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Cluttering Harms Your Brain: 14 Easy Methods to Prevent It

Get rid of clutter and your brain will function better.

Key points

  • Clutter reduces the efficiency of the brain.
  • Clutter can be external or internal. Both are detrimental.
  • Clutter can be reduced or eliminated quickly and easily.
Photoschmidt / Dreamstime
Source: Photoschmidt / Dreamstime

How often have you looked at a pile of laundry in the living room, dirty plates in the kitchen, or unpaid bills on your desk and thought, “I’ll take care of them later; they’re unimportant.” Maybe to you, but not to the giant vacuum cleaner between your ears: your brain.

You may have read that the brain contains more neurons than all the sand grains on Earth’s beaches. “Quite impressive,” you say, patting your head until you remember it allowed you to write $1200 on a check instead of $12.00 while you watched a rerun of Law and Order. Although there may be many reasons for your error, clutter is the primary suspect. Clutter—multitasking in this example—diverted the concentration you needed to be accurate.

Some argue that a disorganized mind produces clutter, while others believe cluttering causes disorganization. Regardless of the outcome of this "Which comes first?" debate, you can begin 14 methods today that will reduce or prevent clutter.

What Is Clutter?

When we think of “clutter,” images of a hoarder saving 1960s newspapers appear. But cluttering takes many shapes. Clutter is simply the accumulation of “stuff,” from a few used plastic cups to dumpster quantities of old magazines. It can consist of useless objects as well as persistent memories.

How Does Clutter Affect Processing?

It’s been estimated that the brain takes in about 11 million pieces of information per second. But here’s the kicker: It can only process 40 to 50 bits per second. How does it “choose” the bits it will process? One theory is that it selects what’s most prominent. Another is that it finds disorder and tries to impose order on it to run more efficiently.

Regardless of which explanation applies, clutter—regardless of its size—asks the brain to sacrifice some of its precious 40 to 50 bits per second needed to understand what you are reading when a pile of dirty laundry enters your visual field against the background of Saturday Night Live blasting from the TV.

What many people don’t realize is that the effects of cluttering can be outside of their awareness, either because it is subtle or hidden. It's like a pebble in your shoe. It may not be so annoying that you will remove it before you start hiking; you may not even be aware of it. But after a few miles, it will make your outing less than pleasant. There are two types of clutter that can affect processing: external and internal.

External Clutter

External clutter is stuff outside of your body that can gum up the workings of the brain. An example is the two-month-old pile of unopened bills on your desk. It can be just a few utility bills or so many that they look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It’s not the size of the clutter that gives it importance but rather the effect it has on your thinking.

That two-day unopened letter from the IRS may have a greater effect on your ability to drive than the mountain of three-month-old utility bills that cover your kitchen table.

6 Suggestions for Getting Rid of External Clutter

It’s usually best with any change program to start with what’s easiest. Your choice.

  1. Keep the environment orderly. Bills in one place, magazines in another, etc.
  2. Touch it once. When clothes come out of the dryer, they go directly into drawers.
  3. Keep what you don’t need out of sight. Place what you don’t immediately need out of your visual field.
  4. Finish one uncompleted project a day. Start with the easiest one to perform.
  5. Don’t start a new project until at least one old one is completed. Complete a project regardless of how simple it is.
  6. Spend only a limited amount of time each day reducing clutter. Start with 5 minutes and build up to 30 minutes.

Internal Clutter

Internal clutter involves experiences or projections that roll around in your mind and result in you doing something regrettable. For example, after receiving an “if I was you...” criticism, you substitute a half-cup of salt for sugar in a recipe you have used for 20 years.

Some of the issues causing internal clutter are long-standing and may require the guidance of a professional counselor. But most are the result of the normal, everyday consequences of living, such as being annoyed you forgot your marketing list, thinking of what you could have said differently in an argument with a friend, etc.

In my counseling, I’ve found internal clutter more difficult to trim down than external clutter. And, yes, some clutter—like that IRS letter—can be both.

8 Suggestions for Getting Rid of Internal Clutter

  1. Take a physical break between different cognitive activities. Walk, run, bike, or play a musical instrument.
  2. Divide long or difficult cognitive activities into separate units. Take a physical or meditation break between units.
  3. Meditate. Any form of meditation done every day for 5 to 10 minutes will reduce clutter.
  4. Get adequate sleep, nutrition, and hydration. Think of your brain as a muscle.
  5. Become more accepting of differences. Be less judgmental.
  6. Avoid music while performing cognitive tasks. Music, for most people, interferes with cognitive tasks. If you need music while writing, reading, etc., keep the volume low.
  7. Perform cognitive tasks in a quiet environment. When reading, try to find the quietest place possible.
  8. Identify a distracting issue and deal with it. If you can't resolve emotional issues on your own, seek the help of a counselor.

The Takeaway: The brain doesn’t attach a “social value” to clutter or its most exaggerated form, "hoarding." That's the province of the "mind." Your brain operates in accord with its hardwiring. Reduce or eliminate clutter, and it will thank you by functioning more efficiently.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Goldberg, S. (2023). Preventing Senior Disorders: How to Stay Alert Into Your 90s and Beyond. Lanham, MD: Roman and Littlefield.

Understanding Unconscious Bias. NPR. July 15, 2020.

GYÖRGY BUZSÁKI. How the Brain ‘Constructs’ the Outside World. Scientific American. June 1, 2022.

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