist Home instructs you to methodically go through items, room by room, starting with easier spaces and finishing with harder ones.  He says that it is usually best to start with the living room, then the bedrooms, closets, bathrooms, kitchen, dining areas, home office, storage areas, and then the garage and yard, in that order.


De-Cluttering Via Behavioral Rules

Here is a friendly set of rules some of our customers have found helpful when de-cluttering their homes:

  1. No more moving piles from one place to another
  2. The moment you find yourself making a path, stop.
  3. Clear countertops and surfaces excess things every night before retiring.
  4. Toss all used towels and dirty clothes in the laundry right after use.
  5. Embrace the One Minute Rule
  6. Set a timer and start with 15 minutes every day packing away things you don’t use very often. Start in the area you spend the most time in and move to closets and drawers later.  Remember, the idea is to reduce what your eyes see, not to make bigger messes.
  7. Enlist members of your household to join you.
  8. Let us do the heavy lifting of deep cleaning a couple of times a month.
    Know that there are times when it isn’t practical to do it all yourself.


De-Cluttering Via Questions

  1. Do you love it and use it?
    The idea behind this comes from the New York Times Bestseller book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo
  2. Do you need it or are you keeping it “just in case”? Does having it placate your fear of potentially not having it?
  3. Are you keeping this out of guilt or for sentimental reasons? Someone spent good money on this.  Someone’s feelings will be hurt if I don’t keep their gift.  It is poor stewardship to throw this away.
  4. Do you use this often enough to justify keeping it? For that matter, will you be able to find it again if you keep it?
  5. Would you buy this today? Was this an impulse buy?
  6. Does this still fit you or your lifestyle? Is this item worth the space it is taking, the peace it is robbing, or the resource it takes to maintain?
  7. Why is your home cluttered? Is it a self-perpetuating cycle?  Your house is cluttered so you buy replacements for things you can’t find in the mess, which adds to more clutter…


Parting Quote

In the words of Henry David Thoreau who said “Our life is frittered away by detail.  Simplify, simplify” we echo his friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who replied “One ‘Simplify’ would have sufficed.”


This article is Part 1 of our series on Clutter and You.   Read Part 2 here.