Why Does Clutter Stress Us Out?

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Have you ever walked into a cluttered house and felt overwhelmed, stressed and even hopeless? Have you ever wondered why? I mean, it’s just a little mess. How can the misplacement of inanimate objects have such a profound effect on our mood?

Believe it or not, clutter, both virtual and real, is an energy suck. It absorbs our focus and attention, increases cortisol levels, saps productivity and creates anxiety. To put it in a word, clutter is stressful. Here are 5 science-backed reasons that explain why many of us find clutter so stressful:

Disorganization overloads our senses.

Ah, the sights, textures and less-than-ideal smells of clutter; there’s nothing quite like it. Clutter is constantly stimulating and overwhelming our senses. With our brains already on overdrive with all the multitasking we’re trying to do, there is just too much going on for our heads to process all at once. In fact, a study conducted by Princeton University confirmed that clutter negatively affects our ability to focus and process information. All that junk is practically screaming at you: I’m HERE! Look, I’m still HERE! I’m here, I’m, here, I’m HEEERREEEEEE! 

Messiness makes real relaxation challenging.

My bed is still unmade and my dog destroyed yet another innocent stuffed animal last night, so I made sure to work from my office today. Just looking at the disheveled state of my bedroom caused me to tense up. This is because in the back of my mind, I know I need to clean up at some point. In fact, clutter actually signifies to the brain that your work is not done. With something non-specific like clutter looming over you on your to-do list, it can be nearly impossible to relax—especially when you’re immersed in it.

Bad dog sitting on the torn pieces of documents

A cluttered environment makes you feel guilty.

Have you ever had unexpected guests pop in before you had a chance to tidy up? It can be a little embarrassing. And then the guilt follows. Here is where those pesky shoulds come into play: I should be cleaner; I should be a tidier adult. It’s incredible that the placement of inanimate objects can shame us so powerfully.

Clutter prevents productivity and agility.

Not only is clutter a mental hinderance, but a physical one as well. We’ve all had the experience of looking for something in a cluttered mess, being unable to find it and spending what seems like hours tearing through the house (only to find what you were looking for in the pocket of your winter jacket 6 months later). It is frustrating and stressful to be unable to find things in your own home, which is yet another reason why clutter is so incredibly stressful.

A lack of free space stifles creative thinking.

Without the space to think freely and creatively, you’re going to feel stuck and mentally stale. Creative thinking requires not only free, idle time, but also a physical space that is organized and focus promoting. Since disorganization acts as a huge attention suck, creativity usually suffers in cluttered environments.

Clutter is bad for most of us, but that doesn’t mean you need a pristine, empty desk in your office at the end of every day—not even Steve Jobs did that. But you want to make sure your clutter is manageable and meaningful. There is a difference between a working mess of ideas and a pile of stagnant clutter that overflowed from your junk drawer.

If your house often gets overrun by useless stuff with no real place to live, don’t get overwhelmed. Find dedicated homes for your most used items and start reducing the amount of unnecessary, clutter-causing stuff you do have. An easy way to do this is to get rid of one thing you do not need each week. Over time, you’ll whittle your belongings down to the manageable necessities without any real hardship. It also helps to keep your virtual world clean by organizing your desktop and deleting old, unread emails that are clogging your inbox.

And think, if you start now, you’ll be sitting pretty by the time spring cleaning rolls around!

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