When Late Show host Stephen Colbert asked Japanese tidying-up expert Marie Kondo why she thinks she’s so popular with her American audience, she replied “I think it’s because we not only have clutter in our homes but we also have clutter in our hearts.” Research has shown that a cluttered home can also mean clutter in our minds and, if the mess gets out of hand, it could lead to physical and mental health issues. 1,2

Kondo’s advice? Keep only the things that “bring us joy”. But for many this is easier said than done perhaps because keeping an unused item is easier than making the decision to throw it out.

“Seeing clutter all around us is mentally exhausting and makes us feel tense,” says Sally Augustin, PhD, environmental psychologist and author of Designology: How to Find Your PlaceType and Align Your Life with Design. “The more clutter, the harder we have to work to scan and sort through our surroundings in order to find what we’re looking for or do what we have planned, and that can be stressful.”

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When your clutter gets out of hand, when you don’t put things away and ultimately have no place to put them, it not only affects your own well-being, but also that of anyone who lives (or works) with or near you. If it has gotten to the point where your family or coworkers are constantly complaining (or worse, tripping and knocking over piles of “stuff,”) your neighbors are making negative comments about the debris in your yard, or you never invite people over to your home because of the mess, those are probably signs that your cluttered life has gotten out of hand. 

Extreme Clutter

You may wonder: Are you a hoarder or are you simply someone who holds onto things and perhaps enjoys collecting specific types of objects that others might consider mere dust collectors? Someone with a true hoarding disorder accumulates possessions to the degree that their living spaces are dangerously congested and feels great distress over the idea of discarding anything, including items that most people, after a certain time, would consider garbage.

At hoarding’s worst, living spaces become uninhabitable—it becomes difficult to accomplish anything within the cluttered space, dust and mold accumulates, hallways and doorways are often blocked, and the space becomes a fire hazard. A true hoarder suffers personally, professionally, and socially as a result of their living conditions, and may also suffer from another mental health issue, such as an anxiety or depressive disorder. 1,2

In all likelihood, however, you’re not among the estimated 2% to 6% of people who have a true hoarding disorder; 2 you simply have a cluttered life that may be getting out of hand. Wherever you are on the clutter spectrum, cleaning up and clearing out could help improve your life.

“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. Augustin explains. “Too much clutter can signal a lack of control and confuse that sense of identity.” 

Trash or Treasure? Tips for Holding on and Letting Go

Maybe you’re ready to clean up, but don’t know how or where to start. Judith Kolberg, chief organizer at FileHeads Professional Organizers in Atlanta, recommends playing what she calls the “Friends, Acquaintances and Strangers Game”.

“As you go through your closets, drawers and big old storage containers, immediately get rid of the ‘strangers,’ those items you definitely don’t want and, in some cases, might not even recognize,” she advises. “Donate ‘acquaintances,’ useful items that just aren’t your favorites and are never used, to a thrift shop, and keep the true ‘friends,’ the favorites you just can’t live without.”

Additionally, these tips can help you approach the job mindfully and maintain a clutter-free environment over time:

  • Start small, focusing on one room at a time, one area of the room at a time, one surface or drawer at a time.
  • When you’re cleaning out drawers, remove items one at a time and decide what to do with each before removing another. Don’t move items from a drawer or bookshelf to another piece of furniture; have separate bags on hand for trash and charity donation; place each item in the appropriate bag.
  • One way to soften the blow of parting with a sentimental item you never use but have determined you can live without is by taking photos of it. That way you can still “see” it after its been given away.
  • Once you’ve cleaned up and organized, make a commitment to never buy something new unless it serves a new purpose and, if possible, you can get rid of something old at the same time. That includes new storage containers; make sure you have something to store in that pretty box or basket before you buy it!
  • Clearing out storage spaces gives you more room to store items with sentimental value that you don’t use, and don’t need to display, but cannot bear to give up. You can easily take these items out from a clean storage space or container, and look at them from time. For more enjoyment of your most beloved things, Dr. Augustin also suggests rotating them in and out of storage.
  • If you can’t figure out where to begin, ask a friend or family member to help you decide what you do and don’t need to keep. If you don’t have anyone to help you, consider hiring a professional organizer. To find a certified professional organizer in your area, contact the National Association of Productivity & Organizing (NAPO).
  • If you suspect you may have a hoarding disorder, consider seeking advice from a cognitive behavioral psychotherapist or other certified mental health professional.

“In the end, however, don’t feel you have to give up anything that is truly important to you,” Dr. Augustin advises. “Many of the material things we surround ourselves with have deep personal meaning, and they help us maintain a positive attitude about ourselves and the world that surrounds us.”

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Last Updated: Aug 10, 2020