How To Stop Clutter From Ruining Your Mental State

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Chaos is powerful, and we are just tired mortals who've had a hard week. Here's why it's worth it, and 6 ways to make tidying up a habit (play audio)

Working in psychiatry, I’ll sometimes visit a patient’s home if we have concerns about them. Walking in the front door I immediately get a sense of their mental state. Primarily, I assess for clutter.

If their house is tidy, I’ll have less concern about their ability to function. Tidying requires motivation, discipline, and careful decision-making of where items should go. If the house is a cluttered mess, it prompts further investigation.

Our mental state can affect how we manage our environment. When work or social commitments fill every waking minute, our living space may turn into a chaotic mess that reflects our cluttered mind. Personality influences how we manage our environment too. Some need obsessive orderliness, while others are less bothered by clutter.

But our environment can also affect our mental state. When your apartment gets cluttered, it creates mental tension; a feeling of unease that things aren’t as they should be. The brain has to work harder when it carries out activities. It must try and remember where we put things, and if it can’t remember, it must go looking for them.

This happens repeatedly, consuming energy and causing stress. Clutter gets stacked on clutter, and soon you can’t find anything. The idea of having to find something now creates anxiety that is countered with procrastination, and your productivity suffers. When your ability to carry out basic tasks like charging your laptop is hindered because you don’t have a clue where your charger is, you’re in trouble.

Aside from being unable to find things, clutter interferes with our attention in other ways. When multiple stimuli in your visual field compete for your attention, your brain has to work harder to stay focused. This consumes precious working memory, the same cognitive resource necessary to perform any mental task.

When we have the time and energy (and the mental faculties), we shape our environment according to our needs. We create spaces for specific activities and arrange items in a manner that makes these activities easier to carry out. Arranging your office is to project the intention “here, I will work”.

You proceed to lay out every item in a way that enhances your ability to work. The same applies to all living spaces. A tidy office makes working easier. A tidy kitchen makes cooking easier. A tidy garage makes parking the car easier. And a tidy living space makes life easier.

But there is an invisible force that is forever trying to disrupt this order. From tiny molecules to your cluttered living space, the universe tends towards chaos. When we tidy we apply order to the chaos and feel calmer as a result. But all too often we lack the time, energy, and motivation required. Chaos is powerful, and we are just tired mortals who’ve had a hard week. We all know how to tidy up, but sustaining order while managing all of life’s other priorities is challenging.

If you’ve had enough of the endless cycles of building clutter and intensive tidying, this article is for you. If you treasure your clarity of mind and find the clutter around you interferes with your focus, read on. And if you’re the type of person who tends to shove things in the nearest drawer, either because you’re too busy or can’t be bothered to put it back where it belongs — these tips are for you, kindred spirit.

A Cluttered Living Space Leads to a Cluttered Brain

Like most Western consumers who own more items than they know what to do with, I’ve been battling clutter all my life. I’d have brief victories of immaculate organization, followed by several months of defeat where clutter slowly filled my closets and drawers until it overflowed into all my living spaces.

I read Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”, but it didn’t help. Throwing out anything that didn’t “spark joy” meant getting rid of my toothbrush, mop, nail clippers, extension cords, and dozens of other boring yet essential items. Being surrounded only by items that instill joy sounds wonderful, but not if my teeth are falling out, my floor is filthy, my nails are hideously long, and I can’t find a plug for anything. I also didn’t have the time to go round thanking every item I used for being such a good sport. I needed something more practical.

Minimalism was appealing, but whenever I attempted it I found myself on eBay replacing what I just threw out in a very non-minimalist fashion.

While my apartment piled up with clutter, I was getting better at managing my life thanks to David Allen’s classic book “Getting Things Done”. If you’re into productivity porn, you’ll have heard of it. It combines ideas from Zen Buddhism with organizational principles the author had honed while working as a time-management consultant for corporate clients.

His theory was that keeping track of obligations without a system to manage them leads to “open loops” — unfinished mental processes that cause anxiety and interfere with our attention. An example could be organizing a friend’s birthday party; it keeps intruding on your thoughts and distracting your focus until you finally take action.

By having a system to manage these obligations, and trusting in that system, we can outsource our memory, and unburden our mind. “Open loops” are closed when we trust that our system will remind us of them at an appropriate time in the future.

Clutter represents a mishmash of “open loops”. When you shove something in the nearest drawer, you’re telling your brain “I don’t have time to deliver this back to its rightful place, so I’ll put it here for the time being”. This happens on repeat as items are dispersed throughout your living space.

Meanwhile, your brain is subconsciously trying to keep track of all these items. It may be able to remember where you left your keys, but God knows where the sticky tape is. Not only is your brain overloaded trying to keep track of everything, but looking for items takes attention, and time, away from the task at hand.

The Science Behind the “Open Loop”

We remember information about unfinished tasks better than completed ones. Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was the first to discover this. She observed waiters could recall orders before serving them, but promptly forgot them as soon as they were served.

This tendency to recall only unfinished tasks was termed the “Zeigarnik effect”. Though later studies have been unable to replicate her findings, similar research has shown the persistence of unfulfilled goals in our minds.

Masicampo and Baumeister from Florida State University performed numerous studies in this area. They found that when subjects were interrupted during a warm-up task, they underperformed in the second task and suffered “intrusive thoughts”. Their minds were stuck on the first task. But when subjects were instructed to note down plans on how they would finish the first task, they performed much better.

Though the human brain’s long term memory stores are vast, working memory isn’t. This limit was long thought to be seven “chunks’” of information, though more recent evidence suggests it depends on the nature of the information. This limited capacity may explain why those intrusive thoughts of sending your sister a birthday card or paying that bill might interfere with your workflow.

The brain tries to help us by retrieving unfinished tasks from long term memory stores and transferring them into our working memory. It often does this at inopportune times. And when we have dozens of unfinished tasks fighting for our attention, our working memory quickly becomes saturated, with little left for active tasks. Our brain continues to bombard us with notifications on unfinished tasks until we complete them, or put them on a to-do list.

We know that the sight of clutter overloads visual working memory due to the brain trying to decode the mess into recognizable items. But each item of clutter is also an unfulfilled task — the task of putting it back. Clutter is unpleasant to live and work in because it burdens our working memory with so many unfinished tasks it overwhelms us.

Since becoming a writer I’ve learned to appreciate the value of a clear mind. It’s essential to good writing, and without it, I could spend weeks unsure of where I’m going with an article. Through trial and error, I’ve found a way of managing clutter that works for me. Best of all, it only takes a few minutes a day to maintain.


Laying the Foundations

To do it properly, you’ll want to invest some time and effort in the beginning. Depending on how bad things have got, this could take a few hours or a few weeks. If you’re sighing at this point then feel free to skip ahead to the next section, where I talk about quick hacks you can implement today. But please, make a note to self that next time you’re doing your spring cleaning or moving house, come back and read this section.

Clutter forms when items aren’t put back in their rightful place. They may not have an agreed-upon place, which was the biggest reason I found my living space cluttered — I didn’t know where stuff was meant to go. The foundation of a life without clutter is to assign every item a designated place.

All too often we place items wherever there’s space to do so, out of sight out of mind. This leads to closets and drawers chock full of disorganized clutter. Melissa Maker, the host of the CleanMySpace YouTube channel and blog, calls these “clutter black holes”. As soon as we place an item purely to get it out of sight, the black hole is created.

To avoid living in a space full of “clutter black holes”, start going through each storage space and questioning the items in there. This is a big task, so do it when you have time to do it well. It will pay off, trust me. If you can’t do it in one fell swoop, you can set aside an hour here or there and do it gradually. Start with your immediate living space and the areas you use the most:

    • Open a drawer or cupboard, and ask yourself “Is everything in a place that makes sense, and will it be easy to find when I need it?” If not, start categorizing items. The best way if you have space is to lay out all the items on the floor. One by one, divide items into piles based on category.
    • If something doesn’t have an obvious category, put it in a “miscellaneous” pile. These items will later find a category or remain miscellaneous.
    • If you’re unlikely to use an item in the future, put it in one of two piles: charity shop, or trash.

Categorizing items is a fine art, no one ever knows where to put all those batteries and light bulbs. But what’s stopping you from making a “batteries and light bulbs” category? As long as it makes sense to you and other family members, who cares?

Make categories to fit your preferred style of organizing. Cassandra Aarssen, the author of “The Clutter Connection”, found broad categories and big containers with no lids helped her maintain order as it was easy to put things back. The contents of these containers were a bit jumbled, but it enabled her to stick to the system.

Once you’ve completed this laborious process, find the items you use frequently — almost every day. Recategorize these items into a “frequently used” pile. We’ll talk about what to do with them in the next section.

We also need to ensure that new items coming into our home are immediately assigned a place. Whenever buying something new, before you even order it, think “where will this item go?”

Now that every item has a home, how do we keep it this way?

1.“Frequent Use” Zones

Items we use every day have the most potential to become clutter. The tendency is to have these items lying around wherever we last used them. This is where “frequent use” zones come in: easy-to-access areas where items can be quickly placed out of sight when we’re done using them. When we need to use them again, it’s just as easy to get as if it were left out.

Mine’s a cupboard shelf, but yours could be a drawer or a closet — wherever is convenient. It should be very easy to access, so even when you’re busy you can put it back.

You may need multiple “frequent use” zones for different parts of your house. I have one in my office (for things like headphones, controllers, stationery), one in my bedroom (for important items like my wallet, sunglasses, keys), and one in my bathroom (for toiletries I use daily).

2. “Active Use” Zones

“Active use” is for things you’re actively using or that require action. My biggest source of clutter was clothing. If I couldn’t find the T-shirt I was wearing I’d just grab a fresh one, and repeat until T-shirts piled up everywhere.

Now I have a section of my closet for clothes that are in “active use”. If I plan on wearing them again in the next few days, they stay. If not, I either put them in the laundry or back in their rightful place.

I also have an “active use” section in my office for items requiring action. Here you might find things that need repairing, post that needs posting, or things to sell on eBay. This takes care of the clutter we purposely leave out because it needs action.

3. Create an Empty “for Sorting” Zone

Putting something back is an inconvenience, which is why items find themselves in random closets and drawers — it was more convenient at the time. The traditional advice is to put something back in its place whenever you’re done using it.

Great advice, but for me, this didn’t work. There were always times when I was too busy, tired, or lazy. It felt too time and energy consuming given the number of items I use. So I decided to batch these tasks by creating a “for sorting” zone.

Whenever you use an item and don’t have time to put it back where it belongs, just shove it in the “for sorting” zone. This effectively concentrates clutter into one small area that is out of sight. Like “frequent use” zones, it should be in an easy-to-access location. Mine’s a cupboard shelf. Instead of leaving an item out, I chuck it in the cupboard and deal with it at a more convenient time.

One of Marie Kondo’s strategies is to empty her handbag every time she walks in the door and put every item back where it belongs immediately. But when I’ve been out, the last thing I want to do when I get home is tidy up. Instead, I dump all my items in the “for sorting” zone and deal with them when I feel up to it. This brings us to how we maintain our now immaculately organized living space…

4. The Daily Declutter

Many find tidying to help clear their mind before a productive day’s work. But all too often, this task takes longer than anticipated, and we end up tired before we’ve even started the day. But when all the items that need tidying are in a single location, tidying is a lot quicker.

The daily declutter should only take a few minutes tops. All you have to do is empty the “for sorting” area and put each item back in its place. Do it whenever is convenient for you.

Depending on how quickly it fills up, you may even stretch it out to an every other day, or even a weekly declutter — the choice is yours. But make it a habit. Link it in with an activity you do anyway, like every time you have a shower, or before meditating. You can use the app to help form this new habit.

The daily declutter should only take a few minutes tops. All you have to do is empty the “for sorting” area and put each item back in its place. Do it whenever is convenient for you.

Depending on how quickly it fills up, you may even stretch it out to an every other day, or even a weekly declutter — the choice is yours. But make it a habit. Link it in with an activity you do anyway, like every time you have a shower, or before meditating. You can use the app to help form this new habit.

5. Label Your Spaces

After big tidy ups, we assume we now know where everything goes. But remembering dozens of categories and locations is difficult, especially if we keep changing them up. An item may once have had a perfect home when we were in tidying mode, yet found itself in a nonsensical place when we were in a hurry.

We need constant reminders of where things should go. So let’s label every drawer, cupboard shelf, and storage box with exactly what should go in there. Now every time you go to put something back in the wrong place, you have to oppose the label you’ve placed there. Who would do something so reckless?

Labels also give you the power to condescendingly tell family members “what does the label say? Then why is this item in here?” Essential if you have little clutter-makers in your house. And if you’re lucky enough to be able to outsource your tidying, your cleaner will know where things should go.

6. Reuse the Same Items

Clutter is far less likely to form when we reuse the same items. Having a favorite cup means you only have one cup to wash up. Why not also have a favorite piece of crockery that you use every time you eat? Imagine not having to unload a full dishwasher every day. Washing a select few items as soon as you’re done with them is a huge time and energy saver.

Apply the same philosophy to everything you use. Do you really need to change your clothes? Steve Jobs never bothered, and look what he accomplished. Why do you have so many pens? Just get yourself one good one and use it for everything, keeping a backup just in case.

The fewer items you use, the less clutter you’ll make. You may also begin to value these items more, with the side issue of having a hissy fit whenever someone uses your special cup/pen/black sweater.

Final Note About Clutter

Some artists find clutter inspiring. They see beauty amidst the chaos. This sounds like a fantastic excuse not to tidy one’s bedroom. Why is my room so cluttered, you ask? For inspiration of course.

If clutter does inspire you, then by all means feel free to let it build up every so often. But when you’re done painting that masterpiece or writing that novel, please, for the sake of your overburdened working memory, tidy up your mess.

Originally published in Better Humans.

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