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.

Image © Jastebb | - Messy Room Photo

Start Your Year Clean

Woman cleaning a mirror

Hogmanay in Scotland is more than just singing a Robert Burns song, taking a shot of whiskey, and dancing around. It can be that as well, but in Scotland New Year involves clearing out the old year and welcoming the new, which means house cleaning.

When I lived in Scotland, I found that this obsession with New Year cleaning extended to having not even a teaspoon in the sink at the stroke of midnight. The New Year offers you the possibility of a clean slate.

The focus on cleaning is less about fetishizing cleanliness and more about removing obstacles to real action. As long as you have that nagging sink full of dishes, you have an excuse not to focus on what you really want. So, let’s focus on clearing out the baggage, then we can turn our minds to what the new year might bring.


Is the house out of control? It’s easy for everything to slip into chaos when you have little kids. One of the most effective systems I’ve seen for gaining control is the Fly Lady. Years ago, when the Fly Lady was just a Yahoo group, I followed this system daily to dig out from under physical and other garbage holding me back. Fly Lady calls this CHAOS, Can’t Have Anyone Over Syndrome.

First step? Reclaim one small space every day. Shine your sink. It’s not about your sink; it’s about a guaranteed success, an area of calm within the chaos.

If the state of your house is holding you back, I recommend Fly Lady in any format as the cheerleader who can help you take back control.

What Are You Tolerating?

What holds you back from doing everything you want to do with your family, your children, and just for yourself? Maybe your house is sparkly and you still feel like something is holding you back. You have a few days to figure it out and clear it out so you can face the new year ready to roar.

What are you tolerating around you? Make a list. I love this exercise to bring all of those tiny issues into consciousness. Get a big piece of paper and start listing all of the little things you are putting up with. The tap leaks, the dog’s hair is too long, my son’s shoes are too small, not enough hangers, too-small kids cloths are piling up, and so on. You know how it goes. Start with the obvious that you see around you then move on to the less obvious. Haven’t gone out with my husband for weeks, tired of the foods we eat regularly, haven’t taken my new yarn out of the bag. Keep digging. When I go through this process with friends, I tell them to number every item and don’t stop until at least 50. If you create enough calm around you to think clearly, you can probably get to 100 without much problem.

Then, look at the list for three things you can knock off immediately. Then, three more. Don’t let these ridiculously tiny things hold you back from big dreams.

Time to clean up!

Image © Iakov Filimonov |

Do I Need to Disinfect My Cloth Diapers?

Short answers:

  1. no
  2. probably not
  3. not unless they are infected

With the previous post saying NO to chlorine bleach and with the chlorine bleach publicist (see update to NO chlorine bleach post) mentioning the need to disinfect cloth diapers and asserting that hydrogen peroxide will not disinfect, I want to answer this question we get often enough that it is one of our frequently asked questions.

Shouldn’t we disinfect our cloth diapers? No, not unless they are infected.

Let’s start by going back to bleach. The problems with chlorine bleach happen before, during, and after you use it in your wash—before in the process manufacturer, during as it breaks down fibers, and after as it can mix with organic matter to create organochlorines.

Alternatives to chlorine bleach depend on your purpose.

The Idea That White Equals Clean

Are you trying to whiten? Western cultures obviously have a preoccupation equating whitenness with cleanliness. Without getting into the deep cultural issues this brings up, let’s stick with cloth diapers. Use the sun. Sunlight (ultraviolet light) will whiten your cloth diapers. You can help the sun along by adding lemon juice.

Whitening diapers is easy without bleach, but if you really want white diapers, try these eco-friendly alternatives to bleach from The Good Human.

Are You Trying to Disinfect?

The word “disinfectant” has positive connotations in our culture because people think of this as slightly beyond clean, but why would you need to disinfect unless unless something is first infected? Most bacteria inside of us isn’t infection, it’s normal.

When you have a dirty diaper, you just need to wash away whatever was on it. A diaper doesn’t need to be DISinfected unless it was INFECTED. A diaper can be infected if your child has had a bacterial infection.

So, how do you know if you have an infection? Diarrhea is often an indicator. If your doctor told you your child has had an infection, you’ve got the evidence you need.

If you are trying to disinfect cloth diapers because your child has had a virus, try hydrogen peroxide or oxy bleach.

Hydrogen peroxide solutions do in fact disinfect
and have been used in hospitals for decades. In fact they do such a good job, that their use has been curtailed in recent years. The characteristic fizzing that shows the peroxide is doing its job has been shown to damage the edges of wounds, slowing healing. Simple saline is replacing peroxide in many cases now.

I also found a lot of anecdotal evidence of hospitals using grapeseed extract (GSE) based cleansers to clean equipment—again, that’s not medicinally or internally but as a cleanser. I didn’t find any hospitals’ own documentation, but I’m interested to find out more. If I do, I’ll post.

The natural, normal flora of the human gut and the human stool is not something you want to kill. You and your child are full of bacteria, bacteria that is overwhelmingly beneficial.

When this natural flora comes out in cloth diapers, you definitely want to clean them. Washing in hot water and detergent will clean cloth diapers sufficiently.

If you need to disinfect, sunlight—ultraviolet light—will disinfect. So will peroxide bleach. With neither of those do you need to worry about bacteria becoming resistant to anti-bacterials or anti-microbials.

The final short answer: if you need to disinfect your diapers, use light (ultraviolet light of the sun), heat (very hot dryer), and hydrogen-peroxide-based bleach.

Read on

Easy-to-understand article on human flora.

More technical, but with lots of pictures.

Explains well the difference between anti-bacterials/anti-microbials/anti-fungals and disinfectants—and the issues with overuse of the former.

Nice overview of various disinfectants.

In this answer from an “Ask a Scientist” website (copublished by the Department of Energy), the scientist specifically describes peroxide bleach as “very effective against many microbes.”