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How Tidying Your Space Affects Mental Clarity

You're more sensitive to the objects that clutter your home than you think. Here's how to clear your living and head space.

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Five years ago, professional organizer Liz Savage walked into her newest client’s one-bedroom apartment in NYC and immediately stopped in her tracks. She literally could not move around the railroad-style residence. Each of the three small rooms were covered knee- to thigh-deep in stuff, from books, magazines and newspapers to clothes, empty cereal boxes, and new products still in their packaging.

Looking around, the gravity of the situation quickly sunk in. Savage made a light joke to alleviate some of the palpable tension. When she turned to face her client with a smile, Savage found her silently sobbing. The 30-year-old woman knew she had a hoarding problem, but didn’t know how to address it. So instead she did her best to hide it from family (including her parents), friends and her boyfriend for years. No one was allowed to enter, not even her building superintendent, which explained why half the lights in her apartment were out.

“Thinking about your mess weighs so heavily on you. It gets worse and worse over time. The size of the mess may stay the same, but your feelings about the mess may get bigger and bigger,” says Savage, who spent six months building her client’s trust over the phone and email before setting foot in the door.

“Negative thoughts—such as, ‘Why am I not more organized? Why am I not a better person? Why does everyone else have it together? Why can’t I fit in those pants?’—take over, keeping you from tackling the issue,” she explains further. That week, Savage and her crew of four women worked tirelessly for 12 hours a day to clean and organize this woman’s living quarters, while the client stayed elsewhere and sought therapy at Savage’s request. “I’m an external organizer. Therapists are internal organizers. They help with cleaning up the space in between the ears. I deal with everywhere else,” she says.

There’s much more to hoarding than simply accumulating a lot of stuff. “Hoarding is often conceptualized as an anxiety disorder similar to obsessive compulsive disorder,” explains clinical psychologist Darby Saxbe, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at University of Southern California. “The idea is that people displace their anxiety onto possessions,” she continues.  “Surrounding themselves with stuff allows them to avoid the discomfort of needing to make choices and throw things away.”

Related: Try this guided meditation for self-compassion.

The results of Savage’s hard work were unforgettable. “When my client returned to her bright almost-empty apartment, she was in total shock. As she walked around touching every surface, she couldn’t stop saying ‘Oh my god, oh my god, thank you so much’ while crying. I was in tears, too. She was finally able to invite her boyfriend and family over and let her super in for maintenance. With her apartment in good enough shape, she was able to end her lease and move in with her partner, who she is still with today,” says Savage, who has helped more than 60 clients, like this women, during her eight-year career.

Your own clutter doesn’t need to get this bad to understand how much the smallest amount of disorderliness can weigh on you. There could be a ton of different, non-serious reasons why, say, your bedroom closet may look like a ransacked outlet mall post-Black Friday. For many of us, it’s a time issue. When the difference is picking up your kids from school on time versus a clean kitchen, odds are your babies win (as they should) every time. But that doesn’t give you permission to ignore that overflowing closet, which could be taking a toll on your mental health.

“Studies show that people find living in a home space that is in disarray creates a sense of overload, ambiguity, confusion, and over-stimulation in one’s everyday life,” confirms Saxbe, who studies the stress hormone cortisol. “If clutter and house projects are stressful to you, then streamlining your surroundings may be restorative and relaxing,” she says.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, your physical space plays a role in how you behave. For example, surgeons and accountants work better in low-ceiling rooms, which promotes concentration, while creative types are more productive in bright, naturally-lit rooms with high ceilings, explains feng shui expert Ariel Joseph Towne, author of the book Serene Makeover. That’s just one layer to how our surroundings affect us. The next is a bit more complicated.

“Every single item in the home carries a story with it and each of these items are constantly whispering to you. For example, a library of books may be telling you to ‘Read me, read me, read me.’ Everything that’s attached to a memory is an invitation to the past,” Towne says. Trips down memory lane can be fun, but living in the past can also be stifling. “Because most of these items look backwards in time, they are directly connected to how we perceive ourselves and the story we tell ourselves and carry with us everywhere we go. I try to teach people to be mindful of where they have been, but also to gain clarity of where they are going.”

There’s a direction correlation between the way we think and the cleanliness of our space, Towne continues. Organizing your stuff won’t just save you time (you’ll know where to find items when you need ’em), but it also gives you peace of mind. You can finally quiet that annoying voice in the back of your head saying, ‘Hey, know how you never finish things?’

“All of these layers affect you like gravity,” Towne says. “There are all these different ways that adjusting your space can affect your mental health, your overall immune system and the way we feel about ourselves.” Both Towne and Savage have witnessed this firsthand through their work of helping folks regain control of their homes, and ultimately their lives. When the emotional weight of all this stuff has been lifted, you may be surprised and very pleased with the results, such as a lighter (literally), more confident, clear-headed you.

9 Strategies to De-clutter Your Life

Barter with yourself. If you live by the principle that if something new comes in, something old must come out, then you can make better buying decisions. “It needs to be a constant flow of in and out. Some purchases make us happy, but not all of it and you want to avoid accumulating items that ultimately don’t make you happy,” Savage suggests.

Don’t go to the Container Store just yet. Hold off on stocking up on bins, containers, and other storage items until you determine what you have first, Savage says. “More bins do not equal more organization. It just adds to the clutter,” she says.

Count to three. As you start to clean, hold each item in your hand for three seconds. “In those three seconds, you will be able to place each piece in one of three categories: 1) ‘Yes, I definitely want to keep this,’ 2) ‘No, this is something I definitely do not want to keep,’ and 3) ‘I’m not sure,’” Towne says. From there, you can start to move the items in the ‘No’ pile by the door. “The sooner you can remove the ‘No’ items from your space, the less likely they will make their way back into your drawers and your life,” Towne says. The ‘Yes’ items can be put away. As for your ‘I don’t know’ items, ask yourself, ‘Do I love it? Is it beautiful? Have I used it in the last six months to a year?‘ If you can’t answer ‘yes’ to all three questions, then it may need to go in the ‘No’ pile.

Only keep items that “spark joy.” If you’re still having trouble deciding what to keep or toss, take a cue from Japanese book author Marie Kondo, who wrote the international best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. “Take each item in [your] hand and ask: ‘Does this spark joy?’ If it does, keep it. If not, dispose of it,” she advises in her book. “Imagine yourself living in a space that contains only things that spark joy. Isn’t that the lifestyle you dream of? Keep only those things that speak to your heart,” she adds.

Have a purge plan. Throwing away things you’ve held onto for a long time, like the beads you got on your honeymoon in Hawaii, can be painful, but not everything is trash. “Organizing the things you’re getting rid of helps,” says Towne, who recommends creating piles that you can donate to Goodwill, recycle, return to someone (like an ex), and sell online or in consignment shops. One caveat: “If you think it’ll take you a year to put that $15 item on eBay, then it might not be worth selling,” says Towne.

Choose how you want to binge-clean. “Trying to accomplish all your spring cleaning in one day is a sure-fire way to provoke an anxiety attack,” Savage warns. “It’s important to tackle projects in bite-size pieces. The optimal session length is three to five hours,” she says. Kondo, on the other hand, believes that “if you tidy up in one shot rather than little by little,” as she explains in her book, “you can dramatically change your mind-set.” For her, the ideal way to tackle your cleaning is one long marathon session that will “empower you to keep your space in order ever after.”

Sort your stuff by category. Rather than focus on cleaning one location, such as a room, dresser or closet at a time, Kondo suggests organizing by category instead. “The root of the problem lies in the fact that people often store the same type of item in more than one place,” she writes in her book. “When we tidy each place separately, we fail to see that we’re repeating the same work in many locations and become locked into a vicious circle of tidying.” The tidying order of categories Kondo suggests is tops (shirts, sweaters, etc.), bottoms (pants, skirts, etc.), clothes that should be hung (jackets, coats, suits, etc.), socks, underwear, bags (handbags, messenger bags, etc.), accessories (scarves, belts, hats, etc.), clothes for specific events (swimsuits, uniforms, etc.), shoes, books, papers (credit card statements, greeting cards, instruction manuals, etc.), photos and miscellaneous items.

Bring in backup. Recruit a friend or a professional, like Savage or Towne, if you simply cannot do it alone. Sure, you made the mess, but rather than sit and stew in it, call in a cleaning crew to kick-start your new lease on life.

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