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Why Mess Causes Stress: 8 Reasons, 8 Remedies

The mental cost of clutter.

Key points

  • Clutter in one's workspace constantly signals to the brain that one's work is never done.
  • Making a habit of cleaning one's workspace before leaving for the day can stop clutter from becoming a source of stress.
  • Mental clutter can be just as stressful, if not more stressful, than physical clutter.

Clutter can play a significant role in how we feel about our homes, our workplaces, and ourselves. Messy homes and workspaces leave us feeling anxious, helpless, and overwhelmed. Yet, rarely is clutter recognized as a significant source of stress in our lives.

Why does mess lead to so much stress?

  1. Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren't necessary or important.
  2. Clutter distracts us by drawing our attention away from what our focus should be on.
  3. Clutter makes it more difficult to relax, both physically and mentally.
  4. Clutter constantly signals to our brains that our work is never done.
  5. Clutter makes us anxious because we're never sure what it's going to take to get through to the bottom of the pile.
  6. Clutter creates feelings of guilt ("I should be more organized") and embarrassment, especially when others unexpectedly drop by our homes or workspaces.
  7. Clutter inhibits creativity and productivity by invading the open spaces that allow most people to think, brainstorm, and problem-solve.
  8. Clutter frustrates us by preventing us from locating what we need quickly (e.g. files and paperwork lost in the "pile" or keys swallowed up by the clutter).

Fortunately, unlike other more commonly recognized sources of stress (e.g., our jobs, and our relationships), clutter is one of the easiest life stressors to fix. Here are a few ideas:

  1. If clutter has invaded your entire house, don't tackle the job alone. Get the whole family involved by starting with a room everyone uses and making each person responsible for a section. If you're on your own, start with one area at a time and finish de-cluttering that area before moving on to another. This will give you a sense of accomplishment as you see your successes little by little.
  2. Create designated spaces for frequently used items and supplies so that you can quickly and easily find what you're looking for when you need it. However, try to make these designated spaces "closed" spaces, such as drawers and cabinets. "Storing" things on open shelves or on top of your desk does not remove those visual stimuli that create stress and lessen the amount of open space that your mind "sees."
  3. If you don't use it, don't want it, or don't need it, get rid of it. You can toss it, recycle it, or donate it (one person's trash is another person's treasure), but don't keep it. If you use it, but only rarely, store it in a box in the garage (or if it's your office, in a high or low place) to leave easy-access space for things you use more often. Also, put a date on the box. With rare exceptions, if you haven't opened the box in a year, whatever is inside is probably not something you need.
  4. When you take something out of its designated space to use it, put it back immediately after you're finished with it. Sounds simple, but it actually takes practice and commitment.
  5. Create a pending folder. A pending folder helps you clear off your workspace while at the same time providing you with a readily accessible folder to centralize and easily locate pending projects.
  6. Don't let papers pile up. Random papers strewn everywhere can be Public Enemy #1 when it comes to stressful clutter. We're inundated with mail, flyers, menus, memos, newspapers, and the like. The key is to be conscious of what you bring and what others bring into your spaces. Go through these papers as soon as you can, tossing what you don't need and storing what is necessary in its proper place.
  7. De-clutter your primary work space before you leave it. It's normal to pull things out while you're working in a space, but make a habit of cleaning off your workspace before you go. Not only will this give you a sense of closure when you leave but it will also make you feel good when you return to a nice, clean space.
  8. Make it fun! As you're going about cleaning things out, put on some of your favorite tunes. The more upbeat, the better! Not only will you enjoy the tunes, but the time will also pass faster and you'll probably work faster than you would without the music.

Finally, clutter doesn't only apply to our physical environment. Mental clutter can be just as stressful, if not more stressful than physical clutter. Although there is an entire post (at least) of suggestions I could offer for mental de-cluttering, one of the most basic and useful tips I can offer on mental de-cluttering is to focus on one project at a time without distractions such as cell phones, emails, and other electronic gadgets. You'll be amazed at how much more you can accomplish when you focus on a project without allowing anything else to get in the way. And while I recognize that's hard to accomplish in this day and age, it is doable—and, I think you'll agree, well worth the effort.

© 2012 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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