Can a clutter free home bring a calmer mind?

As more and more of us are getting rid of clutter, removing excess belongings there seems to be an overwhelming result of finding a feeling of peace. Most of it is just stuff like the broken appliances or toys you never got around to repairing, the overflowing junk drawer, the items you were planning on using for something in the future, the outfits lurking in your closet that are older than a Jonas brother or you wore in high school. So why does it make you feel so stressed when you think about tossing them?

It's not all in your imagination though. A 2013 Huffington Post survey found that clutter was a major source of anxiety for Americans-ranking as high as unanticipated expenses and not having enough time for loved ones. "Clutter zaps your energy and knocks down your self-esteem, because it's a constant reminder of what you haven't done." says professional organizer Melissa Levy of Declutter + Design. A 2015 Princeton study found that the more "objects in the visual field" there are (ie: clutter) the harder the brain has to work at ignoring it. "I see this over and over; ignoring clutter causes mental fatigue" says Barbara Reich, founder of Resourceful Consultants, a professional organizer.  

It may seem easier to look the other way than to deal with a bursting closet that you don't have time for, but all of that stuff eventually eats into your time. The average American reportedly spends two and a half days each year looking for lost items among all their belongings. I think I spend a good 3 days a year looking for my keys. 

Clutter steals your sleep - a study performed in 2015 by St. Lawrence University found that a cluttered bedroom distracts you and messes with your sleep keeping you awake at night. 

Clutter also can cost you money - a 2017 report from the Self Storage Association found that nearly 1 in 10 families stash their excess in a storage unit equaling an annual loss of $39 billion dollars according to Sparefoot's industrial statistics for last year.  

How, then, to break free? The first step, say experts, is to realize that it's not about the stuff. It's about the feelings you have around the stuff! "Clutter is stress;' says Star Hansen, a professional organizer from Los Angeles. "Stress comes from anything that's emotionally unresolved in our lives, and clutter is unresolved. All the things you own are an expression of your past, future, hopes, dreams, loved ones, heartbreaks, successes and failures, so when you have hundreds of these items together in one space, it can be overwhelming. It's like a bunch of people yelling at you!"

De-cluttering isn't just about reordering your pantry though which can be helpful in making a grocery list. It's about bidding farewell to all of the unfinished business you've been hanging on to from your childhood, relationships and even former jobs. professional organizer Melissa Levy says "So instead of fixating on what's in your junk drawer think of getting organized as an opportunity to evaluate exactly what you have, how you're utilizing your space and how it reflects your current lifestyle. Then it's a lot easier to tackle." 

When paring down triggers guilt there's a reason, Marie Kondo's "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" has sold close to 2.5 million copies in the United States. Ms. Kondo's advice is simple but revolutionary: she tells readers to group their stuff into categories, such as clothing or books, then hold each object in your hands and ask yourself "Does this spark joy?". This question is quick, decisive and incredibly effective. Either something sparks joy or it doesn't and you know it right away. 

More often than not, our stuff sparks guilt. How about that bulky armoire your Aunt left you that you secretly can't stand but she loved it. It will not dishonor you Aunt's memory if you give it to Goodwill. In fact, your Aunt would probably be horrified to know that every time you looked at the armoire, you felt a combination of fretfulness and guilt. In the words of Melissa Levy "Remind yourself that just because you're finding a new home for someone's clothing or furniture doesn't mean you're leaving that person behind. They will always be a part of you, even when their things aren't." Then there is also the guilt over an expensive-but-useless buy, like the dress that cost half a paycheck yet hangs there in your closet, unworn, year after year after year. "The first thing you learn in business school is to ignore sunk costs. How much you paid is less relevant than how much space it takes up in your closet and that it serves as a daily reminder of the mistake you made buying it. There's a psychological cost to keeping it, so the sooner it goes, the better." 

Resist aspirational clutter! 

"Often people buy things for the life they hope to have one day, rather than the one they actually have. Call it "aspirational clutter" the clothing that's a size too small, the gym equipment in the basement that hasn't been used in years but serves as a drying rack for laundry. Ultimately, looking at this type of clutter is a constant reminder of failure and is very depressing for people" says Barbara Reich. "Picture that gym equipment as a toxic, undermining friend, waiting in silent reproach for you to open the basement door. Why keep it in your space? 

People who hang on to aspirational clutter", adds Star Hansen "are clinging to both the past and a future, idealized version of themselves. In other words, everything but the present. I tell clients to ask themselves, 'Does this item fit the life I am living right now?'" she says. "Commit fully in the current life that you're in. If you're a mom with three kids and never wear those expensive stilettos gathering dust in the closet, sell them on Facebook and get a cute pair of sneakers for the school run. If you haven't used that bread machine since you bought it 10 years ago, give it to someone who will. It's OK that you never got around to making bread. That's what grocery stores are for." 

Rethinking our legacy 

If you're still reluctant to pare down and declutter, a highly effective motivator is to picture your loved ones shoveling out your teeming house after you're gone. Author Margareta Magnusson was struck by this thought after enduring the deaths of her parents with her and her husband subsequent frustration with sorting through their possessions. In her international best seller 

'The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter' Magnusson maintains that people should start thinking about death cleaning right about the time that they start contemplating their own mortality which tends to be in your in midlife. "Death cleaning" may sound morbid, but it's not necessarily sad. Magnusson says the process is a reminder of who you are and how you see yourself, and it provides clarity on what you'd still like to do with your life. It also keeps you flexible for life changes such as downsizing a house or relocating for a job. She urges us to involve others when purging, to advise and hold us accountable. If you're wavering on something, she writes, a helpful thing to ask yourself is, "Will anyone be happier if I save this?" Often the answer is no. Your dusty box of Saved by the Bell VCR tapes and collection of garden gnomes might be meaningful to you but not to anyone else. As Magnusson writes, "A loved one wishes to inherit nice things from you, not all things from you." 

Keeping what matters most 

We all know this, but it's worth repeating: happiness is derived from your relationships with loved ones and the experiences you have. It doesn't come from stuff. In fact, studies have found that people who are focused on materialistic interests like buying more and more things are at higher risk for being anxious, being unhappy and having low self-esteem. How, then, do we determine what items are truly valuable? Hansen says to "look for 'connecting items' things that connect us to our purpose, items that connect us to our loved ones or things that bring us joy" as she describes them. "You can tell if something falls into this category if it makes you feel a sense of freedom and enthusiasm."

All the experts say that when people conquer the chaos, they feel lighter to the point of giddiness. More important, they're markedly less stressed. Tidying up is life changing: gets you more sleep, frees up extra time, amps productivity, gets you and or your family out the door faster, helping you feel more in control. It gives you a fresher, cleaner space. In my world it prevents arguments when I'm not frantically hunting for my keys. Having an orderly home can boost your social life, some people are so ashamed of their jumbled homes they stop inviting friends over. 

It can even improve your eating habits: a 2013 study by the Association for Psychological Science found that people who worked in a well-organized space were twice as likely to reach for an apple over a candy bar than those who worked in messy spaces. Being in a clutter-free room doesn't mean you have to live in a vast, cold space though either.

"I think being organized has this false connotation that your home must be austere, void of meaningful belongings and perfectly put away at all times," says Levy. "That's not it at all." Instead, she says, it means having a serene nest, a calm, restful place to catch your breath, think and pay attention to what's important in life. It helps you be the best version of yourself.