Decluttering | Living Simply

Root Causes of Clutter and How to Overcome It

Oct 06
Laura Coufal

About Laura

I am a West Coast girl turned small town, Midwest Mom. I love the outdoors, cooking, writing, and spending time with my family. I am dedicated to keeping my life as simple as possible.

I have a B.A. degree in Psychology and believe in a holistic view to organizing. Clearing our minds of the clutter and chaos in our lives is just as important as clearing our physical clutter. By taking a holistic approach to organizing we can make lasting change.

I am a high energy person, and I love to see a messy room transform into an organized space. My need for order and simplicity stems from my ADHD disability as a way to compensate for my short attention span. So my gifts and my challenges are all ironically tied together to create who I am, and I am miraculously able to help others as a result of this coping method that I have developed for myself.

It is my deepest hope that you will find resources here that will bring you closer to living a simpler, more intentional, and more peaceful life. 


Identify The Root Causes of Clutter

If you are feeling stuck and are living in a cluttered home, it is helpful to identify the root causes of your clutter to discover why it is there in the first place. This is important because the steps that you take to get back to feeling in control are different depending on what kind of clutter you are up against.

There Are Two Primary Root Causes of Clutter: Transitional and Habitual

Each of these is discussed in detail below, along with suggestions for overcoming them. Whether the problem is a small one like a storage space that has gotten out of hand or a larger-scale clutter problem that has taken over your whole house.

Could Transitional Clutter Be the Root Cause of Your Problem?

Transitional Clutter is usually a temporary, albeit overwhelming dilemma that occurs as a result of a major life change. Some examples of transitional clutter can be a move, a divorce, an illness, a job change, or a family member’s death. Have you been organized most of your life at least to some degree, but have lost control and just can’t get back on top of it all? If so, you could be dealing with transitional clutter.

Reaching The Tipping Point

You can find comfort in knowing that you are not alone in your struggle. Transitional clutter is common and happens even to the most organized among us at some point in our lives. We can only handle so much on our plates, and once we reach a tipping point; we start to break down. For some, transitional clutter may simply be a result of not having enough time or energy to stay on top of things and feel in control.

A Cluttered Home Can Be a Result of a Major Life Event

Our overall health, energy level, and emotional stability all play an integral part in how much we can manage on a daily basis. If any of these three are compromised, our ability to be productive and efficient is significantly reduced. If we are dealing with a major life event that is viewed as negative, our ability to juggle everyday tasks can be drastically reduced. What was easy yesterday when we were more emotionally balanced, feels insurmountable today.

Traumatic, health-related, or/and unplanned, events can be especially immobilizing because, on top of everything else, we are likely struggling with some heavy emotions like depression, anxiety, and fatigue. When we get low, we tend to let things go.

However, transitional clutter can also show up with positive events or changes.  A new baby or a marriage can throw us off balance for a while. This happens because adjusting to our new life and the added responsibilities that come with it, takes time.

A Cluttered Home Equals a Cluttered Mind

Living in a cluttered home can in itself cause stress, which only adds to feeling overwhelmed. So there is a cause-and-effect issue going on here as well. Just seeing the clutter around you is a constant reminder of multiple tasks that need to be completed. This visual clutter can be emotionally draining, in itself.

How To Overcome Transitional Clutter

Transitional clutter can make us feel like we have lost control of our lives. If you are experiencing this, give yourself some slack and be patient with yourself. When you are ready, get help from a friend, family member, or professional organizer to help you get back on top of things.

If you decide to tackle the job yourself, take the time you need to get work done without overwhelming yourself. Take some time off work, get someone to watch the kids for the day, or whatever it takes to help you get back to feeling in control. Remind yourself that you were there once; you can get back there again.

It is important not to feel guilty about asking for help or setting aside extra time to catch up. Also, be sure to only tackle one small job at a time to prevent overwhelm. Break larger jobs or/and rooms into small manageable chunks.

When it is Best To Ask For Help

For those facing either a physical limitation due to an illness or the loss of a loved one,  it is important to get some support. Sorting through a loved one’s belongings alone can be especially difficult, as this can ignite strong emotions. Having someone else there to be your rock to lean on, can help you make progress and keep you grounded.

Relying on a trusted friend, family member, or another helper can enable you to move forward. Also, keep in mind that two people can accomplish twice as much as one person can.

A Cluttered Home Due to a Life Transition is Usually a Temporary Dilemma

The good news is that transitional clutter is almost always a temporary tight spot that we find ourselves in. In most cases, once we get back on our feet and/or get some extra help, we can usually regain a sense of control.  Are you are dealing with a more permanent situation, like a long-term physical disability? In this case, the solution may lie in making some changes to simplify your lifestyle and home. You might even consider moving to a smaller home or different setting to make things easier for yourself.

How Can You Lighten the Load?

In today’s world, many of us tend to max ourselves out in regard to busyness, belongings, and responsibilities. We have demanding jobs, big houses, multiple cars, and other things that complicate our lives. Figuring out how to create a simpler life for yourself might be the key to staying on top of things and having less stress. Can you move to a different home that requires less maintenance? Can you hire someone to clean your house or do your yard work?

Get rid of belongings that you don’t really need or use but still store and maintain. The same goes for any unnecessary responsibilities in your schedule. Taking care of yourself and making your home and schedule easier to manage should be your first priority.

cluttered home

If The Root Cause of Your Clutter is Not Transitional, It Could Be Habitual Clutter

If you have struggled for years with a more chronic form of disorganization and/or clutter you may be dealing with habitual clutter. In these cases, getting someone to help you organize a space will help temporarily, but this is like putting a band-aid on the problem. To prevent this kind of clutter or disorganization from coming back, you need to take a closer look to find the root cause of the problem. Habitual clutter is like a weed in the garden, it will only grow back right away if you don’t pull it out by its roots.

Why Reading Books About Organizing Doesn’t Always Result in an Uncluttered Home

It is common for those who struggle with habitual clutter to have read multiple organizing books in an effort to overcome their problem. Unfortunately, simply reading a book about getting organized, although helpful, is often not enough to kick their clutter to the curb. This is because it is the reader’s habits and the relationship that they have with their belongings that needs to change.

It’s Best to Take a Holistic Approach to Habitual Clutter

Uncovering the internal reasons why clutter has been an ongoing issue is key. The solution rarely lies in figuring out how to organize everything in just the right way. That is because it’s usually not just about the stuff. By taking a holistic approach, and bringing all the possible contributing factors out into the light,  you can then be much more effective in getting rid of the clutter for good.

Discovering The Root Cause of Clutter often Involves Finding The Hidden Truths

There can be many different contributing factors that keep habitual clutterer’s stuck. In addition to examining habits and tendencies, you may want to examine coping behaviors that may exist. Other factors like depression, can compound the problem. Self-blame can be another major roadblock that can prevent a habitual clutterer from moving forward.

Sometimes, it is unmet needs that can foster a need to hold onto stuff or acquire things.  One may unconsciously and unsuccessfully attempt to fill the void with shopping to get immediate but short-lived satisfaction.

Gaining Self-Awareness is Key

All of these thoughts and behaviors can be going on without having any conscious awareness of them, so gaining self-awareness is the first and most important step. Once these habitual cycles are brought out into the light and examined, you can then recognize what needs to change to finally break through. So just noticing that you have a repetitive habit that is contributing to the clutter can be the difference maker in itself.

Family History Can Another Root Cause of a Cluttered Home

For some, the root cause of the clutter can be historical. It can be a result of never having developed helpful habits and routines needed to stay organized in the first place. Perhaps you were raised in a very cluttered home. Because of this, you were never taught or modeled the habits needed to keep your things organized and uncluttered. In this case, recognizing this and pushing against your natural inclination to repeat your parent’s behaviors is key.

Do not despair, new organizational habits can be learned and developed. The new helpful habits might be hard to implement at first but stick with them.  After a short time, these habits will get easier and you’ll perform them with minimal effort.  This is the reason it is so important to teach children valuable organizing habits when they are young.

The Frugal Family

Another common reason for having a cluttered home is having grown up in a family that was extremely frugal. If you lived during the depression era or had parents who did, you might struggle with letting go of anything that might be considered useful in any way. In this case, it is guilt and the fear of letting go of something you might regret, that prevents you from getting rid of things. The common excuse, “I might use this someday” stands between you and a clutter-free home.

Just because you were raised in one of these aforementioned environments, does not mean you are stuck living in a cluttered home forever. Again, self-awareness is the first step. The second step is accepting that you may possess some distorted beliefs and habits that were passed down to you.

Push back against your tendency to hold onto things solely out of habit. Both fear and instinctual distorted thinking patterns can make letting go of things difficult for you, but it’s worth it to live in an uncluttered home. A scarcity mindset keeps you holding onto everything that comes your way.  It helps to keep in mind that we will forget roughly 98% of what we let go of once it’s gone.

Your Habits and Routines Play an Important Part in decluttering and staying Organized

Habits can both help or hurt us depending on whether or not we control our habits or they control us. Habitual clutter can even be a result of repeatedly putting off until tomorrow what we don’t feel like doing today. I call this procrastination clutter. We are all guilty of this at times, depending on how busy or motivated we are feeling at the moment. But if we do this too often, the job of tidying might be too overwhelming by the time we get around to it.  

steps to a less cluttered home

Breaking Unhelpful Habits and Tendencies

Nobody wants to be controlled by unconscious inclinations. By gaining more self-awareness and getting rid of “The smoke in your own mirrors”, you can start to clearly see why you are stuck and what you need to do to change.  Then, self-trust, and action-oriented habit change are the key elements leading to lasting success.

Why Building on One Success at a Time Works

Whether you are facing transitional or habitual clutter, it is important to keep on taking small steps in the right direction.  Each small success helps you flex a control muscle that grows stronger with each completed project. You will start to gain more confidence in your ability to change and overcome.  You also will learn to trust yourself one victory at a time. 

Just getting started is the hardest part. So push yourself to get started. Then keep taking small steps forward. Focus only on your successes, and keep your eyes on your goal.  This will help you keep moving forward. It is equally important to avoid sabotaging our organizing efforts with any self-blame if you backslide.

Once you experience the thrill of successful and positive change, you develop momentum and energy and can be inspired to keep on making progress. It is also encouraging to know that as you get closer to the light at the end of the tunnel, you start taking larger steps.  You may even find yourself sprinting to the finish line.

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