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  • Writer's pictureKevin Connors

The Science Behind Organization: How Decluttering Boosts Mental Well-being

Updated: Apr 30


Women calmy enjoying coffee

The effects of disordered and cluttered spaces on mental well-being has been well-documented for decades, with psychologists discovering in case study after case study that the state of our surroundings has a dramatic effect on mental health and long-term happiness and tranquility. In their article No Place Like Home: Home Tours Correlate With Daily Patterns of Mood and Cortisol, authors Darby E. Saxbe and Rena Repetti discovered through the use of linguistic analysis software (Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count) and the analysis of 60 dual-income spouses’ that the frequency of words like clutter, disorganization and messes that the higher use of these words correlated strongly with the increased cortisol levels in women in their homes. Cortisol is a hormone released for the expressed purpose of stress release, leading the authors to the conclusion that the association of these terms in a person’s daily life was directly related to increased stress.


Before we dive into the effects of clutter on stress levels, it is important to define decluttering and its scientific relationship to stress levels, mood, productivity and quality of life.  Decluttering is defined by Oxford Dictionary as “to remove unnecessary items from (an untidy or overcrowded place)." There's no better time to declutter your home.” The words necessary items will be discussed in detail later. For now, let’s consider these items as no longer serving a purpose and holding little monetary value. This will be important as we discuss unnatural or unhealthy attachment to physical possession. 


The psychological effects of clutter include, but are not limited to, stress, anxiety, shame, and guilt. These are all emotions that have seen a spike in the populations all over the world during and after the pandemic, but were also gradually climbing worldwide prior to 2020. The pain of these emotions is palpable.

A Yale University study used fMRI to show that for people who have hoarding disorders, discarding items causes actual pain in areas of the brain associated with physical pain. The areas of the brain that were activated are the same areas also responsible for the pain caused by slamming a finger in a door, stubbing your toe or burning skin on the stove.



Based on such finding, it is easy to see how additional scientific evidence demonstrates a direct relationship between decluttering and stress reduction. A study by the University of Connecticut found that “by removing or controlling clutter, we can directly reduce the stress that stems from the mess which can help us to feel happier, less anxious, and more confident in ourselves.” The study further found that improvements in the following metrics were significant in the majority of subjects:


-Boost your mood and help improve your physical health

-Sharpened focus at work and during other high level performance activities

-Lowered Anxiety

-Increased energy while in “productivity mode”


These studies have led to additional finding that feelings of empowerment are increased through decluttering. Not surprisingly, this has a high correlation to an increased feeling of control over one’s life, decreasing feelings of helplessness and despair that were often caused by the visual stimulus that the clutter created. One’s environment has been found to have a distinct effect on performance of tasks, as the orderly arrangement of objects in one’s environment directly affect the order that is carried out in these tasks. The simple conclusion is that the order in one’s surrounding often leads to more focused and organized thought processes in one’s performance. 


The promotion of relaxation has also been shown to increase one’s clarity of mind. Practices like meditation have been consistently proven to increase mental clarity in subjects when practiced consistently. In his book “The Art of Smart Thinking,” Dr James Hardt explores the benefits of “increasing theta and alpha wave production in the brain.” He argues that “these two brain frequencies are the most important frequencies for enhancing creativity and problem-solving abilities.” Both theta and alpha wave production have been closely linked with increased mental clarity and mind relaxation.


It’s not just the presence of clutter but the consistency and volume that can affect our well-being. Mental health experts agree that disorganization and clutter have a cumulative effect on mental health. Because our brains value order, even if we do not prioritize it, constant visual reminders of disorganization decrease our cognitive resources, reducing the ability to focus. Visual distractions like clutter increases cognitive overload and this visual chaos reduces our working memory. Simply put, sustained clutter makes you dumber, or at least, less able to recall critical information. 


Studies showed that the severity of clutter in people with hoarding disorder was even more pronounced. Effects of clutter on information processing deficits in individuals with hoarding disorder. The Journal of Effective Disorders study Effects of clutter on information processing deficits in individuals with hoarding disorder evaluated 34 individuals with hoarding disorder, with participants randomized into cluttered or non-cluttered conditions and asked to complete various neuropsychological tasks of memory and attention. Their results “revealed that hoarding severity was associated with difficulties in sustained attention. However, individuals in the clutter condition relative to the non-clutter condition did not experience greater deficits in information processing.” While this was a relatively small study interns of the subject population, other studies have found that there is a strong correlation between hoarding disorder and ADHD, complicating the treatment of subjects with often severe emotional attachment to possessions.


It’s not just the processing of information or sustained ability to maintain one’s attention that suffers either. Researchers have found that orderly environments increase convention and healthy choices, which improve life by allowing people to follow social norms and boost their own well-being. Once again, empowerment and decluttering seem to go hand in hand not just with the processing of information, but better judgment that leads to healthier choices in one’s life. Research by Dr Libby Sander has found that “our physical environments significantly influence our cognition, emotions, and behavior, affecting our decision-making and relationships with others.” As a professional organizer, I have witnessed first-hand the damage that mental disorders like hoarding have caused to the relationships of those afflicted. The inability to invite guests to one’s house as a result of the embarrassment of the shame and guilt associated with the disorder increase the feeling of isolation that the hoarding itself has already ingrained in one’s mind. 


Increased obesity is also closely associated with Hoarding Disorder. In a study by Cornell University, researchers studied 101 female undergraduate students that were places in a standard kitchen condition or in a chaotic kitchen condition. Subjects were then directed to recall and write about a moment when they felt  in control or  out of control. Participants were then given cookies, crackers, and carrots to taste and rate in terms of taste and overall satisfaction. Subjects in chaotic kitchen conditions and the not-in-control mind-set consumed more cookies than did participants who were in the in-control mind-set condition. The chaotic environment did not impact on consumption of crackers or carrots. This may explain how our environment affects our impulse control, particularly around the food choices that we make. 


The word mindfulness has recently increased in the lexicon to describe an overall presence in one’s life. The cofounder of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) Zindel Segal describes seven drivers of old habits of thinking, concluding that the only way to change your behavior is to re-train your mind.

 

  1. Living on “automatic pilot” 

  2. Relating to experience through thought rather than your senses

  3. Dwelling on and in the past and future 

  4. Trying to avoid or escape memories of unpleasant experiences 

  5. Needing things to be different rather than accepting your current state as it exists now

  6. Seeing thoughts as true and real instead of creating stories about how things should be

  7. Treating yourself harshly and unkindly through negative self-talk


While not everyone experiencing these old habits can necessarily be categorized as having a mental disorder, an unawareness of these mental habits can lead to problems with mood, cognition and judgement that increase stress and often disorder in our lives.



In a study published by the American Psychiatry Association in 2010, one population of subjects were subjected to sad films while the other watched more optimistic films. The researchers found that the participants that watched the more optimistic films “experienced mindfulness-based stress reduction and had significantly less anxiety, depression and somatic distress compared with the control group” that watched sad films. The correlation here between mood, anxiety and stress reduction can easily be correlated with people that have these same experiences of sadness due to their disordered environment. 


How can we use decluttering as a means to increase mindfulness, reduce stress and increase the feeling of control and clarity of mind? Here are a few tips to get you started:


  1. Wash every dish when you’re finished, nothing goes in the sink, only the dishwasher.

  2. Clean as you go. Don’t leave your next task prior to cleaning up the last.

  3. Have a place for everything. A home for every object is the only way to maintain a decluttered space long-term. 

  4. Start decluttering where you are. You don’t need to go find a cluttered space to get started, begin wherever you are. This is part of being mindful and present.

  5. Make your own hygiene a priority. You deserve to be as clean as your surroundings.

  6. Wipe the kitchen down after a meal. It only takes a little time to leave the kitchen as clean as you found it.

  7. If a floor is dirty, take some time to sweep or mop. It takes less time than you think and sets a tone for the cleanliness of the rest of your spaces.

  8. Clean the toilet bowl. When the grossest places in your house are the cleanest, the rest of the spaces are easy. 

  9. Keep rags and scrubbers close by. Don’t put cleaning supplies further away from where they are used. This increase the time and stress of decluttering.

  10. Keep flat surfaces clear of anything that is not decor. Felt surfaces can easily become a platform for the collection of clutter.

  11. Take care of your tools as if they were part of you. The condition of your supplies will set the tone for the state of your home.

  12. Be gentle with those around you. Take responsibility for your messes. Always leave your spaces as clean as you found them.


Understanding the relationships between our clutter and mental well-being is an important first step to improving how you live and function. It’s important to start with the cause of the disorder and work from there. Be mindful of your surroundings and their affect on your anxiety and stress levels. Just as exercise has a direct impact on mental health, so too does the order of the objects around you and how you emotionally relate to attachment of the objects in your home. 










 






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