Every year over the Christmas holiday, I declutter and organize my kids’ rooms. I just can’t stand the thought of adding more clutter to their cabinets when they’re already filled to the brim with all that stuff.
I separate their toys, books, and clothing into one of three piles: for donations, friends with younger children, and, finally, that which is too damaged to keep at all. The process can take hours, but when I’m done, there’s a huge weight lifted as all the clutter finds a new home.
It’s no secret that clutter weighs on us mentally, and when it’s not dealt with, the problem only worsens. All that stuff can make us feel anxious and overwhelmed. And if it’s in our bedrooms, it can even keep us from sleeping well. Research has shown that those with cluttered bedrooms have more trouble getting enough sleep.
The Need to Declutter and Reorganize
Organizing and decluttering our space gives us a sense of control over our surroundings, says Jourdan Travers, psychotherapist and clinical director of Awake Therapy in New York City.
“Mess is stress. Humans have limited bandwidth, and it isn’t easy to focus on essential tasks when we are in messy or unclean spaces,” says Travers. “Given enough time that, stress can take a toll on us, making us feel bogged down by uncompleted tasks or other distractions.”
The research backs this up. A study published in the September 2017 issue of Current Psychology found that “clutter problems led to a significant decrease in satisfaction with life among older adults.” The study found that those who delay decluttering because of “indecision” end up with a mounting issue that weighs on their psyche.
Additionally, we reorganize for much the same reason that we declutter. The hope is that we’ll simplify the space with less stuff before we put in the effort to reorganize it.
“Reorganizing and decluttering allow us to tangibly feel the effects of taking control, responsibility, and ownership of ourselves and our spaces,” says Travers.
Why Do We Hold Onto All That Stuff?
Sometimes, we have trouble parting with our stuff. It can start to mount up because the task of decluttering and reorganizing can start to feel overwhelming and intense. There are various reasons why we hold onto stuff, some of which are valid. If something is a family heirloom, for example, and has deep meaning, we may not want to part with it.
Maybe it’s that outfit you hope one day you’ll fit into. Maybe the items were expensive, and even though you don’t wear them anymore, you hate the idea of parting with them. If there are some items you have trouble parting with, try getting rid of the easy stuff first.
“The real question is: What does this item do for you? There’s not only a cost associated with each item we possess; a weight is also attached to it,” says Travers. “Is the weight of keeping that item worth it?”
When Clutter Becomes Hoarding
It’s important to note that there’s a difference between having trouble letting go of your clutter and hoarding, which is a psychological disorder that’s listed in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).
According to the American Psychological Association, a hoarding disorder is when an individual has “persistent difficulty getting rid of or parting with possessions due to a perceived need to save the items.” When you try and part with items, it may cause significant mental distress, and the build-up of clutter may disrupt your ability to live your life because your living space is overloaded with too many items.
Those with a hoarding disorder may also have other impediments like stress or a mood disorder that are adding to the burden and making it difficult for them to take control.
“Something doesn’t come from nothing,” says Travers. “A common denominator with messiness and hoarding is that individuals struggling with cleanliness and organization typically have other issues happening in their lives.”
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