Mess makes Stress: Declutter and the Mind

messy desktopBy Emma Kolakowski

Clutter represents more than an inconvenience. It has a real physiological effect on the human brain, to such an extent that even seeing clutter can cause the stress hormone cortisol to spike. 

What is Clutter?

Clutter has a multitude of co-mingling causes — anxiety, stress, guilt, and simple busyness explained Kara Desmond, a professional organizer, in a webinar (available for replay). Major life events, such as the birth of a baby, moving to a new home, or an emotionally traumatic event can also cause clutter to spike. Clutter is different from either hoarding or collecting, as it is less severe and more common than hoarding; and is characterized by disorganization, as opposed to the order and display intrinsic to collectors. 

Desmond also explains clutter as something beyond occasional physical messiness. Clutter can be physical, but Desmond also warns about the dangers of digital and emotional clutter. Digital clutter occurs when photos, screenshots, old emails, and the latter are left to languish on devices, still within the user's perception, and therefore able to distract. Emotional clutter, despite its name, is still tangible. Desmond defines it as holding onto objects because of sentimental reasons.

Clutter negatively impacts the human brain, and may even have a more severe impact on the brains of women. Looking at clutter, and the associated cortisol spike, also triggers anxious avoidance behaviors. And so the problem of clutter feeds on itself — the more clutter there is, the more stress it causes, and the harder it is mentally to resolve the issue.

The human brain has trouble focusing while in the presence of clutter because of the number of different objects, like how multitasking lowers focus. This diminished focus also makes it harder to deal with clutter because the brain keeps jumping from item to item, with no clear place to start.

How to Declutter 

Fortunately, after spending two years as a professional organizer, Desmond has gathered a number of strategies to resolve clutter, and therefore the underlying issues of stress and lack of focus that clutter can promote. Desmond warned that organization does not come naturally to everyone, and that shifting your mindset around cleaning and organizing may be necessary. Organization is a life skill, like cooking or doing laundry. It is necessary to maintain a functional space, but not everyone was taught the skill of organizing in their youth. People have different levels of difficulty when it comes to parting with things. 
Take a moment to calm  breathing before or during decluttering, in order to mitigate the physical effects of seeing clutter, such as the aforementioned cortisol spike and the associated heart rate increase.
Desmond is a proponent of decluttering all at once — blocking out a specific chunk of time, and working on an area until it is completed, rather than chipping away at the mess. She argues that it is necessary to declutter a space all in one go in order to find duplicate items and spot trends of the frequency of use of various items. In order to accommodate this potentially daunting approach, Desmond swears by three main tips.

  1. Go into your decluttering with a plan. Know the bounds of the area to be worked on, and make sure that you will not be interrupted or distracted. Have a plan for where you are going to donate items you no longer need, and when you will do so. She also cautioned against rushing out and buying cute, magazine-worthy organization bins and solutions unless you have already determined the necessary dimensions.
  2. Sort the items as they are removed. Categorize them if applicable — if decluttering a pantry, sort all the baking ingredients and accoutrements together as they are removed. Keep a box to stash miscellaneous items that belong elsewhere in the home, and address it later.
  3. Be honest with yourself when deciding whether or not you need something, Desmond says. Several of the most common reasonings behind holding onto things: "I spent good money on this," "It still works," “I might need this,” and the like. But how often do you actually use the item, regardless of its condition or price? Space is valuable, according to the professional organizer. If an item is not going to be used, it is merely taking up that space.

Desmond’s Quick Tips

After giving these central tips, Desmond reiterated the mental effects of clutter and organization. Without clutter, focus improves, stress lowers, and energy increases. Keeping a space decluttered is merely a matter of maintenance. At the end of the presentation, Desmond took questions from attendees, resulting in a handful of useful miscellaneous tips:

  • Fully utilize vertical space in small areas
  • If parting with an unused family heirloom is difficult, find a family member to whom it may mean more
  • Bills, receipts, and the like only need to be kept for a month or so. Separate your mail at the door, right when you receive it. As for class notes, Desmond asks, how likely are you to consult paper notes rather than looking something up on the internet?
  • Avoid impulse buys by leaving the item in an online shopping cart and revisiting it after several days

 

More Information

Women's Networking Association in conjunction with the the WorkLife office was privileged to host a webinar led by MSU alumnus and professional organizer Kara Desmond. This webinar, which originally aired on February 4th, 2021, is available online as a valuable source of insights into clutter and the mind. Over the course of the webinar, Desmond covers what clutter is, its effects on mental health and ability, simple decluttering solutions, and the mental benefits of being organized.

For more of Desmond's decluttering insights, find her online at https://www.utterlyuncluttered.com/. The Metro-Detroit area organizer also has an Instagram page, @utterlyuncluttered, filled with inspiration and suggestions. To see past webinars and learn about future ones, visit the MSU WorkLife Office at https://worklife.msu.edu/webinars.