The piles were everywhere. Magazines, mail, school papers, kids' artwork, books- there wasn't a level surface anywhere in our house that didn't have "stuff" on it. And every time I walked by one of these piles, I could feel myself tensing up and the cortisol levels in my body soaring.
I tried to stay on top of it, but it seemed like every time I cleared out one pile of stuff, something else immediately took its place. It got to the point where I dreaded birthdays and holidays because of the influx of new stuff I had to manage.
Scientists from Cornell and UCLA have studied the effects of clutter on our well-being, and they are in agreement that clutter causes stress. In the nine-year UCLA study scientists found evidence that mothers, in particular, felt overwhelmed by a cluttered home and were more likely to describe their home in negative terms.
I can relate to these findings. Oftentimes when I’m home, I feel:
It was obvious that we were getting nowhere on solving our clutter problem. Then, one day (while I was hiding from our clutter via my computer screen), I stumbled onto Joshua Becker’s website, Becoming Minimalist.
There he shared a story about cleaning out his garage one Saturday, ignoring his kids, and coming to the realization that he was putting more value on his possessions than on spending time with his kids. He talked about simplifying his life, getting rid of junk he didn’t use, and making room for more meaningful activities. When he offered a 12-week online course called Uncluttered, I jumped on it.
One of the first things I learned to do during the course was to define my “why.” In other words, why did I want to embark of the process of decluttering my home? I drew a colorful brainstorming web and kept it pinned up for the entire twelve weeks. I wanted to:
It was pretty amazing how that piece of paper motivated me to keep chipping away at boxes and bins for all those weeks.
Another thing I learned while going through this process is that the hardest part of it was making decisions. Some people say that every piece of paper hanging around your desk is a decision waiting to be made. I think that’s true for the rest of our clutter, too.
That’s why we’d spend hours “decluttering” and not see any progress. We were always left with the things that we were reluctant to make a decision about.
There are some guidelines for making decisions when it comes to clutter. Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is famous for her suggestion to hold an object in your hand and ask the question, “Does this give me joy?”
Other guidelines suggest asking yourself, not whether you might use an item in the future, but whether you have used an item in the last two years. If not, pass it along. I ask myself whether I want to take time in the future to deal with it again. The answer is usually no.
As a last resort, if you just can’t decide on some items, put them in a box. Label the box with what’s inside and the date. If you haven’t looked at the box for a year, there’s a good chance you can get rid of it.
At the end of doing Joshua’s course, our house was definitely less cluttered and easier to clean. We did feel calmer, and we were able to enjoy being home more than usual. Yet, we still struggle with having too much stuff and with letting go.
When I’m feeling stressed, though, I know one thing for absolute certain. If I spend an hour getting rid of what I don’t use and don’t need, I will feel better. And I never miss the stuff that’s gone.
Carter, Sherrie B. “Why Mess Causes Stress: 8 Reasons, 8 Remedies,” Psychology Today, March 2012.
Feuer, Jack. “The Clutter Culture,” UCLA Magazine, July 2012.
Kondo, Marie. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Ten Speed Press, 2014.
Vartanian, Lenny R., Kristin M. Kernan, and Brian Wansink. “Clutter, Chaos, and Overconsumption,” Environment and Behavior, 2016.