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Decluttering Tips – Why We Cannot Let Go of Stuff

Guidance   »   Wellness   »   Decluttering Tips – Why We Cannot Let Go of Stuff

Nothing clogs our brains more than clutter. If you feel overwhelmed by life your anxiety may actually be emanating from your environment. The place we want to rely on as a sanctuary – our home – has suddenly become the source of our stress. And a messy home is not a place where we feel proud to invite friends to socialize or visit. Home sweet home has become a frenemy.

In fact, neuroscience has a lot to do with our distress. Millions of years ago as we lived out on the African savanna, our livable environments were wide-open spaces where we could easily see our prey and our predators. This uncluttered vista reinforced our survival instincts. When we fill our modern environments with clutter, our ancient brain feels vulnerable, it can no longer see around boxes, knick knacks or piles of newspapers and clothes. This creates a world where we feel out of control and overwhelmed. It is our basic instinct to crave the calming effect of a clutter-free living environment.

The other problem with clutter is it does not allow us to function optimally and negatively impacts our emotional and physical health. For instance, it takes us longer to find things which can create frustration and more stress. Cluttered hallways can also become trip hazards and cluttered countertops keep us from using our kitchens for food preparation and cooking so we eat out. 

Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, advised that fewer choices, meaning less stuff, actually makes us happier. Clutter-free environments alleviate our choice overload that paralyzes us into inaction. For instance, cleaning out your closet so you actually have fewer clothes or shoe choices, frees up your brain to focus on more challenging questions and choices for the remainder of the day. And it gives us a sense of mastery and accomplishment over our domain.

According to a home tours study of women participants, those with cluttered homes were more prone to depression and fatigue and had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who described their homes as relaxing and uplifting. Another mindset study showed that people actually eat more cookies and choose unhealthy snacks if the environment they are in is chaotic and cluttered. 

David Ekerdt in his book, Downsizing: Confronting Our Possessions in Later Life, used information based on his years of research at the University of Kansas. He found 61% of people in their 60s said they felt they had more things than they needed. And in a survey done in the United Kingdom, 73% of homeowners said their homes are full of clutter.

Is It Hoarding or Harmless?

For anyone who has seen the reality TV shows about hoarding you know where you are on the scale of having a cluttered home. Having some clutter is normal in our instant gratification world, we simply buy too much stuff. Hoarding on the other hand is a real mental health issue. When your clutter makes it hard for you or others in your life to carry on normally such as taking a shower or making meals, these living conditions pose health problems and you’ve transitioned from being a clutterbug to being a hoarder. Typically, psychologists will look for telltale signs of hoarding: Inability to get rid of things even if they have no value, emotional distress when thinking about discarding things, inability to use parts of your home because of the buildup of items, signs of indecisiveness, perfectionism, avoidance, procrastination and trouble planning and organizing even small things in life such as getting to work or attending an important event.

Why Do We Hang On To Too Much Stuff?

After decades of life, you accumulate a lot of things and somehow your home has become your storage unit. With all the years spent working, traveling, raising families and never moving, often you have not taken the time to do a purge every few years. You continue to stuff things into the garage, attic and basement promising yourself you’ll go through it all “someday.” But the real reason we hang on to things is not just because we have had full lives and little free time to edit down our possessions. It is because we are stuck on the stories associated with our stuff.

When you open a box of matchbooks from every restaurant you have visited since you got married, or you see the used baseball mitts of your now-grown and gone sons, or the piles of fashion magazines over the last 20 years, it reminds you of a time or people you cherish. Tossing those memories into the garbage or even donating them feels like you are erasing a part of your history and of yourself. It is the relationships and memories we want to hold onto and saving the stuff brings all those memories flooding back.

Tips for Clearing the Clutter

1. Start small

One of the reasons you do not tackle de-cluttering sooner is that the job is too overwhelming and you don’t know where to start. You tell yourself you need hours or an entire weekend to go through everything. And even though organizational goddess Marie Kondo advises getting it all done at once, small steps are part of the successful behavioral science most psychologists advise. Instead of an entire room or garage, pick one drawer or one shelf. Spend just a few minutes on this small area. The pride and satisfaction in starting and accomplishing something smaller will give you incentive to keep tackling things drawer by drawer.

2. Tell the stories

Since it is the story behind the stuff, capture the story as you jettison the stuff. For instance, the example of your son’s baseball mitts. Take a photo or even a video with your smartphone explaining the story behind the mitts and all the games won and lost. Share the stories with family or better yet invite family to the declutter party to hear and contribute to the storytelling. It’s also an opportunity to pass on cherished items to family members. This is part of an ancient tribal practice – one that Native Americans and other cultures have retained for years. The passing down of stories of our families and taking the time to listen to older generations tell younger generations about their family history is a powerful tool for building relevancy in older adults and resiliency in younger family members. It also becomes a legacy gift for your family once you are gone – the stories remain for future generations to share.  In a small way, we live on in our stories.

3. 50/50 Rule

If you struggle with things you are unsure you want to keep or not, place them all on a table and pick only ½ or less of what you see. This is a great exercise to help you visualize what is really important to you or is a source of comfort that you should keep. For the half that will go, donating the item to someone who will get more need out of it than you feels good. Paying it forward is beneficial for emotional health.

4. Use Tough Love

Have two bags or boxes when you start your de-cluttering. One bag for donations or selling online, one for garbage. For things you will keep, there is no storing it in a box and going back to the attic or basement. Either the kept item is something you will use in the next six months or it is gone (this is especially important for clothes and shoes). It does you no good to put it back in a box and stuffed on a shelf where you never use it – this defeats your purpose. And donate the items right away – don’t keep the bag or box where you can see it and change your mind one night when you are feeling nostalgic. De-cluttering is a tough-love activity.

5. Maintaining Your Space

Part of the brain science behind decluttering is to be able to see the things we have kept. Using acrylic containers for jewelry, for shoes or sweaters or even decluttering your refrigerator using acrylic containers so you know what food you have is a way to “see” through something hiding in a drawer or shelf. Also, you know you will continue to accumulate things which is okay. But for every new shirt or pair of shoes, something has to go to make room. Don’t start stuffing things into too small spaces again and never start piling things on the floor or chair.

You may just need to feel better in your home or you may be thinking about downsizing to a smaller place in a senior living community. Most older adults need to cut their possessions by 50% when moving to a senior living apartment or condo. Once you decide to declutter or downsize, don’t forget to reward yourself. Purging life’s accumulated items is no easy task. A glass of wine, a night on the town or other celebration is part of the incentive to live fully with less. 

About Sherri Snelling

Sherri Snelling is a gerontologist with an expertise in wellness and brain health across the life course. She is an author, podcast host, consultant and founder/CEO of Caregiving Club.


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