Is Clutter Keeping You From Reaching Your Goals?

For some, cutting down on clutter is their annual New Year's resolution. Others feel inspired by the arrival of warm weather and embrace a little (or a lot) of spring cleaning. Perhaps you fell under the spell of Marie Kondo and her "Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" book and suddenly find yourself wanting to toss out belongings that no longer "spark joy."

Whether it's a time of year or Kondo who sparks your renewed interest, the topic of having "stuff" and how it affects your physical and mental health has been studied for decades. Aside from making your home look messy and getting in your way, is it possible that clutter can weigh you down in other ways? For some, the chaos caused by having too much stuff or items that are not properly organized can take an emotional and physical toll, effectively interfering with their best intentions to eat healthier, eliminate bad eating habits or stick to an exercise routine. As it turns out, when clutter weighs you down, your weight could just go up.

"When clients come to me with anxiety, insomnia, depression or weight problems, one of the first questions I ask is about their lifestyle, their home environment and even the condition of their car," says Denise Baron, an Ayurvedic practitioner with a background in home and lifestyle who works with many clients with clutter that is related to anxiety, depression and weight issues. "There is a connection [between] clutter, illness and thinking."

"One of the things in particular that my research team and I work on in our interventions is helping people figure out how they can take what might be an unsupportive environment for their behavior and make it something more supportive," says Kathryn M. Ross, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology at the University of Florida. If you're trying to make a healthier behavior change and are able to set up your environment to make it easier for you to have a healthier option to eat for a dessert or snack, it can help you, Ross says. "We try to encourage people [to understand] that whatever you can do to your environment [can] make it easier for you to make that change."

So why not clean up your environment to make it easier to keep your weight-loss goals at the top of your mind?

How Messes Mess With Your Mind

While you may not think it's a big deal to be surrounded by an excess of "things," when your eyes see a cluttered living or work space, it can cause your body to have a stress response, according to one study. Women who gave "self-guided house tours" in that study and used phrases about "clutter" tended to have higher stressful home scores and an increased depressed mood during the day. Research published in the journal "Psychological Science" similarly found that orderly rooms encouraged better behavior amongst participants.

"Clutter creates stress," Baron explains. "Whether at home or work, an environment [overwhelmed] with stuff can zap your mental energy and productivity levels." People hang on to things for different reasons, and it's usually an emotional trigger or wound, she says. "Clutter gives you a false sense of safety and, for some, a feeling of guilt."

Then there's the fact that a lack of order can make you feel disorganized or frenzied. Ever have that morning where you're running around and can't find your keys, phone or important work documents? Your brain is triggered by clutter and elicits the feeling that "work" is never done when it sees piles of papers, books and belongings all around you, Baron says. Clutter can also detract from feelings of happiness and spending time with loved ones. "Clutter takes up our time looking for paperwork, old records or important files," Baron explains. "When you de-clutter and get rid of things that no longer serve your well-being, your mindset changes."<pagebreak>
When it comes to your eating habits or sticking to a fitness routine, those frantic feelings resulting from a messy habitat can ruin your determination. Consider how your brain perceives a kitchen covered with papers, toys, magazines and leftover dishes when you get home from work. Even if you spent the whole commute home thinking about the healthy dish you're planning to cook that evening, those deterrents could make you more likely to order delivery due to the extra work created by having to clean and organize before cooking your meal.

"Anything you can do to minimize the barriers to engage in healthy behavior [is beneficial]," says Ross. If a clean kitchen makes it so that you don't have to spend five minutes wiping a counter down and cleaning dishes before you have to prepare food, you're more likely to do it. It's all about clearing the path to health so you don't have time to make excuses.

When it comes to the kitchen, this means stocking it with healthy items and having quick snacks ready for when cravings or boredom strikes. "Put challenging foods out of sight, out of mind," Ross recommends. "Remove cues from your environment that make it hard for you to stick to your goals, then add in cues that make it easier to stick to your goals." If the first things you see when you open your fridge are pre-prepped fruits and vegetables, you're more likely to support that choice. On the flip side, don't bring foods that can derail your diet home. If you buy something for a family member, like ice cream, consider wrapping it in a bag and putting it in the back of the freezer where you're less likely to see it, she advises.

The same goes for your workout routine if you exercise at home. If seeing unfolded laundry in the basement makes you want to skip your kettlebell DVD in favor of finishing that chore, make sure your workout space is free of distractions before you even step foot in the area. Designate chores such as laundry, paying bills or scheduling appointments for an area of the house that is separate from your workout equipment. That way, when you step foot in the space, it's time to get down to business and you won't feel as though you're neglecting other responsibilities.

Take Back Control

"Think of de-cluttering as self-care," Baron advises. Getting rid of belongings and tidying the spaces in your physical environment can help you think clearly and feel like you have more energy, she says.

1. Kick-start the Cleaning

When you start to de-clutter, Barons suggests asking yourself these questions:
  • Have you used this item in the last 12 months?
  • Has it expired?
  • Does it belong to a family member or friend?
  • Is it broken?
  • Can it be donated or given away?
  • Do you have more than you need and use, such is often the case with socks, dishes or sneakers, for example?
  • Does it add value to your life?
Don't be afraid to ask for help. You might want to hire a professional organizer or wellness coach, or enlist a family member or friend if the job is very big.

As you're moving through your belongings, create four piles: trash, donate, keep and emotional triggers. Set any emotional triggers aside to deal with again in three months, suggests Baron.<pagebreak>
2. Break Up the Cleaning Jobs

If you're following the KonMari Method, you'll tidy up by "category" not location: clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous and then personal items. While that might work for some, others prefer to tackle one room in order at a time—especially when a cluttered bedroom or family is chock-full of clothes, books and miscellaneous items. Block out one day on the weekend to work your way through one room in your house, applying the questions above to help you get rid of stuff. If you finish quickly and are motivated to keep going, then keep de-cluttering, but remember that the experience can be physically and mentally exhausting. If the job seems too big, you might put it off indefinitely, so it's important to take your time and not overwhelm yourself.

Consider setting a time frame for completing a task, as well, to help cut down on the time reminiscing or getting distracted by stray thoughts. Giving yourself a break and a reward—such as watching a 30-minute show or going on a walk—can also help motivate you to get the job done.

3. Create Designated Spaces

Any organization expert will tell you that it's essential for everything to have its designated space, and the same should be true as you de-clutter with your health and fitness goals in mind. The key here is minimizing deterrents that will make it easier to come up with excuses to skip out on a healthy habit. I have designated drawers for workout clothes, for example, so I know exactly where to look for leggings, tanks and sports bras. I also keep my gym bag in my coat closet with a gym lock, sports belt for my phone and a clean towel inside. I simply toss in a water bottle, wallet and phone and I'm ready to go to the gym.

This also works when it comes to separating out healthy foods from junk foods or children's foods you'd rather not eat. Put less healthy foods in a cabinet you won't touch and put tempting, high-calorie, high-fat foods in a designated area of the fridge. Sometimes out of sight, out of mind is your best strategy against temptation.

4. Put Workout Reminders Where You'll See Them

It's important to keep cues in your environment that remind you of the activity goals that you set, says Ross. Put reminders of your activity goals around you in easy-to-spot locations. If you're working toward your first race, for example, put your 5K training plan on the bathroom mirror or by the front door. Small tweaks can help keep your goals in sight, even when the rest of your life might feel chaotic. The most important thing is to find a strategy and cues that work for you!

Life is chaotic and will try to throw wrenches to upend your best-laid plans, but by maintaining some level of control of controllable factors such as clutter and organization, you are setting yourself up for big wins. Eliminating distractions will not only allow your mind to feel free and clear, but it will also help you get your eye on the prize every step of the way.