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How Cleaning Clutter Could Clear Your Mind

We are acquisitive beings. We collect items that show the world who we are and what we value. As I look around my home, I see books. Lots and lots of books. Nearly each room contains them. Clearly, they matter to me. I have more of them than any other item. I have read most of them cover to cover and some await perusal, for pleasure and work.

My home is light and airy, colorfully and creatively decorated, kind of like its owner. Unlikely that anyone would call me a hoarder, unless they lived in Zen simplicity, but there are certainly areas in my house that have needed cleansing and purging.

Following the destruction of our Homestead, Florida, home in Hurricane Andrew in 1992, my husband, son and I moved back to the Philadelphia area. At the time, we had very little in the way of belongings and needed to buy everything new. The development into which we moved had a yard sale a few months later and we laughed to know we had nothing to sell. Now, 26 years later, I have re-accumulated stuff. 

A few years ago, at the urging of an intuitive therapist, I have cleaned, renovated and re-claimed a room in my home as an office and peaceful haven. It is where I go to veg and relax as well as write. It is an oasis and contains a closet that stores old files and papers that I need to go through. Getting there, bit by bit.

What felt like a greater priority was cleaning out my bedroom closet. Clothing that I haven’t worn in ages was neatly folded and placed into a bag to be donated. Storage bins became containers for other items. Shoes are in a hanging bag with compartments for each pair. Boxes and trash bags filled up with papers that I had been saving for God knows what reason. As a copious note taker when I am in classes or workshops, much fell into that category. I figured that if I hadn’t looked at them for years, then I likely didn’t need them, so out they went. 

I teach classes and workshops as well, so I wasn’t surprised to find bags and boxes filled with files of handouts, art supplies, feathers that I hand out to participants. I have begun to consolidate them as well. One of the delights of having a clean closet, is being able to walk onto its vacuumed carpeted surface and sigh.

My brain is like that cluttered space, filled with random thoughts that that take up space. While I can’t say that if I haven’t used a thought in a while, then I need to toss it, like I would those pieces of paper, I can determine what I need to relegate to the archives. Then I can access them as needed.

What I have learned is that when I clear space of old, worn out, no longer useful stuff, whether substantial or symbolic, I leave room for the new, revelationary/revolutionary to enter. In essence, there is more bandwidth in my brain pan to put to practical use. 

What is the impact of clutter in our lives?

According to a study from Princeton University Neuroscience Institute, all that accumulated stuff is a distraction from what we would otherwise concentrate on. Our productivity decreases. Our anxiety increases. Locating necessary items becomes challenging. Scrambling around for keys, wallet, and cell phone can become a daily occurrence.

I recall an adage from my childhood “A place for everything and everything in its place.” Although my mother would recite it at times, she didn’t always adhere to it. An “organized mess” was what I observed, although she could find what she needed most of the time. Although not white glove clean, my bedroom was neat and orderly. As an adult, I find it calming to have order when I look around.

A few years ago, Marie Kondo, a guru of cleaning, purging, organizing, and catharsis created a modality to assist in simplifying our surroundings. It begins with the premise that most of us own too much stuff.  The question, “Do you own the things you own or do the things you own own you?” comes to mind.

Her suggestion, which is at the core of the KonMari Method, is that we only keep items that spark joy. There are some belongings that are more functional than fun, but how many sets of dishes, pots and pans and silverware do we need? How many collections of stickers, cutting boards and license plates are required for happiness? She suggests cleaning by category and not by room. Once that is done, she contends that it need not be done in a major manner again. Upkeep is easier if we simplify. Her book entitled The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up outlines the techniques to simplify our lives and support emotional stability.

As a therapist working with clients in an outpatient addiction and recovery practice, I recall a poignant and powerful statement from a single father of three teenagers. He was insistent that they clean up the kitchen after preparing meals, reminding them, “The sink is for washing dishes and not storing dishes.” How often do we store the dishes that represent the disturbing beliefs we hold so that they, like literal dinnerware accumulate stuck-on stuff? Imagine instead, running soapy water over them and allowing the remains to go down the drain. Washing dishes is one of my favorite Zen activities, since it provides focused intention and combines the senses of smell, sight, touch, and sound. My own habits model his. Before I go to bed, the kitchen is clean. Before I leave the house, my bed is made. When I come home from work, my keys go to the same spot, so I always know where to find them. Before I walk out the door, I do a quick check, “Got my keys, wallet, cell phone, and oh, yeah, got my brain.” As I age, that routine has become necessary.

As someone who wears many hats, has overlapping personal and professional responsibilities and teaches people how to live this way, it is essential for me to maintain focus and clarity of thought. At the end of my work day in my office, I clear off my desk, put away client files, so that I can have a fresh start the next day.

Rules that I use for myself and teach my clients:

  • If you open it, close it.
  • If you drop it, pick it up.
  • If you take it out, put it back.
  • If you make a mess, clean it up.

References:

Doland, E. (2011, March 29). Scientists find physical clutter negatively affects your ability to focus, process information [blog post]. Retrieved from https://unclutterer.com/2011/03/29/scientists-find-physical-clutter-negatively-affects-your-ability-to-focus-process-information/

Kondo, M. (2014). The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

How Cleaning Clutter Could Clear Your Mind


Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author. www.opti-mystical.com


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APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2018). How Cleaning Clutter Could Clear Your Mind. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 22, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-cleaning-clutter-could-clear-your-mind/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Dec 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 11 Dec 2018
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.