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Health & Balance

Clutter vs. Hoarding: What's the Difference?

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Signs of Trouble

A red flag is when clutter affects your daily life. Ask yourself questions like these:

  • Do you buy many of the same things over time, because you can't find what you already have?
  • Does your stuff prevent you from having people over or having enough money?
  • Are you late paying bills because you can’t find your bills?
  • Do you have trouble getting dinner ready on time?
  • Does someone complain about your stuff? Does it cause family fights?
  • Are there narrow "goat trails" in your house to walk through between tall mounds of stuff?
  • Do you ever feel "I'm out of control" or feel bad looking at your piles of clutter?

"Yes" answers mean your clutter might be a problem for you or others.

How to Keep Clutter in Check

  • Watch what you do: When you bring in mail, where does it go? When you see exactly how your clutter snowballs, you can get a better idea of how to stop it, Lark says. Could you stop at a recycle bin on your way from the mailbox to get rid of junk mail?
  • Name the problem. People often tell Lark, "I cleaned my desk, but it all came back." This language distances you from the real issue of what's going on in that space. "It" isn't the problem -- your habits are.
  • Set concrete limits. Saying "I'll buy less" is too vague. Better to say, "I'll limit my mess to these two rooms," Novack says.
  • Accept neatness as a lifelong issue for you.  "It's a constant struggle, like losing 50 pounds and needing help to maintain it," Novack says. "You might gain 5 back and have to work hard not to gain 10 or 15."
  • Try formal help. Self-help groups like Clutterers Anonymous and Messies Anonymous give ongoing support. A pro organizer can help you get on top of things and learn ways to improve. Also useful are cognitive behavioral therapy and treatment of underlying issues, such as ADHD or depression.
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Reviewed on February 20, 2014

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