Why Clutter Isn’t Universally Stressful

Hyperfocus on decluttering misses the mark for many

There might just be a method to this visual madness

Every New Year, the stories of the importance of de-cluttering drop as reliably as the ball in Time Square. At that time of year, everyone is in a “New year, fresh start!” mode — Life gets busy, things pile up regardless of your tidiness proclivities — and that’s why those headlines grab attention. Plus, the reasons for decluttering are numerous: it’s easier to find things when there are few things to search, tidying takes less time with less, it’s cheaper. Distilled into an equation less clutter = greater productivity + efficiency.

They’ve even done studies on clutter using eye tracking and electronic health records (“EHR”) in hospitals. 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% said they were not cluttered at all. That means 54% cop to being a little cluttered (24%), somewhat cluttered (21%) to very cluttered (6). 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 are frequently telling the world that less is more. Other neatniks agree, others listen whilst inwardly berating themselves and then there are those who listen and roll their eyes. The latter — likely Smarts & Organics — 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 records increased the time 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 like to stress people out. 

What was interesting in the study was that the effects of clutter were most pronounced when the EHRs displayed unorganized (emphasis added) 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 a disorganized mess 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 stuff.

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.

References:

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.

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