How clutter gets in the way—and 10 tidy tricks to help. | MOBE

How clutter gets in the way—and 10 tidy tricks to help.

You’ve probably heard the phrase “a tidy home is a tidy mind,” but is it good advice or just a nice saying? An organized house feels great but finding the time, or desire, to clean, is often easier said than done. A little clutter never hurt anyone—right?

There might be some truth to the age-old saying after all. Too much stuff laying around is more than just an eyesore, it can change how your brain works. If you’re looking to be more productive, a little organization can go a long way.

This is your brain on clutter.

One study found that when there are multiple things in our line of sight, say a desk covered in scattered pens, papers, cups, etc., for example, all those objects compete for your brain’s attention.1 It tries to take in all those things at once and doesn’t know what to focus on first, which makes it hard to focus on any one thing. Think of all things in your field of vision as “visual pollution,” they’re all fighting for your attention. The more things there are, the harder it is to block it all out. Too much visual pollution leads to mental overload and can even reduce working memory.2

In addition to the visual distraction, the idea of needing to clean can weigh on you mentally. It becomes something on your mental to-do list, which can stop you from relaxing. It’s hard to kick up your feet at the end of a long day if all you see is dirty dishes or all you can think about is the pile of mail. The human brain really likes order, which means for some, a disorganized space could cause tension and anxiety.

Sometimes the worst part of any mess is simply not being able to find what you’re looking for when you need it most. When you can’t find your keys, phone, wallet, bag, child’s homework assignment, etc., especially if you’re already running late, it only adds to your stress and frustration.

Put clutter in its place.

If clutter and disorganization can lead to mental strain, cleaning can be a way to physically take back control. Even the smallest action can make an immediate and noticeable difference. Does that mean your house always needs to be spotless for you to be happy and healthy? Not at all. Instead, think of key areas of your home where a bit more organization could help lessen your mental load. A clutter-free desk could help you be more productive and less distracted while you’re working at it. A tidy—or some days just tidy-enough—living room could help you clear your head and relax. A put-together “command center” in your kitchen, entryway, or just by the door can help avoid the last-minute scramble for those important things. Whenever you can spare a few minutes to organize, start with those important spaces.

Ten tricks for ten-minute tidying.

Whether you’re busy at work, with family, or just not sure where to start, there are simple ways to add a little more organization to your life. These ten ideas can help you declutter in a way that fits your life, without making it your top priority.

  1. Start small.
    Always keep in mind, you don’t have to do everything at once, especially if it feels overwhelming. Even if you only handle whatever is in your line of sight, just start. Finishing one thing will help you feel accomplished and might inspire you to keep going.
  2. Ask for help.
    If you’re not the only one who made the mess, you don’t have to be the only one to pick it up. That also means you might have to let go of what your idea of perfection is to settle for what’s possible. Talk to your partner about how much mess you’re both comfortable with and empower children to help in a way that’s appropriate for their age.
  3. Don’t let mail pile up.
    It’s so easy to put your daily mail in one place and deal with it…later. Find a few times in your morning routine, say Wednesday and Saturday for example, when you can make it a point to go through it.
  4. Make a place for everything.
    Bins, baskets, and boxes can go a long way to stop disorder from taking over. If everything has a place to go back to, even if it’s a bin for random objects to deal with later, you can contain the clutter.
  5. If you get something out, put it away.
    Sounds simple, but it can be hard to practice. The more you put away in the moment, right after you’ve finished using it, the less there is to pick up later.
  6. Set a ten-minute timer before bed.
    Make tidying up a small part of your nightly routine. Set a timer for ten—or five or 15 or whatever you’re feeling up to—minutes and vacuum, pick up clothes, wipe up spills, etc., until it goes off.
  7. Pair with something enjoyable.
    Cleaning doesn’t have to be boring! Put on a playlist of your favorite songs, find a new podcast, or try listening to an audiobook while you dust, sweep, and sanitize away.
  8. Take out the trash when you leave.
    Some people call it “habit stacking”—using one habit as a cue for another. In this case, turn leaving the house into a cue for taking out the trash.
  9. Clean as you cook.
    Don’t leave all the cleaning for the end when all you want to do is eat the delicious food you just made. Instead, take care of small things as you go or as things cook, bake, or simmer: toss/compost scraps, put ingredients back in their place, and wipe up small spills.
  10. Do what you can, when you can.
    This is the most important tip. Don’t be hard on yourself if your house isn’t as clean as you want it to be all the time. Think of those key areas where clutter makes a difference and start there when you have the time or set a different key area to clean for every day of the week.

Looking for more ways to build healthier habits and improve your overall well-being? A MOBE Guide can give you one-to-one support. Get started today.


1. McMains, S., and S. Kastner. “Interactions of Top-down and Bottom-up Mechanisms in Human Visual Cortex.” Journal of Neuroscience 31, no. 2 (2011): 587–97.

2. Gaspar, John M., Gregory J. Christie, David J. Prime, Pierre Jolicœur, and John J. McDonald. “Inability to Suppress Salient Distractors Predicts Low Visual Working Memory Capacity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113, no. 13 (2016): 3693–98.