Jan 17, 2023 - Health

Axios Finish Line: How clutter pollutes your mind

Illustration of a pile of dirty laundry sitting on top of a brain

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This article originally appeared in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness. Sign up here.

Clutter in our homes, offices and cars is something many of us are drowning in — but clearing it out can seem like a gargantuan task.

  • Why it matters: A messy environment infects the mind. It can make us anxious and hurt our ability to relax, focus or sleep.

"It just makes life harder," says Susan Whitbourne, a psychologist at UMass Amherst. "Things take longer to do, you lose things, you break things, you're slowed down."

  • Then there's the emotional distress. "You're constantly faced with reminders of your messiness, which doesn't conform to your identity as someone who has their act together."
  • Case in point: A recent study — reported in the journal Environment and Behavior tested — the effect of mess on behavior by placing subjects in normal versus chaotic kitchens. Those in the messy kitchens tended to overindulge in less healthy snacks like cookies more than their counterparts.

The solution is seemingly simple. Clear out the clutter and clean up the mess.

  • But the very anxiety the mess is causing can make it difficult to face it and clean up, Whitbourne says.

Here are a few tips, culled from experts, on how to get started if you're staring down a stress-inducing mess:

  1. Don't set an unreasonable goal. If an entire room has gotten cluttered, you might tell yourself you want to clean it in one go. But you likely won't be able to — and that'll stress you out even more, Whitbourne says.
  2. Instead, make small changes in small doses. Start with one side of a closet or one cabinet in the kitchen. You'll accomplish your goal, and that'll be fuel to keep going.
  3. Ask for help. When our spaces get messy, we often want to keep people out. But if you've got a friend or family member willing to help without judgment, let 'em.
  4. Reward yourself! Whitbourne suggests putting on your favorite album or podcast while you clean and organize.
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