12 2017

DE-CLUTTERING: NEUROSCIENCE results show strong link to wellbeing — why is the process so hard?

Jess Eddey

DE-CLUTTERING: NEUROSCIENCE results show strong link to wellbeing — why is the process so hard? - blog post image

Tips to help with de-cluttering; and the scientific reasoning behind why clutter clearing is good for our wellbeing, yet a difficult process.

  • As a Bachelor of Psychological Science graduate from Monash University, I have been fascinated about the psychological and biological reasons behind clutter and hoarding habits. As a professional declutter expert and organiser for the past 4 years I have tried to implement my studies around the scientific reasonings for why we accumulate clutter, to help come up with effective solutions to help our clients overcome there clutter struggles.
  • From a living perspective a cluttered environment can negatively affect your living experience. Whether it is your closet or office desk, if you are surrounded by unfinished work, unanswered letters, incomplete projects, unsorted piles of paperwork, unread and stray books and magazines and all manner of miscellaneous items, this has been linked to a negative impact on your ability to focus and process information.

    Research from the Princeton University of Neuroscience published a study in January 2011 in the The Journal of Neuroscience using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other measurements to map the brain’s responses to an organised and disorganised environment.The research results were strong and found that “multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout the visual cortex, causing a limited processing capacity of the visual system”. Put simply, when your physical environment is cluttered, this restrict your ability to focus. Furthermore they found that a restricted ability to focus leads to frustration, anger and anxiety. For example the clutter competes for your attention in the same way a young child might stand next to you and scream repeatedly for your attention and even though you are able to focus a little, you’ve still got an awareness of the screaming child next you. This in turn wears down your mental capabilities causing frustration and tension. Furthermore the research also concluded that an organised space and living environment led participants to be less irritable, more productive and were distracted less often.

    Some other well researched negative affects of living in a cluttered environment are:

    - Exacerbates allergies by inviting buildup of dust mites and mold

    - Increases risk of fire and injuries

    - Decreases odds of exercise (How can you go running when you can’t find your shoes?)

    - Makes you late for work and appointments when you can’t find things

    - Depletes your energy with its overwhelming presence

    Futhermore clutter often provides the following in people:

    - Security

    - Indication of self-worth

    - Comfort, especially when clutter is the spoils from shopping therapy

    - Symbol of being loved


    So why do we collect things?

    For a number of reasons- maybe you believe you’ll need to use it later, the object may have sentimental value , or that the item is worth monetary value.

    The reality is however, that you probably made a mistake in buying or bringing this item into your home. Unfortunately the reason decluttering is so difficult for many people is that it literally hurts your brain to come to terms with this fact.

    Research at Yale University found there are two main areas in the brain associated with pain, and these areas light up in response to letting go of items you own and feel a strong connection toward.

    Therefore results show that 1. it is important to remove clutter, however 2. it is psychologically difficult for us to let go of possessions

    So how do we go about removing clutter then?


    What doesn’t work-

    Buying loads of fancy bins with equally fancy labels to store all your clutter doesn’t get to the root of the issue. It’s kind of like putting a fresh coat of paint on a house that’s crumbling at its foundation. Sure, your clutter may be more neatly organised, but you haven’t gotten rid of anything and you haven’t fixed the core of the problem. Rearranging a home does not repair the foundation.


    What does work- OUR TIPS

    • 1.Do not go out and buy those storage bins! As previously mentioned these will not do you any good if you don’t have anywhere to effectively store them. They will just add to your clutter.
    • 2.Don’t let perfection get in the way. Spend majority/all of your time getting rid of or donating things and then come back later to tidy/pretty things up.
    • 3.Donate/dispose of unwanted items straight away. If you have things in your boot to take to charity or have a room/space piled with rubbish you are often tempted to go back through it and pull things back out.
    • 4.Declutter the easy obvious things first. If you’re struggling deciding on an item then leave it, just move to the items you know you definitely don’t need/want anymore and focus on these first. Then tackle your storage areas next. So that way when you being sorting other rooms, you will have places to put these possessions that should have been in storage (but originally you didn’t have room for)
    • 5.Decide to remove things you are keeping out of guilt or obligation.
    • 6.Do not be afraid to let go. The urge to hold onto items you think you might need later can next be removed by a simple process of being realistic about the use. Just because an item might be useful, that docent mean it is a necessary object to keep. Seek to understand the difference between usefulness and its actual functionality in the home
    • 7.Don’t get overwhelmed or panic! Take the task one step at a time and work room by room
    • 8.Set up 4 designated work stations: one for rubbish, charity, things to keep/go to storage, and items to sell
    • 9.Return things to their “home” once the item has bee used. This will stop things being left all over the place, and keep things in a ordered and neat fashion
    • 10.Don’t leave clothes in your closet until they are out of date, they take up storage space that could be used for other thing

    Or a useful way of working through the need for the object is to ask the following questions if you are struggling with an item:

    • 1.Is this item sentimental? If no, ask the next question. If yes, consider keeping it.
    • 2.Is this item useful? If yes, ask the next question. If no, consider selling or donating the item if it is in good condition
    • 3.This item could be useful in the future, however have I used it in the last 12 months and do I see an urgent need to use it in the next six months? If no, ask the next question. If yes, consider keeping it.
    • 4.Is this item hard to or costly to replace if repurpose it? If no, move to the next question. If yes, consider keeping it.
    • 5.So whilst this item could be useful for a situation in the future, I have no used this item recently and I’m not sure I really need to use it in the future. It is taking up space that could be better used, and it is adding to the clutter of my property and may be adding to negative wellbeing, even though I have no sentimental attachment to it. This helps you really work through all the reasons you may be keeping the item (sentimentality, usefulness, cost) and puts it into prospective if you REALLY need to keep an item. The first few goes might be difficult, but as professional declutters and organisers we have found clients start to get into a rhythm and feel a sense of relief when they are repurposing items.


    Interestingly whilst the start of the decluttering process can be painful, once the process begins and you get into a rhythm. This causes anxiety levels start to reduce as items are being removed, and also causes a rise in Dopamine levels (those chemicals that make us feel good!). Why? It’s the act behind the decluttering (as opposed to the physical process), that is the sense of accomplishment that makes us feel good. When we succeed at a task (in this case, clearing a room or a storage space), the brain releases dopamine, a reward chemical which causes us the desire to want to repeat the experience. When we complete a task or start repurposing an item we get into the habit of wanting to do this again (think Classical Conditioning; Pavlov’s dog experiment) and therefore find the process becomes easier.

    As a professional declutter and organiser for over 4 years as well as having a Bachelor of Psychological Science degree from Monash University, I come up with helpful solutions and tips in order to help our clients create beautiful homes if they need their home decluttered for sale and for clients who just need a clutter free living environment.

    Our team of staff have all been trained alongside both Lisa and myself to come up with strategies and solutions to effectively and efficiently help our clients.

    Our clients often say its the start of the process is the hardest. They will often say “I just don’t know where to begin”. Again the research shows that this is because it is a painful experience, so it is often helpful to hire a professional declutter to start this process. Once you have begun the processes, ideas and solutions we will help you with, will make the decluttering process fast and effective.


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