Is Clutter Affecting Your Health?

Odds are it is. Here’s how to organize your stuff and simplify your life—for good.
By Penny Wrenn

Two summers ago, I couldn’t see the floor in my living room (or elsewhere in my apartment, for that matter). My one-bedroom apartment in New York City was littered with months-old newspapers, half-empty purses, photos, office supplies, unopened mail, coffee mugs, blankets—even pizza crusts. I couldn’t remember the last time I didn’t have to kick away or push aside something to go to the kitchen, bathroom, orthe front door. Every Saturday, I vowed to “clean up.” But on Monday, I awoke to more of the same chaos.

What was wrong with me? I thought. Was I lazy? Incompetent? Was I reverting back to the days when a messy room was a path of teenage resistance against my mother’s neat-freak tyranny? Maybe. Or more likely, I simply didn’t know how or where to start eliminating my mess. I was unequivocally and indiscernibly overwhelmed. So week after week for as many as six months, the piles of clothes, stacks of dishes, pieces of garbage, et al continued to amass.

I told myself that the mess didn’t bother me. (No one else was around but me to see it, after all.) Then one evening, I walked into my apartment after work, took a look around, and decided that something had to give. I couldn’t keep denying that I wanted a neat and peaceful home—not one that looked as if it were whipped into a state of perpetual frenzy and confusion. I needed help.

Believing that my messiness wasn’t a matter of dirt as much as it was disorder, I skipped the cleaning-lady route and called a professional organizer. During my first session with Ronit Zweig, PsyD, who calls herself “the organizing doc,” I cried. I was so grateful to have someone patiently, and without judgment, guide me through the steps of digging myself out of chaos. Who knew that the first step, walking around my apartment and bagging every piece of trash, would eliminate 30 percent of the problem—and uncover my entire sofa?

Though I tapped my wallet after three not-so-cheap $80 sessions with Zweig, I didn’t run out of motivation. I spent several months intermittently throwing away, picking up, and putting away, and my little rented haven had never been so orderly.

OK, so it wasn’t as easy as it sounds. My apartment is still not completely clutter-free—but it’s not the roving mess it once was. While I’ve somewhat successfully straightened up my act, I still feel like I’m not organized enough. One look under my bed or inside my closets, dresser drawers, file cabinet, or even my purse reveals some unresolved issues. The orderly-ever-after eludes me—and perhaps, as it turns out, a lot of other people.

It’s estimated that Americans will spend $8.6 billion to organize their homes in 2011, compared to $6.9 billion in 2006. Decluttering is a pursuit I share with everyone else who’s ever cast their hopes on a plastic container, shelving system, or self-help book to bring beloved order to their chaotic lives. But what gives? Control, explains organizing guru Peter Walsh, author of the best-selling book It’s All Too Much: An Easy Plan for Living a Richer Life With Less Stuff (Free Press, 2006). “People are chasing some degree of comfort,” says Walsh. “If they get their closets or garage organized, they feel they have some control over their little corner of the world.”

But Walsh suggests we should think twice before hedging our happiness bets on having a mess-free home. “Someone will say to me, ‘Help me get organized.’ I’m sorry, but that’s not my job. My job is to help you identify the gap between your real life and your ideal life, and to help you stop breaching it.” So for those pragmatists who think clutter is simply the sum of our stuff (the tangible, material, and storable), he offers this philosophical definition: “Clutter is anything that gets between you and the life you’d like to be living.” Which means getting rid of it isn’t strictly a job for bins and shelves. The task begins, says Walsh, with figuring out what we want from our lives (authenticity, joy, serenity), not the stuff we want for our lives (a new wardrobe, a flat-screen TV, a new car).

This concept was also a hallmark of my work with Zweig. Instead of imposing an organizing system on my lifestyle, she asked me about my routine. How often did I get the mail? (Every day.) Where did I put it? (On the floor.) When she saw so many pieces of paper strewn about my living room, she wondered about its function: Did I want the space to be a place to kick back or to work? (But I already had a home office.) And certainly it wasn’t easy to get a good night’s sleep in the one corner of my bed that wasn’t covered with towels and clothes. The lesson: The purpose of a room should determine what’s in it. Zweig and other organization experts agree that when a room’s purpose is obscured (when you can’t eat at your dining table or allow guests into the guest room)—well, that’s when you know you have a problem.

Remembering the months I spent stepping over piles of old magazines and Goodwill-bound clothes in my apartment, I wondered how I had gotten myself into such a mess (literally) in the first place. Katherine D. Anderson, president of the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (NSGCD), says one cause of the growth of my and others’ clutter is “more pressure being put on everyone to be more productive.” Our lives are one long to-do list, leaving countless remnants of our day-to-day tasks to show up in email in-boxes, computer desktops, wallets, refrigerators, you name it. The NSGCD has developed a distinct five-level measuring system for clutteredness. By their account, when I sought help two years ago, I was at the second-to-worst rank, a Level 4 (the household “needs the help of a professional organizer” to function; “psychological or financial hardships” may be the clutter culprits). I suppose now I’m hovering somewhere between Level 2 (“still requires professional help”) or Level 1 (“standard”). (Take the “How Cluttered Is Your Home?” quiz below to find out where you stand.)

But perhaps more important than the origin and scale of our clutter is its implication in our lives. There are the more obvious health threats: More stuff around the house means more surfaces to collect dust (which could lead to respiratory conditions like asthma), and more things to trip over or bang into (which could lead to injury and falls). Some experts even think that clutter might also affect our weight. Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Fit to Live (Rodale Books, 2007), says that we are less likely to be active when we’re cluttered. “You can have the best intentions—you can go out and buy sneakers and healthy food—but if you can’t find them in your mess of a house, then what good are they doing you?” And in his new book, Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? (Free Press, 2008), Walsh asserts that it’s impossible to be your best and healthiest self in a cluttered space. “You work all day, you get home at 7 p.m., you open the front door, and you need to eat something,” he says. “Your default will be to go for what’s easy rather than what’s good.” And if your kitchen’s a mess, odds are you’ll choose the unhealthier fast or convenient food. Why? “In an overstuffed home, eating can easily become overeating,” says Walsh. Clutter can alienate us from our environment and, in turn, make it difficult to practice an important principle that prevents us from overeating: mindfulness. In the midst of a mess, we lose our ability to focus on what we’re doing. The thing that clutter and weight have in common then? Out-of-control consumption. “The stuff in our homes becomes too overwhelming to deal with, but we keep shopping for more,” says Walsh. “Similarly, the increasing weight of our bodies becomes more than we are able to handle, but we keep indulging.”

Many people unwittingly succumb to an accumulation addiction when looking to material things—more stuff or food—to fill an emotional void. Walsh says we do this when letting our emotions, be it depression, exhaustion, anger, or joy, make decisions for us. And when we’re stuck in this emotional decision-making mode, the pounds can creep on just as stealthily as the stuff piles up. Case in point: The many nights I ordered pizza, watched TV, and slept on the couch because I was “depressed,” and for days, weeks, or months afterward, the unfolded blanket and the empty pizza box (yes, I ate the entire pie by myself) littered the living room. That’s two bad decisions (eating poorly, contributing to my clutter) tied to one icky-feeling emotion.

Hence, the matter of clutter’s effect on our mental health. Does clutter make us depressed, or does depression make us cluttered? Both, says David Tolin, PhD, director of the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Institute of Living. “Depression contributes to clutter by causing fatigue, giving one less energy and motivation, and impairing ability to focus,” he says. Furthermore, Tolin’s research suggests a connection between clutter and anxiety. “Having a lot of clutter leads people to feel ashamed and socially anxious,” he says. “Or it could also be that people who are socially anxious to begin with surround themselves with clutter to feel more comfortable.” Lack of focus and energy, anxiety—this was well-treaded territory for me. In my more cluttered days, I experienced all manner of psychological roadblocks, especially procrastination and perfectionism. Although a reformed clutterbug, I still fear a regression is quite possible, if not entirely imminent—a fear Tolin’s research confirms. A person’s untidiness, he suggests, may indeed be partially a matter a genetic predisposition.

Great, so add neatness to the list of good genes, runner’s legs, and flat stomach I didn’t get. For anyone who, like me, feels a twinge of self-defeat before they even lift a finger to start decluttering, Peeke says the best way to get past this is to, well, just do it. “Stop overthinking it,” she says. Instead of ruminating about the disadvantages that you think are keeping you from a “perfect” home, Peeke suggests taking that energy and applying it to a get-it-done-already strategy. Think: Little changes equal a big difference. And remember, decluttering is a marathon, not a sprint. “A clean, organized home means constant maintenance,” says Peeke, who warns against “wellness binges”—where you wake up one day and clean your entire house but let it go for weeks after that. This kind of impulsive, crisis-mode decluttering is less likely to stick and bring about real change.

I’ve found, however, that no matter how consistent, determined, or inspired my decluttering efforts, I am often disappointed by my results. Peeke attributes my lack of gratification to the proverbial tug-of-war between perfection and progress. She recommends an 80-percent rule that says, “To strive for 100 percent all the time is pointless. Give yourself at least 20 percent for humanity and the days you wake up and want to hide under the covers. Sometimes 50 percent is all you’ve got; other days you give 150. The point is to average out around 80.” The key, she says, is to look at your home and your life and think, It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty damn good.

And that much seems doable—and even better, inspiring—to me.

-Penny Wrenn


Quiz: How cluttered Is Your home?

1. When it comes to spending time in your home, you ...
a) Use all of the rooms. Aside from the occasional mess, your house is comfortable, and you enjoy being there.
b) Use most of the rooms with the exception of a few you either can’t get to because the entrance is blocked or you don’t like hanging out in because of how much stuff is there.
c) Use only a few rooms. Overall, you don’t really like spending time at home, and in many rooms, there’s too much stuff to move around safely.

2. On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate the cleanliness of your home?
a) 8 to 10. It’s pretty clean most of the time; a friend could come over unexpectedly and wouldn’t be shocked at the mess.
b) 5 to 7. It’s in a constant state of needing a good cleaning, with garbage cans often overflowing, some mildew in the bathroom or kitchen, and tolerable—but not pleasant—odors.
c) 0 to 4. There’s excessive dust, consistently dirty kitchen and bathroom counters, laundry throughout the house, and a constant unpleasant odor.

3. A “good cleaning” means . . .
a) Going through boxes, bags, and piles of stuff that are in my way, tossing what I don’t need, and putting what I want to hold on to in its designated space.
b) Rounding up boxes, bags, and piles of stuff that are in my way, and shoving everything into a designated “junk” room, which I always promise to tackle soon.
c) My house needs much more than a good cleaning, so I just do the bare minimum, like changing my sheets every so often and wiping down the kitchen counters.

4. On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your ability to get rid of stuff you don’t use anymore?
a) 8 to 10. It feels good to ditch or donate items that I don’t need.
b) 5 to 7. I have a hard time letting go of most things. My attitude: “You never know when you’ll need it again.”
c) 0 to 4. I won’t get rid of my stuff. I’d rather hold on to something for years than let it go, even if it’s just going to collect dust in the basement.

5. The stuff in my home . . .
a) Serves a purpose (for the most part, anyway). Each room in my house has a function, and I use most of the things I own.
b) Needs major organization. I often can’t find things when I need them because I have too much stuff, much of which I don’t use.
c) Creates a constant source of stress and anxiety for me. I’ve got so much stuff that I can’t use or find most of it when I need it, and it’s affecting my health and the way I interact with people.

If you answered mostly as . . .
Your household is considered standard when it comes to clutter. Sure, your home gets messy every now and then, but it never gets so out of control that you need help getting a handle on it.

If you answered mostly bs . . .
Your household likely requires the help of professional organizers. You might be able to tackle your clutter issues on your own, but professional help could give you the jump-start you need. Your clutter is keeping you from being your happiest, healthiest self—but simple steps can help you get on a better track.

If you answered mostly cs . . .
Your household may require more than a professional organizer. Seeking help, including a professional organizer as well as a psychologist, is probably necessary. Psychological, medical, or financial issues are likely involved in your clutteredness, and tackling larger issues that clue you in to why you have so much stuff will give you the skills and knowledge you need to do something about it.

Adapted from the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization. For more information, visit nsgcd.org.


Decluttering 101
5 steps to get started from “organizing doc” Ronit Zweig, PsyD

1. Toss the trash. Do a walk-through of your entire home, and throw out all of the garbage, even if you do no other cleaning. You’ll be amazed how much that can help.
2. Tackle what you can see first. Don’t worry about organizing closets and drawers right away; focus on countertops, desks, and chairs.
3. Figure out what you need and use. Do another walk-through, and gather items you haven’t used in six months or more. Toss what’s broken or donate what still works. If you can’t quite bring yourself to do that yet, put the items in a box and store the box somewhere of the way but not completely out of sight. “This way, it’ll remain just annoying enough for a rainy-day activity,” says Zweig.
4. Set up organizing systems. For example, if the area near your front door is a dumping ground, create a “station” with baskets for various items, such as shoes and mail. If your “stuff” is organized by category, it’ll be easier to bring some order to it later.
5. Take baby steps. You might not be able to see a huge change in the way your home looks right away, so remind yourself that every little bit counts. It’ll help you keep a positive attitude.