It's finally spring... which means it's time to face one of your biggest stressors.
Each year, millions of Americans use the warmer temperatures to throw open their windows and do some "spring cleaning."
Whether it's excessive gifts from the holidays, too many clothes, stacks of paper and mail, or unused kitchen gadgets, clutter spreads throughout our homes. What you might not know is that all that clutter makes us sick.
A study a few years ago linked higher levels of cortisol with women who described their homes as messy or cluttered. The researchers did in-home visits to monitor the connection between average clutter and stress. The problem here: Cortisol increases stress. Our clutter literally stresses us out. And increased stress contributes to everything from depression to weaker immune systems.
One theory for this is that having too much "stuff" overloads our senses. We often find ourselves avoiding throwing things out because of a common behavioral problem we've written about before: loss aversion.
Just as we avoid selling stocks because we feel attached to them, we also have a problem in our physical spaces. We form attachments to things we own simply because we own them. They may have no value other than this emotional view. That becomes a problem when we start to have too much... or the item no longer serves a purpose.
It's also important to remember that holding onto objects often runs in a cycle with depression. Depression often manifests as a lack of interest in daily activities, but it can also make simple chores much more difficult. As such, clutter can build up and seeing all that clutter adds to our stress levels.
Spring is a great time to declutter and as such, de-stress. If you're overwhelmed or need some help figuring out where to start, we put together eight of our favorite tips to help you get started.
1. Go slow. You don't want to tackle your entire house in one weekend. Remember, all the moving and cleaning is physically exhausting, but the act of letting things go also taxes us emotionally. Make a plan of your rooms and try to do one or two per day. For more cluttered areas, set aside more time. You might take a three-day weekend to do the garage, for example.
2. Use stations. A helpful tip that my assistant Laura often employs is to set up four stations, such as boxes, trash bags, or simply marked areas of a room. Label them Keep, Trash, Donate, and Store. For each item you come across, assign it to one of these stations.
3. Figure out what to keep. When deciding what to keep, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I use this item on a regular basis? It might surprise you to know we often wear just 20% of our wardrobe 80% of the time. Keep this in mind when going through clothes... When was the last time you wore that outfit?
- Do these clothes still fit? Don't hang onto clothes that no longer fit – not only does it take up room, but having a reminder of your failure to lose weight can actually trigger depression. That in turn can keep you from meeting your goals. What you think might be motivation is really just holding you back.
- Does this object bring me joy? It sounds hokey, but we tend to keep items because we assign them value that they don't have. Remember, they have a sunk cost, meaning we can't resell them for what we paid. That means we have to figure out their usefulness and emotional value. Now, that doesn't mean throwing out all of your grandmother's antiques. If you're hanging onto a lot of items from a loved one, try to choose just a few that bring you the most joy and let go of the rest.
4. Donate. Often, donating items is easier – and more rewarding – than simply trashing them. Knowing someone else can use and enjoy the item helps us let it go. One tip one of my researchers shared is if you're cleaning out your loved one's room in a retirement home, ask the facility about reselling items left behind. We know a few homes here in Maryland that offer a used furniture and home-goods store for residents and their families. It's a good way to find a new owner for furnishings.
5. Try the six-month test. Box up items you might be reluctant to give away. Mark the box with a date in the future – six months is usually a good test. Put the box out of sight. You can try the garage or the basement, for example. Go back in six months and see if you've used or missed anything in there. If it's out of sight, you'll grow less attached and letting go becomes easier.
6. Go digital. Paperwork is one of the worst offenders in clutter. My assistant Laura recommends going digital. She bought her parents a small desktop scanner to digitize all of their important paperwork. (She recommends this one.)
7. Employ the "one in, two out" rule. Typically, we apply this to clothing. For every new piece of clothing you purchase, you must get rid of two pieces. But you can also apply this to books, DVDs, shoes, and even kitchen utensils.
8. Buy organizers after you purge. Buying organizing containers, shelving units, and more should happen after you clean and purge yourself of clutter. You want to make sure you purchase what you really need instead of guessing. Worse, buying something larger than you need means more room to accumulate clutter – the opposite of what you want!
Remember, take it easy on yourself as you declutter. Sometimes letting go of items is hard. But if you follow our tips, you'll not only clean your house, but lower your stress.
- More on our nation's clutter mentality.
- Something different: What happens when you follow sleep hygiene.
Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,
Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
March 22, 2018