Why decluttering is good for your mental health

Discover a life in which you can be your most productive, relaxed and happy self. Creating a clear space for a clear mind is easier than you might think

Woman carrying a pile of jumpers

We all have our own ways of tidying. For some, it’s a regular chore undertaken for a well turned out home or workspace. For others it’s something that is pushed aside until there’s no avoiding the task. Whatever your reason for clearing up, or how you do it, most of us have one thing in common: we have an awful lot of things.

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Piles of newspaper inserts and paperwork. Items of clothing that are never worn. Trinkets, boxes within boxes and of course plenty of ‘just in case’ items picked up for an ‘it would be rude not to’ price. And the tidal wave of gubbins extends to the digital world too, with a huge number of unread emails filling up our inboxes and a desktop that has taken on a life of its own. These days, the average household is practically groaning under the weight of ‘stuff’ and often, even the tidiest person is living a cluttered life – to great detriment.

Researchers at UCLA’s Centre on Everyday Lives and Families (CELF) have identified a direct link between the stress hormone cortisol and clutter (or “a high density of household objects”). A further paper from the American Association for Nurse Anaesthetists, suggests that people with messy homes are 77 percent more likely to have weight issues due to the negative interior monologue that living amidst disarray perpetuates. But why is this?

Accumulating ‘stuff’ is a very human habit, albeit an outdated one. Over the years, many scientists have theorised that the pull to buy and store things we don’t need, or even really want, stems from a natural and adaptive instinct run amok: to hoard food, furs and all of those essential-for-survival things that are simply not essential anymore. As a result, we are still compelled to gather but rather than fulfilling a need, we are now left feeling stressed, unable to focus and unsatisfied.

“I define clutter as surplus stuff that’s getting in your way, both materially and metaphorically,” says leading declutter coach and author, Juliet Landau-Pope of JLP Coach. Juliet believes that it is not just instinct that is pushing us to hoard. “In our fast-paced consumer society, we are under constant pressure to buy, to collect and to acquire, so we accumulate more and more things. But we don’t learn to let go. Similarly, we struggle with never-ending to-do lists so our time becomes as cluttered as the space in which we live and work. All this leads to a state of overwhelm which is harmful to physical and emotional wellbeing.”

Woman folding laundry
Unsplash/Sarah Brown

What are the benefits of decluttering?

As Juliet rightly points out, decluttering is less about tidying up and more about focusing on what really matters to you. The practice of choosing what stays and what goes encourages you to make active decisions about what belongs in your life right now – living firmly in the present rather than hanging onto the past. In this, we are given the opportunity to release not only material clutter, but emotional too.

“Everything, I believe, comes into your life for a reason, but that doesn’t mean you have to hold onto it forever. It is so important to be kind to yourself when sorting your stuff as it can be both daunting and draining, particularly when going it alone,” explains Juliet.

“My advice is to set positive goals, focus on what you want to gain from the process – space, order, clarity, freedom, perhaps. Take it step by step, celebrate your progress and don’t be afraid to ask for help. The results will be truly transformative, not just for your surroundings but for your mind, body and soul too,” Juliet advises. Working towards creating an oasis of calm in an otherwise chaotic world can be challenging at first, but once you get going you’ll find the feel-good factor kicks in pretty quick. The trick is knowing where, and how, to start. Debora Robertson, author of Declutter (Kyle Books) transformed her own life by decluttering and now hopes to help and encourage others to do the same.

“I am a food writer and I work from home most of the time and, much as I love my house, one day I realised that all of the vintage stuff and other props I’d bought ‘just in case’, the shelves full of scarcely-used appliances, and the cupboards groaning with tins and packets and jars were spinning out of control. And, in all honesty, the rest of the house wasn’t much better,” she recounts. “It reached its worst point when, for the thousandth time, I was rummaging through my herb and spice drawer and was hit with the realisation of how much of my life I was wasting just looking for stuff. I pulled everything out, tossed out the things which were ancient, decanted everything else into jars, Sharpied what was in them on the lids and arranged them in alphabetical order. I had seven packets of cumin because every time I needed some, it was easier to buy more than find what I already had. I was so delighted with how well this drawer now worked and how pleasing it looked, I wanted the rest of the house to be the same.”

But, although the initial enthusiasm was there, Debora highlights that it is quite normal to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of decluttering. Fortunately, she has figured out some nifty ways around this.

“I recommend going for it in bursts, so you can dive in with as much energy as you can muster. Fifteen minutes is all you need – set the task of ditching 15 things in that time. Another favourite trick of mine is to hang a tote bag on every door and put things you don’t need or love into them as you potter around the house. At the end of each week, sort into rubbish, recycle and donate piles.”

Once you have discovered the joys of living in an orderly home, it’s likely that you will soon find you’re itching to tackle all other areas of your life – at work, online and even in your mind. You’ll start noticing clutter in a way you hadn’t before and feel empowered to do something about it, for a truly harmonious lifestyle. A clear and tidy desktop, an organised handbag and a fresh look at a more realistic and shorter ‘to-do’ list all contribute to a more serene way of being – and you can extend the same decluttering methods to all spheres.

Spending chunks of time looking at a computer or phone, whether for work or play, is the norm for most people so consider the clearing of your digital bumf to be just as important as the physical. Sort out your inbox. Hit those ‘unsubscribe’ buttons. Delete that junk mail. Sort your desktop into clearly marked folders and then use this newly ordered expanse to your advantage. Trash those old and unwanted documents. Only a few pieces of very personal paperwork require hard copies to be kept, so scan and shred the rest, and keep them neatly filed in a place that takes up no physical space at all!

The evening 15 decluttering method

Short on time? Try Debora’s quick and easy evening decluttering routine to make mornings calmer.

Struggling by on too little sleep is a modern epidemic and it makes tackling Clutter Mountain so much more daunting. In fact, studies indicate that those with a high risk of hoarding show evidence of poor sleep. Don’t sabotage yourself by staying up until the small hours sorting out heaps of junk. It may, seemingly, make you feel triumphant, but the next day will be a struggle and you’re less likely to keep going.

Late in the evening is not the time to embark on big decluttering tasks, but there are some things you can do the night before to make the morning easier. Personally, I hate that feeling of staying up too late to go to bed ‘properly’, waiting until I’m so tired I end up pottering about longer than I should because I just can’t bear the thought of all the admin – brushing teeth, cleansing and moisturising my weary face, putting the dogs outside for wees, locking the doors, setting the alarm.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that one of the most transformative things I’ve done for my adult self is to start the process of going to bed earlier, rather than waiting until I’m already exhausted. And one of the reasons I now give myself more time is so that I can squeeze in my ‘Evening 15’, as a gift to my morning self. Completing just a few fairly straightforward tasks each evening gets the following day off to a much less stressful and more relaxing start.

I do as much of the following as I can face in 15 minutes:

  • Fold some laundry
  • Load the dishwasher and clear the draining board of stuff
  • Wipe down the kitchen surfaces and sink
  • Empty a wastepaper basket and/or chuck something into the recycling bin
  • Fix any packed lunches Straighten up the sofa and plump up the cushions
  • Pack keys, books, passes – anything I might need in the morning
  • Charge my phone and laptop
  • Put out my clothes for the next day. This might be my most life-enhancing one. Who wants to make aesthetic decisions at 7am?

The 10 decluttering commandments

Ready for a life less cluttered? Here are some easy-to-action tips from Debora Robertson’s Declutter – transform your home, workplace and digital world, for life-changing results.

1

Take care of yourself

Get enough rest, eat well, stay hydrated. You don’t need to do this all at once.

2

Get organised

Organise first, buy second. There’s no point splashing out on the perfect storage system if you haven’t got a clear patch of floor to put it on.

3

Don’t put pressure on yourself

You don’t have to be good at this. You’ll get good at it. You can’t fail – whatever you do, right now, today, will be an improvement.

4

Set realistic goals

Don’t schedule too much for the time you have at your disposal. Set realistic organising goals, allowing leeway for tasks to take longer than you anticipated.

5

Finish your tasks

Complete things. Unfinished projects are draining.

6

Accept when things are good enough

Good enough is good enough. Banish the paralysing tyranny of perfectionism. Give yourself permission to do things imperfectly. Don’t set yourself up for failure by setting impossibly high standards.

7

Get ahead

Acquire the habit of The Evening 15.

8

Think about where you need things to be stored

For sanity’s sake, store things where you use them – you’re more likely to put them back that way.

9

Reward yourself

Plan rewards. Take a walk, see a film or read a book when you’ve completed a task – anything that will give you pleasure (apart from shopping).

10

Don’t give up

Keep going. This is the most important commandment of all.

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Featured image by Getty Images/Poh Kim Yeoh/Eye Em.

This article was first published in In The Moment Magazine issue 21. Discover our latest subscription offers or order a back issue. Edited extract taken from Declutter by Deborah Robertson (Kyle Books, £12.99).

Declutter by Deborah Robertson