You’ll Feel Better Without Clutter

Browsing Pinterest, I find myself absentmindedly pinning photos of neat, minimalist rooms, filled with just enough, and no more. Orderly shelves, neat cabinets, bare countertops, organized closets . . . something about this speaks to me. The harmony, peace, and tranquility that it represents resonate deep inside of me. I want that.

Then, startled from my reverie by a hair-raising screech from my toddler, I look around. Dishes are piled in the dish drainer, the refrigerator is covered with drawings and magnets, bookshelves are stuffed to the brim, and baskets of toys are overflowing. And I don’t even want to know what the dog just brought in and dropped on the carpet. My house is not dirty (well, except for what the dog just brought in), but with three kids, two adults, and six animals, there are signs of life everywhere.

Sure, I know this stuff all represents a life I love, but . . . does there have to be so much stuff?

I know I’m not alone in this. But what is the answer? Do we just muddle through the clutter the best we can, or subject our family to military-style inspections to keep the house shipshape? Do we rent a storage unit, or buy more organizing tools?

The power struggle between you and your stuff

The problem isn’t merely the amount of stuff in our homes, or our lack of organizational skills (although both may be a factor), but in the meaning and power we let our “stuff” have. Often without realizing it, we give possessions a disproportionate amount of our time and energy—leaving us with schedules (and lives) that don’t match our values. For instance, in the pursuit of a bigger house, nicer car, and all the latest gadgets, we may end up working longer hours or becoming selfish instead of spending time on things we would say really matter, such as our family or health.

In other words, as the saying goes, sometimes “we buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.”

It’s an exhausting pursuit to get—and then organize and maintain—a lot of possessions, and that may very well be why minimalism is a growing movement. According to Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus of theminimalists.com, “Minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.”

How clutter affects emotions

Human beings crave order and peace. Think about opening a closet. Would you feel better if stuff comes flying out because it’s packed in so tightly, or if everything is neat and ordered in its place? Which gives you more peace?

Having too much stuff—or stuff that is disorganized—can affect you mentally and physically. In a study in Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, a group of anthropologists, social scientists, and archaeologists found a link between an overabundance of household objects and the homeowners’ health. These crowded houses—termed “stressful home environments”—proved that clutter not only looks bad, it makes us feel bad as well.

Just as external chaos can lead to internal chaos, so can external peace lead to internal peace. According to Karen Reyes, a professional organizer from Kearneysville, West Virginia, “We feel better when our ‘castle’ is orderly, creating less stress. Anything that we are able to do to alleviate clutter brings a little more peace to our lives. Emotional baggage sometimes comes along with unorganized lives. It’s quite liberating to lose both.”

Once the process of reducing the excess gets started, you might be surprised at how it overflows into other areas of life. For example, a study by the Association for Psychological Science found that simply working at an orderly desk could promote generosity and healthy eating.

Decluttering looks different for everyone. Some are content in just purging duplicates and inessentials, while others cut to the bare minimum. Whatever your goals, keep these simplifying principles in mind:

  1. Approach it as a lifestyle, not a choice

You didn’t accumulate all that stuff overnight, so you won’t be able to get rid of it overnight either. It’s a process, a way of housekeeping, not just a weekend event. So be patient with yourself as you learn new habits of shopping, donating, and organizing.

2. Think of it as making room for more important things

You are making room for what you need and love by getting rid of what you don’t. “Having less stuff to think, worry, or even obsess about frees people up to focus on more important things in life, such as family, friends, religion, and hobbies,” says professional organizer Karen Reyes.

3. Put every item through the three-question test

Before buying something new, or while deciding what to keep of your current possessions, ask yourself:

• Do I need it?

• Do I love it?

• Do I have a place for it?

If not, bid it “a fond but firm farewell,” and don’t look back, says Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

4. Remember, more isn’t better; better is better

It’s the long-standing debate: quality versus quantity. When it comes to simplifying, the answer is to go with quality. Rather than buying multiples of lesser quality, invest in one or two high-quality items that are reasonable for your budget and time of life. More isn’t better; better is better.

5. Make list of what you want out of life

Do you want to travel more? Have more family time? Spend less time on housework? What possessions will (and won’t) help you toward that end? Keep those goals in mind as you organize and clean. When deciding what to keep and what to get rid of, make three piles: keep, donate (or sell), and trash. Follow through with each pile quickly. Otherwise, you may end up pulling things out of the give-away pile and bringing them back into your closet or kitchen.