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Can Decluttering Improve Your Mental Health?

Can Decluttering Improve Your Mental Health?

Most of us have at least a little clutter around us – whether it's a messy desk, disorganized or overstuffed cabinets and drawers, or too many items with no real use or permanent place. But how do you know when clutter is taking a toll on your mental, emotional, and even physical health?

"Clutter isn't just the stuff on the floor. It's anything that gets between you and the life you want to be living" - Peter Walsh

Scroll through social media or do a quick internet search and you're likely to find dozens of accounts, programs and processes dedicated to helping you live a less cluttered, more organized, simplified, and even minimalist life. If you find yourself stopping to learn more, chances are you have some issues with too much clutter. Other signs that clutter is occupying too much of your life and keeping you from the things that really matter include:

  • You have several broken, obsolete, or unneeded items in your home. This includes clothing that no longer fits or is outdated. These items likely haven't been touched in months – or even years.
  • You are constantly misplacing items, or are unable to locate items when you need them. Often, this means buying replacement items for those you know you already have…somewhere.
  • You keep buying more stuff to help you organize your clutter, or even pay for storage space to stow your growing pile of items.
  • Certain parts of your home are unusable or inaccessible due to clutter, such as overstuffed or blocked-off closets you can't open or a garage so full of boxes there's no room for your car.
  • You can't find any clear surfaces in your home. Every countertop, table, and even open space on the floor is piled high with mail, toiletries, books, or items that won't fit in a cabinet or drawer.
  • Your home is such a mess you can't remember the last time you invited guests over. Or, maybe you've let in a close friend or family member, only to have them offer to help you sort through and clean up your clutter.

If one or more of these describe your situation, you're not alone. 

No matter what the cause of your clutter, the fact is that it can be damaging your health and well-being on many levels. From creating hazardous spaces where tripping or falling items can cause injury, to creating tension among household members and even impacting your ability to focus or sleep, too much clutter is downright dangerous. But, the good news is that decluttering is possible, and the benefits are significant:

  • Decluttering helps restore confidence and feelings of control. When people feel like their life is out of control or they are struggling with some uncertainties, cleaning can be a way to assert some control in their life. Cleaning gives people a sense of mastery and control over their environment. In fact, a study by the University of Connecticut found that in times of high stress, repetitive behaviors such as cleaning and organizing gives people a sense of control during a chaotic time.
  • Less clutter can mean more energy and focus. Princeton University researchers discovered that clutter can make it difficult to focus on a particular task. The chaos that a messy home creates can impact your ability to focus. The clutter also limits your brain's ability to process information. If you're having trouble focusing on a project, you may want to try decluttering your workspace first. You might find that devoting just a few minutes to organizing your things and clearing away any mess may make it easier for you to concentrate and get your work completed. Limiting the number of possessions you own can have the same impact because it reduces the number of things vying for your brain's attention.
  • Less clutter can reduce anxiety. Clutter represents unfinished business to the brain, which can be highly stressful for some people. This fact is especially true when people have significant concerns complicating their lives. Clutter and mess can create more stress and anxiety, but by cleaning, organizing, and reducing the clutter, people are able to take control of their environment and create a more relaxing environment that helps them focus better on the important or urgent issues they need to face.
  • Decluttering can save money. Culling through and organizing your belongings makes it easier to know (and remember) exactly what you own. You might find items that were hidden and completely forgotten about – but still useful and necessary. And, you'll also avoid the need to buy replacement items because you can’t find what you're looking for. As an added bonus, many people find unused gift cards, unwanted items that can be sold, and lots of new wardrobe possibilities that may have been hidden from view for months.
  • A clean and decluttered bedroom helps promote better sleep. Clutter doesn't just disappear when we go to bed. People who sleep in cluttered rooms are more likely to have sleep problems, including difficulty falling asleep and being disturbed during the night. In fact, some studies have shown that the more clutter you have, the more likely you are to suffer from insomnia and other sleep disturbances. Decluttering your bedroom should be part of your regular sleep hygiene. Removing piles of clothes, stacks of books and magazines, work items, and everything else that doesn't belong in the bedroom may result in the best night's sleep you’ve had in months.


Getting Started

While decluttering and organizing sounds appealing to just about everyone, it may seem so overwhelming that many people just never bother to start. Try these tips to make it a bit easier to get going:

  • Start small. Set the timer for 15 minutes (or even 5 if 15 minutes is just too much) and focus on one specific task, such as sorting through the pile of mail on your countertop or clearing your vanity of old or unused products. You'll be surprised at how much you can accomplish in just a few minutes when you focus on one thing! Do this every day until it becomes a habit, and you'll likely find yourself extending your time period to 30 minutes or more when you see the results.
  • Enlist help. Ask a trusted (and non-judgmental) friend or family member for help. Having another person helps take some of the emotional weight of the clutter off your shoulders, plus you'll be able to do a lot more work in the same amount of time. If your budget allows, you might also consider hiring an organizational expert to help you out. But be prepared: that can be a tough and very emotional process. It might be especially helpful to have a friend to offer support if you decide to go that route.
  • Have a plan. Once you've sorted through your clutter how are you going to get rid of the stuff you don't need? Find a donation center or hire an organization to pick up your unwanted stuff right away. Organized or boxed clutter that remains in your home is still clutter – and it's not helping you out! Get rid of it quickly and move on. And remember, not all clutter is worth donating. Some junk is just that – and it needs to be thrown out with the weekly trash.
  • Start in the area that will make the most difference. If you can barely find a pathway to your bed and haven't slept well for months, the bedroom is the place to start. If you keep buying more toiletries and cosmetics because you don't know what you already have, start in your bathroom and vanity area. If you haven't seen the floor of the laundry room for months, start there. The point is to focus on an area that will bring immediate relief – and probably a lot of joy as well.
  • Keep it going. Decluttering and organizing isn't a one-time project. To keep things under control, you need to set aside time every day (ideally) or every week (at a minimum) to sort through any piles that are stacking up, discard or repair broken items, and make sure everything has a permanent place in your home. By spending just a few minutes each day, you can continue to enjoy your less cluttered, more peaceful, and much healthier home environment every single day.


This article first appeared in the February 2023 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter and was updated in August 2023.

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