The Psychology Behind All That Clutter You Can’t Get Rid Of

It’s not just stuff, it’s emotional baggage and unfinished business that’s standing in your way. Here’s how to get rid of it.

The Psychology Behind All That Clutter You Can’t Get Rid Of
[Photo: Flickr user liz west]

We’ve all got those filing cabinets or drawers filled with stuff we can’t bear to throw away or look at–items that seem simultaneously useless and important. If I dug around my files, I’d find defunct credit card statements and notes from stories written nearly a decade ago.


And then there are the personal items: the crusty bouquet of dried roses I’ve kept for more than 16 years (a relic from my first boyfriend), the giant stack of anatomy books from my yoga teaching days now gathering dust in the corner, the endless piles of birthday cards.

June Saruwatari knows all about this kind of clutter. She used to hang onto old contracts and paystubs from long-gone jobs–relics of the success and money she’d once made. But all that stuff was weighing her down–and not just because it was taking up space in her home. It was translating into emotional baggage. “I was creating drama in my own life,” she says.

Saruwatari started throwing stuff away. She chucked documents from past careers, love letters from old relationships, stuff that got in her way in whatever way it did. And she didn’t stop at just material things. Saruwatari started crossing unfinished business off her list. Did she really need to run a marathon one day? No.

She’s since turned other people on to her ruthless purging skills. Her new book, Behind the Clutter, looks at not just the physical stuff that takes up room in our lives, but the mental clutter that keeps us from feeling productive and happy.

Decluttering, believes Saruwatari, isn’t just about getting your desk and closet in order. It’s about relieving yourself of all the stuff you’re hanging onto from past careers, relationships, and unfinished business. “It was a huge ‘aha’ moment for me to realize the power of going through your clutter and letting go of it,” she says.


What’s Behind All That Clutter?

There are myriad reasons we keep stuff. You might get around to reading that fat stack of old New Yorkers one day, or lose 30 pounds and fit into those unworn pants hanging in your closet. But the reality, says Saruwatari, is that we hang onto far more objects than we need, and, instead of motivating us, they become talismans of guilt and shame.

We hang onto far more objects than we need, and, instead of motivating us, they become talismans of guilt and shame.

“You hold onto things based on hope,” she says. You hope to lose weight, catch up on reading, finish that abandoned project. But when you don’t, it’s hard not to feel like a jerk about it. “How much stuff do you really need to represent that thing?” says Saruwatari. “How many items do you need to hold onto before it starts controlling your life?”

Photo: Flickr user Kim Love

We also hold onto stuff with the rationalization that we might need it one day. It’s easy enough to hide the things you don’t use or need in the back of a closet or cabinet. But after a while, all those things pile up and you cannot ignore them. “If you put it into a closet and shut the door, you are still carrying that with you,” says Saruwatari. “It’s important to get to the root cause of that one item and not just shove it under the rug.”

Go One Item At A Time

Saruwatari’s approach to organizing shares some similarities with Marie Kondo’s beloved KonMari Method. Saruwatari, who also of Japanese descent, focuses on simplicity and keeping only the items that bring something positive into your life. Getting started with organizing means picking up one object and taking it one object at a time.

Saruwatari urges her clients to look at every item they own through what she calls a fourfold lens of “truth, love, meaning, purpose.” Hokey as this seems on the surface, it’s grounded in concrete questions: Do you honestly need this item? Do you love it? Does it have some sort of significance in your life? Does it serve a purpose?


If the answer to all of these questions is “no,” it’s time to get rid of that thing and move onto the next one. “When you start consciously going through your stuff, knowing there’s an emotional connection, you’re going to feel better,” says Saruwatari. “Pick up one item at a time. Don’t say, ‘I don’t want to deal with this right now.'”

Let Your Goals Shape Your Organizing

Organizing your physical space around the goals you want to achieve will naturally start to declutter your space. “What do you want to create in your life?” says Saruwatari. Think of a goal you want to achieve and come up with three action steps you can take to get closer to that goal.

For example, if you want to start exercising or stretching in the morning before work, you could organize your workout clothes in a space near your bed to make them easily accessible, create a spot in your home where you can stretch, and set up some sort of reward for yourself when you work out–like a bin in your fridge where you keep all the ingredients for a smoothie handy.

Prioritizing what you want to get done will allow you to organize your space in a way that makes those goals more tangible.

Don’t Get Bogged Down By Unfinished Business

Staying organize often means keeping your brain from going haywire with distractions. Saruwatari recommends doing a mental dump each morning–typing out or writing down all the things on your mind that you know you need to get done that day. “It’s clearing out the pathways,” she says. You can then use that mental dump to create a more specific to-do list for the day.


Another important step: being ruthlessly honest with yourself about what you really need to get done and what you’re just fooling yourself about. “Choose one item on that list that’s not really that important,” says Saruwatari–and eliminate it. Maybe you don’t need to fix your broken watch because you don’t really wear a watch anymore. Forget about fixing it. Better yet, get rid of the watch altogether. “All these small action steps you take will relieve the stuck energy of clutter,” says Saruwatari. “It’s going to save you time. You’re going to feel way more productive.”

About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction