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7 Ways to Break Clutter’s Emotional Grip

5-effective-ways-to-curb-clutterExcept in cases of compulsive hoarding, the word “clutter” is associated more with annoyance than with addiction. Yet as with all dependencies, the piling up of possessions, obligations or worries creates a powerful comfort zone. It also brings pain at any thought of major change.

There can be an emotional tug-of-war between the longing for better things and the dread of climbing out of our rut to walk forward. It’s hard to make progress when you’re weighed down by and emotionally attached to clutter:

  • You never have time to write that book.
  • You can’t take that vacation because impulse purchases eat your budget.
  • You’re getting nowhere losing weight because you run back to comfort food at every frustration.

The best way to attack clutter is to start at the root: fight emotion with emotion.

If your clutter problem is primarily material:

  • Find a worthy cause to donate to. If you hate to toss things out because they’re still perfectly useful, don’t toss them out. Give them to someone who will use them, preferably someone who really needs them. Every community has resale shops and homeless shelters. And you definitely don’t have to limit donations to your dregs. Why shouldn’t someone with a limited income get a chance to dress in the latest fashion? Think about what your donation may mean to someone else’s self-esteem, and your own self-esteem will be happier about parting with it.
  • Invite a few friends to a clean-out party. With any addiction problem, the support of caring and sensible friends is invaluable for objectivity and accountability. If your giveaway pile always comes out minuscule at sorting time, invite two or three good friends over to share coffee and then help you decide what can go. Let one of them haul off the giveaways. (And choose your team carefully; you don’t want to enable anyone else’s clutter addiction!)

If your clutter problem is primarily time-related:

  • Read up on the scientific support for rest breaks. Counterintuitive as it seems, workers who take frequent breaks do accomplish more in the long run than do those who regularly go nonstop for six hours. Go to your library’s magazine database or your favorite search engine, and look up “rest and productivity.” Study the results regularly, and you’ll soon feel less guilty when you pause to sit down.
  • For two weeks, track every request you say yes to; then consider what would have happened had you said no. Dieters use food journals. Over-spenders use expense journals. Why not try an “agreeability journal”? After two weeks of recording each time you agree to do a favor or show up at an event, review that record and ask yourself: How much of your time went to things that were someone else’s idea? Did you really want to say yes, and if not, did you waste energy and effectiveness resenting the “obligation”? What was the worst thing, really, that could have happened had you said no? Where can you be prepared to say no next time? Answering these questions will clear your mind for more reasonable expectations of yourself, and a more realistic view of others’ expectations.

If your clutter problem is primarily mental–emotional:

  • Practice prayer and meditation. This is high among the best-proven ways for relaxing and for getting your mind off “have-to’s” and “what-ifs.” If you need help here, ask a leader in your religious congregation, or look online for a nonsectarian instructional video or a local class.
  • Adopt the “Carrier formula.” Engineer Willis H. Carrier (1876–1950) originated it; Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living popularized it. When you can’t stop worrying about a specific problem:
    1. Pinpoint the worst thing that could happen.
    2. Believe you can live with the worst if it comes to that. (Once you resolve to accept whatever comes rather than simply fearing it, it loses much of its power over your emotions.)
    3. Then set to work on resolving the problem, and you’ll be surprised how much clearer possible solutions will become.

Finally, if after all that you still feel your clutter owns you:

  • When you really struggle with releasing something — be it a material possession, a habitual “obligation,” or a nagging worry — write out a “letting go to move forward” statement.

What will you gain by losing this clutter? An enhanced professional image? A calmer spirit? Better physical health? Write these “gain goals” down in detail, and post the resulting statement where you’ll see it regularly. Make a vision board if you like. Teach your mind to focus regularly on the long-term benefits of decluttering; it works.

7 Ways to Break Clutter’s Emotional Grip

Katherine Swarts

Katherine SwartsKatherine Swarts is a Houston, Texas-based freelance writer who has struggled with Persistent Depressive Disorder and Asperger’s syndrome most of her life; partly due to this personal experience, she specializes in writing that encourages those with similar problems. She has published over 150 articles and has written e-content for The Menninger Clinic, among other mental-health treatment and counseling organizations. Katherine’s website is

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APA Reference
Swarts, K. (2018). 7 Ways to Break Clutter’s Emotional Grip. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 20 Mar 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.