Look around your home, or imagine looking around it if you're not there right now. Is there too much clutter?

Your answer to this simple question may tell you a lot about how stressed you are and how good you are at getting things done. That's the result of a fascinating study that looked at how people deal with the clutter in their homes, as well as their tendency to procrastinate, over three age groups: college students, young adults, and older adults.

It may not be surprising that there seemed to be a strong association between having a cluttered home and having a tendency to procrastinate. As the researchers note, clutter is usually a direct result of procrastination, since taking the time to put things away or get rid of unwanted items is an unpleasant task that the procrastination-prone are more likely to put off. But they also note that people with clutter problems more often report that they have to move things out of the way in order to perform many tasks. That added step can slow you down and cut into your efficiency.

Besides being associated with procrastination, clutter can have a surprisingly bad effect on your emotions. The researchers reported that clutter problems "led to a significant decrease in satisfaction with life among older adults." In part, this was likely because the oldest participants in the study were recruited with the help of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization. But the researchers saw a trend across the age groups: The older you are, the likelier you are to be distressed at having a cluttered home.

This study seems to confirm earlier research that showed clutter can decrease people's well-being and increase their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Normally speaking, people start the workday with higher cortisol levels which then decrease during the afternoon and evening. But people who experienced their homes as too cluttered did not have that cortisol drop-off. They seemed to find the idea of going home just as stressful as going to work. And that's not good. Higher stress levels are associated with a host of ills, including depression, weight gain, sleep loss, and even heart disease.

How much does clutter bother you?

Clutter isn't necessarily equally stressful for everyone. As one of the researchers told the New York Times, some people are comfortable and undisturbed in a home where clothes are piled on the floor. Those people didn't report frustration over their own clutter, and their cortisol levels dropped in the afternoon and evening as they were supposed to. But those who talked about the clutter in their homes, or who said their homes needed work, were more likely to have cortisol levels that stayed high. Perhaps not surprisingly, more of them were women than men.

Researchers guessed that the explanation might be that women do more housework than men even when both partners work outside the home, as multiple studies have shown. Thus, they know they'll have to spend time de-cluttering and cleaning up instead of relaxing after work.

Personally, I think women do more housework for the same reason we find clutter more stressful--because we tend to experience a cluttered home as more shameful and embarrassing than men do. I say this as someone who lives (and works) in a fairly cluttered home myself. My husband says he doesn't like the clutter either and I believe him. But I feel humiliated when other people see the clutter in a way he clearly doesn't. And while he's always happy to welcome anyone in, I'm often reluctant to have people come over because of it. Perhaps the reason is that, for most women, having a sloppy home or a tidy and pleasant one reflects on us in a way it doesn't on men. Many people who know us know I'm the breadwinner in the household, that I work long hours and that he does most of the shopping and cooking. Still, right or wrong, I feel people will judge me--not him or us--on the state of our living room.

If clutter is stressful for the people, especially the women, living with it, is there anything we can do about it? Tidying up guru Marie Kondo and many others have all kinds of advice about how to beat the clutter in our lives. The researchers who conducted the latest study offered a couple of psychology-based suggestions. The first--which I have to admit I've never tried--is to get someone to help you de-clutter, holding up each item one at a time while you decide whether to get rid of it or keep it. The reasoning is that most of us find it difficult to get rid of our possessions because we become attached to them, and actually touching and handling them tends to deepen that attachment. It'll be easier to consign that pair of boots you love but never wear to the donation box if you can do it without first holding them in your hands. Maybe you and a friend can take turns doing this for each other.

The second suggestion is to cut down on clutter before it happens by resisting the urge to buy items that you don't need. That's very helpful advice. We've managed to keep some of the clutter at bay by purchasing less and less over the years. I love pretty little objects to put on the shelf, but as our shelves have gotten crowded, I've stopped bringing them home. My husband loves thrift store shopping but buys fewer items these days than he used to, and he's more willing to turn around and re-donate things that don't quite fit.

I don't know if we'll ever really manage to tame the clutter. But I know, now that we've read this research, we're going to try harder. Because clutter is a source of stress and we don't need any more of that in our lives. How about you?

Published on: Jan 24, 2019
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