Time to Declutter

Moving through life, most have a tendency to accumulate “stuff.” You may have drawers full of pictures and mementos, a closet full of clothes you no longer wear or a kitchen full of utensils you can’t remember how to use. It is a common human condition to acquire “things” from places you’ve been or events you want to remember.

You may often crave more room or space to live in, which may mean you’re looking for a larger home every 10 years. But, what if you could create more in your life for yourself and your family by living with less?

This is the basic premise in a popular movement toward minimalism. The minimalist movement began in the 1960s in the art world, when sculptures and paintings began to focus on the art medium and not an overt expression of emotion or symbolism.1 Today, minimalism has become a tool to help you live with greater freedom in your life.2 It is not a set of rules or restrictions, but rather an approach to help reduce a consumer culture that breeds a need for goods.

According to The Minimalists, Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, minimalism is quite simply “a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important — so you can find happiness, fulfillment and freedom.”3 Therefore, you define how much you want to live without and enjoy greater freedom. There are several psychological reasons to declutter your life and bring greater organization to the “stuff” you continue to own, and simple strategies to make the process go smoothly.

How Clutter Affects Your Brain

You may think the decision to buy an item is based on logic, but far more often it is grounded in an emotional response that marketing professionals understand how to trigger. For instance, the mere act of touching an item may increase your emotional attachment to the item and your desire to purchase it.4 In one study researchers found the longer you hold an item, the more you’re likely to pay for it. Apple stores are built on the premise that if you can hold, handle and use their product, you’re more likely to purchase it.

As you introduce new items into your life, you assign a value to the item, making it more difficult to give it up. Assigned to an item are memories, hopes and dreams, which means that if you get rid of them you may have failed.5 Getting rid of the skinny jeans you haven’t worn in years may mean you’ve given up hope of ever fitting into them again. However, the excess you keep around has an impact on your ability to focus and process information.

A team from Princeton University found those working in a physically cluttered environment experienced greater stress and had a reduction in performance.6 Another study from Los Angeles found mothers whose homes were filled with toys and clutter experienced cortisol level spikes at home that dropped after they left.7 These studies, and more, demonstrate clutter has a similar effect on your brain as multitasking, overloading your senses, increasing stress and reducing productivity.

However, clutter isn’t necessarily reserved for the physical world. Your computer desktop, phone’s home screen or the incessant notifications from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat can also clutter your mind space and trigger similar responses. There is an emotional cost to living in a cluttered space, or working on a messy desk. TreeHugger founder Graham Hill moved from a million-dollar mansion to a 420 square-foot apartment.8 In an interview with The New York Times he talked about his decision, saying:9

“I like material things as much as anyone. I studied product design in school. I’m into gadgets, clothing and all kinds of things. But my experiences show that after a certain point, material objects have a tendency to crowd out the emotional needs they are meant to support.”

Clutter assaults your mind with stimuli, distracts your attention, inhibits creativity and productivity and prevents you from locating what you need quickly.10 Unfortunately, this signals your brain that your work is not done, making it difficult to relax. Psychologist Audrey Sherman, Ph.D., writes frequently about the links between physical chaos and mental depression and anxiety.

She says,11 “Although it appears to be a mundane sort of thing, I find disorganization and chaos to be one of the biggest problems reported by depressed and anxious individuals.” Fortunately, unlike other commonly recognized sources of stress, this may be one of the easier stressors to fix, and you may experience the benefits far quicker.

Living With Less May Bring You More

This is not an esoteric, philosophical argument for pitching your worldly goods, but rather a realistic and functional result of learning how to live with less. For instance, a decluttered and clean kitchen is likely to make it easier to eat healthier foods at home and enjoy cooking.12

Removing clutter also reduces the amount of places dust particles can cling, improving your overall indoor air quality, and may improve your allergy symptoms. Dr. Robert London, a New York-based psychiatrist, believes it may also help you feel better about yourself and help you to tackle deeper problems, saying:

"The clutter leads to anxiety, embarrassment, family stresses — some kind of despair. When you relieve the problem and learn to throw things away, you feel better. You'll find theories of why people do this. They might have unconscious guilt, so they assuage that guilt by carrying out these rituals."

Another benefit to decluttering your home and life is that you have more time to spend on the things that truly matter to you. When you don’t spend time maintaining the things you own, you have more time to spend with the people you love or on achieving your goals. The gift of your time is the most valued and important thing you can give to the people you love, as it strengthens your relationships and builds memories that last a lifetime.

By reducing stress and improving your focus you may also find your productivity and creativity improve,13 leading to greater improvements in your financial situation. Decluttering your environment at home and at work improves your mood and gives you a sense of accomplishment.

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