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a woman writes in a journal in the midst of a moving mess

When I lived with clutter, I felt like my whole world was disorganized – and that I couldn’t do anything else with my life until I sorted out the mess,” says Desiree Fernandez, a 24-year-old student in Minneapolis, Minn. “Being surrounded by clutter was like getting the car stuck in mud: I kept spinning my wheels trying to get out, but I could never get unstuck.”

Things changed, however, when Fernandez moved in with her partner, who insisted on a clutter-free house. At first, Fernandez resented it. “Initially, I started cleaning up my clutter just to keep the peace at home,” she recalls. “But the more I organized, the better I felt. I felt less bogged down, and I had more time to be productive and creative. When I lived with clutter before, it weighed on my shoulders, like a constant burden. Getting my space cleaned up wound up being such a relief.”

Fernandez’s story is a testament to the stressful toll clutter can take on the psyche. “There’s a strong connection between physical clutter and mental clutter,” says Cindy Glovinsky, MSW, an Ann Arbor, Mich.–based licensed psychotherapist and author of Making Peace with the Things in Your Life. “For most people, the more clutter you have, the more depressed you’re likely to feel; the less energy you have, the less focus you have. The clutter on the outside makes you feel more mentally disorganized.”

Luckily, clearing your clutter can have a powerful – and positive – effect on your state of mind. When you tackle your clutter, insists author Karen Kingston in her book Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, you will enjoy more harmony, energy and mental clarity in your life.

The Power of Clutter

But how can something as seemingly inert as clutter have such a huge impact on our mental state?

Perhaps it’s because clutter (derived from the Middle English word clotter, which means “to coagulate”) clogs our perceptions of what’s possible in a given space, and restricts our impressions of our available choices – or even of our own identity.

Many experts suggest that clutter is a physical manifestation of stuck energy. “Everything around you, especially your home environment, mirrors your inner self,” writes Kingston. Conversely and simultaneously, your inner self is reflected in your surroundings. It’s your basic vicious cycle, she explains: “Clutter accumulates when energy stagnates, and, likewise, energy stagnates when clutter accumulates. So the clutter begins as a symptom of what is happening with you in your life and then becomes part of the problem itself, because the more of it you have, the more stagnant energy it attracts to itself.”

“Clutter accumulates when energy stagnates, and, likewise, energy stagnates when clutter accumulates.”

Yet clutter is more than just too much disorganized stuff in too small a space. It can also refer to items you do not use or love (clothes you haven’t worn in years, the unused toaster oven you got for Christmas) or projects that remain unfinished (at work, at home or in your personal life). This type of clutter often evokes “a whole host of negative feelings,” says Wisconsin–based feng shui and decluttering consultant Andrea Gerasimo. These can range, she notes, from feelings of failure for perpetually lagging behind, to pangs of guilt over unreturned phone calls or neglected relationships.

Even those of us who are not chronically disorganized can fall victim to clutter at certain times – when we move or become depressed because of a death, divorce or illness, for example. Or we may be well organized in one realm of our lives (at work, say) but disorganized in another. Wherever clutter turns up in our lives, though, we likely stand to gain a healthy dose of clarity by tackling it.

Reclaiming Your Space

Gerasimo begins the decluttering process by having her clients consider the cost of their current clutter load. Specifically, she encourages them to ask themselves: To what degree is clutter bogging me down mentally, spiritually and emotionally?

“Once clients perceive and acknowledge what clutter is costing them,” Gerasimo explains, “they tend to be much more motivated to do the work.”

From there, Gerasimo explores her client’s goals: What higher purpose can decluttering help him or her attain? What changes does this person most want to see in his or her life: More spontaneity? Peace? Joy? “Once those questions are answered,” she says, “we ask, ‘How can we create that in the physical space?'”

“The most commonly cited cause of clutter is lack of time, because one of the things people do when they get rushed is stop putting stuff away. But while you may save 10 seconds not hanging up your coat, you’ll waste a lot more time looking for it later.”

In a typical first session, Gerasimo works with clients for six hours in a concerted, distraction-free decluttering marathon. And she starts not in the obvious public spaces like the living room, kitchen or foyer, but in a space that ignites the decluttering process from the inside out: the bedroom. “Studies show that what you’re thinking when you go to sleep affects the quality of your sleep and your mood when you wake up,” she says. “If your last thoughts are feelings of self-derision and being overwhelmed, that’s not good.”

While you may need to set aside an entire day to tackle a room-size space that’s consumed with clutter, you can work your way up to such a task by taking some baby steps first. You might begin with a bedside table or dresser top, for example – or even with something as small as your purse. (See “Clutter Cutters!” below, for ideas and inspirations.)

Of course, once you’ve successfully decluttered, the real challenge is to keep the clutter from reaccumulating. “I try to do a little bit every day,” says Cecile Andrews, author of Slow Is Beautiful: New Visions of Community, Leisure and Joie de Vivre. Andrews commits to five minutes of decluttering in her Seattle office every afternoon when her energy is at its nadir. “I tell myself, ‘All you have to do is five minutes.'”

It may help to think of clutter clearing as both a time- and sanity-conservation strategy. “The most commonly cited cause of clutter is lack of time,” says Glovinsky, “because one of the things people do when they get rushed is stop putting stuff away. But while you may save 10 seconds not hanging up your coat, you’ll waste a lot more time looking for it later.”

Seen from this perspective, it’s easy to understand how reducing the clutter in your life can help clear your mind – and also help reopen your life to the things that matter most.

Clutter Cutters!

Some tips on dealing with specific kinds of clutter that may plague you:

  • If clutter tends to accumulate in your office, try staunching the flow by immediately separating papers when they arrive. Put junk mail into a recycling bin, set nonurgent items in one stack or folder, and place those needing immediate attention in another.
  • To organize items in your office, psychotherapist Cindy Glovinsky, MSW, recommends using colored file folders and marking them with a few key words in black felt-tip pens.
  • If you don’t know what goes where in your home, try storing items nearest to where they will be used. For instance, instead of putting table linens in the towel closet, tuck them into a dining-room buffet.
  • If you have clutter in your clothes closet, systematically dispose of the clothes you don’t wear. Karen Kingston, author of Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, notes that most people wear 20 percent of their wardrobe 80 percent of the time.

To find more suggestions and resources for clearing clutter, see “How to Use Feng Shui to Declutter Your Home — and Your Life” and “3 Spaces to Declutter Now“.

This article originally appeared as “Mind Over Mess”.

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