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cost of clutter

The Cost of Clutter: Physical, Emotional and Digital

How Much is Clutter Actually Costing You?

What if I told you that digital and physical clutter negatively impact your productivity and performance? Similar to multitasking, clutter of all types overloads your senses causing your brain and body to feel stressed and reduces your creativity.

Maybe that’s why Pinterest is loaded with storage solutions that would leave a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder wanting more, or why Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up topped the NY Times bestsellers list for months. This is also why companies like California Closets and The Container Store are thriving!

Getting organized is big business. But while our minds would focus better and our lives would feel less stressed is we decluttered, it can be a painful process. So much so, that people procrastinate even starting the process. They often resort to hiring professional organizers or unfortunately, give up on the idea completely. So, what exactly is the Cost of Clutter? I attempt to answer this question and others below.

The Brain, the Brain, the Center of the Clutter Train

Researchers at Yale University identified two areas of the brain associated with pain, and those same areas light up when test subjects are forced to part with possessions viewed with financial or emotional value! The more valued the possession, the more painful the loss. This explains why many victims of burglaries and fires describe the emotional loss they suffer as more devastating than the physical loss of their personal possessions. So how can we successfully rid our lives of digital and physical clutter and improve our mental and physical health in the process?

Yale University found that the more valued the possession, the more painful the loss. Click To Tweet

Many people will follow the ‘rip off the band-aid’ method: purging belongings room by room of everything no longer used or needed and rearranging and organizing the items left behind in functional containers and cabinets. While results of this kind are immediate, they are often not sustainable for the long-term. People simply resume acquiring items once again; creating a feeling of failure and doing nothing to reduce stress or restore mental balance. Not to mention they often feel wasteful when purchasing items to replace what was purged. Isn’t there a better way?

The Bare Essentials Method

Extremists may go the route of TreeHugger founder Graham Hill, who traded in his million-dollar mansion for a 420 square-foot apartment that only has the bare essentials. To clarify bare essentials: he owns 12 salad bowls and kitchen utensils and does not even have internet in his home to reduce his digital clutter. Few could sustain this way of life, especially those with families, but those who do, proclaim they are free to focus on what really matters in their lives: families, hobbies, and passion projects.

The Kondo Method

In reality, there are a few simple, effective methods to declutter homes, desks, and digital lives. The Kondo method recommends keeping only items that ‘spark joy’. Sounds easy, right? While your emotional tie to a sweater from grandma that you would never wear is fairly obvious: you love your grandma and donating the sweater feels ungrateful; the tie to that stack of English papers from college is a little less clear.

Are you ever going to reread those papers? Aren’t they stored in a file on your computer? Maybe it’s the comments by the teacher that your writing is ‘brilliant’ that you value; you’re holding on to that outside validation, not the papers themselves!

Those ‘aha moments’ are what you need to filter out the items of real value from those of perceived value. Suddenly, decluttering becomes as much about self-discovery as it does about organization. This process may take a bit longer to complete, but the results are sustainable and effective. There are experts in the Kondo method that you can hire, or you can read her book and guide yourself through the process. Whichever path you choose, the investment is minimal compared to the reduction in clutter-induced stress and increased productivity.

30-Day Minimalism

Other organization experts tout the 30-day minimalism game. On day one you get rid of one item, day two, two items, and so on. By day 30, you will have eliminated 564 items from your home; success by anyone’s standards. The key, of course, is not to replace them. Consider a follow-on to this game, the one in-one out method. Very straightforward.

Once you reach a sustainable level of organization and number of possessions you maintain those levels by following one simple rule: for every item you bring in the house, one must be removed. Buy a t-shirt, get rid of a t-shirt or other clothing item. Buy a new kitchen gadget, get rid of a kitchen item. Simple, and easy. It creates a state of mindfulness when buying, thus reducing expenditures on unnecessary items. All while reducing clutter and stress and improving focus.

Digital Clutter

When it comes to digital clutter, that is another can of worms. Everything that goes ‘ping’ is competing for your attention. When your brain has too much on its plate, it splits its power up. As a result, you become awful at filtering information, switching quickly between tasks, and keeping a strong working memory.

You can reduce the digital noise in your life and improve your focus and productivity by combining several small fixes. Try emptying your email inbox before calling it quits for the day; turn off email notifications while working on a project; clean up your desktop in organized folders sorted by project, as well as priority and utilize the do not disturb feature on your smartphone! While these ideas may seem small, results do not lie: research finds that college students who focus on one task at a time get greater results than those who multi-task. Student performance equates to job performance. What company doesn’t want greater job performance?

Experts from Stanford to Princeton all agree that decluttering your home and work environment reduces physical and mental stress, which, in turn,  increases focus and productivity. What is important to remember is your level of perceived clutter is what impacts stress, and, ultimately, attention and focus.

Try emptying your email inbox before calling it quits for the day; turn off email notifications while working on a project; clean up your desktop in organized folders sorted by project, as well as priority and utilize the do not disturb feature on your smartphone!

Of course, the cost of clutter is different for everyone. There is no clearly defined level of clutter that affects everyone. While the first purging steps can be painful, the benefits to your mental health and work productivity are worth the struggle! Less stress and more productivity can lead to better job performance. Better job performance means increased pay and more promotions, and that makes everyone happy!

[Editor’s Note: For more articles like this one by Mercedes Holmen, check out “Does Balancing Your Health and Finances=Wellness?”, and “Studies Prove Having Both Brains and Money are Connected.”

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About Mercedes Holmen

Mercedes is a business owner and Executive Consultant with Rodan and Fields. In addition, she works in the field of behavior analysis for children with autism and their families, specializing in preschool aged children. She also has her Masters in Science from University of California at Davis.

View all articles by Mercedes »

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