I’ve lived in three countries and moved at least nine times. If you count the back and forth from college, it’s probably more. It can be hard to keep track. I feel as though my life has been a constant process of giving away, throwing away, selling, and resisting accumulation.

As stressful as each move was (especially changing countries), there was always something cathartic about getting rid of things. While it was certainly disconcerting, it was also satisfying to reduce my life’s possessions to a pile of suitcases and boxes that would fit into the back of an SUV. Moving has forced me to let go of emotionally charged items that hold painful memories. Along the way, things I thought I couldn’t live without got lost and never replaced.

I always felt freer after ridding myself of physical clutter, and even discovered things that I didn’t know were superfluous additions to my life. All this roaming has taught me to be more invested in who I’m with than where I am and what I have. A move has always felt like a great unburdening — even if I was tearing my hair out trying to get it organized!

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak.

– Hans Hoffmann

How clutter can affect mental health

You don’t have to be a hoarder to be negatively affected by too much stuff or an unhealthy fixation on owning things. Even if your home is outwardly neat, collections of things in closets and garages can weigh on the soul over time.

The worst thing about clutter is that it compounds on existing stresses. On top of that, it’s a subtle influence that people may not think about. Unhealthy associations, such as an item belonging to an ex or deceased family member, can further exacerbate this elusive psychological pain.

Psychiatrists and professional organizers often refer clients to one another. Professionals in both fields are often very good at recognizing the crossover, and so you might be surprised at the interconnected support system for people suffering from clutter-related stress. Clutter seems to have a strong correlation with grief, pain, and obsessive disorders. So the first thing I want to mention is that there is never shame in seeking professional help, even if your clutter problem is nowhere near as serious as those depicted on Hoarders.

The different types of clutter in your life

  • Physical clutter: an oppressive amount of physical things
  • Calendar clutter: an overabundance of social or work obligations
  • Emotional clutter: too many harmful or unfulfilling relationships

In my opinion the clutter in one’s life isn’t just physical. There are a number of ways that you can accumulate associations that you don’t need.

North America has developed a strange respect for people who are overworked and constantly busy. These traits that we laud can be extremely unhealthy, and while they create a full life, they don’t necessarily create a fulfilling one. Learning to recognize when to take time for yourself is an important step to better emotional health — and hey, may even give you time to de-clutter physically as well.

I have also experienced a cluttered web of relationships. Especially if there is an element of inequality, in which you give more than you receive, too many friendships and relationships can sap your emotional strength and leave little left for the people who really matter.

My way to fix clutter: Move! (or pretend to move)

Moving has regularly addressed all three types of clutter that were burdening me. It forced me to cut a great number of physical possessions out of my life.

Moving also reset my work and social schedule. A new job, and needing to make friends again, allowed me to recreate my calendar from the ground up, making it easier to only take on as much as I could handle.

I also found that moving away from my regular social circle cut down on relationships that weren’t fulfilling. I naturally made an effort to keep in touch and visit the people I cared about the most, while the extra effort required to keep in touch with me demonstrated who my most loving friends were.

Declutter and downsize - Let it go

If you’re not in a situation to move, you can still de-clutter like you’re moving. Pretend!

I use some unlikely sources of advice when it’s time to de-clutter. Even if I’m not planning on moving, I check out packing advice for moving out. Then I pretend I’m doing it. I’ll give myself a limit — say, one SUV excluding furniture, or one cube truck including small furniture items. You don’t have to actually pack a vehicle, instead look up the interior measurements and use them as a guide.

Empty everything room by room, then pack and label boxes. There is one vital difference: pack according to priority, not similarity. By all means put your absolute favorite book or movie in with essential items like your cookware or toothbrush. Allow necessity to include things that make you happy, but be sure they actually do. Label the boxes to indicate priority as you go along. Be specific, and prepare a full inventory list as if you were actually loading up a truck and sending it off. Label the priority of a box on a numbered scale, like 1-10. Once you’re done, consult your inventory of each box and double-check its priority. Then pick a number, and toss away every box below it.

Another trick I’ve played on myself with some success is to pretend I’m selling my house. I’ll start to think about what I need to do to each room to make it super sellable and impressive; to make it “pop.” Usually, this means getting rid of the majority of things in it. I once again look up advice about how to dress up your home for a sale. While I’m at it, a little bit of decorating and feng shui generally make me feel a lot better about each room.

Lighten your life

And then of course, there’s actually doing it (if you are). At one point, my family owned a Bed and Breakfast, a six-bedroom, four-bathroom monstrosity. Even though we had to keep it clean and clutter-free, we still ended up collecting far too much stuff: furniture and decor that we neither liked nor used, extra kitchen and dining items, enough spare sheets and towels to soak up the pool. Downsizing to a much more sensible townhouse came as a great relief, and not being able to fit everything into it made getting rid of things much easier. It was part of an exciting new process, rather than just an unpleasant chore.

So whether you’re dropping a bedroom or two, or making a drastic change and building your own off-the-grid tiny house, downsizing can be a fantastic way to lift the burdens of your life. On the other hand, please do be cautious. If you are battling with a serious trauma or disorder, it may be that no amount of personal change will “fix” your problems. But when combined with professional advice, these strategies to de-clutter your life might just make all the difference.