There’s growing evidence that a cluttered home or workplace is a stressful one. A recent DePaul University study found that physical clutter is linked with procrastination and, in turn, lower life satisfaction. Other research shows that clutter is associated with elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
“We have taken our wants and been told they are needs,” Joseph Ferrari, the lead author in the DePaul study, recently told The New York Times.
This, he says, is why so many of us end up with loads and loads of stuff that doesn’t add value to our lives, the accumulation of which weighs us down and stresses us out.
Though the above research, and pop-culture hits like the Netflix show Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, examine physical clutter, I’ve got a strong hunch that psychological clutter may be even worse for your health and performance. The more you’ve got going on at any given time, the less energy and attention you’ll have available for each activity. This is problematic because deep engagement is a precursor to fulfillment and enjoyment—a Harvard study found that people are much happier when they are fully present for the activity that they are doing. A rushed or scattered mind is generally not a happy mind.
Busyness may have become a modern badge of honor, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us. “There’s a global epidemic of overscheduling and it’s ruining our health,” writes Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson in the John Hopkins Health Review, citing evidence that when you feel trapped by an unreasonable number of obligations, it’s a quick road to anxiety and hollowness.
Better than being chronically busy is to have a limited number of things that you care about and bring your all to them. A wonderful case study is the runner Eliud Kipchoge. As the best marathoner of all time, Kipchoge has countless opportunities to make media appearances and live the life of a celebrity. Yet he prefers a modest lifestyle with a singular focus on running. This, he’s said, makes him happy. “In life, the idea is to be happy,” Kipchoge says in the documentary Breaking2. “So I believe in calm, simple, low-profile life. You live simple, you train hard, and live an honest life. Then you are free.”
Decluttering your life doesn’t just improve happiness; it improves performance, too. One of the most popular sections in my book Peak Performance is on the notion of being a minimalist to be a maximalist. Nearly all the top performers that my coauthor, Steve Magness, and I interviewed for the book were highly selective about how they spent their time and energy. It’s not that they were overly rigid and had no fun. It’s that they only worked on the things that really mattered to them, and they had the confidence to turn down all the things that didn’t—think of it as the Marie Kondo approach applied to your time. “If you want to be really good, if you want to master and thoroughly enjoy one thing, you’ve got to say no to many others,” Michael Joyner, a top researcher at the Mayo Clinic, told us for the book.
Decluttering your life may be effective, but that doesn’t make it easy, especially in a world characterized by hyperconnectivity and endless opportunities to do more. The decluttering challenge is universal. Nearly everyone I coach struggles with it. The good news is that a three-step process can help.
- List your core values or the three to five things that matter most to you. These are the guiding principles in your life.
- Take a rough inventory of how you spend your time and energy on an average day. If you can’t come up with an “average” day, just look back to the past week or two. What percentage of your time and energy is spent on activities that align with your core values? Which of the activities that do not align with your core values can you reasonably cut?
- For every new opportunity that comes your way, ask yourself: “If I say yes to this, to what am I saying no?” This is a powerful question. It makes trade-offs highly apparent and helps you avoid getting overwhelmed by the acute excitement of taking on something new.
I go through this process with my coaching clients at least once a year and whenever they are feeling overwhelmed. What’s great is that this same process can be used on more microlevels, too. You could very easily adapt it in the context of your exercise routine or relationships.
Remember: More may be more. But that doesn’t mean more is better.
Brad Stulberg (@Bstulberg) is a performance coach and writes Outside’s Do It Better column. He is the author of the new book The Passion Paradox: A Guide to Going All-In and Discovering the Benefits of an Unbalanced Life and the bestselling Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success.