Feeling overwhelmed by clutter? 7 stress-reducing tips

Only 25 percent of garages  have enough room to store cars , according to a new book called Life at Home in the 21st Century.
Only 25 percent of garages have enough room to store cars , according to a new book called Life at Home in the 21st Century. Credit: J. Arnold and CELF

With the 21st century’s constantly evolving technological innovations and the wild success of bulk-shopping stores, our hoarding habits have gotten worse. Some of us feel like we’re drowning every time we take a moment to look around our homes.

A recently published book called Life at Home in the 21st Century indicates that we’re living in more clutter than ever before: our shelves are jammed with dozens of jars of tomato sauce bought on sale at Costco or with outdated electronics that we can’t bear to throw away because they’re too valuable.

Of the 32 middle-class families from Los Angeles who were studied for the book, only one-quarter could use their garage to store their cars since they were so packed with unused junk.

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“I would say absolutely, the problem of clutter has gotten much worse,” said Jean Arnold, an anthropologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and co-author of the book. “We suddenly have 30 rolls of paper towels taking up space where bikes should be in the garage.”

And that phenomenon has led to increases in our levels of stress hormones. Arnold’s team of researchers had mothers walk around their homes with video cameras describing various rooms, and they also measured the women’s stress hormone levels. Mothers who described their home offices, bedrooms, and pantries as “complete disaster zones” had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than those who identified their spaces as restful and spacious.

“We were able to identify a troubling health trend,” said Arnold. “The physiological stress that occurs among women who see their homes as cluttered may have some long-term health consequences.”

The very act of deciding what to throw out and what to retain can be extremely anxiety-provoking for the 2 to 4 percent of American adults who have hoarding disorder—they can have ceiling-high piles of everyday stuff like newspapers, junk mail, and old clothes. A brain imaging study published this week in the Archives of General Psychiatry found that individuals with this diagnosis experienced hyperactivity in certain brain regions responsible for decision-making whenever they had to decide which possessions to discard.

Those without hoarding disorder had far lower levels of brain activation in these regions and hence, had an easier time determining what stuff to trash. (So, more than 95 percent of us have no excuse.)

So what’s holding us back? Perhaps feeling overwhelmed about where to start. Peter Walsh, a professional organizer and author of It’s All Too Much, provided me with a great game plan.

1. Instead of focusing on stuff, determine what you want from a particular room. “From that point on,” said Walsh, “ask yourself whether the items in this room help you create that vision.” If you want your bedroom to be a room of intimacy, tranquility, and restfulness, the computer and desk filled with bills don’t belong there.

2. Create clear zones of what you want in a particular space. “If it’s an office, zones may be your work space, library area for book storage, and an area for kids to do their homework,” said Walsh. If you have these zones, you’ll be able to set clear limits. If this book shelf is where books live, you can’t put toys on it. “And if it’s designed to hold 100 books, and you have 101, you need to get rid of one.”

3. When you bring a new object into the house, follow the one-in, one-out rule. Buy a new pair of shoes? Get rid of an old pair. Ditto for cellphones, toys, and laptops. My 12-year-old son sold his iPod touch on ebay before he bought a new one with more memory. (I’ve vowed to try this with my shoes since I no longer have shelf space in my closet for new ones.)

4. Always finish the cycle. Just as a wash left for three days in the machine will stink when the clothes are finally moved to the dryer, your house will take on the “odor” of clutter if you interrupt your organization midcycle by throwing the mail on the kitchen counter to sort through later or leaving dirty dishes in the sink. “The moment you use the word later, you’ve lost the battle,” said Walsh.

5. Try the trash bag tango. This is a great way to kick off your de-cluttering efforts. Get everyone in the house to grab two trash bags—one for stuff to throw out or recycle such as old mail, food containers, and newspapers, and one for stuff to donate. Set a kitchen timer for 10 minutes and attack a room. Making a game of it will make it feel less like a chore.

6. Take advantage of tax deductions for motivation. Here’s an easy way to figure out where to donate all the stuff you’re getting rid of: Google the word “donate” along with the object you’d like to donate and the city you’re in to get a full list of organizations willing to take the used hubcaps or old TV off your hands. Who knew that the Lions Clubs have donation boxes at Boston public libraries to collect old eyeglasses? If you want details on how specific charity groups spend their money, go to charitynavigator.org.

7. Avoid power struggles. Arguments among family members can frequently ensue when, say, what one person considers junk another considers invaluable. “If you start getting into what stays and what goes, it becomes about winning and losing,” said Walsh. And no one really wins. Instead, go back to tips 1 and 2, and determine together whether those old high school trophies and Bobblehead figures really belong in the breakfront with the silver and fine china.

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