How many times do you place a pile of mail down on the counter to sort later? Or place clothes over the back of a chair, shoes in a pile by the closet door, work next to a bedside table? It isn’t odd to find piles of clutter in various places throughout your home and office, especially if you work hard all week and just want to get off your feet at the end of a long day rather than sort through materials.
These little piles can add up quickly, and clutter, despite never being entirely difficult to clean up, never seems to get cleared away until you decide to do a true deep clean. But what you might not be aware of is the negative effects clutter might be having on your brain- in particular your mental focus and ability to think and perform.
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How Does Clutter Happen?
Don’t confuse clutter with hoarding or having too much of any kind of useful item. Although those types of things can result in clutter as well, clutter is more defined by a disorganization of materials. Eventually these things are forgotten about because they aren’t located in a useful area.
Clutter can happen for any number of reasons: you have a convenient place to put things on but no system of organization to put it away, you have too many of any one thing, you purchase or save materials to use later and forget you have them, or you have a hectic schedule and little time to think about spatial and time management. Any one of those things can result in a build up of clutter despite your best intentions.
How you manage your day can also play into the build up of clutter. If you work hard all week, the last thing you want to do is think about organization when you get home. Weekends can get hectic as well as you take care of things in order of importance, such as kid’s sporting events, laundry, maybe even a part time job. The last thing you worry about is the pile of clutter that has been sitting there for weeks. Afterall, it’s been weeks right? What’s one more?
How Clutter Affects Your Brain
The biggest drawback of being surrounded by clutter on a regular basis is the negative impact it has on focus and concentration skills. Whether at work or home, it doesn’t take long at all to start to see a delay in these processes. You brain is constantly processing what you are seeing, hearing, feeling, and thinking, and it can easily become distracted by visual and mental clutter as it tries to disseminate where it all belongs.
Frustration, stress, anxiety, and mental fogginess are all signs of clutter effects on the brain. When you have things vying for your attention, such as problems that arise concerning organization, as well as media notifications (more on that below), it can even lead to a depressive state over time. Common issues that come with the ‘clutter effect’ include:
Lack of Space to Relax
People who view their homes as a retreat from a busy lifestyle may find they are unable to relax in this space when it is cluttered. Thoughts of what to do with it most likely invade any relaxing state you are trying to reach, creating anxiety and stress rather than peace.
People who are feeling the stress of clutter and struggle with relaxation are less likely to make good decisions that require self-control– such completing daily chores, picking up after themselves, or making good eating choices due to feelings of being out of control.
Poor Mental Health
Mentioned multiple times is the stress, anxiety, and even depression that can come with clutter and the associated feelings of lack of control. This extends to cluttered areas at work, that may raise blood pressure when you are trying to find something or process information when surrounded by an unorganized setting.
Delayed Creative Thinking
It is hard to problem solve or think creatively when your emotional or physical state is being taxed. Your mind becomes cluttered with the overstimulation of clutter and it doesn’t take long to experience lags in creative thinking and writers block.
How you perceive yourself, other people, and the space around you may become skewed. Studies have shown that human connections become ‘muddied’ in that the brain does not recognize human emotion as readily when clutter becomes a problem. This can lead to poor self esteem, as well as disrupt close relationships.
Age-related memory loss is tied to clutter due to the brain’s inability to work through the neural networks in order to process properly. Short-term memory loss is often associated with physical and mental clutter, with studies pointing towards improvements in even some of the worst cases of dementia and alzheimers related to a clearing of clutter.
Ways to Cope with Clearing Out Clutter
Obviously, having a mental awareness of clutter can lead you to decide that something needs to be done about it. Suggested below are ideas of how to start this process, but you have to first get your mind in a state to begin. Pay attention to the following steps to help you through the process of clearing out clutter:
- Diffuse essential oils that help with focus and attention. Bright citrus scents, evergreens, and lavender are helpful.
- List your areas of clutter and order of goals and don’t try to get it all done at once. Make a manageable set of goals by day, such as getting clothes hung up.
- Split up large areas of clutter into more manageable tasks.
- Create a system of organization. If you are placing things where it is convenient rather than where it belongs, then you need to figure out how to make them one and the same.
- Ask for help. There is no shame in asking somebody for their ideas and help in getting organized.
- Take time out if you feel overwhelmed and use your list to check off completion so you have a visual of your efforts.
- Get rid of unnecessary distractions you have immediate control over, such as media notifications.
- Make smart eating choices and get enough sleep to allow your body and mind to heal so you have the energy and mental capacity to know you are making strides in your efforts.
Types of Physical Clutter and What to Do With It
As mentioned above, clutter doesn’t mean it is a pile of invaluables. Most clutter simply needs to be put away properly. Generally, it is categorized into types of ‘piles’ that can be easily dealt with. Don’t worry, nobody is asking you to ask your items if they bring you happiness and then purge them all into one big pile of trash or garage sale items. If you have kept around most of these items for this long, chances are you need to simply reevaluate their use and decide where they belong.
Lack of Accessibility
Many times we pile up mail, makeup, clothing, books, and other items simply because we do not have easy accessibility to where they belong. This might be due to poor planning or just a bad layout of an office space, foyer area, or closet.
What to Do
Research organizational solutions for storage, desk tops, and closets. This might be a larger project overall and need to be done with small goals in mind, but you want to find accessibility second nature so you easily place items where they belong instead of what is most convenient.
Piles of work papers, junk mail, old biles, magazines, newspapers, and things in need of repair (such as a shirt that has lost its button, broken toys, etc) add up quick. Although you may have some useful items in these piles, they often are forgotten about even when placed in plain site.
What to Do
Sort through work and mail to keep from missing anything important and through the rest away. Unless you want to donate magazines to a school or art center, let those go to if you have already read them. Newspapers are great table liners, compost great in the garden, and work for starting fires so be sure to get them where they will best be out of the way if you plan on using them.
Broken items that you can fix should be taken care of. If you forgot about it and don’t plan on using it, go ahead and throw it out as well. Otherwise, figure out how to get it fixed so it can be used.
Bargains are awesome, especially when they are delivered right to your front door! Box subscriptions and add-ons at brand name stores are all the rage anymore to get you to spend more and try products you may, or may not, love. It doesn’t take long, however, for these ‘extras’ to add up and create clutter.
Although you may find some amazing products and deals this way, consider in advance how to take care of items you may not like and how to store them.
What to Do
The great thing about subscriptions and brand name add-ons for discounted prices is that they generally are quality items. If you have items you know you won’t use, consider putting together little kits for homeless shelters if they are hygiene products, or gifts if they are makeup and lotions.
Throw away items you may have used but not liked, and have a place to easily access those you do so you use them and not forget about them when you place them out of site.
Find a great steal at the local grocery store and now you have enough soup to last a year? Love a certain cut of the shirt so you bought one in every color? There is nothing wrong with stocking up on food items when they have a long shelf life, or getting a steal on clothing, but you do need to remember how your own personal tastes may look a year down the road and consider if you truly need that much of anything.
What to Do
Before buying more than one of anything, be sure it is something that is going to be used. Certain foodstuffs with long shelf lives and paper products are generally good products to stock up on, but avoid anything that is not regularly used in your cooking or baking to keep it from getting lost in a pantry.
As for clothing, surplus is easy to donate at any time, and consider only picking out one of your favorite anytime you are prompted to get more. This is true of anything you end up with a surplus of whether it be crafting, cleaning supplies, etc. Also, make sure you have a place to store it so you are aware of how much you have at any given time to avoid stocking up on items you may already have.
These types of items generally surround your own aspirations to create or participate in something. Sporting equipment, crafting supplies, gardening items, saved boxes to make your kids a fort… these all are common purchases that may eventually be laid to the wayside due to changes in interest, time, or lifestyle. Reconnecting with them is a possibility, especially if you ‘forgot’ they were there and want to put them to good use.
What to Do
If you have lightly used sporting products, consider putting them on consignment if you know you won’t use them again. And consider renting equipment the next time you want to try something new.
As for other items, if they are something you know you will use, consider creating an organized space where they are more easily remembered so you can use them. Otherwise, crafting and gardening items, boxes, etc can always be donated to local schools, children’s hospitals, or even retirement communities.
We have a tendency to hold onto items that have sentimental value. These items remind us of events, people, places, and perhaps have an emotional history attached to them. Often, they are stashed away or placed in random places for you to find a later home for.
What to Do
These items have a home with you for a reason. Putting them on display is a great way to be able to showcase their meaning to you. Small items work well in shadow boxes and display cabinets, while larger items may look well on high shelves or bookcase tops. If you simply don’t have the space or time to deal with them, but do not want to part with them, pack them away safely in a storage container so you can get them out of the way until you do have time.
Don’t think clutter is only what you can see and touch, it also can be lurking on your computer desktops, social media accounts, and phones. Just like your office desk or home, you need to organize your accounts and files electronically for easy access. Also- get rid of any apps or links you keep open that you don’t use often. You can always download them for a specific event to use when needed.
It’s not just the visual clutter on a screen that can create stress, it’s the constant reminders you may be allowing for your many accounts. Social media ‘dings’ and sounds that tell you of activity is something competing for your attention that can aid and abet the problems you may be experiencing with focus and attention.
These interruptions not only disrupt your train of thought, over time they delay your ability to switch between tasks and keep a strong working memory. It also can activate the area of your brain associated with addiction which creates patterns of disruption that can severely affect your focus, and often leads to anxiety and stress. This is especially true in younger, developing brains.
Turn off your notifications unless work or appointment related, and plug your phone in in areas that are out of your site to keep you from reaching for it on a regular basis. Parents, take control of screens with parental apps and be aware of any changes in your children’s attention span to see if it is related to electronic use.
If you have allowed clutter to enter into your life, chances are you suffer from some form of inattention and stress because of it. The important thing is to recognize it and make a plan to become more organized and help cut down on the habits you have that allow it to continue. Too much clutter, and constant exposure to it can lead to even worse mental and physical ailments over time, so it definitely is worth taking control of.
If you have any questions or comments, please let us know below. And, as always, please share!