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Why cleaning and decluttering can boost your mental health

Spring cleaning season has begun. Experts talk how to declutter, organize, and start fresh.
Experts said the uptick in cleaning and organizing is likely to have benefits beyond tidier homes — with improved mental health topping the list.  
Experts said the uptick in cleaning and organizing is likely to have benefits beyond tidier homes — with improved mental health topping the list.  LaylaBird / Getty Images

With last Sunday marking the first day of a new season, spring cleaning is officially upon us. And while most of us take advantage of the longer days and warmer weather to dig in with new cleaning and organizational projects, 2022 will likely mean a deeper dive than we’ve done in year’s past. 

 Matt Paxton, a downsizing and decluttering expert and author of “Keep The Memories, Lose the Stuff,” explained that because most of us have spent the past two years cooped up indoors, our messes are likely bigger than we’re used to, our need to declutter and get organized increased. “Many people are overwhelmed with stuff coming out of the pandemic,” he said. Burke Bradshaw, the COO of storage company Towne Storage, pointed to the recent rise in self-storage units as correlating with people making room for home office space during lockdowns and for offloading pandemic-related purchases. “We are currently experiencing the highest occupancies we have seen at many of our locations,” he said. 

Experts said the uptick in cleaning and organizing is likely to have benefits beyond tidier homes, however, with improved mental health topping the list. “Clutter can make us feel stressed, anxious and depressed,” said Dr. Libby Sander, an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Bond University in Australia and the author of multiple studies on harmful effects of clutter. Sander conducted one such study that shows how messes negatively impact relationships, but said there are many additional downsides of being surrounded too often by clutter. Research has shown a link between disorganization and depression, a connection between messy environments and poor eating habits, and findings that clutter reduces one’s ability to focus and retain information. “Our brains like order, and constant visual reminders of disorganization drains our cognitive resources,” Sander said.

Recognizing the cumulative negative impact of clutter and disorganization is one thing, knowing how to unbury oneself from the burden is another. To that end, experts offer helpful tips to become organized and stay that way. 

Define your goals

Before beginning, it’s helpful to define your goals. “Know your finish line,” Paxton said. “Having a clear goal of what you want to accomplish before you start and keeping track of your progress along the way will help you stay positive and finish.”

Start small

After you’ve defined your objective, you’re ready to begin; just don’t bite off more than you can chew. “I encourage people to pick a small area like a junk drawer or car trunk and try to clean out and organize that one thing in a single sitting,” Paxton said. He explained that “a ten-minute-a-day sweep” is a technique he has practiced and taught others for twenty years. “The goal is to finish something and appreciate the job you’ve done, not burn out in the first day,” he said. 

Plan ahead

Planning ahead can be helpful once you’re ready to tackle bigger projects, such as a closet or full room. Tracy Bowers, a professional home organizer with 184,000 Instagram followers and the owner of Organize Simply, said home organization must become a priority you’ll set aside time for, and won’t happen otherwise. “Having a scheduled date on your calendar will motivate you and help you to mentally prepare,” she said. Planning ahead also means clearing out space in your car to offload items, purchasing storage containers in advance, and having plenty of garbage bags on hand so you don’t have any excuses to procrastinate along the way. 

Say goodbye to items you don’t need

The most important step in decluttering is actually getting rid of excess. It’s about defining what you use often, what you don’t need as frequently, and what you can do without.  

When it comes to parting with belongings that have sentimental value, Bowers suggested to take pictures of those items and to keep the photos in a scrap book to reminisce over later. Paxton said it can also be cathartic to tell loved ones stories about meaningful belongings as you say goodbye. “You’ll also find it easier to let go of some of the items as you share the amazing family stories attached to them,” he said. “Memories live on forever, but your mother’s old encyclopedia collection can go.” 

And while parting with some belongings might be difficult, Paxton said he’s helped countless people downsize, “and I can tell you I have never had a client that wished they had all their stuff back. Most people find happiness with less because it had been overwhelming their lives,” he said.

Store seasonal items

Once you’ve done the hard part of getting rid of the items you don’t need, you’re left with the ones you do — though many belongings are not needed as often as others. While Paxton cautioned against storing items you’ll never use, (“self-storage is for something you need, not for something you just don’t want to make a decision on,”) he explained that storing seasonal recreational equipment such as ATVs, fishing, hiking or skiing gear, plus Christmas and other seasonal decor can be helpful in creating more room in one’s garage or basement. 

When contemplating the use of a storage unit, Bradshaw advised that it’s important to plan ahead as many storage companies have long wait lists and he explained the importance of knowing how much storage space you’ll actually need before committing. “We have people show up with a large truck thinking its contents will fit in a small unit,” he said, adding that paying for more storage than is needed should be avoided as well. Bradshaw also stressed the importance of requesting a temperature-controlled unit when storing fragile items that could become damaged in extreme temperatures.  

Skip the garage sale and donate instead

Along with throwing items away and putting seasonal items in storage, donating one’s belongings can make organizing more meaningful and fun. Think of family members that may appreciate items you’re planning to part with; also consider the needs of churches and non-profit organizations. Donation centers like Goodwill, The Salvation Army, or Deseret Industries have locations scattered across many states. “Giving items away to people in need is much more fulfilling than selling them,” Paxton said.  

He also noted that selling larger items such as bikes, furniture, and workout equipment may be worth it when selling through classified ads online, but that the amount of time some invest when putting on garage sales often isn’t worth it. “Remember your time has a financial value as well, so don’t spend six hours trying to squeeze an extra $5 out of a used grill,” he advised. 

Label containers to stay organized

Though many people are successful at getting organized, staying organized is often more difficult as items generally end up back where they used to be if their location isn’t clearly defined. “The key to successfully staying organized is to create a specific ‘home’ for everything we own,” Bowers said. She advised identifying specific places to store larger items and to use storage containers for everything else. “Be consistent with the style of containers you are using in each space — it’s more aesthetically pleasing to look at,” she added. “And make sure to measure the size of your area before you start shopping.”

Above all, Bowers advised that every container needs to be properly labeled. “I hear people say they don’t need labels because they know where things belong; but when we are in a hurry, it’s natural to just set something anywhere.” In addition to being a reminder where everything needs to be, she explained that labels are also useful in getting the rest of the family involved. “We want to make sure the whole family is on board and aware of where things belong,” she said. 

The time and effort required to clean up and organize may be difficult at first, but such efforts are worth it in the end. “A chronically cluttered home environment can be emotionally taxing,” Sander said; adding that tidy and organized homes, by contrast, are “emotionally liberating, more enjoyable to reside in, and better for your physical health.”