The Cost of Clutter in Your Life

Man sitting at a cluttered desk with books piled in the hall
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Clutter—most of us have a little of it here or there. In fact, many of us have more than just a little. In a survey conducted by the National Association for Professional Organizers in 2015, it found that over a third of readers were overwhelmed by their clutter —and don’t know where to begin cleaning. (In contrast, less than 10% say their homes are clutter-free.) How is all this mess affecting us?

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People often think of clutter as an energy drain, but it also drains us of our time. How? People in cluttered homes spend extra time, virtually every day, looking for lost items, such as keys, money, shoes, tools, etc. Even when we’re looking right at the lost item, it becomes difficult to see when surrounded by clutter. And the extra time it takes to search through the mess adds up quickly.


When we don’t have financial papers organized, bills can get lost, causing us to accrue late fees. Replacing lost items and buying duplicates of those we didn’t realize we already had can also carry a cost that adds up quickly.


The most obvious toll that clutter takes is added stress on one's life.

Here are some examples of stress clutter can cause:

  • Having guests over becomes an embarrassment or an event that takes all-day preparation.
  • Each room carries visual reminders of all the work that needs to be done in the way of cleaning.
  • Using your home for activities like scrapbooking or yoga becomes difficult or impossible without taking significant time to clear the space.
  • According to the principles of feng shui, clutter drains you of your positive energy—you can actually feel it!
  • A cluttered home, rather than a haven from stress, is a big stressor in itself and intensifies the frustration and exhaustion that an already-stressed person feels.

A Realistic Level of Clutter

For most of us, especially for parents of small children, it’s not realistic to maintain a home in perfect order every moment of each day. While it’s inspirational to thumb through catalogs that show beautifully furnished rooms or walk through a wonderfully un-cluttered model home, holding oneself to such high standards of neatness may not only be unrealistic, but it can also cause additional stress.

For example, if you find yourself nagging or resenting other family members for the minor messes that they make to the point that it strains family harmony, you may need to relax your standards.

How Much Is Too Much?

But knowing the toll that clutter takes, how much clutter is too much? While we know that piles of clutter can cause stress and a perfect home may be unrealistic for some people, the level of tolerable clutter may vary from person to person.

Stress. The first sign you may have too much clutter is the effect it has on your stress levels while at home. It's helpful to remember that you can best appreciate your home when it's a sanctuary for you.

Can you truly relax in your home or is it an energy drain?

Company. It can also be stressful to have to do a full cleaning of your home before having any guests over. Do you feel agitated that you can't have someone drop by without worrying about getting everything organized first?

Organization. Is your home organized enough that you can generally find everything you’re looking for without having to search?

How to Get Organized

There are many books and even websites dedicated to helping you declutter your home, but there are some basic steps that work well:

  1. Go room by room and divide your things into four boxes: things to donate, things to throw away, things to keep, and things to store. If you don’t need it or love it, consider getting rid of it.
  2. Go through your box of things to keep and find a place for everything. Make it a logical place that’s in the same area where it’ll need to be used. For example, keep keys by the door.
  3. Finish one room before moving on to the next.

This can all be done in a day or can be spread out over several weeks in 30-minute increments if you work quickly. If you can only do it in "baby steps," has a good system that can help.​

Organize What’s Left

As you find places for what you’re keeping, be sure that you’re storing things in a way that makes sense and looks nice.

Kids’ toys can be stored very neatly in tubs, which provide quick cleanup and keep toy clutter out of sight. Getting drawer organizers for your bathrooms and kitchen can keep drawers from overflowing with extra items.

Having a filing system for papers makes it easy to put them away and find them when you need them. Putting a little extra effort into organizing your things now will save you time in cleaning up and maintaining order for years to come.

Create Beauty

Once you have your home decluttered and organized, you can add a few nice touches that can make your home the ideal haven for you to relax. I strongly recommend that you have a system in place for playing music, as it carries such amazing relaxation benefits.

You may also want to have some aromatherapy candles or diffusers out. Home spa supplies are a must for the bathroom and a soothing bedroom can help with sleep. Finally, I would recommend that you create a small space for yourself to use while journaling or for meditation—it may become your favorite part of your home.

Create Positive Chi

You may also want to learn to incorporate some of the principles of Feng Shui, the ancient art of placement, to decorate your home in a way that will reduce daily stress and may help you build the type of life you want.

Getting your home more organized feels great. However, just as it takes the effort to maintain weight loss over time, a clean house takes a little ongoing effort as well. Fortunately, this effort can be minimized with the help of expert advice. The following are some of the best bits of advice from the clutter-clearing experts:

  • Keep a schedule. This is a wonderfully organized way to maintain a clean house, especially for those who work best when they have a list of "to-dos" to follow. 
  • Follow the 30-second rule. Not to be confused with the dubious ‘Five-Second Rule’ (which entails eating food off the ground that’s been there only five seconds), this powerful rule by Sarah Felton of Messies Anonymous goes something like this—if a job takes around 30 seconds or less to do, do it immediately. This applies to putting away your shoes, sorting mail, and other small jobs.
  • Watch your ‘hot spots’. Remember those piles that you just got rid of? Clutter tends to accumulate in the same places—the front door, the kitchen table—little by little each day. Flylady Marla Cilley recommends that you focus on the areas where you tend to leave clutter at the end of each day, so they don’t turn into big piles again.
  • Put your things away. Once you have "a place for everything and everything in its place," you’re ready for this important companion rule. When you take something out, you should simply put it back.
  • Take 15 minutes. Many cleaning experts, including Flylady, recommend that you put on some music and take 15 minutes, a few times a day, to clean. You can get a lot done in 15 minutes and it doesn’t impact your schedule too much to do so.
  • Stop receiving junk mail. One simple way to cut down on paper clutter is to get rid of the junk before it comes in.

More Simple Tips

  • If you bring something in, get rid of something.
  • Do a light cleaning at the end of every day.
  • Do a more thorough cleaning once a week (or hire someone to do it for you if it fits your budget).
  • Have people over more often and really enjoy your home. Live like you really appreciate your newly beautified haven and you’ll automatically be more likely to maintain it.
4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. PR Newswire. Survey Finds 54 Percent of Americans are Overwhelmed with Clutter and Don't Know What to Do With It.

  2. Roster CA, Ferrari JR, Jurkat MP. The dark side of home: Assessing possession 'clutter' on subjective well-being. J Environ Psychol. 2016;46:32-41. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2016.03.003

  3. Kingston K. Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui (Revised and Updated). New York: Harmony; 2016.

  4. Ferrari JR, Roster CA. Delaying Disposing: Examining the Relationship Between Procrastination and Clutter Across Generations. Curr Psychol. 2018;37:426-431. doi:10.1007/s12144-017-9679-4

By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.