How to Clean Up Your Clutter Act for Good

Medically Reviewed by Patricia A. Farrell, PhD on April 15, 2014
3 min read

Take a look around your house. Do you see papers piled on counters? Clothing stuffed into drawers? Linen closets that look like war zones?

You may have a clutter problem, and it could be affecting you more than you know.

A cluttered environment can limit your ability to focus and process information, a recent study shows. Scientists used brain scans to map the responses of people who were looking at a computer screen with pictures arranged in different ways. The more disorganized the images, the more divided the brain's attention became, leading the researchers to conclude that being organized could help boost productivity.

Sounds great, right? But getting organized isn't so easy. That's because your clutter is about more than just stuff, says Melva Green, MD, co-author of Breathing Room: Open Your Heart by Decluttering Your Home. "Physical clutter is often an outward manifestation of emotions like fear, grief, shame, and guilt," she says.

To deal with clutter, you also have to deal with the emotions your clutter represents. Green suggests three steps to get started.

Identify your end goal. Time to put your bedroom in order? Think about what you want to get out of the space, says Green. "Romance? Rest? Women might say they want more intimacy, but first you have to get the clutter off your bed!" Naming the goal helps you be intentional about creating the space that you desire.

Enlist a friend. When you're ready to start going through your stuff, ask a friend to come over. "A third party can help you when you feel stuck, motivate you when you feel overwhelmed, and encourage you to let go of things you're holding on to that you don't need -- physically and emotionally," Green says.

Ask three questions. As you're cleaning, with each item you pick up, ask yourself: How does this serve me? Can I live without this? How does it keep me from being content with who I am now? "The key," Green says, "is to be grateful for the things you have -- and then be willing to let them go."

Q: "My fiancé's home office is a mess and it drives me crazy. Every time I ask him to clean it up, he says he knows where everything is. But wouldn't he be more efficient if things were tidier?" -- Sarah Turcotte, 33, writer, New York City

A: "Not necessarily. While clutter poses a problem for most people, some creative types can be inspired, according to a University of Minnesota study. What to you looks like absolute mayhem could be magical for your fiancé. It may be that he is one of the few people who views clutter as a stimulus rather than a distraction, so it may be best to leave him to it -- and just ask him to keep the door closed." -- Melva Green, MD

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of "WebMD Magazine."