There is a cluster of pens near the stack of books on the edge of my desk. Crumpled gum wrappers are tossed in the middle next to a photograph of my daughter, an empty business-card holder, and a box of dried out markers. Along the left flank is a stack of six magazines that I’ve been meaning to read, and a torn newspaper clipping about the eclipse.
I’ve wasted the last 12 minutes looking through this mess for a project proposal and signed contract. I’m having a hard time staying focused because I’m filtering through all the other garbage on my desk. This is what clutter can do—shred our focus. Clutter demands and divides attention, splitting it into many directions even when we attempt to concentrate on an essential task, according to researchers from Princeton University. When an environment is filled with a lot of visual stimuli, the brain is challenged to identify and process all those individual pieces of information instead of focusing on any one thing. In cluttered spaces, our brains are like computer processors that are continually cycling and searching but never capturing the specific information it needs. Environmental chaos depletes our mental processing abilities and resources causing stress and frustration, the researchers say.
This can lead to feelings of fatigue and overwhelm, and a decrease in the ability to make effective decisions, says Catherine Roster, Ph.D., professor of marketing at the University of New Mexico. Roster and her research partner, Joseph Ferrari of DePaul University, define clutter as the “overabundance of possessions that create chaotic and disorderly living spaces.” It isn’t only physical items that contribute to a sense of chaos, but how we relate to each item, Roster says. “You can have a lot of stuff, maybe 200 pairs of shoes, but if they are neatly organized in an elegant shoe closet, they would not be regarded as clutter,” Roster says. If we are emotionally attached to every shoe, or other items we own, we may also feel frustrated because stuff is stacked all over and we spend too much time trying to find what we need.Items can contribute to chaos in our environment and that have a negative impact on our lives, Roster says. “Most people have some level of clutter,” she says, “maybe a closet they know needs to be gone through or a basement that has been a dumping ground for unused/unwanted furniture or toys the kids have outgrown, but when it begins to affect your quality of life there is a problem.” The thought of sifting through piles of papers or cleaning out knick-knacks may feel like a lot to take on. In this case, the best way to get at the physical clutter is to start by cleaning out the mental garbage. Here are three ways I clear the clutter: 1. Stick to an essentials-only schedule. When my home begins to look like a packrat’s den, it’s often because I’ve over-committed my time and started taking shortcuts. Instead of acting consciously and deliberately, I’m running around in a hectic state trying to do everything and taking shortcuts. I’ll drop things on the counter, pile papers on my desk, and leave clean clothes in the laundry bin. Now, when I see items accumulating in piles, it’s a sure sign that I need to slow down, pause, and say “no” to everything unessential on my schedule and tackle the clutter.
2. Make a note of it. When life feels loaded with loose ends—projects to complete, appointments to make, bills to pay, invoices to mail—it’s difficult to maintain my meditation routine and find the time and space to stay clutter-free—mentally and physically. That’s when I make a list. On a page of a spiral notebook, I write down everything that requires mental bandwidth. Getting my thoughts down on paper provides the mental clarity that helps me focus on completing tasks rather than ruminating on what I have to do. 3. Pick one thing. Action is the antidote to the mental and physical clutter. When I’m feeling weighed down, I identify one thing that feels heavy and I deal with it. Maybe it’s talking with a co-worker to resolve a conflict, making a weighty decision you’ve been waffling on, or scheduling an appointment. Once you move toward completion of a task or goal, that momentum will carry you forward onto other tasks at hand. According to Harvard researchers and authors of “The Power of Small Wins”, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, “nothing contributed more to a positive inner work life ... than making progress in meaningful work. If a person is motivated and happy at the end of the workday, it's a good bet that he or she achieved something, however small.” My own “small wins” involved cobbling together a client’s invoice and tossing out the gum wrappers. Those small actions provided some mental relief and the newly, opened space on my desk helped me feel more in control. That progress prompted me to sort through another stack—at the bottom, where I found the contract I’d been looking for.
It isn’t only physical items that contribute to a sense of chaos, but how we relate to each item.