4 Steps to Conquer Clutter—and Improve Your Health

By Nancy Fitzgerald |

Your messy house could be raising your blood pressure, spiking your stress hormones, and expanding your waistline. To get healthy, get organized.

clutter

The clutter in your house: Sometimes it seems to have a life of its own. It piles up on the kitchen counter, stuffs the garage, overflows from every closet and cubby. Maybe you trim some of it away, but when you’re not looking, it multiplies.

That clutter is probably making your life disorganized and your days inefficient. The average American spends 2.5 days a year looking for stuff they can’t find, according to one survey. And all told, Americans shell out nearly $3 billion a year replacing what’s gone missing.

But worst of all, clutter could be making you sick. In one study, women who felt they lived in a cluttered home had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease. When everything’s out of place, your mind goes on sensory overload. In turn, your ability to focus, process information, and think clearly goes out the window.

Trouble sleeping? That could be related to clutter too. And an Indiana University study found that people who kept a shipshape home were healthier and more physically active that those with messy houses.

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“Clutter is bad for your health,” says Peter Walsh, an organizing expert and author of Let It Go: Downsizing Your Way to a Richer, Happier Life. “It’s connected to poor eating habits, stress, heart problems, and difficulty focusing. And that clutter makes it harder to clean, which can cause respiratory disorders because of higher levels of dust mites and allergens.”

Plus, certain kinds of clutter, such as stacks of old magazines or albums piled next to the sofa, can increase your risk of falls at home—a serious concern for older adults.

Clutter, Walsh says, even impacts our relationships. “We may be embarrassed about how our home looks, and the mess can make our visitors feel uncomfortable,” he says. “That may add up to social isolation, which can have a big impact on health.”

The takeaway? If feeling happy, content, and generally healthy is your goal—it’s time to get a handle on your clutter. Get started with Walsh’s four-step blueprint.

Step #1: Change Your Mindset

“The first half of life is about accumulating, but the second half is about editing—getting rid of the stuff that’s causing us grief,” says Walsh.

“For seniors, this is a great time to start thinking about our lives in a whole new way,” he continues. “We can ask ourselves, ‘What is it I really want to do? What do I want to be in the last quarter of my life apart from just owning things?’” Our answers can help us find new possibilities under piles of stuff.

Most of that stuff, Walsh says, is about who you once were—not who you want to be. “Think of this time of your life as a positive opportunity rather than a time of fearfulness,” he suggests. “There’s so much to learn and study, and we have so much to offer. Free up your space to do the things you really want to do.”

Step #2: Decide What Really Matters

When you’re lucky enough to have lived for decades, you’ve collected a lot of memories—and tons of mementos—along the way. And it’s that “memory clutter,” Walsh says, that makes up most of the mess.

Here’s how to deal with it: Ask yourself which of these mementos mean the most to you. “Of all the things you own, decide what your real treasures are,” Walsh says.

“What’s the single thing in your home that best represents your relationship, your career, your children? What’s the single thing that represents your best vacation? If you can find each of those single best things—those single treasures—it’s amazing how the rest of your stuff pales in comparison.”

Choose the most significant sentimental objects, and get rid of the rest. “Otherwise, it will weigh you down for the rest of your life.”

When Walsh’s parents died, he and his siblings each chose one meaningful possession from their home. For Walsh, it was his dad’s war medals and his mother’s green Pyrex baking dish.

“For anyone else, those things would have been totally worthless, but for me, that scratched green dish brings back memories of my mother’s lemon marshmallow pie.”

Bottom line: Keep the memories. Lose the stuff.

Step #3: Control the Paper

Every day, entire forests are cleared to produce the paper that makes its way into your house—the junk mail, the bills, the coupons and flyers and receipts. Walsh says there’s an easy way to get all that under control: Don’t put it down—put it away.

“Don’t let the junk mail come into your house,” he insists. “And deal with the important mail as soon as it arrives. ‘Later’ is the best friend of clutter.”

He swears by a two-bin system. One bin is for bills that must be paid—go through that bin on the 15th and 30th of each month. The other bin is for things like invitations that you can deal with later. Check it once a month, and discard what you don’t need.

Next, get an inexpensive 12-month expanding file, and slip receipts and paid bills into the appropriate folder. “Once a year, go through the file,” Walsh suggests. “Find the receipts to do your taxes, and shred everything else.”

Get a lock box or file for essential items like car registrations and birth certificates. You’ll never waste time searching for them again. “Let all those important papers live in one place,” says Walsh. Simple. Easy.

Step #4: Have a Downsizing Party

Have your kids flown the nest but left all their childhood memorabilia behind? Is your garage packed with old bikes and unused hockey sticks? Are the kitchen cabinets overflowing with cupcake tins for school bake sales and cookware for big family meals? If you haven’t used any of this stuff in a while, it’s time to cull your collection.

“Clean out your kids’ bedrooms, and tell them to come and get it,” says Walsh. Whatever they don’t take is fair game for a yard sale or giveaway.

“There are lots of ways to do it,” says Walsh. “For folks who don’t really need the money, downsizing parties are becoming more popular. Just put out all the stuff you don’t want, and invite family, neighbors, friends, and friends of friends to come and get it. You can even ask them to leave a donation for every item they take, then give it to a local charity. It’s decluttering for a good cause.”

Anything that’s not scooped up can go straight to the donation bin.

Even if now’s not a great time to get together, it’s still a good time to start getting organized. After all, it can take a while to go through decades of stuff. One expert downsizing strategy: Take three to four hours each week to declutter a little at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed.

While the decluttering process can feel arduous, remember that you’re opening the door to new possibilities.

“Clinging to all this stuff is like a life jacket that holds you in the past,” says Walsh. “Cut the chain and swing into the future—there are so many exciting things out there.”

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