Cut the clutter for better mental health

January 12, 2024 Providence Body & Mind Team


In this article:

  • You may be experiencing “clutter” in your life, whether that’s too much stuff, too many activities or too much to keep up with online.

  • Providence psychologist Dr. Annelise Manns offers some thoughts on the benefits of decluttering and how you can gain mental health benefits.

  • Aim for SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound.

With the start of the new year, you or a family member may be thinking about ways you can “declutter” your life. But where, exactly, do you start?

“People can experience clutter in both their external and internal environments,” said Annelise Manns, Psy.D., a psychologist at Providence Primary Care in Clackamas, Oregon. “Clutter externally may look like having too many items for a living space. Internal clutter may look like unhelpful thoughts, pressured thinking or an overly busy schedule that is difficult to keep up with.”

Clutter: It’s more than just too much stuff

Clutter is more than a pile of unmatched socks that never seems to get any smaller. Or a box of items you’ve been meaning to donate that has a permanent spot in the trunk of your car.

Clutter is a sign of uncontrolled excess. Too much stuff. Too many thoughts. Too many responsibilities.

According to Dr. Manns, research has found that clutter can negatively impact the feeling of comfort, security and calm a person feels in their home or work environment. Having a cluttered space can also create feelings of self-judgment or embarrassment.

All of this has an impact on mental health and well-being and can lead to increased feelings of stress and fatigue. Additionally, having a schedule or life rhythm that is overly booked can create stress, burnout and a feeling of persistent pressure.

“It is important to note that those experiencing mental health concerns may be more vulnerable to accumulating clutter,” said Dr. Manns. “For example, individuals who are struggling with their mental health, such as experiencing a depressive episode, may have greater difficulty with motivation for tasks. In addition, someone experiencing elevated anxiety or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may feel overwhelmed by the amount needing to be done and feel frozen, leading to more piling up over time. It may be important to seek treatment for these underlying concerns.”

Clear away your clutter

If “stuff” has taken over your space, getting rid of the things you no longer use or need will free up more than your floors and closets. 

  • Start small by tidying up and cleaning in 5- to 10-minute intervals and increase your time once you’ve built up momentum.
  • Donate or throw away one item a day for a year and you’ll have removed 365 items from your home with minimal effort and a big sense of accomplishment.
  • Ask yourself: Do I need this? Do I love this? Do I use this regularly? If the answer is “no,” recycle it, donate it or throw it away.
  • If you have a cluttered home office workspace, whether it’s a dedicated room or a corner of the dining room table, give it some attention. Organize your papers and office supplies and put everything away every night.
  • Take before-and-after photos as you tackle each area or room. Keeping track of your progress can help keep you motivated and actively involved in the decluttering process.

Declutter your digital life

Have digital newsletters, magazines and social media started to consume your computer, phone and tablet? Information overload is one of the more draining forms of clutter. You don’t have to cut yourself off from the world altogether, but setting some limits to the onslaught of information you receive daily can reduce your stress level and give you better mental health.

  • Unsubscribe from any newsletters, magazines, podcasts or RSS feeds that you no longer enjoy or need.
  • If social media has become intrusive in your “real” life, set time limits for yourself and then stick to them. You may be surprised by how much of your day you’ve freed up.
  • Delete any files and programs you don’t need on your computer. Purge no-longer-used icons from your desktop. Get rid of all the unread, unwanted emails in your inbox.

Declutter your schedule

The demands on your time and attention can be never-ending. Reducing your non-essential commitments is one of the most effective ways you can declutter your life.

  • Create a list of priorities, and then schedule your time accordingly. Re-evaluate the list regularly to ensure it’s still an accurate reflection of what you consider most important.
  • Say no to volunteer activities that take a lot of time and bring limited value to your life.
  • Make time for yourself. While you’re paring down your to-do list, don’t skimp on the time you set aside to refresh, relax and restore.

Avoid a ‘New Year’s resolution’

While you may be tempted to accomplish all of the above through a New Year’s resolution, Dr. Manns advises against that. She says that New Year’s resolutions can often lead people to feel like they’ve failed if they haven’t met their goal, and then give up with a low sense of self-esteem.

“I encourage patients to set value-based goals and intentions to work towards,” she said. “This can be considered more of a direction to move in than a destination to reach, which creates a lot more flexibility. Defining the values one has about their space, schedule and daily routine, and then making specific and achievable goals to de-clutter or simplify, may be a more helpful approach.”

She suggests making SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timebound.

“Set aside time to take a step back, assess the situation, make an achievable plan and focus on following the plan one step at a time,” Dr. Manns said. “Motivation builds off of action, so if you can identify an achievable goal, accomplishing that will likely create momentum to continue working toward the next task.”

Contributing caregiver

Annelise Manns, Psy.D., a psychologist at Providence Primary Care in Clackamas, Oregon

Find a doctor

At Providence, we offer the tools and resources you need to declutter and manage your health care needs conveniently and efficiently. You can find a specialist in our provider directory. Or, you can search for a primary care doctor in your area.

Download the Providence app

We’re with you, wherever you are. Make the Providence app your personalized connection to your health. Schedule appointments, conduct virtual visits, message your doctor, view your health records and more. Learn more and download the app.

Related resources

Your physical and mental health go hand in hand

Anxiety is real

Teen mental health resources

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

About the Author

The Providence Body & Mind Team is dedicated to providing medically-sound, data-backed insights and advice on how to reach and maintain your optimal health through a mixture of exercise, mindfulness, preventative care and healthy living in general.

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