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Is Clutter Controlling Your Life?

4 strategies to move from clutter to clarity

 Photo Messie Syndrom Artbeitzimmer. Abaluga/Wikimedia Commons.
Source: Photo Messie Syndrom Artbeitzimmer. Abaluga/Wikimedia Commons.

Brenda rushes around in the morning, running late because she can’t find her keys. James roots around on his cluttered desk, trying to find the report he needs in time for an important meeting. Anna has her lights and phone cut off when she forgets to pay her bills because they’re buried under piles of clutter.

What all these people have in common is clutter—a pattern of disorganization that can stress us out and undermine our home lives. University of New Mexico psychologist Catherine Roster and her colleagues see the home as an essential source of security that reflects our identity and values (Roster, Ferrari, & Jurkat, 2016). After a busy day at work, we come home seeking refuge and renewal. Home is where we renew ourselves with relaxation, nourishing meals, sleep, time for solitude, and time with those we love.

Yet too many American homes have become disorganized, stressful environments, overwhelming their occupants with clutter. This problem is due in part to our consumer culture. Advertisers try to convince us that we need more of their products to be healthy and happy. But being fulfilled is not the same as being filled full, the mindless accumulation of material objects.

An extreme case of this excessive accumulation is “hoarding disorder,” listed under Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders in the DSM-5, the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. People with this disorder have “persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of their actual value” (American Psychiatric Association (APA), 2013, p. 247). Their possessions are piled up all around them, crammed into their living space to such a degree that they can hardly move around in their rooms and cannot use the kitchen or even sleep in their beds because of all the clutter.

The DSM-5 notes that “Approximately 80-90 percent of individuals with hoarding disorder display excessive acquisition. The most frequent form of acquisition is excessive buying” (APA, 2013, p. 248). Hoarding disorder now affects 15 million Americans and has led to 12-step programs, such as Clutterers Anonymous and Messies Anonymous (Belk, Seo, & Li, 2007; Roster, Ferrari, & Jurkat, 2016).

Most of us don’t go to such extremes. Yet, as York University psychologist Russell Belk and his colleagues have found, disorganized homes subject us to chronic stress, “a disorganized life and a fragmented and chaotic sense of self” (Belk, Seo, & Li, 2007, p. 134). This disorganization can lead to personal chaos and conflicts when we cannot find things or even function effectively.

If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed and stressed at home and having trouble finding things, you might want to begin a misogi practice, adapted from an ancient Shinto ritual of purification. When I trained in aikido, we would pause for a few moments of misogi breathing, releasing all the stress and commotion of the world outside to become more centered for our practice. Some martial artists in Japan still practice misogi harai by plunging into a mountain stream or standing under a waterfall in the heart of winter, performing ritual chants to release discordant attitudes and regain inner harmony.

I adapted the ritual of misogi to our daily lives in my book, The Tao of Womanhood (Dreher, 1998). Essentially, misogi is a mindful exercise of discernment and release. It does not mean rushing around doing compulsive chores. Performed mindfully, the simple steps of putting our lives in order can become rituals of empowerment.

A misogi practice can lead to greater peace and clarity. You can begin by taking charge of the paper in your life, not letting bills, magazines, and newspapers pile up, putting things away, and keeping your living spaces uncluttered. You could also begin sorting through your closet and drawers to release what no longer serves you, giving yourself space to breathe and room for new possibilities. Here are some strategies (adapted from Dreher, 1998):

  • Practice misogi with the paper in your life. Don’t let unopened mail pile up. Sort it when it comes in. Put bills in a special place, correspondence in another. Toss junk mail in the recycling bin, and recycle old magazines and newspapers after you’ve read them.
  • Bring misogi to your living room. Pick up personal items before you leave the room. If you have a family, ask them to do the same. Misogi does not mean waiting on others. It is your affirmation of beauty and order at home, clearing away clutter to create greater peace of mind.
  • Bring misogi to your closet. Do you have clothes you never wear? Begin sorting through your closet, but don’t try doing this all at once. Spend a few minutes going through one section at a time, taking out clothes that no longer “fit” your body, your style, your life. Put them in a bag to donate, practicing compassion for others as you simplify your life. Closet misogi will save you time getting dressed and give you a new wardrobe as you discover clothes you’ve forgotten. You can maintain greater order by donating an old item of clothing whenever you buy something new.
  • Use misogi with social media. Do you mindlessly check social media multiple times a day or let texts and email continually interrupt you? Research has shown that too much electronic communication produces stress. It can keep us on edge, prevent us from spending time with our own thoughts and communicating with people we care about (see Van Deusen, 2019). Set boundaries that work for you. You can turn off automatic notifications and check email once you’ve finished a period of important work. You can turn off your phone during meals and limit time on social media. When you need a break, instead of checking your phone, try going outside to look at the sky.
Diane Dreher photo
Source: Diane Dreher photo

Beginning your own misogi practice can cultivate greater peace and clarity in your life.


This post is for informational purposes and should not substitute for psychotherapy with a qualified professional.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). DSM-5: Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 5th Edition. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association

Belk, R. W., Seo, J. Y., & Li, E. (2007). Dirty little secret: Home chaos and professional organizers. Consumption, Markets and Culture, 10 (2), 133-140.

Clutterers Anonymous,

Dreher, D. E. (1998) The Tao of womanhood. New York, NY: William Morrow.

Messies Anonymous,

Roster, C.A., Ferrari, J. R., & Jurkat, M. P. (2016). The dark side of home: Assessing possession ‘clutter’ on subjective well-being. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 46, 32-41.

Van Deusen, M. (2019). Stressed in the US: 12 tools to tackle anxiety, loneliness, tech addition, and more. Los Angeles, CA: Story Merchant Books.

Photo: Messie syndrom artbeitzimmer. abaluga Wikimedia Commons. GPL (]