If you’ve ever returned from a vacation feeling relaxed and refreshed, a few things probably happened while you were away. Some are obvious—you slept more than usual…spent time with people you love…and had fewer items on your to-do list. But there’s one more element that likely helped you to unwind—you probably stayed in a hotel or vacation rental home with minimal clutter.

It is a fact—clutter and mental health are inextricably linked. Living in a space where countertops are littered with mail and coupons and kitchen drawers are crammed with mismatched food-storage containers and old cords and chargers that you “might need one day” is stressful in several ways.

The brain interprets a messy home the same way it interprets a messy life event such as being stuck in traffic or arguing with a spouse or friend—by releasing the inflammatory stress hormone cortisol. We know that chronically elevated cortisol levels are linked with anxiety and irritability. We also know that clutter is linked with increased rates of depression and decreased satisfaction with life—especially among older adults. And disorganized spaces interfere with productivity and time management (constantly searching for your keys or other misplaced items is a major time waster), concentration and memory.

Bottom Line Personal asked psychotherapist and professional organizer Julia Vladimirskiy, LCSW, how to get a handle on the clutter…and ease the stress on your mental health.

Memory Clutter Does Exist

Recent research from Columbia University, Harvard University and University of Toronto suggests that age-related memory downturns may be due, at least in part, to the fact that older people (age 65 and up) store excess amounts of information compared with their younger counterparts. This excess information creates cluttered memoryscapes that make it more difficult for these older brains to retrieve the right information when needed. It might take 10 minutes to remember the name of your college roommate, but eventually you will—it just takes longer for your brain to sift through the clutter.

Chronic disorganization also makes you less likely to make healthy choices. Studies have shown that people eat more junk food in cluttered kitchens than in clean ones, and it’s difficult to exercise if your stationary bike also acts as your laundry basket. And clutter that’s on the floor—shoes, clothes, books and pet paraphernalia—quickly becomes a fall hazard.

Clear Your Space, Clear Your Mind

Reducing chaos in your physical space naturally leads to less chaos in your thoughts and emotions. This also works in reverse—a person’s home typically reflects his/her mental state. So clearing the clutter can result in…

  • Less stress, anxiety and depression
  • Improved sleep, energy and relationships
  • Enhanced productivity and ability to focus on upgrading other aspects of your life, including nutrition and exercise
  • Fine-tuned decision-making skills. With each choice you make about whether to keep, toss or donate an item, you strengthen your decision-making muscle, and the effects trickle down into other areas of your life.

Why Does Clutter Accumulate?

To bring order to your environment, it’s essential to explore why those catalogs, shopping bags and knickknacks accumulate in the first place. It is probably because of one of these four reasons…

Reason #1: Indecision. Every pile on your desk or bedside table is a decision you haven’t made. People leave tax forms, gift cards and the like out because they don’t yet know exactly what to do with those things. This is especially true for people with ADHD or executive functioning issues who fear that by putting something away, they’ll forget about it. (These folks are sometimes called “clutter blind” because they don’t even notice piles accumulating.)

Reason #2: You “might need it one day.” Some people have trouble tossing things because they worry that they’ll suddenly need them right after discarding them. Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, calls this a “scarcity mindset,” a fear-based outlook often resulting from growing up in poverty or with parents who were afraid to throw things away and passed that mentality down to you.

Reason #3: You’re emotionally paralyzed by sentimental items. Vacation souvenirs, outdated gifts from loved ones, and grandma’s dishes all are examples of things we tend to hang onto because we think that letting them go somehow dishonors the person we received them from or erases the good memories they bring.

Reason #4: Stress. If life has you feeling overwhelmed, you might be too preoccupied or exhausted to keep things neat and tidy. Even worse: Some people shop to soothe stress, resulting in even more stuff entering the home.

Minimize the Mess

The goal isn’t to have a clutter-free home or a kitchen island in which you can see your reflection. The goal is to banish and organize enough clutter so that you feel calmer. Some easy strategies to help reduce the clutter…

Tackle paper first. Lots of paper arrives daily. So much that it can quickly overrun a home that lacks an organizational system (and it often allows essential paperwork to fall through the cracks). Strategy: Label vertical magazine file holders with the following—“Bills to Pay”…“Promotions/Coupons”…“Shredding”…“To File”…“To Do”…and “To Review with [insert partner’s name].” Place these file holders on the main floor of your home, and sort items as they come in. A nearby recycling bin and shredder will help.

Practice the “one in, one out” rule. Online shopping and Amazon Prime Day make it far too easy to order things. Since the house won’t magically expand to accommodate these purchases, you must remove old things as new ones come in. Bought a new TV or blender? Don’t stash the old one in storage—donate or toss it. New jeans? Say good-bye to a pair that no longer fits.

Label and corral. Woven baskets, clear bins, file folders and other storage containers let you group similar items, making it easier to find what you need and helping you to maintain a sense of order. Choose see-through containers and/or label them. Labelling also allows other family members to help maintain the space and makes cleaning less stressful.

Go on a quick tidying spree. Pick an area—bedroom, family room, bathroom—and set a timer for 20 minutes. Ruthlessly start to declutter, making quick decisions about keeping, tossing or donating each item as you pick it up. Keep only what you love and need. Don’t keep things you think might be useful one day…or things you think you should keep. Toss anything that is broken, even things you’ve meant to fix for months. Discard items that you think someone smart/attractive/­successful would use—this is called aspirational clutter. Doing this just once a week can make a big difference.

Separate happy memories from physical items. That lei-wearing dolphin statue you bought on vacation with your kids 30 years ago? If displaying it on your bookshelf truly brings you joy, keep it. But if it’s just adding to the chaos, take a photo of it and throw it away…or store it in a bin dedicated to keepsakes. Keep another bin or file box for paper mementos such as cards and notes.

Replace your scarcity mindset with one of abundance. Remind yourself that you can almost always get more of whatever you’re afraid of tossing. That includes electrical chargers, free makeup samples and packaged food you bought but never ate…and probably never will.

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