Clutter makes me absolutely crazy.

My kids tell me I have OCD. The way I am constantly picking things up, sometimes losing their precious stuff (so why didn’t they just put it away themselves!?).

I find that my organizational frenzies calm my mind. The more clutter in my brain, the more peace I feel when I create harmony in my environment. Sure, it’s my sense of harmony, but that’s what matters. I find peace when I pick up, clean off, put away (neatly), and get rid of what’s no longer necessary–in the trash, the recycling, or a donation box.

Clutter in our personal environments commands our senses–we can’t help but see it, possibly trip over it, and not see what we’re looking for.

I like to think about clutter in the same vein as multitasking. The massive sensory impact of piles of stuff and dirt and mess needs space and processing by our brains. There is substantial science that shows the negative impact of multitasking on the brain–I wrote about this recently in the context of driving while talking on the phone. Scientists have shown that we’re bad at multi-tasking and are best doing just one thing at a time.

Clutter is information that must be processed by our senses, creating distraction that draws us away from the tasks we want to complete, for focused contemplation, or for peaceful wondering.

And clutter is stressful–sensory overload drives a very real stress response–this is what makes me crazy.

How Clutter Stresses Us

  • Clutter assaults our senses with unpleasantness.
  • Clutter overwhelms our senses, making us useless for other tasks.
  • Clutter leads directly to lost productivity.
  • Clutter snuffs out our creativity.
  • Clutter leads to overwhelm, anxiety, and confusion.
  • Clutter causes us to lose our precious things.
  • Clutter saps our energy.
  • Clutter makes us feel guilty and embarrassed.

Five Simple Ways to Deal With Clutter in Your Home and Workspace

  • Take no prisoners! One room at a time, one space at a time, one drawer at a time–scrutinize every object. Do I need it? Do I love it? If the answers are “no,” out it goes. On the spot: trash, recycling, donation box. Ignore sentimentality or worries about what it cost–only what you love and truly need gets to stay. The rest is distraction. Pass your unneeded stuff on to someone who can really use it.
  • Deal with those gifts and family heirlooms. Be honest with yourself about how you truly feel about them, in spite of the love with which they were offered or the value they were to your ancestors. In the end they are just things. Extricate yourself from the worry–the assumption–of hurt feelings by those you love, dead or alive, and remove these non-precious items from your life.
  • Scrutinize your workspace. Find yourself unable to launch an important project? Look for clutter in your workspace. How does it make you feel? Start there. Schedule decluttering time first. Clear it out, clean it, organize it.
  • Rearrange your stuff. Sometimes it’s the arrangement of stuff rather than the stuff itself. Can you make the room feel more open? Is there a place where you sit or stand that needs reconfiguring?
  • Deal with color and texture–these can be distractions as well if they’re unpleasant or irritating. Which colors and textures help you feel calm, invigorated, happy? You can paint the whole room, though adding just a few small objects with colors that inspire you can make a world of difference in your frame of mind.

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Resources:

Simplicity: The Fine Art of Doing Just One Thing. Karyn Shanks, MD. 2017.

The Cognitive Costs of Multitasking. Deane Alban. 2017.

KARYN SHANKS MD

Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-five-year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.

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