Clutter control: material and mental decluttering ideas

Clutter Control: Material and Mental Decluttering Ideas

Clutter is disorder. It is bunch of stuff — be it physical or psychological — that’s haphazardly thrown about. A mess, to be blunt. Here’s how to get clutter under control.

When you are messy in your mind or in your space it has a strong adverse affect on your well-being. Countless studies have shown this correlation:

  • People with clean houses are healthier than those with messy homes.

  • People who describe their homes as cluttered are more depressed than those who describe their homes as orderly.

  • Clutter overwhelms the brain and makes it hard to focus and complete tasks.

  • Rumination (excessive worrying and thinking about your failures and mistakes) leads to persistent negative mood and even depression.

If you want a surefire way to gain more serenity and clarity in your life — and substantially improve your overall health — then identify and eliminate the clutter.

In this guide we provide decluttering ideas for both mental and material clutter.

Take a moment and make a list of areas that feel cluttered in your life and let’s get started.


  • What is material clutter?

  • What is mental clutter?

  • Decluttering ideas that work

  • Bonus: eliminating paper clutter

  • Bonus: eliminating mental rumination

  • Decluttering reading recommendations

  • Clutter research and references

Clutter Control: Material and Mental Decluttering Ideas

What is material clutter?

Material clutter is an excess of physical stuff, disorder or uncleanliness that has an adverse psychological or physiological affect.

Examples of material clutter or clutter-inducing behavior include, but aren't limited to:

  • Letting too much time go by before cleaning your space

  • Making obsessive purchases then regretting them later

  • Hoarding lots of objects that have no functional use

  • Living in an environment is unattractive or in disarray

Examples of the adverse impact that material clutter can have on you include, but aren't limited to:

  • Stress and anxiety

  • Overwhelm and depression

  • Anger and frustration

  • Procrastination and negligence

  • Dissatisfaction and lack of contentment

It is important to stress that clutter is a form of chaos and is proven to have a significant negative impact on your overall well-being.

Clutter Control: Material and Mental Decluttering Ideas

What is mental clutter?

You may not be aware of this, but not all clutter is physical — it also comes in non-tangible form.

Your thoughts, habits and behaviors can also be chaotic or lead to situations that wreak havoc on your life.

This is categorized as mental clutter and even though you can't see or touch it like material clutter, it has a similar impact.

In fact mental clutter may be more challenging to overcome particularly because you can’t see it build up.

Where material clutter eventually becomes obvious, your mental clutter may be sabotaging you without you realizing it.

Examples of clutter or clutter-inducing behavior include, but aren't limited to:

  • Replaying mental scenes from old situations

  • Having too many unfinished tasks on your to-do list

  • Allowing social media to distract you or make you insecure

  • Entertaining superficial relationships that drain energy

In the examples above, it's very easy to blame something or someone else for the problems that arise, when it’s actually mental clutter in disguise.

Mental clutter can have the same adverse impact as material clutter in addition to effects such as:

  • Poor performance

  • Forgetfulness

  • Brain fog (slow mental processing)

Clutter Control: Material and Mental Decluttering Ideas

Decluttering ideas that work

Start by choosing one area of clutter in your life to work on using the set of ideas outlined below.

These tips work together as a process that you can repeat for additional areas of clutter as needed.

Identify the problem

Not everyone can immediately sense when they have a clutter issue. Sometimes you experience the impact long before you become aware of the cause.

One of the best ways to identify whether you have a clutter issue is to listen to your feelings.

By getting in tune with your emotions you can start to figure out whether you are carrying too much baggage in life.

From a material perspective, note how you feel when you are in a particular space. If you feel irritable, uncomfortable or unsettled start to scan the room and ask yourself:

  • Is it clean or dirty?  

  • Are things organized or in disarray?

  • Are there items in the space that you don’t want?

You may be unconsciously reacting to the disorder. As discussed in Feng Shui basics, the energy in an environment can be positive or negative depending on what's in it and how it's arranged.

From a mental perspective, conduct a little experiment: try to count to a high number such as 100 and take note of the times when you get distracted by some other thought.

More than just the number of distractions, think about the emotions that these intrusive thoughts bring about, particularly the ones that are negative (worry, disappointment, anger, etc.).

Of the distracting thoughts that are negative, which ones do you actually have the power to change?

If you are have a lot of negative emotions stirring up about things you can't change then that's a good sign of mental clutter.

Following emotional cues will help you find the problem and once you have a sense of what it is, you can work through the emotional baggage.

Try to get at the root of why you are holding on to these unnecessary thoughts or things.  

Addressing the underlying cause is essential to being able to follow through on your decluttering efforts.

Develop your plan

Sometimes excess things or thoughts come about when you don't have a clear process for handling all that life throws you.

Your decluttering plan relies on a high-level strategy that you believe in and can easily implement.

First, note the set of principles that you live by as it becomes easier to make decisions about what (or who) should and should not be in your life when you know your values.

Second, identify a philosophy that will help you work through the clutter in a way that stays true to your values. For instance:

Feng Shui is an approach that can work wonders in helping you clear and design your space to maximize positive energy.

Minimalism is a “less is more” way of thinking that inspires you to get more out of life by focusing on what matters most and is essential.

Stoicism is a philosophy that can help you better handle intrusive thoughts that lead to negative emotions.

Once you have your philosophy in place you also need tactical methods to help you sort through your stuff or sort out your thoughts.

We’ve curated a decluttering book list below  as well as a two bonus examples that showcase on how to eliminate material and mental clutter.

Finally, to avoid relapse, ask a friend or family member to check in on you — perhaps a month or two after you’ve completed the decluttering process.

Having a trusted person to support and challenge you to stay committed will increase the likelihood that you maintain your results over time.

Clutter Control: Material and Mental Decluttering Ideas

Bonus: Eliminating Paper Clutter

If your space is drowning in files, drawers jam packed with receipts, and important documents buried under mounds of letters, notes, and pamphlets — it may be time to tackle the build up with this minimalist living tip that incorporates more Zen.

Some prefer using devices to manage task and projects. Others likes pads and pencil — and also prefers to keep paper copies of lots of things.

If you fall into the latter, how do you avoid the clutter? Using a combination of the following tactics.


The first step is to collect all the paper items in your bags, drawers, and other areas of your home or office, throw them in a pile, and start going through them piece by piece.

The goal here should be to throw in the recycling bin anything that is not a necessity such as scraps of random notes, old bills, and dated receipts.


For the important items that are left over, sort them by categories according to major life themes — for example finances, school, work, health, travel, etc.

These will be the categories you use to organize, and easily file and retrieve, these items going forward.


Set aside the items that you believe you absolutely must have a paper version of (e.g. copies of the last few years tax return).

Add these items to a paper file (labeled with the appropriate category) that you keep neatly stored in a drawer or cabinet.

For all others, set up a virtual filing system (that mimics your paper system) in Dropbox, Evernote, Google Docs, or the equivalent.

Snap photos of these documents and save them to the folder of the relevant category. Then throw the paper versions in the recycle bin.

You don't have to be overwhelmed by paperwork even if you prefer paper.

These three steps are enough to manage your paper — making it a regular habit (only a few minutes a week) to run through the steps above you can significantly cut down on workspace clutter.

Clutter Control: Material and Mental Decluttering Ideas

Bonus: eliminating mental rumination

This life coach provides an excellent example of a common type of mental clutter as well as solution. Quoting with permission:

Negative rumination is the unhealthy habit of so overly fixating on a negative thought that it leads to anxiety and eventually depression if not put in check.

A special feature of rumination is that there is no completion to the thought — it just keeps going round and round your head with no resolution.

One method I love using to tackle rumination is reframing. Reframing helps you gently shift from an unproductive emotional loop to a more rational way of assessing and dealing with problems. It allows you to see problems in a more positive light.

Shifting our perspective helps us exercise emotional maturity and exert more control over our thoughts. Having control over our thoughts helps us clear our mind and trust our gut.

Going a step further, you can reframe negative and intrusive thoughts in the following way:

First, when you are being flooded with a bunch of intrusive thoughts it’s important to settle the mind. Sit calmly in a quiet place and breathe deeply.

Second, start jotting down any intrusive thoughts that pop up while you are sitting peacefully, particularly ones that make you experience negative emotions.

Third, analyze the thoughts and reframe them by looking for positivity or possibility in the form of a more optimistic and productive question. For instance:

  • “How might I become more organized this week” vs. “I am so overwhelmed with everything in life right”.

  • “What’s a fun and easy way I can self-care today”  vs. “I never seem to have time to focus on my health”.

  • “How can I better connect with my colleagues” vs. “ No one likes me at work”.

Reframing helps you convert useless mental clutter into more productive ideas that you can take action on.

Clutter Control: Material and Mental Decluttering Ideas

Decluttering reading recommendations

The following list of books will provide even more material and mental decluttering ideas.

Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui

Free Yourself from Physical, Mental, Emotional, and Spiritual Clutter

This book is unique in that it defines clutter as “stuck energy” and combines the best of eastern and western thought to offer solutions that’ll help release that energy.

You don’t have to be familiar with Feng Shui to benefit from its approach to finding balance in your mind and space.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

There’s a reason why this minimalist living book became an international phenomenon.

Though it focuses on decluttering your home, it also addresses the emotional barriers to doing so and provides step-by-step how-tos that you can implement instantly.

Declutter Your Mind

How to Stop Worrying, Relieve Anxiety, and Eliminate Negative Thinking

If you are overwhelmed by worry, anxiety, and negative self-talk then consider this book which provides practical tips for using mindfulness to overcome mental clutter.

Clutter research and references

Research to support claims in this article may be found in the articles below:

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