Clutter can interfere with sleep, cooking, hygiene, and finances. It also distracts from the things in our homes that truly matter. The good news is that clearing away the excess allows us to focus on what helps us feel connected, confident, and at ease.
“The things you’re proud of get lost in the shuffle of the things that just happen to be there,” said Sally Augustin, Ph.D., an environmental psychologist.
Nearly half of people with an amount of stuff deemed “healthy” reported that their things negatively impacted their life in a recent study . The percentage of people negatively impacted increased as homes filled up.
A UCLA study similarly found that clutter had an impact on mood and self-esteem. It also raised cortisol, the primary stress hormone, levels in women.
Here are six tips for clearing clutter and stress.
1. Excess Décor
“Too much décor can absolutely be problematic for someone's mental health,” said psychotherapist Haley Neidich, LCSW. “Décor can create a sense of clutter in the home, which makes one's environment feel disorganized and can impact the sense of calm that one needs in order to heal from a mental health issue or substance use disorder. One of the first things that I discuss with my psychotherapy clients is decluttering their life, which includes examining their physical surroundings.”
So, if you feel you have too much stuff, it might be time to pack some away. One technique is to put it in a box and revisit it in a year to see if you missed it.
That doesn’t mean you have to get rid of all your family heirlooms and vacation souvenirs. The goal is to highlight what means most to you.
“Just as we get stressed out by looking at a scene where there’s too much going on visually, we also get stressed by looking at a scene that’s too stark,” Augustin said.
She recommended looking at Frank Lloyd Wright's residential interior images to get the idea of what moderate visual complexity—or a healthy amount of stuff—looks like.
2. Seasonal Décor
Frequent décor changes can be overstimulating to some people.
“We all have different things that bring us joy,” said Roseann Capanna-Hodge, LPC, psychologist, and integrative mental health expert. “When what we are doing brings a lot of angst into our lives, it is time to re-evaluate whether we should continue with that activity or action.”
If you live with someone who likes to change the room frequently (maybe for every season or holiday) and it bothers you, have a discussion, suggested Emma Azzopardi, psychotherapist and wellbeing coach. Ask about how they feel and if they are proud and enjoy the room.
“Maybe add in that you appreciate the effort they have put in and how lovely it would be to have time to enjoy it with them,” she said.
3. Trinkets and Mementos
Sometimes we hold onto items because we think we should—but if it’s taking up space in your closet or garage, it might be time to let go.
“Picking one item from a period of time in your life rather than keeping everything can be helpful,” Neidich said. For example, deciding between athletic trophies or a high school yearbook can be a great way to commemorate a high school experience without feeling the need to keep everything.”
Taking a picture of an object and putting that picture in a memento book with a handwritten story is a wonderful way to honor the memory around the object, Capanna-Hodge added.
4. Things That Are No Longer Useful
There are some items we’re all just done with. How you deal with them will depend on what it is. If it could be useful in the future, consider putting it in a box out of the way until circumstances change.
If it’s an item of value that you no longer want, such as jewelry from an ex, consider selling it, donating it, or giving it to a friend who always admired it. A family heirloom could be offered to a cousin who might appreciate it. Broken items could be tossed or recycled.
Of course, other items, like a wedding dress, might not be useful, but you can keep it if it has sentimental value and you have space for it, Augustin said.
Walking past the screen door that needs fixing and the pile of papers that need shredding is stressful. Taking care of it will make your home a restful place instead of an endless to-do list.
Make a list of what needs to be done and give yourself a time frame. Commit to spending 15 minutes a day or doing one task a week until it’s done. Azzopardi and Neidich both suggested making the project part of your morning routine when you have the most energy available. Then it’s done, and you can enjoy your day.
6. Make Room
When you clear away items that aren’t serving you, you create space for things that do. Instead of having a storage room of boxes, you could use that space as a family game room, for example.
If you’re proud of your accomplishments as a sailor or the university you attended, you might feel a sense of pride each time you look at a photo of your boat or a university pennant.
Swapping clutter for specific things you love might even give you a confidence boost and sense of connection instead of stress.
Rogers CJ, Hart DR. Home and the extended-self: Exploring associations between clutter and wellbeing. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 2021;73:101553.