Declutter Your Home and Mind

Your room-by-room guide to more calm, less mess

Woman cleaning up a room

Everybody’s got stuff—the things we accumulate through the years and decades. The problem is, sometimes all that stuff undergoes an insidious, almost imperceptible transformation. At some point, it becomes clutter. And clutter can have negative health effects, including exacerbating stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness, according to the Mayo Clinic.

“When we are in a space that is cluttered, we become stressed, and when we are stressed, all sorts of undesirable things happen,” says environmental psychologist Sally Augustin, PhD. “Cognitive performance degrades; we don’t get along as well with others.”

However, managing your stuff-to-clutter ratio is tricky. “We do need stuff around us to communicate who we are, what we value, both to ourselves and other people,” says Dr. Augustin. In the age of Marie Kondo, lots of people are talking about keeping what “sparks joy” and losing the rest. But that’s easier said than done, especially for older folks, Dr. Augustin says. Here’s a room-by-room guide that can help.

It’s smart to start with rooms that might house items with less emotional baggage, such as the kitchen. “Things like stacks of pots and pans, if you’re not Julia Child, you may not be as attached emotionally to,” Dr. Augustin says. Same goes for dishes, flatware, glassware, and utensils, assuming they’re not family heirlooms. If they’re still working, but not actively working for you, start bagging them up for Goodwill or another charity. Dr.Augustin reminds clients that decluttering doesn’t necessarily mean purging, either. You can keep items without displaying them—if you have extra storage, utilize it. If you have open or clear cabinets though, don’t stuff them full. “That doesn’t help from a psychological perspective,” since you can still see it.

While you’re in the kitchen, take a peek into your pantry, if you have one—it’s likely there are things that can go. Dr. Augustin remembers visiting friends in California who had bought canned goods in case of an earthquake several decades ago—and still had them. “If stuff is super old, get rid of it! If you bought something recently but you hate it, toss it or donate it to a food bank as someone else may value it!”

The bathroom can also be one of the easier rooms to target, in part because it’s smaller than most other rooms. And you can categorize its items more tidily: toiletries, cosmetics, medicines, paper products. Look at expiration dates on medicines and makeup: If they’re old, toss them. That blue mascara you got for that ’80s-themed party 10 years ago? Pitch it. In the bathroom, “you can clear up surfaces pretty quickly,” Dr. Augustin says.

Once you get on a roll with decluttering, it snowballs, she adds. “You build self-confidence, you develop a system, and then you can bring that into other rooms.”

Approaching your common living spaces, an easy target is paper: old magazines, newspapers, mail. Start stacking, and then bundling for recycling. Consider switching those subscriptions to digital. If you’re just starting out with decluttering, don’t start with books, Dr. Augustin advises, because books have emotional resonance for many people. “Books say something about your personality, even if you haven’t even read them. It might be psychologically difficult to throw away that copy of Walden, because someday you might read Walden!”

An easy tip for every room where you have items displayed, Dr. Augustin says, is to “rotate what’s visible.” If you have, say, a piano or a piece of furniture hosting pictures frames, decrease the number of frames. If you have 10 displayed, maybe put five into storage, and then rotate the five you keep up at the end of every week or month. “Develop rituals that are meaningful to you. Maybe every Monday you change out the pictures. You can look at the grandkids this week, then great trips you went on with your spouse next week.”

The bedroom, ideally a haven where you wake up and go to sleep each day, is a great place to regularly work on decluttering. Remove extraneous pileups: magazines, makeup, mail, clothing. Remember that reducing clutter, in addition to purging, also includes simply tidying up. “Set aside a short period of time to pick things up, say Saturday from 8 to 9 a.m., and you can really decrease clutter a lot,” Dr. Augustin says. Clothing on chairs? Hang it up, or fold it and put it in a drawer. Loose shoes? Put them back in your shoe tree, or, if you don’t have that much time, stuff them under the bed (even temporarily). Do you need six pillows on your bed? Consider downsizing to four.

Once you get into the habit of fighting clutter more frequently, it’s less daunting than a major purge every year or two. “You can find lower stress levels, higher levels of self-esteem,” Dr. Augustin says. “You go from feeling like a slob, to feeling good about yourself. It also communicates to others who see your home that you can manage your life well,” which might lead to more socializing and volunteer opportunities. “Once you’ve developed systems, you have more time to do things you like.”