Strive to Thrive: New Year, New Order: De-Cluttering

By on February 19th, 2014 Categories: Day-to-Day Matters

A new year brings new resolutions, ranging from losing weight to spending less money to reading War and Peace. Sticking to your resolutions takes energy and willpower. What if you made one resolution that in turn gave you the energy, focus, and willpower to stick to the other resolutions on your list? Would you give it a try?

One word: CLUTTER. Yep, clutter.

Studies have shown that clutter causes a neural overload and inhibits your ability to focus. One study found that women’s stress hormones spiked when they had to deal with clutter.

But you don’t need a study to tell you the difference in the way you feel when you look at a closet that is neat and orderly (maybe you’ve seen one in a magazine!) or a closet with clothes, shoes, and accessories in a mishmash. The former is orderly and gives you a feeling of calm; the latter can make you feel stressed and frustrated, especially when you can’t find the sweater you’re looking for in the disarray.

Clutter can be an energy drain and a source of stress. Clutter can also inhibit our creative abilities. All of this affects our overall well-being. Professional organizers and practitioners of feng shui might call the practice of de-cluttering “inner peace through outer order.”

It makes sense. The word “clutter” comes from the Middle English word clotter, “to clot.” So the very definition of the word clutter has its origins in blocking or obscuring.

I’ve divided the types of clutter that block and obscure our energy and cause stress into three subtypes: physical, mental, and emotional clutter. And because just the thought of sorting, organizing, and/or disposing of clutter can feel daunting, I’ve added some tips to deal with each type of clutter.

Physical Clutter

Have you ever watched “Hoarders”? The mounds of clutter depicted are overwhelming, and you can’t imagine how anyone can live like that. You don’t have to have the same level of clutter in your home to feel the same overwhelming drain on your energy or the helpless feeling about where to begin to deal with it. The key to dealing with physical clutter is to start with a manageable project. For me, it was my sock drawer (I’m not even going to get started on the mystery of the black hole for the inevitable missing sock). Once I cleaned it out and organized it, I instantly felt lighter, more in control and motivated to tackle other de-cluttering projects.

If you are going through treatment now and don’t have the strength to de-clutter, maybe a friend or family member can help. More order and calm in your physical environment will be a welcome relief and will provide you with a needed boost of energy.

Mental Clutter

Thinking about how you really need to sit down to pay the bills, gather the paperwork together for those medical insurance claims, or return your Aunt Irene’s phone call — these nagging thoughts constitute mental clutter and can drain you of energy just like the cluttered closet. A cluttered mind can’t focus on what’s important. Consistently making time, even 15 minutes a day, to eliminate some of these items from your bothersome “to do” list will have a significant positive effect on your mental health. When mental clutter can’t be checked off a list, take a walk, run, or try another thought-clearing exercise. Meditation, yoga, journaling, or even a hot bath can also help clear your head and help you feel more positive and energetic.

Emotional Clutter

Emotional clutter is unresolved issues or feelings about people or situations that replay over and over again in your mind. Maybe it’s resentment over a diagnosis, bitterness about the way a friend dealt with you while you were in treatment, frustration about a dead-end job, or “scanxiety” (worries about follow-up tests). Emotional clutter not only weighs us down, but it can negatively color our perceptions of people and situations. Sometimes, emotional clutter is small enough that it can be managed with tools such as mindfulness meditation or journaling. And if you have draining relationships with negative people, work on easing them out of your life. If a frustrating work environment is wearing on you, trying to address the issues or looking for a new job may be the way to allay this emotional “clutter.” Taking these steps is hard work and takes courage, but the pay off — “cleaning house” — can be the ability to focus on what makes you happy.

There are also times when the way we feel is far more than “clutter” and may point to deeper issues. And it makes sense — a cancer diagnosis can be traumatic. If fear, anxiety, or depression interferes with your daily well-being for a prolonged period of time, it’s best to seek professional help. A professional can provide stability and tools to help you move forward.

Ultimately, getting rid of emotional clutter or balancing deeper emotional issues with a professional can provide you with a greater ability to focus on what is really important to you: the peace of mind that results from dropping worry, guilt, and other negative emotions.

An icon of simplicity, Mother Teresa, once said:

“The more you have, the more you are occupied.
The less you have, the more free you are.”

De-cluttering can help you focus, give you more energy, and free you to do more of what is important to you. Willpower is a form of mental energy, so with this renewed focus and drive, maybe you’ll be able to tackle those New Year’s resolutions. As for me, now that my sock drawer is organized, I’m ready to take on War and Peace.

Jean Heflin Kane lives in Devon, Pennsylvania with her husband, four children, and the real star of the family, their fluffy, fun-loving dog Toby. Jean is an attorney who founded and directs a non-profit aimed at supporting sustainability initiatives in K-12 schools. She is actively striving to be a breast cancer "thriver." She blogs at She welcomes comments and suggestions on blog topics.

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