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Around the beginning of every new year, people start thinking about decluttering and organizing their lives Is Clutter Consuming You? Organize Your Life With These Sites & Tips Is Clutter Consuming You? Organize Your Life With These Sites & Tips Stuff. Stuff. Stuff. Our lives are consumed with stuff. It has to stop. It's time to clear out the house and the storage facility. It's time to improve your bank account too. Read More . It’s a great way to start the year feeling fresh, and it gives you a big sense of accomplishment — but there’s more to it than that.

Decluttering can really improve your life — and here’s the psychology to prove it.

Cognitive Clutter

We’ve showed you how to declutter your cables 5 Ways To Clean Up Computer Cable Clutter Under Your Desk 5 Ways To Clean Up Computer Cable Clutter Under Your Desk Cable clutter is one of technology's biggest annoyances. While it's easy to conceal your messy cable collection in a closed box, the cables that catch dust under your table are a completely different story. Try... Read More , your music collection Declutter Your iTunes With Tune Sweeper Declutter Your iTunes With Tune Sweeper You literally bought into iTunes and wish it could do more. Install the Tune Sweeper plugin to add album art and track information or remove duplicate files and orphaned data. Read More , and your newsletters 4 Decluttering Tips For Newsletters If You Don't Want To Trash Them 4 Decluttering Tips For Newsletters If You Don't Want To Trash Them How many e-mail subscriptions do you have? If you're like me, you have absolutely no idea, but you know that it's a lot. It's time to take action. Read More . We’ve even given you some tips on where to get started if you’re looking to embrace minimalism How To Be An Effective Minimalist In Your Daily Life How To Be An Effective Minimalist In Your Daily Life More and more people are choosing to embrace minimalism. In certain situations this can wreak frustrating havoc on your everyday life. With some minimal planning it doesn't have to come to that. Read More . 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 3 Ways To Stop Multitasking & Stay Focused To Be More Efficient & Productive [Windows] 3 Ways To Stop Multitasking & Stay Focused To Be More Efficient & Productive [Windows] At MakeUseOf we have written countless articles on how to multitask. As it turns out, however, multitasking messes with your brain. Research shows that people who multitask a lot are "more susceptible to interference from... Read More . 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.

multitasking-brain-overload

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.

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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.

buried-in-clutter

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 Get Free Stuff, Give Away Your Junk & Save The Planet The Freecycle Way Get Free Stuff, Give Away Your Junk & Save The Planet The Freecycle Way Freecycle is the world’s largest network of recyclers who, instead of throwing away, selling or otherwise disposing of their unwanted goods, give it away instead. It’s both an environmentally and pocket-friendly way of picking up... Read More . 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 Indecisive? Make The Right Choices With These Apps Indecisive? Make The Right Choices With These Apps Have you heard of the paradox of choice? If you're like me and suffer from analysis paralysis, these apps will change your life. Read More 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 How 3 Popular Minimalism Projects Inspire You To Do More With Less How 3 Popular Minimalism Projects Inspire You To Do More With Less Frustrated with the demands and dictates of our consumerist culture, many people have opted out of it. They have embraced simpler lifestyles, even minimalist ones, to rediscover what makes them happy. Find your inspiration. Read More 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.

businessman-messy-desk

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.

candy-apple-decision

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 3 Easy Ways To Stop Email Overload From Hitting Your Inbox 3 Easy Ways To Stop Email Overload From Hitting Your Inbox Email has quite a reputation as a productivity killer. Managing email well can help you keep your inbox clean, but wouldn’t it be great if you got less of it to begin with? Read More , and even your declutter browser tabs Tab Killer: A Chrome Extension To Declutter Your Browsing Experience Tab Killer: A Chrome Extension To Declutter Your Browsing Experience You should get your tabs under control. The Tab Killer Chrome extension moves all of those soon-to-be-watched videos and soon-to-be-read articles into a convenient drop down menu. Read More  can make you feel a lot better. It encourages you to back up your old files What Is The Best Backup Solution? [Geeks Weigh In] What Is The Best Backup Solution? [Geeks Weigh In] Ten years ago an external hard drive – or even a physical disc such as a CD-ROM – was the only practical way to back up files. Consumer-grade network storage solutions were primitive, expensive and... Read More , 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.

  1. Don’t get stressed. It’s natural to get cluttered from time to time. Just deal with it.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 Do You Think Twice About These Online Shopping Traps Before You Buy? Do You Think Twice About These Online Shopping Traps Before You Buy? Retailers and marketers are using cutting-edge behavioral psychology to get you to buy their products, whether you need them or not. Do you know how they're targeting you? Read More , but that doesn’t mean that we need them.
  4. Digital clutter is a real thing. Keep your digital life organized by using the same principles as you would with physical clutter.
  5. 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.

Do you deal with disorderliness? Does clutter make you stressed? What are the best decluttering tips and strategies that you’ve tried? Share your thoughts below.

Image Credits: Creative workplace Via Shutterstock, thoughts, Young African American male buried in work, Businessman sitting at messy desk, Close-up of an young beautiful woman.

  1. Vicki O
    February 3, 2015 at 7:18 pm

    Great article, Dann! I hadn't read the research about a decluttered environment supporting healthier food choices. Very interesting and motivating. Thanks!

    • Dann Albright
      February 10, 2015 at 10:14 am

      Thanks, Vicki! The research with clutter and food is really interesting—and the idea of using extra willpower just to stay focused when you're in a cluttered environment is especially interesting. It's certainly motivated me to try to keep my work areas a bit more organized.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. t.michael
    January 31, 2015 at 3:06 pm

    Article on clutter on a cluttered webpage??? as the saying goes "do as I say, not as I do".
    Not much fun reading an article, then an AD, then back to the article, then another AD.

  3. Rob
    January 23, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    Nice article! Something I've been dealing with for many years, and no matter how much I seem to simplify, the clutter just keeps on coming!

    • Dann Albright
      January 24, 2015 at 9:33 am

      Yes, it does . . . no matter how disciplined you are, it's really difficult to prevent clutter at times. Having some good strategies for decluttering can help you deal with it when it does happen, though. It's worth the effort—it feels really great!

  4. Vincent
    January 22, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    So, what happens if you can (or do) both? i.e. keep everything, but organize the hell out of it, so you know where everything is and can put your hands on it at a moment's notice? What does that tell psychologists???

    • dragonmouth
      January 23, 2015 at 12:33 am

      The psychologists can always find something wrong with you. If there is nothing wrong, that is a big, red flag because, according to the shrinks, nobody can be that well adjusted. There MUST be something wrong! :-)

    • Dann Albright
      January 24, 2015 at 9:32 am

      Vincent, my guess is that would be if it's well organized, it wouldn't be called "clutter." Clutter is usually pretty disorganized, and can often include things that aren't useful. Some people might call that cluttered, but I'd say that when talking about clutter being a problem, that wouldn't really count.

      However, even though your things are well-organized, it's possible that they're taking some visual effort to ignore. So they could be having an effect on your workspace. But everyone has different distractor suppression abilities, and everyone has different preferences. So if it works for you, go for it! That's really all there is to it.

  5. A41202813GMAIL
    January 22, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    It Is Easier To Have An Employee Environment Clean Than A Home One.

    Why ?

    Because At Work, You Have A Time Range You Can Not Do Anything Other Than Work Related - At Home, You Can Change Your Attention To Do Whatever You Want, On A Moments Notice.

    I Keep Everything, I Do Not Need Right Now, Away From Sight, In My Desk Drawers Or Otherwise, It Helps Me Keep My Greatest Focus On What I Am Really Doing Right Now.

    I Work In Quality Not In Quantity - Multitasking Is Not My Thing.

    If I Have Several Tasks To Do - Call It Procrastinating If You Will - I Will Do The Easiest Ones First - Leaving The Hardest One To The End Means I Have Nothing Else To Distract Me And I Can Keep My Full Focus On It.

    Yes, I Have Some OCD, So What ?

    • Dann Albright
      January 24, 2015 at 9:06 am

      I definitely understand how it can be easier to keep a work area clean than somewhere in your home. Unfortunately, I work from home most of the time, so it can be especially difficult to keep my work area clean! But I agree that reducing visual effort can be quite helpful in focusing.

    • A41202813GMAIL
      January 24, 2015 at 1:57 pm

      @Dann Albright

      Thank You For Responding.

  6. Julie Bestry
    January 21, 2015 at 8:48 pm

    Or, dragonmouth, a clean desk may be the sign of a person who has learned to work on one thing at a time and avoid unnecessary sensory stimuli. Or the sign of a person who finished all the work and went out to play. There are no absolutes, only what works for each.

    As a Certified Professional Organizer, it's been my experience that clients (neurotypical or otherwise) with orderly (not necessarily empty) workspaces are generally better able to focus on their goals. But maybe a more apt point is that nobody needs to choose between utter chaos and stark austerity. One's environment is a continuum, not a toggle switch. :-)

    Dann, you did a great job of recapping some of the current research, including evaluating the complex interpretations possible with that University of Minnesota study. A great sixth tip is to get support and accountability in making those good decisions and taking action. A friend or co-worker can listen as you narrate your decision-making process about what to keep, move elsewhere, donate or discard, and a professional organizer provide expertise. Nobody feeling overwhelmed by the clutter has to go it alone.

    • dragonmouth
      January 22, 2015 at 12:06 am

      I wonder how long it is before people who are not obsessive-compulsive about the neatness of their desks are referred for professional psychological help to "cure" them of their messiness. Because with Certified Professional Organizers on the scene, more and more emphasis on orderly surroundings and reducing or eliminating "clutter", it looks like the trend is heading that way.

    • Dann Albright
      January 22, 2015 at 8:32 am

      Thanks for chiming in, Julie. I like what you said about how a clean desk can contribute to focus and avoiding unnecessary sensory stimuli. I think visual energy is something that people don't often think about, but it takes effort to ignore things that are in front of you, especially if they continually remind you of other things you should be doing. And the idea that clutter is a continuum—I definitely like to be on the "orderly" side of the range, but not all the way—having notebooks and pens around not only makes it easy for me to take notes, but it makes me happy!

      And yes, talking through the decision-making process with another person can be extremely helpful. Strange how saying things out loud makes them sound very different than in your head; but it can make a big difference.

    • Dann Albright
      January 22, 2015 at 8:36 am

      dragonmouth, obsessive-compulsive disorder is a debilitating mental condition, not a desire to have a clean desk. Even if a person is very strict about maintaining a clear workspace, that doesn't mean they suffer from obsessions or constantly need to fight compulsions.

      Why do you say that there's more emphasis on orderliness? More than what? More than there used to be?

    • Dann Albright
      January 27, 2015 at 9:49 am

      Julie, I've often wondered about professional organizers. How do they get their start? How does one get certified? Are their digital organizers? (I think I'd be really good at that.) Is there a website that has all this information? I'd love to know more!

    • Julie Bestry
      January 29, 2015 at 5:31 am

      Dann, thanks for asking, and I hope this answer threads properly -- I fear it may fall in the wrong place among the comments.

      There are more than 40 sub-specialties in professional organizing. Some are generalists. Most, even if they serve a wide clientele, have niche focus for their clients: organizers who work just with students, with senior citizens, with people who ADHD, with people who have traumatic brain injury, in medical offices and law offices, etc. Some have niche specialties based less on clients and more the projects: organizing residential spaces (or even more specialized -- just playrooms, or kitchens, or garages), corporate offices, small businesses, as well as niche project types. I specialize in organizing paper and information; I have colleagues who specialize in financial organization, digital information, time management and workflow, etc.

      We come from all fields. I have a Master's degree in television management and retired from the field in 2001; since then, although I am a generalist in a small city, I have focused on organizing/coaching on paper and time management issues. (The larger the community, the more able one is to specialize.) Some professional organizers come from the corporate world, some from law and medicine, some from teaching, coaching, business consulting, and some from life experience running households.

      NAPO members (see below), as well as those involved in the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (whose members avail themselves of a specific educational curriculum to work with clients with chronic disorganization and yes, hoarding, too), all seek extensive continuing education. (And since 2007, I've also been a Certified Professional Organizer, which involves attaining at least 1500 hundred hours of client-focused teaching, training and transfer of skills in the three years prior to sitting for a comprehensive exam, and then maintaining continuing education to recertify every three years. Whew.)

      Education is key. While Dragonmouth prefers to think that we pathologize disorganization, we're merely providing the services that individuals and businesses request. They want to save money, waste less time, reduce stress, be more productive, stop missing deadlines or buying duplicates of things they own but can't find -- and being taught how to be able to find what they need, and focus on what they want to do, without distractions or unnecessary expenses is what we, as professionals, with training, education and EXPERIENCE provide.

      We're not going out saying, "Hey, dude, you're cluttered, you need our help." And nobody (outside of slick magazines) is aiming for zen emptiness in unlived-in, unworked-in rooms. We're taking calls from parents of children with ADHD who are failing classes because they can't keep track of their assignments, from adult children of seniors experiencing physical and/or cognitive decline and needing to declutter, downsize and create easier-to-follow household systems. We're responding to the calls of small business people who get waylaid on their big-picture projects because they suffer from systems that haven't grown as their businesses have, and new parents who are sleep-deprived and tripping over all the baby accoutrements because they can't figure out what goes where and what gets done *when*.

      I've already bogarted your comments section. For more, you might want to read an article on Lifehacker where I and some colleagues were interviewed about what it is we do. (If your comments section eats links, the title is "What Professional Organizers Really Do and How They Can Help.")
      http://lifehacker.com/what-professional-organizers-really-do-and-how-they-ca-1663496231

      Dann, if you want to get started, you'll want to find like-minded people. There are slightly under 4000 professional organizers in the US, in the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) http://www.NAPO.net, plus more in Professional Organizers of Canada (POC), plus associations in the UK, Brazil, Australia &New Zealand, Japan, Germany, the Netherlands, and Africa.

      Dann, as your interest is in digital organizing, you'd want to focus on helping people with issues using apps, software and hardware to achieve their goals with things like scanning personal papers, developing digital systems for work, using apps for time management, task-achievement, goal setting, etc. The main thing is that professional organizers don't merely organize *for* their clients; they work *with them*, and teach them the skills that will help maintain the kinds of environments they, the clients, want for themselves (but didn't know how to achieve). New skills, new systems and mastery over their environments -- if you know how to do it AND can teach people (including, especially, people who don't think like you do), you'll be on your way. A huge part of the professional organizing experience is to be able to work with people who are different from you -- people who are visual, auditory or kinesthetic, linear or non-linear, neurotypical or otherwise, physically or mentally able or challenged, etc. -- and still be able to provide them with what they need to achieve their goals.

    • Dann Albright
      February 1, 2015 at 7:08 am

      Thanks for the very detailed information, Julie! Looks like I have a lot of reading ahead of me to learn about the life of an organizer. The specific situations you described in which an organizer would be consulted are very interesting—I had thought of some of those, but there are definitely some that I wouldn't have imagined as typical times when people could use some help. Very interesting!

      Thanks again—I really appreciate you taking the time to give a very detailed answer to my question!

  7. dragonmouth
    January 21, 2015 at 4:26 pm

    "Disorderliness may encourage you to think outside the box, but cleanliness helps you make good decisions."
    "Godd decisions" according to whose arbitrary and subjective definition?

    Clean desk is a sign of a sick mind.

    • Dann Albright
      January 22, 2015 at 8:27 am

      Yes, what makes a good decision is definitely open to interpretation. But I think it's fair to say that most people will agree that charitable giving (versus no charitable giving) and choosing an apple (versus choosing candy) are, in general, good choices. My guess would be that if you want to abstract some sort of idea behind them, it would be decisions that require more willpower. In general, it's easier to say "no" to charitable giving and to choose the candy.

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