A clean, well-lighted place

How less clutter can reduce stress

Clutter, for many of us, is a simple annoyance; but to others, it is a highly personal and sensitive topic. For some, parting with even the smallest scrap of paper can cause emotional turmoil. If there is a deeper fear of loss, scarcity, or if the clutter is used as self-protection from relationships, it may be a sign of a serious (but treatable) mental disorder known as hoarding (learn more: Help for hoarding disorder). But for those who are simply disorganized, yet feeling stressed by it, the following discussion may prove illuminating — because we all, as Hemingway said, long for “a clean, well-lighted place.” To learn ways we can get there, without letting the very effort overwhelm us, BeWell spoke recently with Patty Purpur de Vries, director of the Stanford Health Promotion Network of the Stanford Prevention Research Center.

What is the connection between a cluttered space and feelings of stress?

Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute published a study (The Journal of Neuroscience,2011) which analyzed the effects of uncluttered and organized living. According to an article by Erin Doland which referenced the study, "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.” Paraphrased in non-neuroscience jargon, this means that when your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus. The clutter also limits your brain’s ability to process information. Clutter makes you distracted and unable to process information as well as you do in an uncluttered, organized, and serene environment.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other physiological measurement tools to map the brain’s responses to organized and disorganized stimuli and to monitor task performance. The conclusions were strong: if you want to focus to the best of your ability and process information as effectively as possible, you need to clear the clutter from your home and work environment. This research shows that you will be less irritable, more productive, distracted less often, and able to process information better with an uncluttered and organized home and office.

According to researchers at UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives and Families (CELF), clutter has a profound effect on our self-esteem and our moods. A study of 32 families found a link between high cortisol (stress hormone) levels of women who had a high density of household objects. Men were not as impacted by the piles, but researchers did not document the added stress of this area of potential tension or level of tolerance for clutter between men and women.  

What are the benefits we can expect to receive upon cleaning up the mess?

According to Organizeyourlife.org, organizing your life enables you to: 

  • Save time by not spending time looking for things.
  • Save money by not buying items you already have.
  • Instill confidence by knowing where things are in the home.
  • Reduce stress related to lost items or lost information.
  • Manage many activities and deadlines more efficiently.
  • Gain valuable storage space within your existing quarters.
  • Gain more energy and peace from your organized home while eliminating unnecessary tasks.
  • Have more time to do things you really want to do.
  • Have a more attractive and inviting home.

Working in a less cluttered, more organized space has also been shown to lead to other positive behaviors. In a paper published in Psychological Science(2013), summed up nicely in this blog, Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues set out to test how organized versus disorganized environments alter our thinking and behavior. They ran a simple test. Volunteers were paid to fill out a series of questionnaires in either an orderly workspace or a disorderly one; the former space was neat and tidy, the latter strewn with papers. While in the workspace, the volunteers were asked if they wished to donate items to a specified charity. Sure enough, people in the clean environment were more generous in their donations. People in the clean and tidy room were also more likely to opt for an apple over a candy bar when given as a parting gift for their study participation.

Some of us might have a messy house, office/cubicle, and car. Is there one place that's more important to tidy up than others?

The spaces we work in or (try to) relax in are the most important areas to consider. Although it isn’t helpful to have a messy car (and it may cost you added time to find things), you are generally not trying either to be productive or to find bliss in your vehicle. A mess in the backseat of your car or in your trunk isn’t in your vision field, so it generally won’t keep you from relaxing or concentrating on the job of driving. On the other hand, if the clutter has spilled into your visual field or things are moving around while you drive, please make this a top priority and be safe. 

How can we find the time to clean out our space? Where do we start?

Any space can feel overwhelming when viewed in the broad sense. The trick is to start small, find success and continue to move toward a larger goal of personal freedom from the clutter. Your cube my feel overwhelming to tackle, so it is important to define a small project that will allow you to successfully start the project. Whether you are working on your home or your office, you can identify one small box, pile or drawer as a starting point. It is helpful to designate three categories for sorting: (1) recycle/reduce/reuse; (2) file (find the ideal place for it); and (3) pass along to someone who could use it.

According to B.J. Fogg from the Stanford Persuasion Technology Lab, there are three priorities to consider:

Priority #1: Do hard things that structure future action.
For Example:

  • Call the Salvation Army or Junk King and schedule a pick-up for a date in the future. This will set a deadline for determining things to be given away. 
  • Schedule a cleaning day with a friend so there is a scheduled time for decluttering.
  • If your home is the issue, invite friends over for dinner or to stay. This will require some advanced cleaning/decluttering on your part. 

Priority #2: Do hard things that reduce barriers to behaviors.
For Example:

  • Make a commitment to support a family shelter with your unused clothing or household items. This will make parting with the items much easier for you.
  • Put a recycling container in your work area — which will encourage you to use it. 
  • Purchase new file folders and labels to make filing easier and help you create a new habit. 

Priority #3: Do hard things that increase your skills for success.
For example:

  • Find success no matter how small. Start by clearing out a currently unused box, drawer or glove compartment and celebrate the cleanliness.
  • Every hour, get up from your desk and put one thing away (either before or after you refill your water glass and take a short walk), or spend 5 minutes at the end of each day organizing. You may find that 5 minutes happily leads to 10 or more as you feel successful. 
  • Ask your family and friends for their support and ideas for increasing your skills. 

Once we've tidied up our spaces, what are some tips for helping it stay less cluttered?

Many of us have heard the old saying, “Touch something just once.” This is an ideal way to keep an uncluttered space clean. According to the book, The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, 40% or more of our daily activities are based on habits. For example, when you get home and bring in the mail — what is your habit? Do you drop it on the counter with the rest of the mail for the month and then move on to something else? What if, instead, you started a new habit of simply taking a few minutes to sort your mail before moving on to the next activity? A good place to sort new mail is near a recycle bin. Unless you’ve been very diligent in removing yourself from mailing lists, much of your mail pile can go directly into the recycling bin, substantially reducing the pile. Mail can generally be sorted into:

1. Recycle: junk mail you don’t need
2. To-do pile: event invitations or bills (if you still use manual payment methods)
3. To-review pile: magazines, periodicals, personal letters

If we want more advice on the topic, what resources can you recommend?

Clutterers Anonymous; and this article about their 12-step recovery program.  
Real Simple
Organized Home
Good Housekeeping
Family Circle