Clutter Really Does Stress You Out

Cluttered house

I keep seeing references to clutter causing depression. Then, I see photos like look like Real Simple magazine or a zen monastery, suggesting that I am depressed if my house doesn’t look like that.

Sure, a tiny part of me is tugged toward wanting a state of perfect household simplicity, but I find the perfectionist judgment more stressful than the clutter itself.

Does clutter cause depression? When I dig into the fine print, these references seem to lead back to a 9-year research project at UCLA on dual-income, middle-class families with school-age children. The book documenting the study, Life at Home in the Twenty-first Century, ends up being a story of stuff and clutter.

Researchers didn’t actually make the clutter-depression connection. That was a very short blog post barely about the study, published when the book was released in 2012. Researchers did measure cortisol levels of study participants (through a saliva test), and they did find a link between high cortisol (a stress response) and clutter—but only among the women who worried about clutter.

Clutter didn’t cause depression—at least that isn’t what this study found. Cluttered houses caused stress when the women in the houses were bothered by it. Keep in mind that they had anthropologists and their team of photographers, videographers, and others tramping through the house, opening the closet doors. No wonder they were stressed.

But, those who took pride in their tchotchkes weren’t stressed.

University of California TV (UCTV) produced a three-part series of videos on A Cluttered Life: Middle-class Abundance on stuff, food, and space. If you are motivated to make changes to your life by seeing the lives of others, it’s worth the 20 minutes to watch these shows to see what families and the researchers say about clutter. It sure helped me to see my stale areas of clutter from a fresh point of view.

Yes, but MY Clutter

My house has areas where stuff gathers—like a tumbleweed picking up bits of yarn, pencils, stray books, and such. I don’t mind it until those tumbleweeds grow into my useful spaces.

I don’t love the clutter. I don’t love getting rid of the clutter, either, so THAT is the spot where I will focus.

Why keep the clutter? How does it serve me?

Having a stack of books reminds me that I really want to read them. Then, when I spread the books out and look through them, I realize I no longer really want to read them. Clutter be gone. 

Having a tote with sewing projects near the general homeschooling area gives me something to do when I listen to my children read. It looks a bit messy, but I use that stuff, and it is a changing mass of 3-4 projects I can choose from. Clutter can stay.

I’ve been evaluating my areas of mess to see if they actually serve a purpose and, if so, whether that is a worthy purpose.

I mentioned that my family is focusing on our kitchen. Holy junk mail. I don’t think I’ve ordered from a catalog for at least 9 years, but there is my kitchen table covered in catalogs that I have to hold until I tear off my identifying information. Maddening. So, I stand at my kitchen table and tear off my name and address. I put the catalog in the recycling pile and the address in the shredding pile. It’s a long process. The task doesn’t seem to quite end.

Mail is the ugly clutter cause in my house, but the cause will be different for each of us. Don’t just clean it up. Cut the clutter by finding the cause and cutting it off. You can actually opt-out of a lot of junk mail, including pre-screened credit and insurance offers or catalog, through direct-mail associations. You probably also need a place to put the stuff that legitimately requires your attention: incoming mail, invitations to keep, and bank statements. Get rid of what you can, then organized what you can’t.

Just identify your clutter causes, and address those in addition to clearing out clutter and cleaning the house.

Then, Keep It Clean

Need a guide to regularly keeping your house in order? This may seem like an odd suggestion, but I find Martha Stewart’s home organizing and housekeeping printable checklists just the kind of relentless system that keeps me from trying to justify not cleaning. If you are keeping a family binder, even better. You can print 6 things to do every day, weekly or monthly lists, seasonal lists, and specialized lists for maintenance and for moving.

It’s a place to start, so you don’t have an excuse not to.

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Will Family Meetings Help You?

Family meeting

Bringing ourselves to focus on what we want, making our expectations explicit, can help every family member come to a shared understanding about family chores, activities, highs, and lows. A simple family meeting gives you structure to make common ground happen.

Mindful Family

Over the past few months I’ve considered how mindfulness helps us as individuals, as parents, in teaching our children, and in our marriages or partnerships.

I find that meeting new ideas tends to be easier than integrating those new ideas into the fabric of life. So, now I’m sharing with you how my family is pulling mindfulness into our routines.

We’ve held family meetings on and off since my children were about 5-8 years old. It’s like meditation—you wander then you return. No judgment, just return.

We’re returning again, this time with a structure I picked up from Marcia Naomi Berger’s Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (2014).

Family Meeting Agenda

We are in week three of marriage meetings, which we started to celebrate our 20th anniversary, and in week two of family meetings. This is the easy part, though.

Marcia Berger suggests that you start with easy topics as you ease into the routine of meetings. I understand that. It’s a good idea to start with a guaranteed win before tackling the big issues.

The agenda for each meeting is the same:

  • Expressing appreciation
  • Coordinating chores
  • Planning for good times
  • Addressing problems and challenges

For more explanation of the four parts of the meeting agenda, I recommend you read Marriage Meetings. It has certainly helped my family.

Scheduling Family Meetings

She suggests a marriage meeting of no more than 30 minutes. Since we have four people in the family meeting, we have given 45 minutes.

To keep the meeting-ness of this time together from being overwhelming, we are scheduling marriage meetings on Sunday, game night on Monday, and family meetings on Tuesday. We just have a short commitment each evening, then we are free to be together or apart as usual.

Younger children are more likely to to follow your lead. I didn’t have any trouble getting my children to sit with me when they were small, but I did find that I needed to translate ideas for their developmental levels. At that stage, I bought a book with ideas for meeting topics. We talked about how to adjust our house to our needs, how to have fun together, and how to be kind to one another. That’s not much different than the structure we’re adopting now.

Now, though, I have teenagers who have strong opinions.

So far (just ONE meeting with this structure), they have embraced this weekly check in. We recorded our commitments in our upgraded family binder, and we’ve followed through.

You Create the Structure You Need

The four-part agenda is just one idea of how to structure a regular check-in with your family. Try it. Try other ideas. Just find a way to give your each of your family members a regular place and time to share their needs.

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Is Your Family Organized?

Household Organization Notebook

As your children grow older and have more activities out of the house, as you juggle food preferences or sensitivities, as your family and your household becomes more complex, how do you hold it all together? Any family can benefit from a family binder for household management and family organization.

A 3-ring binder has the benefits of being easy to carry around, easy to customize, and easy to fit all of the tools you need to manage your household as it grows and changes.

Much as with mindfulness meditation, simply pulling oneself back to focus is one of the most important steps to moving forward. Organizing your family and putting your often used tools in one place makes it easy to bring yourself back to focus when you slip—and you will slip. That’s OK. Just keep coming back.

What Goes in the Binder

What goes in your family binder depends completely on what you need to track. Some possibilities are:

  • Calendar – Most families need a shared calendar.
  • Meal Planner – My family has been using the Menu Planner from Homemade by Carmona for the past year. I found it through a colorful photo on Pinterest, and I kept it because I like the flexibility.
  • Mail – We are separating into Incoming Mail, Mail that Needs Attention, and Papers to File
  • Budget
  • Coupons
  • Receipts
  • Shopping List
  • School Papers

Recently, I’ve been noticing which piles my husband lets build up in his area of the kitchen. Primarily, it’s mail that he needs to reach mixed in with mail he needs to file mixed with coupons he’s forgotten until after they expired. The mess makes the collection difficult to use, so I added folders to his binder for each different type of papers.

What you need specifically depends on your family. If you look for home management binders online, you will find list after list of sections along with downloadable forms you can use. Knowing my own tendency to be distracted by my tools, lost in contemplating 98 unused sections of a binder while ignoring the 2 sections crying out for attention, I add only what I know is needed when the need becomes pressing.

If you are distractable like I am, keep your binder minimal.

How We Are Using the Binder

For my family, the binder is the anchor for a whole room—at least that is my husband’s plan for it.

Last year, I used a simple 30-day eco habits challenge to clear away clutter. My family has used this method throughout the year to clear away layers of old stuff. The reason this works for me—for all of us—is the micro commitments are easy to make, and they add up quickly to big improvements.

This month, we are in the midst of another 30-day challenge. My husband, the owner of our family binder, wants to transform our kitchen into his headquarters. He’s motivated because he is going to reward himself with a new laptop once his goal of an organized kitchen is reached.

All of the random papers he used to let flow all over the kitchen are currently in the binder. Now, the binder is a way station for papers as well as a meal planner, shopping list, and receipt holder. We are about to add family meeting notebook to the list as well.

After I introduced my husband to the marriage meeting idea last week, I suggested we use that structure for family meetings. He likes this and has decided to add the family meeting outline to the binder. We also added a spiral-bound notebook where each family member can add ideas for the family meetings in advance (“I need new shoes,” “Let’s go hiking,” or “I want to invite my friends for a sleepover”). We have trouble remembering what we’ve committed to in meetings, so we are using the notebook to remind ourselves.

We’ve been using the binder for a while as a meal planner, so the expansion to new functions as an overall household management tool is new to us.

What Doesn’t Fit in the Binder

Not all important papers belong in a binder you carry around. Start now while you still remember where your important papers are. Gather your insurance policies, homeowner’s or renter’s documents, birth certificates, passports, and other paper. Put these in a fireproof box with a handle. Store them near an exit so you can pick them up and take them with you if you need to leave the house in an emergency.

As you organize your family, notice what doesn’t fit and find other ways to accommodate your family’s organization needs.

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The Science of Marriage & Partnership

Couple talking

Especially when you have young children and you are building relationships within the family as a whole, it’s easy to forget the relationship that got you there: your relationship with your spouse.

Today is my 20th wedding anniversary. That’s a big deal! It doesn’t seem like it could possibly be that long, but here we are. My husband and I are taking the opportunity to go away alone together for the first time since we had children. I certainly don’t recommend that you wait that long, but we just didn’t have the family backup or the desire to leave them—until now.

We are also asking together what has worked so far and what might improve our relationshihp. When we were about to get married, a friend of mine who had recently been married suggested that we go through a workbook she used with her new husband, just to clarify our expectations to one another. I’m not sure whether it helped, but we had fun doing it. We decided it would be fun to get another workbook and check in on our expectations again.

What Helps a Marriage?

I’ve been sharing videos from the Berkeley Greater Good Science Center from a class I took recently on The Science of Happiness. I found the 13.5-minute video on marriage so helpful that I want to share the whole video with you.

Especially if you are still early in your marriage, taking steps to protect your relationship can help you find happiness together.

What doesn’t work? In the video we learn that researchers (John Gottman & Robert Levenson 2002) studied 75 couples early in their relationships. They asked the couples to sit down to have a 10-minute conversation. Then, they followed these couples for 14 years (now 26 years). They found that four specific behaviors predicted a couple will divorce within a decade.

  • Contempt – Look down on your partner.
  • Criticism – Find fault first.
  • Stonewalling – Shut down a conversation, common in the men in the study.
  • Defensive Counterpunch – Follow criticism with counter criticism.

What works? Inspired by this work, scientists looked for traits that predict happier couples and happier families. A few of the traits of happier couples are:

  • Humor – De-escalate tension.
  • Gratitude – Express appreciation, including in writing.
  • Forgiveness – Let go of grudges.
  • Disclosure – Open to hearing emotions of the other.

Consciously choosing the open communication techniques can help you. Watch the Greater Good Science Center video ”Relationships, Marriage, and Happiness” for more about what works and what doesn’t.

Attachment Marriage

After investigating the workbooks and marriage resources I could use with my husband, I found Dr. Sue Johnson. Her Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT) is based on the same science of attachment theory as attachment parenting. I watched video after video of her speaking about what works for couples, I knew I had found a place to start.

EFT is “[t]he most successful approach to creating loving relationships, endorsed by the American Psychological Association as scientifically proven.” You know I look at the studies. Other therapies have been found to be 35% effective but “Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy, developed by Dr. Sue Johnson, has achieved an astounding 75 percent success rate.” Granted, this is from the dust jacket of her book Hold Me Tight, but I was sold at attachment theory.

My husband and I are reading together Dr Johnson’s Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love (2008).

In the mindfulness posts over the past couple of months, I’ve tried to make the point that stopping and noticing, acting in a mindful way in our families and in the rest of our lives, helps us to face and embrace what we have.

To apply that thinking to marriage, I picked up another book: Marcia Naomi Berger’s Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (2014). A simple time investment following a few simple rules (including basic nonviolent communication) can bring you both to a place of awareness and common understanding.

I’m not far enough through either book to offer a review yet, but I will share what I find.

In the meantime, I will be celebrating twenty years with the kindest person I know, my husband Marc.

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Give the Gift of Togetherness

Playing board games with grandfather

We’ve been conditioned to think of gifts as things, material things that can be wrapped up and tied with a bow. What if gifts mean a little bit more?

“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” ~Dr. Suess, How the Grinch Stole Christmas
(Since my family just watched this last night, and we’ve been quoting it to one another today.)

If we think bigger about what we need and want, about gifts that would really enrich our lives, we need time together. It’s tough to pull together a whole family from their busy lives, especially when one member of the family is gone 12 hours a day.

So, we guard our time together and we give one another the gift of togetherness.

My two teenagers don’t share all of the same interests, but they each agree to share time doing the other’s favorite activities so they can spend that time together. I sit with each of my children separately, and we read books to one another. My son has had an ongoing game group for a couple of years. Both of them play board games with friends.

And, when my husband is finally home, we play games together as a family. We have drawers and closets full of games, but we tend to come back to the same board games and card games over and over. It isn’t the games themselves that we are seeking, though.

We talk. We laugh. We bend and break the rules we don’t like. We help one another. We are ourselves together.

I’ve found that there are games families and non-games families. When we find game families, we show up at their houses with our games, and we blend. That’s what we have planned for New Year’s Eve.

Does it matter to you that playing board games increases attention and listening skills, enhances vocabulary, encourages higher thinking, or teaches good sportsmanship? (This list is from the work of Dr. Sylvia Rimm.) I hope it does. Even when the games you play aren’t played well and fairly, playing together can create lifetime bonds.

Set the habit of family game night now to get the positive ripple effect. You will get to know your children better. Your children will get to know you better. You’ll bond. You’ll engage in the very process of creating your family.

We carry a big collection of cooperative games and puzzles for a big range of ages. Stop by the store to be pick up puzzles, board games, and card games for the family for the holidays. Giving and playing games is one way to give the gift of togetherness. Sure, it’s a thing to wrap, but the point is a lot deeper. The point is the commitment to actually play the game together regularly.

Resources

Dr. Sylvia Rimm, PhD, “Families that Play Together, Stay Together,” SylviaRimm.com.

Ellie Gibson, “Board games don’t just bring us together – they remind us how to play,” The Guardian, 24 November 2014.

“Every Kid Needs Puzzles & Games,” EcoBabySteps, 11 December 2012. Highlights of a few of the games and puzzles we carry at bynature.ca.

“Teaching Children about Herbs for Health,” EcoBabySteps, 28 May 2011. About one of my family games for families: Wildcraft!

“Finding Life Balance: Family Time,” EcoBabySteps, 29 May 2012. About the real need to create the family you want, since it won’t just appear automatically.

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