Clutter is not just annoying (it affects our health!)

Last week our team at HypoAir discussed what images come to mind for a fresh, clean home.  Almost immediately I had to say: “clutter-free!”  I am also an artist exhibiting in a local shop, and I have a deadline at the end of each month to have a number of pieces ready for exhibition and sale.  This is a good and a bad thing.  Good, because it forces me to keep moving and complete works and not jump from one to another without finishing them.   Good, because I know that things will be leaving my house and I look forward to cleaning up the supplies.  Bad, because not all of the pieces are works on canvas; some of them are made from recycled materials like old doors that need prep work and make dust.  Bad, because I don’t have a dedicated art studio and use various parts of my home to do the work and store them.  Towards the end of the month, my home is a cluttered mess!  It definitely affects my state of mind and I need to have that “hang-in-there, relief is around the corner” mindset.  Even when I had a full-time office job, the state of my desk seemed to negatively affect my stress level and productivity.  Turns out, I was not imagining things!

You don’t have to be a hoarder to be affected by clutter.  Also, clutter doesn’t have to be physical things–it can be an overflowing email inbox, a mental list of “to-do’s”, or disorder in your relationships.  An article by Psychology Today explained the findings of several studies on the effects of clutter in the home.  Home is where people feel psychologically safe and comforted.  However, clutter negatively affects that perception, and can make you feel stressed and alienated instead.   These feelings can be manifested in the following ways:

  • Low subjective well-being: feeling that your home is your enemy, not your friend according to a 2016 University of New Mexico study

  • Unhealthy eating: people actually eat more cookies and snacks if their environment is chaotic, causing stress (according to this US-Australian study)

  • Less efficient visual processing: it’s more difficult to read the feelings of others, when the background is cluttered and chaotic, according to a Cornell University study.

  • Less efficient thinking:  mental clutter over time can cause age-related memory losses, according to University of Toronto’s Lynn Hasher.  It turns out that your brain cannot efficiently wade through current stressful feelings in order to retrieve memories of people’s names and experiences in the past. 

Confession: I always thought that having a clean, uncluttered home was just a choice of how to spend your time.  For me, it gets thrown to the bottom of my priorities in favor of more “important” things like prepping meals, spending time with friends, or making art.  However, seeing that it can affect my long-term mental health (whoa!) was a reason to move cleaning and organizing and removing things, up the ladder.  According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the physical act of cleaning and the clean room itself can lower stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms.  

Now that I know that cleaning is as essential as taking a shower, here are some tips I’ve found to get started and make it enjoyable, even if your home is overwhelming.

  • Listen to your favorite music or for the workaholics among us (myself included), do double-duty by listening to an informative podcast while you clean.

  • Set a timer!  Fifteen minutes is manageable, right?  Up the time if you feel like doing more, but 15 minutes a day will have a positive impact on your space.

  • To avoid being overwhelmed, do your best to focus on one task at a time.  For example, throw away all the visible trash in your home, or pick up all the dirty dishes and load them into the dishwasher or sink, or pick up all the dirty laundry lying around and cart it to the laundry to start a load.  

  • Purge ruthlessly”!  I love this.  Have a donation box, and if you have not used something within a year, donate it or (if it’s in bad shape) throw it away. 

  • Get guidance: there are tons of videos and how-to’s on how to clean a space in a short time.  Here’s a great one: Clean Up Your Bedroom in 15 minutes 

  • Ask for help.  Some people actually love to clean or organize(!).  If you are blessed with such a friend, tell them about your situation and schedule some time together.  With two heads, you may learn of new donation opportunities and ways to work together in the future.  

Once you clean an area, the impediments to keeping it clean are also strong.  When it’s rainy season, I think, why bother cleaning the floors when I will track in mud tomorrow anyway?  When it’s one week to stocking the store with art, I think, why put these paints away when I may need them tomorrow?  There will always be a reason not to clean, but keeping the prize in mind (an organized, clutter-free space) should help to do a little each day, or every time the clutter reappears.  It’s the reason I find time to clean the kitchen each night before going to bed: walking into a clean kitchen the next morning starts my day off RIGHT!  Now, for the rest of the house….