Tidying up: The psychology of clutter and why we’re now cleaning it up

When Shelley Davies arrives at a client’s door with her big black eyeglasses and calm, focused demeanour, she could be mistaken for any professional making a house call: A physician, tutor, stylist, therapist or, perhaps, exorcist. She is, in a way, all of these things.

The founder of Details Modern Order, Davies makes house calls that can feel as personal as a doctor’s consultation, as consoling as a therapy appointment and as cleansing as an exorcism. Her goal? A cure for our modern malaise: clutter.

“The words I have heard over and over again are ‘I’m drowning,’ or ‘I’m suffocating,’” says Davies.

The feeling of being overwhelmed comes, says Davies, because “when people are surrounded by too much clutter they feel stuck.”

Our clutter problem has become something of a 21st-century obsession. The Netflix show Tidying up with Marie Kondo, replete with its soothing, almost holy rituals of holding and letting go, has cashed in on the anguish and helplessness that we who live cluttered lives feel.

In the era of fast fashion, easy credit and urban density, many of us simply have too much stuff and nowhere to put it. The never-ending stream of clothing, dollar-store gizmos, seasonal decor, gifts, paperwork, sentimental items, unfinished projects and overloaded Billy bookcases is just too much.

Unlike hoarding, which has been classified as a psychiatric disorder since 2013 but affects just two to six per cent of the population, the emotional consequences of clutter have not benefited from wide psychological study.

Perhaps they should. According to the Professional Organizers of Canada, 83 per cent of Canadians indicate they are extremely disorganized and 91 per cent of Canadians feel clutter negatively affects their lives. According to Planet Storage, the average Canadian spends 12 weeks a year looking for stuff they can’t find.

Decluttering expert Shelley Davies checks out Vanda Borean's clean, organized closet in her Vancouver home. ‘When people are surrounded by too much clutter they feel stuck,’ says Davies.

Decluttering expert Shelley Davies checks out Vanda Borean’s clean, organized closet in her Vancouver home. ‘When people are surrounded by too much clutter they feel stuck,’ says Davies.

Arlen Redekop /


In a recent paper published in Current Psychology, authors Joseph Ferrari et al. suggest clutter may have significant downsides: “Clutter might undermine the comfortable, everyday experience of feeling at home people take for granted, since disorganization of one’s possessions may erode an ability to find things, move safely throughout their home, and use spaces as intended.”

Sheila Woody, a psychologist who specializes in hoarding disorders at UBC, says that although clutter is not a mental illness, it can affect mental health. “It’s stressful to be in a cluttered environment,” says Woody.

According to Psychology Today, clutter causes stress in part because of its excessive visual stimuli. It also signals to our brains that our work is never done and creates guilt, anxiety and the feeling of being overwhelmed.

Dr. Joti Samra, a clinical psychologist who works with compulsive hoarders, says, “Clutter itself, the tendency to collect and keep, is a normal human attribute with an evolutionary reason.”

That evolutionary reason may go back to “our cave-person days,” says Samra, “when resources were scarce.”  Collecting, storing, even hoarding, might have helped us survive between harvests and hunts.

Samra believes that in North America’s wealthy consumer society, basic needs are not just met but exceeded for most of us, so “when the attribute no longer serves a need, it becomes a stressor.”

Japanese organizational expert Marie Kondo, who has helped spark worldwide interest in decluttering your home, mainly through her Netflix series.

Japanese organizational expert Marie Kondo, who has helped spark worldwide interest in decluttering your home, mainly through her Netflix series.

Seth Wenig /

Associated Press files

Enter Davies, who sees herself an “organizing coach.” In her work, Davies sees what happens when clutter encroaches not just on our homes, but on our mental and emotional well-being.

After discovering a gift for creating calm out of chaos 15 years ago, Davies is booked solid.

“Organizing is on the top five of everybody’s New Year’s resolutions,” says Davies. “Every year for the past 12 years (with the exception of this year), O magazine’s March issue has been on organizing.”

Marie Kondo’s bestselling books and Netflix show have brought even more attention to clutter, although some experts, like Sheila Woody, take exception to the singularity of her method.

“One of the things that concerns me about the Marie Kondo phenomenon is that it tells people what kind of person they should be, it tells them what makes them a good person. It says this is how you have to live. Not everyone has the same aesthetic or the same values.”

(Woody points out that Kondo’s “spark joy” test, in which you keep only those things that make you happy, won’t work with hoarders and people who love stuff, as “so many things bring them joy.”)

In order to declutter successfully, a person needs skills that may not be innate to their personality. They must be able to prioritize, make choices and take action, and may have to reflect on other values, such as an item’s necessity, the size of a space, or lifestyle in combination with whether or not the objects bring them joy. 

‘It was life changing,’ Vanda Borean says getting the clutter — the excess stuff — out of her life. ‘I didn't realize how much heaviness was coming from holding on to these items.’

‘It was life changing,’ Vanda Borean says getting the clutter — the excess stuff — out of her life. ‘I didn’t realize how much heaviness was coming from holding on to these items.’

Arlen Redekop /


It’s OK to ask for help

Vanda Borean, 52, reached out to Davies when she renovated the modest Vancouver home she shares with her dog. Borean’s contractor had made an abrupt change in the work schedule and she was ordered to remove all her possessions within two weeks.

Although she describes herself as a fairly tidy person, Borean had accumulated a lot of stuff over the years. She had married and later separated. She had left a corporate career to become the owner of Rackets and Runners, a sporting goods store. Her small home was stuffed with books she had read and loved, books she hadn’t yet read, clothing that didn’t fit or she hoped would one day fit, suits that reflected her prior corporate career, and mementoes from her travels that were tucked away in shoeboxes she never opened.

Borean was blessed and cursed with a basement — she’d just toss stuff down there. (Garages serve a similar function when it comes to clutter — 25 per cent of Canadians with two-car garages use them just to store stuff.)

Not only was Borean unaware of how much all that stuff was weighing her down, she didn’t realize the process of decluttering was about much more than just getting rid of things. “It was life changing,” says Borean. “I didn’t realize how much heaviness was coming from holding on to these items.”

Borean was guarded at first. “It’s like letting someone into your deepest, darkest secrets. Behind the curtain.”

But she felt a “lifting” as she and Davies went through each room, asking what she was holding on to, and why.

Clutter affects us negatively, says Davies, because of the emotions we attach to things. When we allow it to accumulate “we stop living in real time.”

She defines clutter, in part, as “delayed decision-making.”

“The stuff that surrounds us is actually in control of how we are living our lives. It creates feelings of guilt, embarrassment, disappointment.”

An untouched guitar can represent an aspiration, but it can also represent a broken dream. “Does having that guitar mean you are a musician? Or does it mean you feel badly because you don’t ever play it?”

Davies holds no judgment about how much stuff someone has, or why they have it, but she sees people judge themselves.

“Having a clutter-filled home, to many, is an embarrassment. It shows failure in many people’s minds. Shame is a byproduct of feeling like they have lost control of their lives, their stuff. Lack of control leads to lack of confidence. All this can make people feel like they have failed,” says Davies. “But at the end of the day, it’s just stuff.”

Being non-judgmental is part of the gig. “If someone says they want to keep their 100 pairs of shoes, no problem. But we are going to put them away so they are respected, so you can see them, so you can access them to make it work in your life.”

Vanda Borean (left) teamed up with decluttering expert Shelley Davies to reorganize Borean’s Vancouver home.

Vanda Borean (left) teamed up with decluttering expert Shelley Davies to reorganize Borean’s Vancouver home.

Arlen Redekop /


Balancing beauty and function

Davies says the problem can’t be dealt with in a day or resolved with a few baskets from Ikea or a new storage system.

“The goal isn’t just to move stuff around,” says Davies. Some people are “filers,” others are “pilers,” some have what she calls “square, organizing brains” and want to see order and systems, others have “round,” more artistic, creative ways of organizing.

The method Davies uses takes four steps, whether you are attacking a junk drawer, a room or a whole house.

Step 1 is to define how you want to use the space: A bedroom in a small home might need to have a dressing area, a bed, a desk, a book shelf. Or, says Davies, a client might envision a completely minimalistic “Zen” space — but if the client has a huge treadmill acting as a clothes hanger they don’t want to move, then a conversation has to happen.

Step 2 is to minimize what is in the space. “We need to go through all the parts of the room and the stuff, touch it and make decisions about it.”

Davies calls this part of the process getting your space “down to its true inventory.” That means moving things out, selling, consigning, garbage — whatever it takes. 

Her criteria goes beyond “spark joy.”

“I prefer to use the beauty and function test,” says Davies. “Your home is really important to how your life unfolds. If you use something and love it, we are going to hold on to it. But we are looking to find a home for it for two reasons: So you know where it is and you can retrieve it easily.”

Step 3 is about finding a home for everything that the client has decided to keep — what Davies calls “creating systems of flow,” so when she leaves it doesn’t all fall apart.

In Step 4 Davies works with clients to “make it beautiful.”

“My goal isn’t to tell you to get rid of everything but to make sure you are surrounding yourself with, and organizing, what you really want in your life.”

Borean says the psychological and emotional impact of letting go of the clutter was “cathartic, empowering and liberating.”

“The relinquishing of these things was, in a way, a coming to terms with my past and saying it’s OK,” says Borean. “You’ve done some incredible things, you’ve made some mistakes, and you are ready to embark on the next stage of your life.”

Borean’s experience is a testament to what Davies has learned during 15 years of detailing Vancouver homes: Decluttering is about much more than tidying up, says Davies. “It’s about removing what doesn’t make you happy, and giving space for the things that do.”



8 Tidy Tips

Organization tips from Shelley Davies:

1. Commit to a new lifestyle.

2. Remember: baby steps with attainable goals.

3. Prioritize the areas that you want to conquer first.

4. Schedule daily/weekly/monthly organizing tasks.

5. Get your whole family on board.

6. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or hire help.

7. Don’t give up — the situation didn’t happen overnight.

8. Pat yourself on the back, do a dance, reward yourself on your successes.


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