SLO Life Magazine: Making Room

Originally published in the December/January 2021 issue of SLO Life Magazine.

How much of a strain can clutter and disorganization put on our mental health?


A clean and organized home is what many of us prefer to show our guests, quickly concealing the obligatory messes of everyday life before their arrival. But what if your home was, by default, clean and organized? Besides boosting confidence when an unexpected guest arrives, a tidy space may provide a slew of other positive neurological and psychological benefits. On the flip side, we’ll explore some of the darker hindrances you may not know are perpetuated by a home in disarray.

Libby Sander, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior of Bond University, states that, “our physical environments significantly influence our cognition, emotions and subsequent behaviors, including our relationship with others.” Therefore, how organized, or disorganized, our home is can impact not only our own mental health, but our relationships with who we share our homes with as well.

How exactly can an organized home impact our mental health? Let’s dig in.

The Cons of Clutter

You know that feeling, when you’re rushing out the door to get to work on time, or drop the kids off at school and you can’t find your keys? It’s a panic-inducing, irritating situation. Moments like this exemplify what living in a consistently cluttered space is like: disorienting, distracting, and stressful.

As Erin Doland, of Princeton’s Neuroscience Institute states, “when your environment is disorganized or cluttered, it limits the brain’s ability to focus and process information, [which] affects decision-making, attention, and memory retrieval.” Doland goes on to simplify the neuroscience behind a cluttered space, “Overall, a messy environment triggers a stress response in the brain.” That is the essence of what we feel in that moment we are frantically searching for keys in drawers, cabinets, on desks; quite simply, stressed.

A 2009 study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin focused on how homeowners descriptions of their homes related to daily patterns of mood and cortisol. Cortisol is the stress hormone in the brain, which helps in triggering your “fight or flight” response. This study showed home environments perceived as stressful correlated with “flatter dinural slopes of cortisol, a profile associated with adverse health outcomes, and increased depressed mood.” Those with self-described restorative homes experienced the opposite, “steeper cortisol slopes…and decreased depressed mood.”

Dr. Eva Selhub, M.D, points out further negative impacts clutter can have on our mental and physical well-being when it comes to our relationships with others: “For couples, clutter can create tension and conflict.” Not only does clutter increase stress and the possibility of depressed mood in our own lives, but also it can have a lasting negative impact on the relationships with the people closest to us. Dr. Selhub goes on to state “disorganization can lead to shame and embarrassment…creating a physical and emotional boundary around you that prevents you from letting people in.” Not only can clutter pile up around you physically, but it can provide the ideal habitat for creating emotional walls.

Considering all the negative mental and physical affects clutter has on our brains, we can also hypothesize the positive affects by looking towards opposites. If a cluttered environment induces stress, an organized environment would encourage relaxation. A disorganized space creates tension, escalates conflict and builds emotional walls, while a clean and tidy space promotes confidence, emotional well being and openness.  That sounds like the life we want to be living!

So how do we get there? First, we must take the initial steps to get organized.

Ways to Get Organized

No need to wait for spring-cleaning to tidy up and organize your space. Kick the New Year off right by dedicating some time to de-cluttering. Doing so may provide some of the psychological benefits of living and working in a neat space.

Professional organizers agree to best way to get organized is to start small. Beginning in a designated area narrows focus and encourages completion of the project. Adrian Egolf of the Clean Slate Living Company, suggests a basic three-step method to tackle any cluttered space, “Cull, Sort and Match.” Egolf goes on to explain, “First, get rid of anything you don’t need, use or want…second, sort through what you have left, putting [similar] things together.” Egolf reinforces the notion of starting small, “use cull, sort, and match on one shelf in your closet, or one drawer in your kitchen and see where it takes you.”

Susan McQuillan, MS, RDN, suggests a firm method of decision-making during the process of tidying up, “when you’re organizing…decide what to do with each [item] before moving on to another. Have separate bags on hand for trash and charity donation, placing each item in the appropriate bag.” Making decisions about whether to keep or get rid of items can feel paralyzing and may be one of the reasons our things accumulate in the first place. McQuillan’s method encourages organizers to face those decisions and make them, a process that can be easier with practice.

Professional organizer, author, and Netflix star Marie Kondo is internationally recognized for her KonMari method. Pick up an item and ask yourself if it “sparks joy”. If yes, keep it. If no, thank the item for serving you in your life and let it go. Kondo’s method provides space in the organization game for sentimental items, ones that, though may serve no functional purpose, still “spark joy” in your heart. Here, living a tidy life is not just about having an organized space for essential items but about being selective with what items you give space to in your home. The KonMari method emphasizes joy above all, shaping the home into an environment that brings out the best in you.

Go With the Flow

No matter how diligent your organization, the messes of everyday life will inevitably creep in. However, with an efficiently organized space that best fits your lifestyle and every day needs, clean up should, in theory, become more accessible, less stressful, and therefore, more likely to happen. When everything has a place tidying up simply becomes an act of returning items to their rightful homes, instead of a scramble to make a home for everything in the moment. Adrian Egolf of the Clean Slate Living Company suggests a simple daily rule to maintain organization, “If you can do it in 60 seconds or less, do it now.”

“Our physical space, and the objects that fill it, give us, and others, a sense of who we are, what we value, and what we have accomplished,” Dr. Sally Augustin, PhD, environmental psychologist explains. Maintaining organization throughout a home and workspace is vital to our sense of self, a centering act of our own identity. So too Dr. Augustin notes, “too much clutter can signal a lack of control and confuse that sense of identity.” While it’s vital to keep our spaces personal, to display our own unique items and collections, it’s also important for our mental well being to keep that space clean and organized, however fits best for us.

Final Word

Clutter and disorganization have been scientifically linked to increased stress, depressed mood, and conflict in relationships. Using some organizational skills suggested by experts is a great way to embrace the calm, confidence and joyful benefits perpetuated by a clean and tidy home environment.

Note: This article was originally published in the December/January 2021 issue of SLO Life Magazine. It is transcribed verbatim here for the purposes of easy readability.

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