Most of us dislike clutter. For instance, a study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that of 60 women who were asked to give researchers a tour of their home, women who believed that their home was cluttered were more likely to feel constantly tired and exhibit symptoms of depression. These effects were tied to the hormone cortisol, which plays a role in how we respond to stress.
Clutter combined with a sense of having no control over it can also lead us to make bad decisions. A 2016 study published in Environment and Behavior explored how our mindset around a chaotic kitchen causes some people to make poor food choices. Specifically, the study found that when people felt no control over the clutter and chaos in their kitchen, they ate more cookies than when they felt they were not in control of their kitchen.
Zooming this out, we can see how a cluttered environment can go from an aesthetic non-preference to a serious lifestyle issue—perhaps causing us to skip workouts, for example.
Although decluttering may help with depression, unhealthy cravings, or fatigue, many people find the most pronounced positive effect of decluttering to be a feeling of lightness and increased productivity. Here’s one good reason why that might be the case.
Less Clutter Means More Brain Power for Real Tasks
You may have heard (or experienced for yourself) that we work better when we have less physical clutter around us. Science offers us a neuroscientific explanation.
A study published in The Journal of Neuroscience examines how the human brain processes high-clutter environments and suggests that decluttering your surroundings could be one way to ensure that your limited mental bandwidth is put to its best use.
When we look at clutter, our brains try to identify the most relevant information that will help us achieve our immediate goals. This information is called the “attentional set.” When our goals change, our brains need to suppress the old attentional set and switch focus to a new attentional set, which consumes brain power.
In this study, the researchers examined how participants’ brains reacted when they looked at pictures of different objects. They found that when people were looking for a certain type of object (the target), their brains paid more attention to that type of object and less attention to other types of objects (the distracters) that used to be important but weren’t anymore.
The more your field of vision is filled with objects that have nothing to do with your goal, the harder your brain has to work to keep each of them out of the attentional set. This can lead to fatigue and may cause us to feel lazy and be less productive than we are capable of being.
On the other hand, if your environment is uncluttered or minimalist, your brain is focused on fewer things to filter through, allowing it to allocate more resources to the task at hand.
Cleaning your home or surroundings isn't just a physical process, but a mental one as well. Reducing clutter minimizes distractions, allowing your brain to concentrate on more important tasks at hand. The act of organizing your space can also provide a sense of control and order, which can alleviate feelings of stress and promote a sense of well-being. The mental rejuvenation that comes from decluttering is clear evidence of the link between our physical surroundings and cognitive function.