Clearing Out Clutter Is Good For You — But Why?
Great article by Dann Albright, Jan 21, 2015
Decluttering can really improve your life — and here’s the psychology to prove it.
We’ve showed you how to declutter your cables, your music collection, and your newsletters. We’ve even given you some tips on where to get started if you’re looking to embrace minimalism. A lot of these articles fall into our Self-Improvement section, where many of our “be more productive” and “get more done” articles also live. But why are they housed in the same place? What ties them together?
Humans are bad at multitasking. It’s a hard fact to come to grips with, especially in a society that values professional productivity so highly. We’re encouraged to work on multiple projects at once so that we can get them all done faster, but science has shown us that this actually slows us down — working on a single task is much more efficient than trying to direct our attention in multiple directions.
This is related to why clutter has such a negative effect on our mental capacities. Just seeing a cluttered desk or home adds to the number of things that we have to expend mental resources on to process, both visually and cognitively. This adds to the load placed on your brain. Using more mental power requires more energy, which is why clutter can make you feel more fatigued.
Clutter can also cause you to feel more stress and guilt. We often have a feeling that we should get our spaces under control, but that we don’t have the time or energy, and this leaves us feeling guilty, which can further contribute to stress.
How Clutter Builds Up
When thinking about decluttering, it’s important to remember that there are often good reasons for the buildup of things. People get disorganized from time to time — it’s just human nature. This is especially true when there are taxing situations in our lives; it could be an illness, the illness of a spouse or parent, moving to a new home, changing jobs, or just a big project at work or school.
Fighting clutter and disorganization as it happens is great, but sometimes the buildup is just unavoidable. Which is fine — everyone has a different tolerance for clutter. Once you get to the point of being notably disorganized, though, it can be really difficult to fight your way back out of it.
Part of the reason for this is that it’s hard to give things up. A neurological study actually found that when hoarders give away things they are attached to, it activates the same part of the brain that’s activated when we feel physical pain. It hurts to give things away! And the longer something is around, the more likely we are to become very attached to it.
A quick note: hoarding is a psychological disorder, while being cluttered or disorganized is not. The neurological response in non-hoarders may be smaller, but it’s still worth noting, which is why I bring it up here.
Just keeping this fact in mind can help ease the difficulty of getting rid of things. You may want to decide to keep something because you feel very attached to it, but ask yourself if you’re really attached to it or if you’re just responding to the loss of an object.
Another interesting theory proposes that clutter is actually a symptom of a deeper-rooted problem: indecisiveness. Whether you just find it difficult to make the right choice or you were brought up in a home where nothing was ever thrown away, it could be very difficult for you to make decisions about whether or not you should keep something. If this is the case, you probably default to “keep”.
People should, however, be much more concerned with the why — the purpose behind decluttering — than the what. While the what is easy, the why is far more abstruse and difficult to discuss, because the nature of the why is highly individual.
With the above, the guys from The Minimalists also stress that how we clutter isn’t as important as why we clutter — they tie it to a consumerist mindset that’s encouraged by our society. Minimalism isn’t for everyone, but understanding the basic principles behind it and seeing how some people have embraced it is a good way to get thinking about what you really need — and what you don’t.
What About Einstein’s Messy Desk?
A quote attributed to Albert Einstein is as follows:
If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?
It’s an interesting point, and one that many people have taken to heart. There’s a common perception out there that highly intelligent and very creative people often live in messy homes or work from messy desks.
And that’s not totally inaccurate. A fascinating study showed that people, who were tasked with a creativity challenge came up with more answers when they were in a disorderly area than when they were in a clean one. Many people use this fact — only half jokingly — to justify a messy workspace. But there’s more to the story.
Another study asked two groups of people to choose whether or not to donate money to a worthy cause — 82% of people in the clean room donated, while 47% from the messier room donated. And on the way out, they were offered the choice of candy or an apple. Guess who choose the apple? The people who had been in the orderly room were over three times more likely to make the healthy choice.
What’s the takeaway message from these studies?
Disorderliness may encourage you to think outside the box, but cleanliness helps you make good decisions. Of course, there may be more to these results than is obvious at first. For example, one study found that people who were curious and inventive (or “addicted to insight”) and those who had many varied interests were more likely to be cluttered. It’s possible that these results are driven more by the people in them than the situations they’re put in.
Everyone has an optimal working environment. For some people, it’s a spotless desk with a laptop, a small pad of paper, and a pen. For others, it’s a kitchen table covered in books, handouts, printouts, a tablet, a phone, a laptop, a cup of coffee, and a water bottle. And this extends beyond just your workspace and into your home; some people feel better when everything is very clean and orderly, while others find it a bit sterile.
It’s important to find the best balance for yourself — and your spouse, if you have one — that limits stress but also doesn’t make you feel like you’re working in an operating room (unless that’s what you prefer!).
Think about your digital workspace. Decluttering your Windows or Mac desktop, clearing your inbox, and even your declutter browser tabs can make you feel a lot better. It encourages you to back up your old files, and cleans up your workspace. It may even help you find things that you’ve lost — old notes in Evernote or old articles in Pocket that are really useful or more applicable now than when you saved them. Digital decluttering is a great way to bring new energy to your life.
Dealing With Clutter: The Psychological Lessons
Taking into account the results of the studies discussed above as well as the tips that many reformed clutterers have shared, I’ve come up with a list of 5 lessons that are important to keep in mind when decluttering your home, office, workspace, or any other area.
- Don’t get stressed. It’s natural to get cluttered from time to time. Just deal with it.
- Start small. Pick an area of your home — a closet, a cupboard, your garage workbench, your car—and spend ten minutes decluttering it. Separate all of the items there into keep, donate, and get-rid-of piles.
- Ignore deep-seated fears of losing your possessions. Remember that your brain is telling you to keep things regardless of whether it makes sense. Marketers use this as a shopping gimmick, but that doesn’t mean that we need them.
- Digital clutter is a real thing. Keep your digital life organized by using the same principles as you would with physical clutter.
- Managing disorderliness is good for health. It reduces your stress, prevents feeling guilty about your cleanliness, and keeps your brain from getting overloaded by unhelpful things.
Now that you understand why we clutter, and why it’s a good idea to manage that clutter and get organized, get out there and do it! Start small, be consistent about it, and you’ll make a difference.