The Clutter Effect

15 April 2014 by
cluttered room with old computers and a video game wall

Photo Credit: blakespot via Compfight cc

Text messages, emails, phone bills, and toys; the sensory overload of our modern lives is hard for anyone to navigate. Our schedules, homes, and inboxes are full, but that alone isn’t the problem.

Clutter is an issue. Our senses need a little peace and quiet to make sense of our surroundings. So what happens when the items and invoices pile up? We become stressed. Fortunately for the overstretched mind, hope lies in coming to terms with our curiously productive need for mess.

The Physical Annoyance

On the surface, there’s nothing sophisticated about clutter. It obscures our countertops, hides important bills, and turns simple tasks into unnecessary struggles. On its most basic level, clutter is nothing more than a nuisance.

But that doesn’t mean its effects are simple.

Consider an everyday task: getting ready for work. You wake up in your bed, swing your feet over the edge, and take stock of your morning to-do list. Between fumbling through the fridge for milk, sorting through the toiletries for toothpaste, and navigating the closet for a clean shirt, the tired brain has plenty to process.

But what if the milk is hidden behind expired yogurt? What if the toothpaste is buried in Q-tip boxes? And what if that last clean shirt is mired in seasonal clothes and your old high school sweatshirt?

Every hurdle to accomplishing these simple tasks leads to time lost, knees bumped, backs strained, and patience taxed. And, as we all know, the effects don’t end here.

The Cognitive Burden

The real cost of a cluttered household is mental. Every task that our brains must perform requires energy. In fact, willpower has often been likened to a muscle, tiring from overuse. Just like a muscle, any additional “weight” added to your exercise requires additional energy, wearing down your mental resources more quickly.

Through repetition, our brains learn to function more efficiently, building pathways that allow us to perform routine tasks with less effort. Clutter, however, forces our brains to exert additional effort, throwing us off of our established pathways, and distressing us in the process.

These stress hormones are what cause real damage. Stress hormones are an adaptation from an age when our Neanderthal ancestors needed a quick jolt of energy in order to outrun a predator. They push our brain and bodies past their limit, processing quick burning sugars for energy and keeping us hyper-alert at all times. The result? Weight gain, sleep problems, and, unfortunately, a greater build-up of clutter as our overtaxed brains refuse to process the growing piles of problems.

Finding Balance

Of course, knowing all that, it’s easy to believe that all clutter is bad. However, the reality is not so simple.

According to research, each person has their own tolerance for clutter. For some, a few stacks of paper can give them the motivation they need to succeed. For others, even a little dust can cause fits of anxiety.

The key, then, is not to strip your home of all extraneous items, or to let the mess pile up; it’s to find your perfect storm.

One way to do this is to process your piles of junk and see how you feel along the way. If your brain won’t rest until the house is completely clear, then your tolerance for clutter is probably very low. If you feel comfortable with a few stacks of mail or some items on the coffee table, then you probably thrive on a little environmental saturation.

Pay attention to what your brain is saying and endeavor to find the perfect level of productive clutter in your home. Rent out a storage unit for a reasonable fee and clear out your living room of unused furniture, or buy a shredder and process those bills as quickly as possible. Before you know it, your mental and physical health will both benefit for the effort.

SSF Team

SSF Team

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