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In Defense of Clutter

Hyperfocus on decluttering misses the mark for many.

Key points

  • More than 50 percent of Americans admit to being cluttered on some level.
  • Studies demonstrate that while clutter creates stress and inefficiency, disorganized clutter exacerbates everything.
  • Setting up organizational systems are key to reducing stress.

Each new year, stories on the importance of de-cluttering drop as reliably as the ball in Times Square. At that time of year, everyone is in a “New year, fresh start!” mode. Then life gets busy, things pile up. The reasons for decluttering are numerous: it’s easier to find things when there are fewer things to search, tidying takes less time with less, it’s cheaper. Distilled into an equation: less clutter = greater productivity + efficiency.

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There have even been studies on clutter using eye-tracking and electronic health records (“EHR”) in hospitals1. Knowing all of this, it’s counterintuitive that anyone allows clutter to build up. But yet they do. In a survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates in 2014, only 46 percent of respondents said they were not cluttered at all. That means 54 percent cop to being a little cluttered (24 percent), somewhat cluttered (21 percent), to very cluttered (6 percent). The question remains: Why?

It's a universal truth that neatniks hate clutter

It’s not just New Year’s that prompts clutter lectures. Neatniks frequently tell the world that less is more. Other neatniks agree, others of us listen while inwardly berating ourselves, and then there are those who listen and roll their eyes. The latter understand the notion that less is more. It's just not a priority because the mere presence of clutter doesn’t cause them stress.

Studies demonstrate why clutter is stressful

The eye tracking-EHR studies found that cluttered medical records increased the time it took to find and retrieve important information and led to more missed searches as well and increased stress for doctors. This seems logical, as anyone could be thrown when presented with the task of looking for something amidst an overload of visual stimuli. The physical parallel would almost be searching for a needle in a haystack. It's likely to stress people out.

What was interesting in the study was that the effects of clutter were most pronounced when the EHRs displayed unorganized lists of medical data and that the presence of stress exacerbated the effects of clutter on response time. It’s not just the amount of information cluttering up a screen that can cause stress, it's whether there is discernible order to it.

Sure, clutter slows down retrieval on the margin, but disorganized clutter is the real stressor. To keep with the parallel from above, looking for a needle in a haystack is stressful but not as bad as looking for a needle somewhere in a barn full of random piles.

Clutter isn’t universally stressful, disorganized clutter is

Most people who are not neatniks, despite appearances, have an organizational system in place for their clutter. They know from societal pressure that they’re not supposed to have clutter but its existence doesn’t bother them. These same people only get really stressed when someone else messes with their piles. This is because they no longer know where anything is; there is no longer discernible order to their clutter.

It’s knowing where something is and having a system to retrieve it that eliminates stress across the board. For neatniks, less clutter is just a means to make retrieval easier. Decluttering is their organizational system. Therefore, the key to reducing stress isn't about decluttering per se but about creating systems that facilitate retrieval. For non-neatniks, their systems can be cluttered—piles on shelves, bins, etc.—without causing stress, as long as there is discernible order.

So, the answer to why so many people have clutter, despite the endless campaign against it, is really just that it's likely not chaos. It's just clutter that's organized well enough not to cause distress or massive inefficiencies.


Moacdieh, Nadine and Sarter, Nadine (2015). Clutter in Electronic Medical Records: Examining Its Performance and Attentional Costs Using Eye Tracking. The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomic Society. Ann Arbor, MI.