Expert Q&A: Clearing Out Clutter?>

Expert Q&A: Clearing Out Clutter

by Larry Lindner

What Marie Kondo suggests in her runaway bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, researchers have been demon­strating in scientific studies: Clutter breeds emotional chaos—for many people, at least. In contrast, decluttering can clear the mind and improve day-to-day functioning.

In one study, from Princeton Universi­ty’s Neuroscience Institute, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, investigators showed that “multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation.” Translation: Seeing too much stuff around you leaves you unable to focus and process information well.

Another study, from UCLA, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that women who had cluttered homes did not show the decrease in the stress hormone cortisol that normally occurs over the course of the day, and they also experienced an increase in depressed mood.

Yet, clutter’s impact varies from person to person, and one person’s discombobulating mess is another’s expression of a busy life well lived. For some perspective on clutter, we spoke with Michael Tompkins, PhD, an assistant clinical professor of psy­chology at UC Berkeley. He is also the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award for excellence in innovation, treatment, and research in the field of hoarding and clut­tering from the Mental Health Association of San Francisco and co-author of Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clut­ter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring.

Here are excerpts from our interview.

Why has declutter­ing captured the public’s attention in such a big way?

Michael Tompkins: We live in a cul­ture where we just have a lot of stuff, and many people feel really challenged and overwhelmed by it. We also have an aging population, and the problem of letting go and decluttering when you’re in your 20s, say, is not the same as when you’re in the closing era of your life and not wanting the legacy of leaving it all for your children to clean up after you. The Swedes even have a term for not leaving your clutter for oth­ers to sort through: döstädning, meaning death cleaning.

Is there any real harm in having a lot of clutter?

MT: On a practical level, there can be real consequences of living in a highly clut­tered environment. It can lead to social isolation—you don’t invite people over because you’re embarrassed. In addition, to be able to clean your home (which is dif­ferent from decluttering it), you have to be able to access the floors and counters; if they’re highly cluttered, you can’t. That leaves those cluttered spaces prone to col­lecting allergens and even mold. Depend­ing on the level of clutter, you could also be more at risk of falling over something and sustaining an injury.

But if the level of clutter doesn’t reach a point where it’s interfering with day-to-day living (as occurs in the psychiatric condition of hoarding), then clutter is not compromising a person’s life. That is, if you have a moderately clut­tered home that doesn’t limit your ability to function or focus and doesn’t create unsafe conditions—and you’re not unhappy about it—then it’s not a problem.

What is it about decluttering that makes people feel good?

MT: Many people notice a lift in how they feel when they tidy up, which has to do with the effect that mastering an activity has on mood. It gives you a sense of pride and accomplishment. Often, when people declut­ter and organize their space, they come away with a sense of well-being. And for some people, when they’re feeling stressed, going in and decluttering their environment gives them some sense of personal control, which diminishes their anxiety level and provides some relief from the stress.

Step by Step: A Decluttering Checklist

Even the thought of it decluttering can be overwhelming; the actual process can also be tedious. Michael Tompkins, Ph.D., offers these tips to help you get started (and keep going).

If it’s so rewarding, why is it so hard for many people to do?

MT: In some cases it can simply be a matter of lack of time and energy at the end of the day that gets in the way of keep­ing things tidy at home. It doesn’t take long for mail and clothes, for instance, to pile up. But sometimes depression, with its com­mon symptoms of fatigue and hopelessness, can get in the way. If you’re depressed, you might think “what’s the point?” So you don’t start. If you tend to be anxious, you might also find it hard to start a task because you get quickly overwhelmed. And if you have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), it’s hard to keep on task.

How do you get around those issues?

MT: Start small. Over time, that can help improve your mood, which may make you more willing and able to do more. That is, there is a spi­raling up effect. Starting small can work for anyone, not just someone who is clinically depressed or very anxious or has ADHD.

This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Also see Help for Hoarders.