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6 Common Causes of Clutter and Their Cures

If you have clutter in your home, you’re certainly not alone. Most of us hang on to unneeded things and struggle to keep our homes clutter-free. But if we could identify the root causes of the clutter, could we make it go away? Identifying the cause of clutter is definitely a great first step. Clutter may have one of several root causes. 

Life changes, decision avoidance and a lack of efficient systems can be contributing factors.

By Jeanne Taylor

1. Your Life Circumstances Have Changed

A change in life circumstances — a new baby or job, a move to a new home, an illness or injury — can be stressful and lead to a typically tidy home becoming cluttered. Eventually, this type of clutter resolves when the baby starts sleeping through the night or the moving boxes are unpacked. The question is how long adjusting will take and how much your clutter will bother you in the interim. 

If you’re frustrated by your chaos and you lack time or bandwidth to address it, you may want to seek help from family, friends or a professional home organizer to get you through this stressful phase. 

2. You Lack Habits for Keeping Your Home Tidy

Some people are not in the practice of hanging up their jackets or putting away their beauty supplies. Patterns like these can cause a state of disarray at home. But it’s not impossible to establish new habits. 

I recommend trying an approach called “the habit loop,” from the bestselling book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg, which I outlined in this story. Essentially, it involves three steps: cue, routine and reward. The cue is a reminder that initiates a new behavior. The routine is the behavior itself. The reward is the benefit you get from doing the new behavior. It’s a method that has worked well for me as well as for some of my organizing clients.

3. You Lack Systems for Handling Your Stuff

Not having systems in place to handle items we touch every day can lead to a lot of clutter buildup. Here are a few of the big culprits.

  • Paper and mail are the No. 1 source of clutter in many homes. If you’re unsure how long to keep old bank statements, bills, tax returns and other records, or if you lack an efficient system for handling pending paperwork such as unpaid bills, the mess tends to mount. The good news is that you can take some simple, straightforward steps to address your paper pile and create a system for sorting mail. If you need help sorting the old items and setting up a new system, I recommend scheduling an appointment with a professional home organizer.

  • Cellphones, keys, glasses, wallets and laptops. Lacking a designated location to store these items can lead not only to clutter but to endless frustration. The solution is to simply designate a location so that you don’t have to search for these items every time you leave the house. A kitchen drawer with a charging station is ideal, but if you don’t have one, then simply corral these items in a small basket near an electrical outlet where you can easily grab them when you leave the house.

  • Purses, computer bags, backpacks, sports bags and outerwear. Closets and coat racks can fill up quickly with these bulky items, with extras ending up on the backs of chairs or draped over bannisters. Often, there are just too many of these items, so consider winnowing your collection. For example, if your child receives a new backpack each year, consider donating the old one. Sort through coats and donate any that no longer fit or you no longer use. Hang everyday bags and outerwear on a coat rack or in a closet near the front door. Store ski jackets and special-occasion purses in a different location.

  • Children’s art supplies, toys and homework. Children generate a large amount of clutter, with the most intense period of disarray beginning in babyhood and continuing through elementary school. Taming this mess can be challenging for even the most organized person — especially when it comes to toys that pile up as friends and family members offer gifts. If your child will agree, consider donating some toys to a charity to cut down on the mess.

As for the rest of children’s belongings, because young children like to be near their parents, you’d be wise to set up storage in or near the spaces where the family is most likely to spend time. Typically, this is the kitchen or great room.

4. You Own Too Many Items Used for the Same Purpose

I commonly help clients who have collected an overabundance of pens, pencils, reusable grocery bags, notepads, serving bowls and platters, kitchen tools, sunscreen, binders and coffee mugs. Fortunately, this is a relatively straightforward decluttering challenge. Simply reduce your collection of these items to an amount that will reasonably fit into your storage space and that you will realistically be able to use. Going forward, consider what you already own before buying. Be realistic about whether you have room to store a new item.

5. You Avoid Making Decisions About Your Things

Some people avoid deciding what to do with their clutter by placing items in a basement, garage or closet not visible from the main living spaces. This is a common tactic when quickly cleaning up before a party. However, this type of clutter weighs on people’s minds because they know it has to be dealt with sometime.

I often work with clients to sort through boxes and bags of stashed belongings that have been left in place for years. Usually the contents end up in the recycling bin or the landfill. If you know you have such boxes lurking, consider enlisting the help of a friend or a professional to help you sort through them and get them out of your life.

6. Your Health Gets in the Way 

A long-term health problem can sometimes result in household clutter as schedules are upset by medical appointments and free time becomes scarce. In these circumstances, a person may lack energy or mobility. Similarly, clutter can accumulate as we age and lose energy, balance or mental capacity for making decisions.

In such cases, it may be necessary to get outside help. A family member might need to attend to the clutter once a week. A professional organizer may need to create systems to more easily keep the home tidy.

On the other hand, extreme clutter or hoarding is usually caused by underlying issues that may require the help of a psychologist or other professional.

For most of us, clutter is simply a part of modern life. If you struggle with it, you’re certainly not alone. But take heart: With determination and a little help — whether moral support from friends or the guidance of a professional — you can overcome it and live a more organized life.

Jeanne Taylor, Houzz Contributor, is a home organizer in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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