Look around the area you are currently in. Notice the space, items, and things that take up space. Ask yourself these questions: is it organized, do I really need this, and is keeping this making my life better? Professor of Marketing and consumer psychology at the Anderson School of Management Catherine Roster provides insightful tips throughout her research on maintaining a clutter-free lifestyle. 

Roster has dedicated almost two decades to researching clutter, excessive acquisition, and difficulty discarding. Her research focuses on consumer behavior and decision-making. She answers these questions: “Why do we buy things?”, “Why do we keep things?”, and “How do we get rid of things in a respectful manner?” 

One of her recent publications, “Having less: A personal project taxonomy of consumers’ decluttering orientations, motives and emotions,” explores how and why people declutter, and the emotional consequences of decluttering. Roster’s current research addresses how we as a society can consume and get rid of things in a way that is environmentally responsible. 

Throughout Roster’s research, she found that people have a difficult time understanding why they struggle to let things go.

“It's fairly common to observe that people can have a great deal of trouble deciding whether or not to get rid of things, even those that don’t necessarily have sentimental values, for a number of reasons,” said Roster.  

She explains that people often want to hold onto stuff in case they need it later. “Anticipated regret is a compelling reason people keep things they don’t use. People recall a time they threw something away that they regretted later, and do not want to make that mistake again.” Ultimately those items end up in drawers and closets and stay in that area for years to come leading to excessive clutter. 

“At some point it seems like these things are not necessarily making us happy and so it kinda begs the question about the relationship between the possessions in our life and our general well-being and happiness and productivity,” Roster explained. 

Roster states that many people feel a sense of being overwhelmed by the clutter in their personal spaces. People have a need to feel in control of their environment, and the chaos and disorganization can lead to an underlying sense of anxiety and feelings of distress. 

Stock photograph of excessive clutter

“If you look at individuals who suffer from hoarding disorder, they’re very different, and one of the four different symptoms of clinical hoarding disorder is excessive clutter. But the difference between those with hoarding disorder and regular consumers is that people with hoarding disorder don’t see their clutter as a problem.” 

“For the average consumer, they can have a clutter on various levels. They might have certain places where there are mountains of clutter in their home, but normally clutter impedes fairly common areas within the home or exterior places that are less commonly trafficked, like garages, sheds, closets, spare bedrooms and basements.”  

Throughout her research she found that over half of garages in this country are not being utilized to park cars. Instead they are being used to store clutter. Many consumers report that they are not able to use their garage for the purpose of parking cars because they simply “do not have room to store everything they own.” 

“It’s a problem that’s escalating as older generations pass and then they leave all their stuff to the next generation,” Roster stated. 

The overall accumulation of things can lead to a sense of chaos for regular consumers and it could have a number of impacts on their mental well-being. It can lead to low levels of productivity as well. 

“Along with that feeling of chaos and being out of control of your environment, clutter can contribute to strained relationships as members of the household fight over the mess and mayhem. It causes anxiety between individuals in a household,” explained Roster.  

Having compulsive clutter can also lead to isolation since people living alone might feel embarrassed to have people over or they feel the need to hide all of the clutter and put it somewhere out of sight. Clutter can also create safety issues because it can pose  tripping hazards. Roster notes again that the most common thing that happens with a great deal of clutter is this sense of chaos and being out of control. 

People who tend to have clutter might be overconsuming in multiple ways either in compulsive buying or compulsive acquisition of free or low price goods. Some consumers report getting a rush when they acquire free things, or shop the garage sales every Saturday because they do not want to pass up a deal. 

“Even though they don’t need this stuff, it’s more of a mood enhancer. It doesn’t really make them happy in the long run. After the thrill of acquiring it wears off,  it starts causing this kind of distress, stress, and chaos in the home,” said Roster.  

Roster offers the following seven tips to the general consumer on how to best start decluttering. 

  1. Enter into it with the right expectations

    Roster explains that it’s not possible to clear everything in one day and that the process is going to take some time. Make sure to enter into it with the right mindset and expectations. 
  2. Have a friend help you

    Ask for help from a friend or buddy who can be objective about things and help you make decisions, for example asking you: “When was the last time you wore this? Do you think you really need it?” A lot of consumers reported that decluttering was easier when they were able to share objects’ stories with someone else.  “I have a lot of consumers tell me if they just want to relay the story of the object and its history” said Roster. “Once they release that emotion and they put it out in the world and they’ve said their respects to the thing, then they can let it go. That’s another thing that’s helpful about having someone there, having someone to listen to the stories and someone to help you make the decision ‘is it time to let this thing go?’”
  3. Have a goal for the space

    Stock photograph of organized piles for donate, keep, and disregard
    Set a goal for the space. For example: removing all the clutter out of a one room could lead to it being turned into a workspace or workout room. “It helps to keep in mind how you’re going to use it once the space is transformed and the clutter is gone. It can be very motivating to keep that bigger picture of what’s on the other side of decluttering,” explained Roster. 
  4. Tackle decluttering in small chunks of time

    Some people find that it can be stressful to confront memories about things from the past, whether good, bad, painful, etc. This contributes to  emotional stress. “Don’t try to tackle the whole elephant. Set small goals, like ‘today I’m going to do this closet,’ or maybe ‘I’m only going to do this shelf in the closet,’ but be realistic about what you can actually do in the period of time you have to devote to it,” Roster explained.  
  5. Consider your mental and physical stamina

    Consider your mental and physical stamina. This can play a big factor, especially as people get older. Many older people need help making decisions and need help with the physical aspects of decluttering, like removing boxes or heavy and bulky objects. Roster argues that this is why a lot of older consumers have so much stuff they don't necessarily want, but they can't physically get rid of it by themselves. A real concern for Roster is observing elderly people who are aging in place and need help getting rid of things. “It’s a really important problem for us as a society that we need to think more about, because we kind of just expect that it’s always something there to help declutter or that it is within the person’s will to do it,” said Roster. “Sometimes they really don’t have the  means.” 
  6. Create healthy habits and develop a routine.

    Creating a routine of putting stuff back in its proper place and creating a space where certain items should go can help maintain orderly spaces once they are decluttered. “When you put items back in their place it doesn’t get lost in chaos. It leads to productivity for the family when everyone knows where things go, then make sure that you hold everyone accountable,” stated Roster.  
  7. Establish house rules

    Creating house rules leads to healthy habits. Instead of waiting for a major spring cleaning, make decluttering an everyday or weekly habit. “Decluttering should ideally be a routine part of our lives as consumers,” said Roster.

Overall Roster states that people who declutter and make it a part of their lives reported higher levels of positive emotions and happiness. They reported feeling more in control of their environment. Decluttering can improve emotion and mental wellbeing. “You will feel better, and the more you do it, the better you’ll feel. There is happiness and a feeling of liberation that follows decluttering. I could see that in the people in my research that were successful at decluttering and had been working hard at it,” concluded Roster.