We’re living in a time when many of us feel overloaded with stress. Yet many of us don’t realise how our personal habits may be contributing to our angst and anxiety.
For one thing, clutter and messiness can cause distress, which may be part of the reason why the Marie Kondo tidying method and minimalism have so many loyalists. After all, decluttering (the process of putting the miscellaneous physical things around you away where they belong) not only makes it easier to find what you’re looking for, but it can also improve your mood and state of mind in many ways.
“It gives people a renewed sense of control over their environment,” says Catherine Roster, PhD, a professor of marketing and director of the Behavioral Lab at the Anderson School of Management at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, who has studied the effect clutter has on our psychological wellbeing.
“When people go through the process of decluttering, they feel a sense of freedom and liberation. It’s a reclaiming of a sense of mastery and control. They feel more competent and efficient.”
Despite the benefits of decluttering, it’s easy to procrastinate when it comes to tasks that seem overwhelming or stressful — like tackling your overflowing junk drawer or sorting through the huge pile of clothes that you haven’t reached for in months.
So, if your home is feeling more cluttered than ever, read on to learn why it’s worth making time to start clearing things out.
How Does Clutter Effect Our Wellbeing?
Clutter affects our emotional and physical wellbeing in numerous ways.
Clutter in the Office Can Make Us Less Productive and More Burnt Out
Being in a cluttered, disorganised environment can compromise your attention, concentration and focus, and even drain your cognitive resources, according to research based on the results from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans.
Moreover, living in a cluttered space is associated with self-reports of reduced productivity and more chronic procrastination, according to a study co-authored by Dr. Roster.
“Clutter reflects an overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces,” explains Joseph Ferrari, PhD, the study’s lead author and a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago.
“Clutter is often the result of an over-attachment to our personal items, which makes it difficult to part with them. It isn’t abundance that’s the problem as much as attachment to abundance.”
Notably, procrastination and clutter can be a two-way street. One study (also co-authored by Dr. Ferrari and Roster) found that indecision and procrastination at work increased office clutter. The findings apply to remote workers too, according to another study involving 88 remote workers which also linked indecision and procrastination to home office clutter.
And it’s not just work performance that’s impacted by clutter. One study published in 2021 found office clutter (such as paper, trash, and office supplies) negatively affected job satisfaction and increased the risk of work-related burnout, especially for employees holding more senior roles (such as managers or company owners).
Clutter at Home May Lower Happiness and Make Us Feel Less Secure
Of course, the office isn’t the only place you’ll find clutter. Clutter in the home can negatively impact your life as well. In another paper that includes Ferrari and Roster as authors, survey responses from adults in the United States and Canada revealed that clutter can have a negative effect on subjective wellbeing and happiness. Though “home” is typically considered a safe and secure place, clutter compromises some of that security, according to the survey responses.
“When there’s lots of clutter, you lose control over your physical environment, which is very defeating and can bring on stress, depression, or anxiety,” Roster says.
Indeed, one study examined how family members talked about their living environments in the Los Angeles area. Women who described their homes as being more cluttered had increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and a greater depressed mood throughout the day compared with women who described their homes as more restful and restorative. (Men did not experience the same stress or mood disruptions based on their home environment; researchers suggested that women may feel a higher level of responsibility for the home.)
It’s important to note that the causal relationship of the results is unclear: They could be because clutter leads to higher stress, stress from external factors leads to more clutter, or a mix of both.
Clutter Can Be a Safety Hazard
Clutter can also be a safety hazard if there are items or wires on the floor that someone can trip over, or a health hazard if your piles of stuff have become magnets for dust or bugs. In addition, clutter can become a source of tension or friction between people in the same household – especially if they have different ideas about what’s acceptable when it comes to tidiness.
Even your social life can be affected, if it gets to the point of embarrassment where you won’t have people over, Roster says.
Finally, there’s even some evidence that, over time, being in a cluttered space could affect your eating habits: A study found that participants who spent time in a chaotic, messy kitchen ate more biscuits than those in a neater kitchen. However, the study also found that recalling a time the participants felt in control caused them to eat fewer biscuits in the messy kitchen, suggesting that mindset can mediate cravings in a chaotic space.
What Amount of Decluttering Helps Anxiety and WellBeing?
If clutter contributes to stress, can decluttering and organising the environment around you relieve that stress and improve your sense of wellbeing?
Yes, but know that we all differ when it comes to what’s an acceptable amount of clutter.
“Clutter is ‘in the eye of the beholder,’ in the sense that some clutter might perturb some people and be totally fine for others,” explains Darby Saxbe, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Her research focuses on how family and home environments affect our bodies and health, and she was the lead author on the previously mentioned study that looked at the relationship between cortisol levels and the extent to which women described their homes as “cluttered.”
According to Roster, “Clutter is a spectrum – some people with extreme amounts of clutter may think they don’t have a problem with it at all, while others can be quite distressed by it when there really isn’t much there.”
Making an effort to declutter can make you feel as if a weight has been lifted.
No matter what you physically count as “clutter,” whatever is there is a constant visual reminder of things that need to be done, Dr. Saxbe explains. “Decluttering allows you to cross things off the to-do list, which gives you a sense of accomplishment. Removing clutter also takes away visual interruptions. It’s an easy way to cleanse the palate and have a fresh start.”
Paring down and getting organised also promotes greater productivity, a sense of order, and feelings of self-efficacy, as well as improving your mood.
Looked at another way, tidying up, putting things away, and getting rid of piles of unnecessary stuff is a way of “managing symbolic pollution,” researchers concluded in one analysis.
When Decluttering Is Self-Care, and When It Isn’t
Of course, you can take anything to an extreme level, so if decluttering becomes an obsession, or you become super strict about having everything in a specific place, you can go overboard. As Saxbe says, “If decluttering is keeping you from turning your attention to other things in your life, that’s not helpful or adaptive.”
In other words, it’s important to find what works for you in this realm and be flexible enough to relinquish the reins of control when appropriate (whether that’s over a weekend or special occasion, or in certain places in your home or office).
But it’s worth the effort to find your personal sweet spot because, in the right amount, decluttering can be good for your mental and emotional wellbeing in many ways.
And in that respect, decluttering can certainly be a form of self-care. (Remember self-care is everything you do to tend to your physical and emotional health in the ways you are best able to do so.)
There’s still more work to be done in the field of positive psychology to better define the potential benefits of decluttering, Roster says, adding that: “It’s a form of self-care, just as not doing it is a form of diminishing the self.”