Mind the Mess: How We Stop Noticing Everyday Clutter

Clutter blindness may be holding you back more than you know.

Posted Jan 14, 2021 | Reviewed by Matt Huston

Keeping a tidy work environment can influence mood and productivity in many ways. The result of working from home, as many of us are doing now due to COVID-19, is that we have to reside in our homey workplaces, with more mess piling up in shorter amounts of time. However, there are reasons why we might not even notice the clutter and mess that slowly builds in our living area/workplace.

One main reason is that we are so accustomed to and easily habituate to our environment, and in some ways that can help us focus. For example, you might not notice the hum of the air conditioning or refrigerator in the background or intermittent construction noises and the sound of traffic. Research has shown that people stop noticing things in their environment that they see every day—even a bright red fire extinguisher.

This attentional blindness may also carry over to the clutter and mess that is around our home office or living room. This means that we stop noticing our clutter, so much so that it can accumulate without us noticing it, even if it is in plain sight every day. As a result, people develop “clutter blindness” and this phenomenon may hold us back more than we know, as it can work at an unconscious level.

Clutter is often very personalized, such that people feel comfortable with the clutter around them, but only if it belongs to them. However, other people may notice the mess, making for different points of view when it comes to seeing or not noticing the clutter. This can be a source of tension in couples when one person’s mess goes unnoticed by the culprit but is an eyesore for the other. 

It may be helpful to have other people serve as “clutter consultants” (a concept made popular by Marie Kondo and others), as they can take a fresher perspective (without the attentional blindness) to help declutter. Having someone else simply question why you have something, and if you use it often enough that it needs to be within arm’s reach, can help you decide the location that it should occupy (or if it still needed). Sometimes it is much easier to move/clear/clean and get rid of things when they are not your own.

Thus, a cluttered desk or drawer may be perfectly fine to the person who created that clutter, as they feel they can still find things among the haphazard system they created. Often people feel uncomfortable when other people start moving and organizing things from the “clutter collection” that was created over the course of months or even years. One’s own possessions have value, importance, and emotional attachment that makes it hard to part with them.    

Although people can feel comfortable amidst their own clutter, simply having clutter at home can be stressful and can be associated with depression and anxiety. It may be a two-way street, in that when people are depressed or anxious, one is then less likely to part with possessions, leading to more clutter, which makes them feel even more anxious and out of order. Either way, the clutter accumulates.

Decluttering can have a calming and peaceful effect (especially once it is done), and some evidence suggests that those with a clear and clean work environment may be more creative and productive (perhaps because they spend less time looking for things!). 

Overall, it is useful to weekly (or at least seasonally) take stock of one’s inventory of clutter, especially while you are working from home but also living in your workplace. You may want another person’s perspective, as they are not blind to what you see every day and will spot the clutter that you no longer notice. Also, removing clutter may help you focus. Some balance between mess and mindful organization can help us stay healthy, happy, and productive.  

Facebook/LinkedIn image: thodonal88/Shutterstock