Cancel Clutter - THINKERS Notebook

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Cancel Clutter

My wife and I are currently preparing our house to go on the market.

This means getting it into tip-top shape so that our trusty abode of 5+ years can put its best foot forward during showings to potential new owners.

As anyone who has gone through this process will tell you, prepping to sell means adopting a minimalist's sensibility, even if only temporarily, so that potential buyers see less of you and more of themselves as they browse through your halls and rooms. 

But a funny thing is happening as we go from room to room and box up all of the stuff that isn't essential to our daily lives:

I'm feeling a visceral sense of relief.

  • The kitchen cabinet with a modest, rather than overflowing, amount of tupperware.
  • The disorganized hallway shelves now adorned in an organized, aesthetically pleasing way.
  • The guest room, really the erstwhile catch-all storage room, now transformed into a child's playroom that keeps more toys out of sight.
  • The closet, once stuffed with forgotten clothing, now offering each remaining garment some space to breathe.

There is less clutter and more clarity. 

Of course, the extra stuff didn't disappear. We donated some it, and then packed the rest in boxes and hauled it to storage.

But what will happen once we move into our new house? All of the "extra" stuff will be back. Will the clutter soon follow? I'm finding myself dreading this assumed inevitability.

Because clutter has a proven deleterious impact on our thinking, and even our overall well-being.

According to Libby Sander, researcher and Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour and the Bond Business School of Bond University, "Clutter can affect our anxiety levels, sleep, and ability to focus."

That's a triple whammy working against us doing our best thinking.

And it's why sometimes when we are in the midst of a particularly cloudy case of brain fog, one of the most productive actions we can take is to step away from the task at hand and do a little cleaning. 

  • Maybe papers have piled up around your desk. Take ten minutes to go through them. Toss the unneeded ones, stack the ones that require action, and file the rest.
  • Maybe the dishes stack up in the morning and you see them every time you pass through the kitchen on your way to your home office. Stop and wash them. Listen to a podcast while you do it.
  • Heck, maybe the clutter isn't even in your physical world; maybe your desktop is jammed full of files you haven't placed into the proper folders. Take a few minutes and get to Desktop Zero.

The specifics will depend on the particulars of how you live and work. But my hunch is that more and more people are fighting the clutter battle as their home lives and work lives converge in 2020.

I know it's happening for me.

In so many ways, I love having my wife and daughter home all day, every day. (And I certainly recognize how lucky we are to be able to live and work comfortably in the midst of a pandemic and economic downturn, so please do not misconstrue what I'm about to say as a complaint.)

But it's undeniable that our house is far less organized with two adults working from home each day and, more to the point, an energetic and endlessly curious 4-year old exploring the limits of her activity and imagination.

Maybe we don't manage it all as well as we could, but the bottom line is that our house had become significantly more cluttered prior to our recent packing spree. I felt it. I know my wife felt it too. And I don't want my daughter growing up thinking that excess clutter is normal.

What my wife and I are starting to realize is that we had created an uphill battle for ourselves by simply having more stuff in our house than it could comfortably hold. It's hard to declutter when all of your storage is already busting at the seams.

So as we prepare to (fingers crossed) move into a new house sometime in the next few months, I am determined to keep this lesson in mind.

Our physical spaces really do impact the length of our focus and the quality of our thinking. And for the drastically increased number of people who now work from home, that means being more mindful of how organized our life/work space is at any given time.

So the next time you find yourself frustrated at your inability to focus intently or think clearly, grant yourself the patience and understanding to recognize that the the problem may not be you; it may be what surrounds you.

Then take a few minutes, clear some clutter, maybe take a walk, and see if your ability to do meaningful work improves when you get back.

Clutter is the enemy.

Cancel it, and experience the proven impacts on your thinking.


Clutter is a precursor to dissatisfaction


A relatively recent investigation on perceptions of the environment and well-being examined the set of relationships among the clutter in the home and subjective well-being. University of New Mexico’s Catherine Roster and colleagues (2016) examined how clutter compromises an individual’s perception of home, and ultimately feelings of satisfaction with life.

The underlying premise of the study was that because many people identify so closely with their home environments, the extent to which it’s cluttered can interfere with the pleasure they experience when being in that environment.

Read: 5 Reasons to Clear the Clutter Out of Your Life (Psychology Today)

Your clutter may say more about than you realize


While our belongings may not all be cherished friends of old, they do tend to say a lot about us. Jessie Sholl, a writer for the health website, proposes that “different kinds of clutter signify different emotional messages.”

For example, if your clutter consists of other people’s stuff then you probably have issues with boundaries. If your clutter is largely memorabilia from your past then you may have trouble letting things go, forgiving, or feel like your best days are behind you.

If you’re holding onto unused items you likely have a fear or distrust for the future or wish you were something you’re not. All of those brand new art products you’ve used maybe once? The idea of peacefully passing your time as an artist may have sounded better than the act itself.

Watch: Massive Psychological Effects of Clutter, According To Science (Mia Danielle)

Clutter may actually affect your judgment 


A study in 2006 found that when we try to make judgements in cluttered environments, our brains operate differently: not only do we tend to make the wrong call, but we're often far more confident in that call than we should be.

Perceptual clutter leads not only to an increase in judgment errors, but also to an increase in perceived signal strength and decision confidence on erroneous trials," the study says — presumably because all the visual stimuli and confusion makes us less capable of thinking clearly, even if we're absolutely sure we're making the right decision.

It's not clear why clutter spikes our confidence erroneously, but if you're making life decisions it's probably best to do it in a clean room.

Read: 6 Ways Being Around Clutter Affects Your Brain, According To Science (Bustle)


Quote of the week

“Keeping baggage from the past will leave no room for the happiness in the future.” 

-- Wayne L. Misner