Tidy space, tidy mind – why decluttering can be good for your mental health

Recently I’ve felt like screaming and figuratively pulling my hair out when confronted with the clutter that has piled up in my living room and on the kitchen bench.

The open-plan space has been doubling as a home office and it’s literally been doing my head in. When I’m home I’ve found myself walking around in circles and unfocused, which is not how I like to be, so a few weeks ago I took remedial action by making a commitment to declutter.

Now, anyone who knows me and the Enting side of the family will know that decluttering doesn’t come naturally.

As a family we are overly sentimental and we like stuff, and by stuff we mean good stuff like old books and possessions that have meaning. For example, my mother was a potter and I find it practically impossible to part with anything she has made, even if it is a wonky cup. She was a very talented potter and most of her work outstanding, so perhaps I can let go of the cup…

It was time for me to take action!

What followed was a very gratifying weekend sorting the spice cupboard, investing in a space-saving revolving spice rack and gaining space in the cupboard for the pile of cookbooks cluttering up an area under the kitchen bench.

I also did a wardrobe edit, where I pulled absolutely everything out and did the Marie Kondo thing – did it bring me joy? Did I still fit it? And would I still wear it?

It was a wonderful feeling donating several bags of good quality clothing to the local hospice shop and to now have breathing space between the hangers.

And I felt as if I could breathe again too. Deeply, and calmly.

I realised that this clutter around me had been stressing me out more than I realised.

The science

There have been several studies that have examined the psychology of a tidy home and its impact on mental wellbeing. One study, conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found that people who lived in cluttered and disorganised homes had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, compared to those who lived in tidy and organised spaces.

“A cluttered home can lead to higher levels of cortisol so it gives you that sense of feeling overwhelmed,” explains Rachel Barthow of interior design One Something Studio which specialises in creating well-considered spaces that enhance our wellbeing.

“I feel we can have a truly richer experience of relaxation when we have an uncluttered home. Personally, I feel more rested if there aren’t lots of visual reminders of all the things that I need to do, like toys on the floor, clutter on surfaces and washing needing to be put away,” says Barthow.

“Clutter can impact your ability to complete everyday tasks.

If you don’t have the space to do the things that you need to do, if it’s unorganised and you can’t find what you need, you’re not able to achieve some of those daily tasks and that can lead to that bigger sense of not having a sense of mastery or achievement, which has an impact on your mental health.”

Effects of clutter include difficulty concentrating, procrastination and distractions, adds Barthow. Being overstimulated by your environment can also make it hard to focus on what you need or want to be doing.

It can also affect relationships with others. “If you have a cluttered home and don’t have a lot of space to have people over or entertain, it can contribute to a sense of isolation,” she explains. “If you’re living with someone who is contributing to the clutter, that can also lead to some tension in the home. It can have lots of impacts in different ways on our mental health and overall quality of life.”

“A cluttered home can lead to higher levels of cortisol so it gives you that sense of feeling overwhelmed,” explains Rachel Barthow.

Other positives for decluttering

A clean home can also improve our overall mood. Studies have shown that people who live in tidy and organised spaces tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives. This is likely because a clean and organised home can give us a sense of control and accomplishment, which can boost our self-esteem and overall wellbeing.

For example, making the bed first thing in the morning is considered a good practice for a few reasons. First, it sets a positive tone for the day ahead and helps to establish a sense of order and discipline. Second, it is a simple task that can be easily accomplished, even when feeling tired or stressed. Third, it helps to create a sense of accomplishment, which can boost morale and motivation.

Having a tidy home can also improve our physical health and can make it easier to maintain healthy habits, such as cooking healthy meals or getting regular exercise.

But what if you love stuff?

While having a lot of clutter can have negative impacts on our physical and mental health, there can also be some positives to having a lot of stuff around us.

“Some people love having little knick knacks around them. It makes them feel safe and cosy,” says Bradley.

For example, certain items with sentimental value, such as photographs, mementos, and keepsakes. Having them around can be comforting and remind them of good memories.

Others find that having a lot of stuff around them can be inspiring and spark creativity. They might have an easier time coming up with new ideas or projects when they have a lot of materials to work with.

Having a lot of stuff around can also provide a sense of flexibility and freedom, as people may feel they have more options and resources at their disposal.

Some people may feel a sense of security, that they have more control over their environment and are better prepared for any eventuality.

It’s important to note that these positives may be subjective and depend on the person’s perspective, and that having too much clutter can still lead to negative impacts such as feeling overwhelmed, stressed, and not being able to find what you need easily. The key is to find a balance, to keep the things that bring joy, memories, and that are useful and to let go of the things that don’t serve you anymore.

“You can still be a maximalist and not have to have the burden of the things that you don’t really love as much on your shoulders,” says Liz Bradley, The Tidy Lady.

A professional organiser, Bradley is often compared to Mary Poppins and while she doesn’t wear hats or carry an umbrella, she does go where she is needed.

There’s no “spit spot” admonishing, however. “My job is not to make them do what I think is good for them,” Bradley explains. “I bring tips, ideas and practical ways to declutter but it doesn’t always mean they’re going to do it. I’m more about making it better for the person I’m with. I work side-by-side with them because I can’t make decisions about people’s belongings, what can stay and what can go.”

Having a tidy home can also improve our physical health and can make it easier to maintain healthy habits, such as cooking healthy meals or getting regular exercise.

Letting go

Most of us are now familiar with what is known as the KonMari Method developed by Japanese organising consultant and author Marie Kondo, based on the idea that people should only keep items in their homes that “spark joy” and get rid of things that don’t bring happiness.

However, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to tidying up your home, says Bradley. Different people have different preferences, lifestyles, and needs, so it’s important to find a method or expert that aligns with your specific situation and goals.

According to Bradley there is never really a logical excuse for not letting things go, which is an interesting thought to ponder.

What she means is that with most things there’s always a way for it to be removed from your life, to let it go.

“It depends on your priorities, and when you choose to do something, you feel completely different about it,” she explains. “It may be indeed that your priorities change. But a lot of the time it’s just not the right time. In five years’ time something happens and your heart and mind is focused in such a different place and these things are actually causing you more stress and pressure, and the sway towards or away from sentimentality and towards practicality and towards your current perspective at that time may move you closer to being able to let them go. There is always a way, it just may not be right now.”

Bradley takes a gentle approach. When a client has what she calls “a brain explosion” and announces that they’re going to give everything away and keep just one knife, fork and spoon, she’ll say, ‘are you absolutely sure about that? Let’s just take it slowly’.

She has a number of phrases, as well as games that can be played with people who are feeling extremely strong feelings around things and want to let things go, but just can’t.

“That’s why they bring me in,” says Bradley. “Once they understand the psychology of why they’re holding onto it, they can move forward. Some tips and tricks that work for people are to photograph or frame things, or choose one thing to keep from a selection.”

Where to start

For me, I started my decluttering mission in the place that as most annoying me, which Bradley advises is the best place to begin.

In some cases, depending on the degree of clutter, it can help to do a rubbish and recycling sweep across all of the floor spaces and surfaces.

Barthow offers another approach, which is stepping back and doing a review or stocktake of how you are using your home.

“Having an organised home is a really good place to start,” says Barthow. “Curating a home that supports your wellbeing and making life more manageable and less chaotic.”

To do this, Barthow suggests asking yourself questions like, ‘what do you like to spend your time doing?’, ‘what are the things that you have to do regularly or daily in your house?’. Answering these questions can help begin the process of designing a home that supports your wellbeing better.

Then make a list of what needs to be sorted and be methodical about it: “Do one thing at a time, just going from space to space. Consider the function of that space. What do you need from it? What’s working and what’s not working? Can a space be better used to suit your lifestyle needs? Would you like to use the spare room as an office?”

Barthow personally finds editing spaces “therapeutic”.

In her home she tries to give everything an intentional place; somewhere where it goes back to. And then being consistent at maintaining it by doing the small things each day and putting stuff away so that clutter doesn’t reaccumulate.

Storage solutions

Natalie Chan is operations director of Griff Trading which supplies homewares and storage solutions to small and medium sized retailers. She’s also a former retailer and knows the value of making the most of space, particularly if the footprint is small. In which case her advice is “to go up!”.

“Good shelving enables you to maximise space as best as possible,” says Chan. “You want to be going as high as you can and put the things that you don’t use much or categorise as low use, like Christmas decorations, on the top.”

“That’s why they bring me in,” says Bradley. “Once they understand the psychology of why they’re holding onto it, they can move forward. Some tips and tricks that work for people are to photograph or frame things, or choose one thing to keep from a selection.”

Inventory control

A big part of Chan’s job at Griff Trading is inventory control which she’s also templated for home life to make her personal life and that of her family much easier.

Every three months she goes through her pantry and notes down what she has and keeps a list of things that need to be used. And creates meal plans from it, with the help of Google by searching for recipes with ingredients that are about to expire.

“It makes me feel good because I’m not wasting things and the family is noticing it and they’re picking up some good life skills by watching me do it.”


Chan is a fan of the KonMari method and she regularly conducts clearing out exercises with her two children, who she has taught how to declutter using four categories: keep, gift, donate and sell.

Places to sell include TradeMe, Facebook Marketplace, Designer Wardrobe and Hard to Find Books.

Donating brings myriad benefits including reducing the environmental impact of producing new items; and helping others in need which provides a sense of fulfillment. There’s a comprehensive list on thetidylady.co.nz of charities and places to which you can donate.

Marie Kondo messy

Kondo shockingly admitted in a recent interview with The Washington Post that her home is “messy”. As mum to three children, it’s safe to assume her attention for tidying isn’t quite what it used to be. And she’s human, too.

Her latest book – Marie Kondo’s Kurashi at Home: How to Organize Your Space and Achieve Your Ideal Life – sees her shift her focus to the importance of decluttering our mental and emotional spaces. “Tidying up means dealing with all the ‘things’ in your life. So, what do you really want to put in order?” asks Kondo.

Barthow, also a former social worker, believes the home is where a lot of our emotional, psychological and physical needs are or aren’t being met. It’s her goal, as a wellness-focused interior designer, to design spaces that enhance a person’s wellbeing and enrich their daily life.

She points to links between mental health, individuality and lifestyle: “Wellbeing is something that’s deeply personal. What fills you up and gives you joy is really specific to you. I feel like your home should reflect this. It should be a place of self-expression and individuality and making your lived experience there more fulfilling.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that a tidy home doesn’t mean perfection, it means a space that is functional and comfortable. Achieving a tidy home can take time, effort and a bit of patience, but the benefits are worth it.

Some tips for decluttering

When decluttering your home, it’s best to start with the areas that will have the most impact and will be easiest to take on. Here are some suggestions for where to begin and the order of rooms to tackle:

Bedroom: The bedroom is a good place to begin because it’s the room where you spend the most time, and it’s important to have a comfortable and peaceful space to sleep in. Target your closet and dresser first, as these are often the most cluttered areas.

Living room: After decluttering your bedroom, move on to the living room. This is the room where you spend most of your leisure time, so you want it to be a relaxing space. Places to tidy first are the coffee table, bookshelves and other surfaces.

Kitchen: Often the most cluttered room in the house, with dishes, cookware and food items all competing for space. Tidy the pantry, fridge and countertops first, as these are usually the most cluttered areas in the kitchen.

Bathroom: Another room that tends to be cluttered with toiletries, cleaning products and other items. Work on the countertops, medicine cabinet and shower/bath first, as these are often the most messy areas in the bathroom.

Other areas of your home: After sorting the main living areas, move on to other areas of your home, such as the home office, spare bedrooms, and the garage/basement.

It’s important to note that decluttering is a process, and it can take time. It’s not necessary to declutter your whole home in one day, you can break it down into smaller tasks that can be accomplished over time. Also, it’s important to stick to the category-by-category method and not to get bogged down by sentimental items – it’s best to tackle them last.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that decluttering is not just about getting rid of things but also about finding a place for the things you choose to keep – this will help you to maintain the tidiness of your home in the long run.

5 benefits of having a tidy home

  1. Reduces stress and anxiety: A clean and organised home can create a sense of calm and order, which can help to reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
  2. Improves mood: Studies have shown that people who live in tidy and organised spaces tend to be happier and more satisfied with their lives.
  3. Improves physical health: A clean home is less likely to harbour allergens, dust, and other irritants that can cause respiratory problems.
  4. Increases productivity: A tidy and organised home can make it easier to focus and be more productive, whether it’s working from home or studying.
  5. Saves time: When things are in their designated place, it’s easier to find what you need, which can save you time and energy.

Decluttering checklist

Decluttering a whole house is a big job, but you can do it.

Download Liz Bradley’s free Decluttering Checklist at thetidylady.co.nz

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