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
Example: eliminating paper clutter
Example: eliminating mental rumination
Interview with decluttering experts, New Minimalism
Decluttering reading recommendations
Clutter research and references
Start streamlining your life today
Free 7-day Minimalism Challenge
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.
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:
Brain fog (slow mental processing)
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 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 provided two examples that showcase 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.
Example: Eliminating Paper Clutter
If your space is drowning in files and drawers, jam packed with receipts, and overthrown with important documents buried under mounds of letters, notes, and pamphlets — it may be time to tackle the build up with a decluttering technique.
Some prefer using devices to manage tasks and projects. Others like traditional pads and pens — and also prefer to keep paper copies of lots of things.
If you fall into the latter camp, 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 into 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. By making it a regular habit (only a few minutes a week) to run through the steps above you can significantly cut down on paper clutter.
Example: 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.
Interview with decluttering experts New Minimalism
We caught up with Cary and Kyle, the inspiring duo behind New Minimalism – a decluttering and interior design service in SF Bay.
Their process is focused on finding long-term solutions for clients looking to simplify and rejuvenate their homes and workspaces.
When did minimalism become a theme you wanted to devote your personal lives to?
It was something that I (Cary) stumbled upon as a tool when trying my hand at entrepreneurialism after leaving the land of corporate law.
I thought if I could change my spending, I could do work I loved and worry less about income.
I assumed that it would be a trade-off and I'd buy less and sell what I didn't need as a sacrifice.
However, I discovered that it wasn't a trade-off after all. In fact it was one of the best things I'd ever done in my life.
I was suddenly liberated and freed from all of these things I hadn't even known were weighing me down and I wouldn't have imagined were ok to let go.
After that I couldn't help but shout about it from the rooftops:
Hey guys, here is this thing you can do that saves you money and time, makes your home feel better, makes your life far easier, is more tailored to your desires, and is so kind to the earth and the people that inhabit it ... with truly no downside.
Kyle was studying sustainable design and was learning about all these daunting problems our world is faced with today.
She realized that streamlining her personal consumption was one thing she could immediately take control of to make a positive impact on the world.
Her focus was on interior design but not as a process of going out and buying a whole new room’s worth of furniture but rather as a curating and rethinking process.
There is something even more enticing when you know that a beautiful space has a story and meaning and was created in a gentle, environmentally thoughtful way.
As professionals in the space, what are your candid thoughts on MARIE KONDO'S BOOk?
We were so pleased to witness the popularity of Marie Kondo's book, because it meant that there was a wide interest in the subject.
When we first started New Minimalism, we had no way of knowing if there was mass appeal to this niche industry of simplified living.
After Ms. Kondo’s book we went from drawing blank stares to everyone wanting to sit next to us at dinner parties after telling them about our business.
She helped move decluttering from a rogue practice to a true cultural phenomena.
It was actually a little strange how similar our processes were, in terms of decluttering in a single focused period, working category-by-category, and starting with objects at the center of the home.
We loved her language, the compassion she expressed for items by anthropomorphising them, and how she focused on teaching people to tap into how their objects make them feel.
However, we were shocked and heartbroken with the number of times Kondo recommended throwing items in the trash rather than donating them. We started our business because we care about the environment and want to put an end to mindless consumption.
Reading the word "trash" so many times, even if it was a mistranslation, was a huge oversight in the book.
It was a massive miss for our environment and for the people in our communities who could deeply benefit from those items.
Ms. Kondo stating that she has thrown out over a million items – that broke our little green hearts.
Donating is a cornerstone of our philosophy. Without a doubt it adds a more time to the process, but it also completely changes the feel.
When you are letting an object go, you needn't feel guilty or wasteful because that object will receive new life in the hands of someone who needs it.
Decluttering goes from being an internally focused, self-benefitting process to one of deep generosity and connection. It keeps useful items out of the landfill and in our communities.
For a person decluttering on their own, what are your recommendations for how to approach the task?
We would encourage people to view decluttering as a two-phase process.
The first phase is to get clear on how you want to feel in your space and what your top priorities are for using the space.
Do you want to sleep better?
Are you single and wish to call in a partner?
Do you want to vastly improve your home yoga and meditation practice?
Do you want your mornings to have a sense of calm, even as your whole family prepares for the day?
Do you want to feel settled after a long day or work or extended travel?
Answer this: what are the top three activities you want your space to support and what are the sensations or feelings you want to experience in your space?
For example, you could answer for your bedroom: serene, restful, luxurious; sleep better, read more, and have more sex.
Then when you are making decisions about whether the TV, velvet throw pillows, workout bike, and your ex-boyfriend's photos stays or goes, it’s quite clear!
The second phase is the actual decluttering process:
Set aside a day (literally, mark it in your calendar) to declutter an entire category of your things.
Having a friend present to keeps you on track and focused.
Whatever category you declutter, make sure to remove it entirely from where it "lives" in the house. Removing your clothes from the closet makes it easier to view each item objectively.
When sorting, assess each item individually: Is it a keep, donate, or to-do (e.g. it needs to be mended or given back to someone). Keep up momentum during sorting so that you tap into your gut feeling about the object.
Save time at the end of the day to bring items to your local donation center. After all the hard work you don't want to have bags of items to donate cluttering your home for longer than necessary.
What have been your biggest challenges and most fulfilling moments thus far?
The biggest challenge is when clients want to jump right into decluttering before they are certain about the type of home and lifestyle they want to create.
As Kyle likes to say, in our business you need to slow down to speed up. You shouldn't launch into decluttering without a clear sense of what type of home you desire, what you want to do inside of it, where your priorities lay, etc.
If you try to just jump in you'll find yourself overwhelmed by the emotional task of letting go. You'll weigh each item in terms of:
Might I ever use this again?
How much did it cost in money or time?
Could I use it in some other way?
What was my rationale for buying this to begin with?
When did I purchase this?
However, with each of these questions, the item is presumed as useful and necessary and that it ought to be in your home.
This presumption makes it painful and challenging to "give up" an item.
Contrast that with the experience of being crystal clear on the type of life you want to create. When you know the three top activities you want to perform in your space, it’s clear which objects support that.
When you know the emotional experience you desire for your space, you know when something doesn’t make you feel that way and needs to go.
It moves the focus from “giving up” to having exciting, elevated standards for keeping only the best around.
The most fulfilling moments have been responses from clients about the deep, meaningful and lasting effect this process has had on their lives.
A client who was recently divorced noted how much more settled and at home her kids felt in their new place; decluttering and designing their space with their favorite possessions had eased the struggle of this huge life transition and created a real sense of home.
We’ve worked with clients who were 38-weeks pregnant when we finished and reported how in their fresh space they were able to be excited for the arrival of their new baby, finally feeling like they had the space and the mental bandwidth to bring a new life into their home.
Comments like, “This was the best money we’ve ever spent ... My relationship with my husband/wife has drastically improved ... I didn't realize how much my stuff was weighing us down ..." make this work so incredibly rewarding.
What are a few of your favorite books, sites, or other sources of minimalist inspiration?
In addition to blogs and websites, we are moved by philosophical books which aren't exclusively about minimalism, per se, as they are about intentional, mindful living:
Decluttering reading recommendations
The following list of books will provide even more material and mental decluttering ideas.
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.
Decluttering and Design for Sustainable, Intentional Living
This book promises an opportunity for self-reflection and lasting change, by getting to the bottom of why you accumulate too much stuff in the first place, therefore allowing you to transform your life.
Clutter research and references
Research to support claims in this article may be found in the articles below:
Images by STIL via Unsplash. To make this site freely available to you, we participate in the Mediavine, Skimlinks and Amazon advertising and affiliate programs and may be compensated for referrals. See terms for more info.