5 Mental Mistakes That Contribute to Clutter

Why you're not the minimalist, neat-freak you aspire to be.

Posted Mar 04, 2019

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Tidying up your space looks so easy and rejuvenating when you see people do it on TV! However, there are some mental barriers to clearing clutter that can get in the way of following through with addressing your own excess stuff. Once you understand these psychological stumbling blocks, you can develop a plan of attack.

1. You see other people's mess, but not your own.

It's easy to look around your home and see the mess belonging to your spouse, roommate, or children. You adopt the stance that you're waiting for other people to clean up their stuff (which you see as the bulk of the problem) before you clear your tiny contribution.  

Solution: Try being the change you want to see in the world. It might inspire other people in your household to tidy up, or you might realize that more of the mess was your's than you guessed.

2.  You underestimate the cognitive drain of making decisions about clutter.

People often dream of a visit from Marie Kondo or Gretchen Rubin to help them clear their clutter. Why? Part of the reason people feel overwhelmed by clearing their clutter is that doing so requires dozens (or hundreds) of small decisions, which is highly taxing. Clearing clutter also requires planning and sequencing, which are other high-level cognitive functions that are very mentally draining. If you're mentally exhausted from your workweek, tasks that require a great deal of decision making are probably the last thing you have the energy for.

Solutions: 

  • Deciding to throw an item away can be less mentally taxing than deciding where to store an item, since "Should I throw this away?" is just yes or no, whereas deciding where to store an item is an open-ended question. 
  • I also like having an interim box labeled with a date three months in the future. If you're undecided about whether to keep an item, put it in that box. Whatever is still in the box, unused, at the date on the box will be thrown out. This lessens the pressure of decision making while saving you from needing to remake decisions about those items in the future.

3. You underestimate your capacity to tolerate short-term psychological pain.

A universal principle in psychology is that people tend to underestimate their capacity to tolerate short-term experiences they expect will be cognitively or emotionally difficult. You probably have much more capacity to withstand unpleasant emotions than you give yourself credit for! For instance, maybe you think about clearing out your linen cupboard weekly, but never do it, or you need to clear items that have emotional significance (like baby gear). People often particularly dread confronting regret and guilt about mistake purchases and other items that have been accumulated, but not used (e.g., too small clothing, unwanted gifts, swag, or free stuff you took just because it was free, kitchen gadgets your ideal self uses, but your real self doesn't, or food that expired without being consumed).

Solutions:  

  • Try tackling a cleaning/tidying task you've been putting off for 10 minutes, without the expectation you'll finish. If you have a smart speaker, the timer function on these can be very helpful for short clutter-cleaning blitzes. 
  • Articulate out loud what your psychological stumbling block is. For example, "I need to tidy my drawer, but I feel anxious about where I will find space for everything in it." Or, "I need to throw away clothing I never should have purchased." Stating the problem and your emotions clearly and out loud can help your brain recognize that the task is within your capacity to cognitively and emotionally cope with.

4. You consider regret over throwing items away, but don't consider the downsides of hanging onto items.

In the past, I've had an issue with keeping cardboard boxes from online shopping. I think, "I might find a use for that," but in reality, I could easily hang onto five boxes I never use for every one box I repurpose or use for mailing out. That tradeoff isn't worth it, even though having boxes when I occasionally need them is useful. 

Solutions:

  • Consider the costs of hanging onto items. You can try using basic math to do this, as I have in the example above. How likely is it you'll regret throwing an item away? If it's only 10-20 percent, does that make it worth hanging onto the item?
  • In my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, I write about a famous test from behavioral economics called the "Overnight Test." It works like this: Let's say you have an item you could sell for $40. If, overnight, that item was magically replaced in your home with $40 in your wallet, would you spend the $40 to rebuy that same item, or would you have a different priority? You can use this test to counteract the endowment effect, which is our tendency to overvalue items we already possess. You don't need to actually sell every item you assess using this test (since selling low-value items sometimes isn't worth the time and effort that takes). You can use the Overnight Test just to mentally understand when you're hanging onto an item that doesn't have much value to you.

5. You tend to use all-or-nothing thinking.

It's easy to become inspired by cleaning books and TV shows. You watch them and feel pumped about changing your habits, but then in your real life, you have many competing priorities and perhaps family members who aren't on board with your new passion for tidying.

Solutions:

  • If you've got the time and energy for a huge purge of your whole home, by all means do that, but if you don't, there's no reason to beat yourself up about it. Most people don't.
  • Aim to improve by a small percentage rather than attempting a complete makeover. For instance, aim for your linen cupboard or wardrobe to be 20 percent less full, or your counter to be 20 percent less cluttered. When you take this approach, you'll start to see where you can achieve easy wins, you'll accumulate success experiences (which will help keep your motivation rolling), and you'll also learn as you go about what changes and routines for keeping tidy are sustainable for you in your real life.
  • If you're still feeling stuck after reading these tips, and you're prone to anxiety, read these explanations of how anxiety can get in the way of getting things done (and what to do about it).