From Spotlight: Simple Steps to a More Organized Home

How Clutter Creates Stress and Anxiety: Strategies for Decluttering

Find out what the experts and research say about the clutter-health connection, including some possible clutter cures.

A woman sitting on the floor in front of a cluttered closet.
Image: fbxx/Getty

Stacks of unopened mail, cluttered countertops, overstuffed closets, and those I’ll-get-to-it-later piles aren’t just household annoyances. A growing body of research links clutter at home to increased stress and anxiety — sometimes even linking clutter and depression.

“Our culture teaches us that the more you own, the happier you’ll be,” says Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago, who has long studied the impact of clutter on the psyche. “But it’s actually the opposite: The more you have, the less happy you tend to be.”

The Connection Between Clutter and Mental Health: Key Research Findings

Indeed, cluttered homes could be hampering your mental – and physical – health in a number of ways, but you may not realize it. See if these findings from four studies sound like what you’ve experienced:

  1. Women who perceived their homes as cluttered were more likely to say they constantly felt tired and even displayed symptoms of depression.
  2. Cluttered kitchens are more likely to lead to eating too much unhealthy food.
  3. Household clutter can link to feelings of guilt, anxiousness, and an inability to focus.
  4. Cluttered work spaces at home could be making workers less satisfied with their job and leading to increased tension and even burnout.

Clean up your ways and you’ll feel better? It’s a start.

“Tidying, sorting, storing, and organizing one’s things restores people’s sense of control over their environment,” notes Ferrari and co-author Catherine Roster, a professor of marketing and consumer psychology at the University of Mexico, in their study on decluttering personality traits. “Having fewer possessions to manage and take care of also frees up people’s time and energy to focus on what really matters in their lives.”

How to Know if You Have a Household Clutter Problem

The tipping point for problematic clutter emerges when it affects the livability of a space, causes emotional distress, and impacts your relationships and financial well-being – for instance, by contributing to overspending, Ferrari says. In severe cases, clutter can cross over into hoarding behavior, a serious psychiatric disorder. (According to Ferrari, hoarding is the accumulation of “vertical” piles of the same thing, like stacks of toilet paper packages, whereas clutter is “horizontal,” with an overabundance of many different items.)

Take a Self Test for 'Chronic Disorganization'

The Institute for Challenging Disorganization offers criteria to identify whether you may have signs of what they call “chronic disorganization,” including:

  • Filling storage areas to capacity
  • Having difficulty parting with items
  • Needing to rent out additional storage space
  • Beginning multiple projects that go unfinished
  • Struggling constantly to find things

Realize that Decluttering Is a Learned Skill

If you identify with some of the behaviors listed, there’s good news, “Decluttering is a skill and can be learned,” assures a study in the International Journal of Environment Research and Public Health. Also, “decluttering doesn’t mean taking away everything that is important to you,” says Linda Samuels, a professional organizer and author of “The Other Side of Organized.”

Which Decluttering Type Are You and How Can You Manage Stress?

In tackling disorganization, Ferrari and Roster’s research identifies three main types of declutterers:

  1. The disengaged: They feel compelled to declutter but are reluctant to, often blaming a lack of resources or time.
  2. The enthusiastic: They enjoy organizing and feel intrinsically motivated to declutter. They experience the highest levels of happiness after decluttering.
  3. The challenged: They find decluttering meaningful, but express difficulty and stress while doing it. Like the disengaged, they’re motivated more from outside sources, like demands from others, rather than having a strong desire to declutter.

Disengaged and challenged types report higher levels of worry, anxiety, and fear when decluttering, but they do find relief and happiness afterwards. To help, researchers suggest doing some soul-searching to find motivation, like identifying a meaningful purpose from decluttering. For instance, it might create more time to spend with your family or make you more productive in your home workspace.

Researchers also suggest taking frequent breaks and alternating between low and high stress tasks to better manage any stress from decluttering.

10 Ways to Declutter Your Home — and Boost Your Mood

Organizing a space may not rid you completely of stressful or depressive feelings, but researchers say it may help you dig out of a rut. Research and organization experts offer these 10 tips on how to declutter your home and manage stress in the process:

#1 Ask Yourself 'Let Go' Questions About the Clutter

An infographic sharing the "Let Go" questions one could ask to help declutter such as "Do I use or wear it anymore" and "Do I still like it?"
Image: HouseLogic

“It’s not enough to just ask, 'do I need it?' or ‘do I want it?'” Samuels says. “Your answers will be ‘yes and yes.’ You have to dig deeper.” She suggests reflective questions like:

  • Has this item overstayed its welcome?
  • Does it fit?
  • Do I still like it?
  • Is it damaged beyond repair or even repair-worthy?
  • Do I use or wear it anymore?
  • Is it expired?
  • Is it taking up space and no longer worth the real estate?
  • Has it served its purpose?
  • Is it necessary?

#2 Watch for Emotional Chokeholds

Ferrari believes people get too attached to their "stuff" because it holds memories or may view it as an extension of their identity. However, "overabundance will not make you happy,” he says. “Hold onto relationships, not relics.”

Samuels agrees. “When someone forms deep attachments to their things, it can be hard for them to do the task of decluttering on their own.” Get an organization buddy (family, friend, or professional organizer) to help, Samuels suggests. Set parameters around what to keep or not. For example, if you're dealing with a pile of greeting cards from loved ones over the years, set a parameter to get rid of anything that doesn't include special handwritten messages. Or, in trimming the mementos from a past work experience or time in your life, take photos of the items or journal about them or limit yourself to only a few, she says.

#3 Don’t Touch the Clutter

In the popular Netflix series, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo,” the organization guru told viewers who are deciding whether to keep or toss items to touch them and ask if each one sparks joy.

But Ferrari says consumer psychology research shows otherwise. He cites studies that show that when people touch products in stores, they are more likely to buy them. “It’s why retailers place items at eye level, hoping you’ll touch it,” he says. “So, when decluttering, don’t touch it. Because if you pick up that pair of blue pants in your closet, you’ll be more likely to keep them.” Instead, have someone else hold onto the item while making the decision, Samuels adds. “Create distance from the object to make it easier to let go and so you’ll feel less attached to it.”

#4 Create a Safe Passage for the Clutter

“It’s easier to let go when you have a meaningful place for an item to go,” Samuels says. Giving it to someone else, like a family member or a friend or donating it to charity “provides a safe passage,” she adds. “You can have comfort knowing it’s getting a second life someplace else and can still be enjoyed.”

#5 Stop Making Excuses to Keep Stuff

“It’s not clutter! It’s my stuff!” or “You never know, I might need it again!” “We’re great excuse makers” when it comes to decluttering, Ferrari says. “We may say ‘It’ll come back in style in time,’” like when deciding to keep a 1982 T-shirt tucked away in a closet. But if something does come back in style, “we all know [the new version] will be different." And the old one? “It will still look like a 1982 T-shirt.”

#6 Nip Procrastination Tendencies

The Institute for Challenging Disorganization offers some strategies for taming procrastination tendencies: Resolve to get started by putting your goals in writing and write a plan with a realistic schedule. Break up your projects into smaller pieces (referred to as “chunking,” with the smaller chunks representing steps needed to accomplish larger goals). The ICD also warns to avoid “all or nothing” or perfectionistic tendencies. “Some progress is better than none,” they note.

#7 Set a Deadline for Clutter Removal

Arrange for a specific date to have items removed, like scheduling a donation pick-up through organizations like Goodwill, Habitat ReStores, or GreenDrop. However, Samuels says that approach isn’t helpful for everyone. “For some who struggle with forced deadlines, they may need a gentler road for decluttering rather than a firm deadline.”

#8 Don’t 'Doom Pile' Away the Clutter

Popularized on social media, DOOM piles — which stands for “Didn’t Organize, Only Moved” — is a cleaning tactic of stashing random items in one place to deal with it later. While it’s an effective way to clear a space quickly, it’s not organizing, Samuels says. “You end up with boxes of scooped up items tucked away in a closet,” she says. “Your place may look great, but it’s still cluttered and nothing got organized.”

#9 Remove the Clutter ASAP

“Once you’ve made a decision to get rid of something, get it out of the house as soon as possible,” Samuels says. Too often, the items will be left in a pile in a corner or the garage. But “the mental weight is still there because it hasn’t left the premises. Decluttering can’t really help with the psychological until it’s actually gone.”

#10 Find Help

The Institute for Challenging Disorganization and the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals offer professionals nationwide who can help you sort, purge unwanted items, and create storage solutions and routines in maintaining organization. “Often times with clutter, you’re not honoring what’s really most important to you,” Samuels says. “A professional organizer can help you figure that out. They can help you determine your true treasures.”

Melissa Dittmann Tracey
Melissa Dittmann Tracey

Melissa Dittmann Tracey loves to talk real estate and is obsessed with the design of other people’s homes (but in a noncreepy way!). You can hear her weekly on the syndicated radio show and podcast, Real Estate Today, in her housing trends segment “Hot or Not?” She is also the creator of the Styled, Staged & Sold blog and host of The Housing Muse podcast. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter @housingmuse