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Why Clutter Is Killing Your Focus (and How to Fix It)

How to lose the stuff that's messing with your mental clarity and hurting your health.

by Larry Alton /
A few personal items may help you more than they hurt, but don’t overload your desk with pictures, trinkets, and past work.Artur Debat / Getty Images
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Clutter affects all of us, in one way or another. The term refers to accumulated physical items that interfere with your daily life but provide no inherent value. These items are usually innocuous, providing no immediately visible negative effect, so people tend to keep them around, rather than disposing of them. They might exist in the form of clothes in your closet, papers on your desk or books on your shelf—and they could have a negative effect on your focus and wellbeing.

Decluttering, the art of removing these unnecessary interfering items, has become something of a lifestyle trend (especially among millennials), though it’s always existed in the form of “spring cleaning” and similar initiatives. However, decluttering should be more than just a fad, as there are empirical benefits to decluttering—in both personal and professional environments.

The Big Benefits of Going Clutter-Free

So, what should you hope to improve by decluttering in your personal or professional life?

  1. Better focus. Evidence suggests that when multiple visual stimuli are competing for your attention, you have a harder time narrowing your focus to only one of them. That means the clutter in your life is making you unfocused. You’ll have a harder time staying on task at work, and you won’t be as “present” in your home life, either. Decluttering brings better focus back to your world.
  2. Catharsis. Depending on the types of items you’re removing from your life, decluttering could serve as a kind of catharsis, or releasing of pent-up emotions. For example, if your mother bought you a dress you don’t particularly like, but you’ve kept it for many years anyway, getting rid of it could help you feel more in control and more independent. The act of decluttering is also shown to have a positive effect on your mental state, making you feel accomplished. Try it for yourself, and you’ll likely find the same thing.
  3. Money. Don’t forget that decluttering often means selling valuable items you no longer need in your life. Bigger items, like junk cars, can be scrapped for a sizable profit, and smaller items can be sold at a garage sale or something similar for a few extra dollars. You won’t get rich this way, but everybody could use a little extra money in their pockets.
  4. Aesthetic improvement. Finally, removing some of the extra clutter in your house and at the office will give you a healthier, more appealing aesthetic. Minimalistic environments are much better to look at than cluttered ones, so you, your family and your guests will feel more relaxed in your home.
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Depending on the items you’re removing from your life, decluttering could serve as a kind of catharsis, or releasing of pent-up emotions.

Depending on the items you’re removing from your life, decluttering could serve as a kind of catharsis, or releasing of pent-up emotions.

Decluttering in Your Personal Life

So what can you do to declutter in your personal life?

  • Segment each room. Instead of trying to do your whole house at once, focus on one room at a time. Schedule a day, or even a week, to focus on a single room, and try not to think about the rest of the house until that room is done.
  • Start with the basics. Start with the easy stuff and start working up to more complex decisions. For example, you can throw away the junk mail and remove some old dishes before deciding whether to keep that old necklace your friend bought you.
  • Use the “one year” rule. The popular recommendation states that if you haven’t used or seen an item in the past year, and you haven’t missed it, you don’t need it. Sell it or give it away. Some sources even recommend narrowing this down to the past six months.
  • Set goals. Keep your focus by setting specific goals, such as filling one trash bag of junk every week, or committing to have each room done by a certain day.
  • Set limits. You can also set limits for what you’re allowed to have at any given time. For example, Project 333 challenges participants to wear only 33 articles of clothing for 3 months.

Decluttering in Your Professional Life

And what about decluttering at the office?

  • Keep your desk clear. First, try to keep your desk as clear as possible. A few personal items may help you more than they hurt, but don’t overload your desk with pictures, trinkets, and past work. Only keep what’s immediately relevant to you.
  • Sort your email inbox. Your email inbox is likely the most cluttered thing in your professional life, so prioritize it. Keep your inbox clear by organizing your emails into different folders and deleting them once you no longer need them. If you need help with this, Hubspot has a list of 14 tools that can help you get the job done.
  • Work on hidden storage. Incorporate drawers and cabinets that allow you to keep items hidden from view. You can also bundle cables under your desk to keep them from distracting you.
  • Maintain your work every evening. Don’t let your desk or inbox get cluttered again; maintain your work before going home each evening.

Evidence suggests that when multiple visual stimuli are competing for your attention, you have a harder time narrowing your focus to only one of them. That means the clutter in your life is making you unfocused.

Evidence suggests that when multiple visual stimuli are competing for your attention, you have a harder time narrowing your focus to only one of them. That means the clutter in your life is making you unfocused.

You don’t have to escalate decluttering to an extreme level to see the benefits; even a few minutes a day can help you see these benefits in your personal and professional life. Make a small commitment to declutter more consistently, and chances are, the good feelings you get from the process will be motivation enough for you to continue.

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