organized desk with computer, lamp, candle and notebook

The Psychology of Clutter

We’ve been talking quite a bit about decluttering. Clutter and getting rid of it are perennial hot topics, which is why I think it’s important to look at the psychology behind clutter. What causes us to collect so much stuff, and then struggle to get rid of it? What impact does all that stuff have on our lives and our well-being?

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Studies have shown that clutter creates stress in our lives. One study showed that 54% of Americans are overwhelmed by the amount of clutter surrounding them, and the vast majority of those people have no idea what to do with it. Understanding the psychology of clutter can help us identify the effects it has on our lives.

The Psychology of Clutter - a mess on tip of a desk

Emotional Effects

The state of our living and work space can impact our emotions and mental state. Clutter takes a toll on our emotions. When clutter starts taking over, we feel overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed.

Anxiety, stress, and depression:

Studies had shown that clutter can increase our stress and anxiety levels, and even lead to depression. Clutter makes us feel like we’re living in chaos, so it’s hard to fully relax.

Guild and Shame:

When our home is a disorganized cluttered mess, we feel guilty and ashamed. We don’t want people to come over. Especially as moms, we think we’re supposed to have a meticulous house and when we don’t, we feel like failures.

Behavioral Effects

Once clutter has impacted our emotional well-being, it then can affect our behaviors.


Because we get overwhelmed by clutter, we can’t focus. If we can’t focus, how can we make decisions? Being overwhelmed can often lead to decision paralysis. We can’t do anything.


When our environment is cluttered, it’s difficult to focus on the task at hand, so we procrastinate. The disorganization makes us feel overwhelmed, so we put tasks off. However, we end up in a cycle of procrastination and clutter. We procrastinate because we’re overwhelmed but then more clutter piles up because we haven’t dealt with it, and then we procrastinate more.


I’m sure you saw this one coming. If we can’t focus, how can we accomplish what we need to do? Clutter is horribly distracting. We might fiddle with things under the guise of decluttering, but it ends up being time wasted on unimportant tasks (more procrastination).

Impulse buying:

This goes along with wasting time on unimportant tasks. We feel overwhelmed so we buy a bunch more “stuff” in order to get the clutter under control. However, if we go into such purchases without thought—without a plan—we’re just wasting more time and money.

Cognitive Effects

As someone who struggles with executive dysfunction, it’s important for you to understand the effect clutter can have on your cognitive function because this is also where executive functioning comes into play.

Attention span:

As mentioned, clutter makes it difficult to focus on the things we need to pay attention to. It’s a distraction, leading to a shorter attention span and an inability to concentrate.


Clutter causes us to “lose” things. There’s so much stuff in the way that items are constantly being misplaced and we forget where they are.


It’s hard to be creative when you can’t focus. The mental block that clutter causes can impede your ability to think outside the box and create new ideas.

organized desk with computer, lamp, candle and notebook

Benefits of Decluttering

Decluttering your life and creating a more organized space will have a positive impact on your emotional and mental well-being. Organizing gives you the chance to turn around all of the negative effects discussed above.

When clutter is gone, you feel a sense of relief. Decluttering will create a sense of calm as you get rid of the things you no longer need. That sense of relief can help you develop a positive mindset.

Once you’ve organized things, you can be more productive. Your ability to be efficient can increase and you’ll be less likely to suffer from decision paralysis.

Decluttering can also have a positive impact on your relationships. Let’s face it, clutter and mess can trigger tension and frustration between people, especially if you live or work together. Creating a more organized space can alleviate some of that tension.

Physical vs. Digital Clutter

Most of the time when we think about clutter, we imagine piles of paper and boxes and toys laying around the room. However, clutter can pile up in both our physical and digital spaces.

Physical clutter is what we’ve been mostly talking about. It’s the mess in our house that creates stress because it’s not managed. Digital clutter, on the other hand, takes up space on our devices (computer, phone, etc).

The main difference between these types of clutter is that I think it’s easier to ignore digital clutter. In many cases, we might not even be fully aware of how much clutter exists until our computer crashes or our phone stops working. And if we’re unaware of it, it’s less likely to have a negative impact on our emotional well-being.

That doesn’t mean that it has no impact on our lives. Digital clutter causes your device to move slowly, which directly impacts your productivity. If you’re easily distracted, think about how many times your mind wanders to other things while you’re waiting for a page to load or a file to download. If you have a lot of digital clutter, it’s also probably not well organized, so finding what you need takes longer than it should, causing you to be less productive.

The benefits of decluttering apply to both our physical and digital spaces. Knowing where to find things reduces stress and improves our mental and emotional well-being. We can be more productive because we’re more organized, so we waste less time. In addition, we might be less likely to procrastinate because we can find what we need to start a task.

woman typing on a laptop

Decluttering Sweet Spot

I’ve just spent almost an entire post talking about the importance of decluttering, but I don’t want you to think that you have to go clear out everything you own and live with nothing. A minimalist lifestyle is good for some people, but it’s not for everyone.

Personally, I don’t have lots of stuff anymore. I cleared out tons of stuff a couple of years ago, but my house is far from empty. I decluttered the things that we just collecting dust—things that didn’t really matter to me. But I’ve always wanted to have a home that looks lived in. I want people to know that a family lives, loves, and thrives in my house.

A spartan, minimalist home doesn’t feel that way to me. And I am not by any means throwing shade at people who have a meticulous house where you could eat off the floor and you never have to worry about stepping on a Lego. Part of me is a little jealous of that.

But I don’t think I’d be happy living that way.

Enter the decluttering sweet spot.

You need to find the balance of what works for you. Decluttering shouldn’t leave you feeling bereft that you tossed all of your belongings. It should make you feel relieved that you now have a functional, less chaotic space.

Notice I didn’t say spotless or empty space. You need a space that works with your brain and your personality. You need to assess your personality and your lifestyle. What makes you comfortable?

Then, consider your actual space. If you went from living in a house to a small apartment, you can’t keep the same amount of stuff without it feeling cluttered. There simply isn’t enough space.  Likewise, if there used to be only you and your partner living in a house, but now it’s the two of your plus three kids, priorities shift.

The next thing to consider is your daily routine. What do you need to have at your fingertips all the time? Can you still function if the items you need aren’t in your eyesight?

Finding your sweet spot will be a process. You’ll have to try different things to see what works. The important thing to remember as you work on decluttering is that you’re looking for a place where you don’t feel stressed out by what you see, but you also don’t feel like you’ve lost everything. Take it step by step to find your balance.

Understanding why we have clutter and why it’s so difficult to clear it can help us gain some important perspective in our lives. Decluttering can be hard and frustrating. But following through with a plan—even if that plan is trial and error—can give you a more comfortable home and reduce the level of stress you have.

Go forth and declutter!

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