Cluttered desk
Submitted by Carrie Stefanson, senior consultant, Public Affairs

Out with the old, in with the new. For many people, the new year is a time to clean house.

By now, the tree is probably down and the holiday decorations put away. But what to do with the things that accumulate over the year and clutter our homes and lives? According to Psychiatrist and Surrey Memorial Hospital Site Medical Director Dr. Marietta Van Den Berg, clutter can affect our stress and anxiety levels, as well as our productivity. It can influence our ability to focus and may trigger coping and avoidance behaviours.

“Think about how hard it is to concentrate when you are in a noisy mall or restaurant, how draining it is,” says Dr. Van Den Berg. “Visual stimuli and the physical environment also drain cognitive resources.”

Clutter, she says, represents postponed decisions.

“When we do not make decisions, we end up with stuff in our lives. We have things in our homes because we have not made decisions around whether we need them, whether to get rid of them or where to put them, and we have clutter in our lives because we have not decided what is and is not important. When we avoid making decisions, we then get decision fatigue and then we avoid the issue altogether and the clutter grows.”

Dr. Van Den Berg offers some tips to deal with six common types of clutter:

Waste clutter

No one wants to contribute to landfills. We can choose to sell, donate or toss items. We must learn to live with and tolerate the difficult feelings that come with disposing of items we don’t want or need, and then use those feelings to make better decisions when buying more stuff in the future.

Aspirational clutter

This includes the clothes in the closet that we have had for years because we intend to lose weight, and the craft and hobby supplies that we will use when we have more time. This represents our past selves and our future selves, not our present reality. The solution, says Dr. Van Den Berg, is to change and close the gap between the desired and current self, or let it go.

Progress clutter

The parts you ordered that need to be installed, the projects you started that need to be completed or even the letters that need to be posted all represent progress clutter. Close the gap, schedule the task and complete it, or have an “in-progress” basket that you keep out of the way.

Sentimental clutter

Decide how many useless things holding sentimental value you can accommodate without them becoming clutter. For example, perhaps allocate one banker’s box per child for elementary artwork, school reports and year books. Find a way to hold onto the memory, not the item.

Offer larger items, like furniture, to family members or repurpose them to fit your current needs.

“This includes the gifted and inherited stuff that you may hate but feel obliged to keep,” says Dr. Van Den Berg. “I have that – a whole house full of antique furniture where nothing matches in case my children want it someday. I intend to have two antique chairs sanded, painted white and distressed...I feel if I must bear the burden of ownership at least I can do it in a manner that looks pretty to me and works for me.”

I-might-need-this clutter

Keeping something because you might need it is centered on fear. Fear of not having something when it is needed, fear of regret and fear of not being able to afford or find the item in the future. It represents a fear of loss of control of future possible needs.

Ask yourself: When did I last use it? If not in two seasons, you probably do not need it. If you decide to keep an item, remember it is a tradeoff of the cost of your time, space and attention against a possible future need.

Emotional and mental clutter

Rather than creating a “to-do” list, consider scheduling items or doing them immediately.

Worries and thoughts take up headspace, time and attention. Consider writing them down.

To reduce emotional clutter, be realistic about your capacity and capabilities. If people in your life constantly “take” from you, bring you down or clutter your emotional space, time, energy and attention, either reduce the impact they have on your life or cut them out.


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