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Ever look around and think: there just isn't any. more. room? It seems that as soon as we take a carload of bags to the donation center, whatever space or order we have been able to forge is almost immediately replaced with more stuff.


It's exhausting. It's defeating. It's depressing. And it can all be explained by the way our brain is wired.

Our brain on clutter

Described as anything that is kept, even though not used, needed or wanted, clutter can also be defined as having a disorganized and overwhelming amount of possessions in our living space, cars or storage areas. Clutter creates stress that has three major biological and neurological effects on us—our cortisol levels, our creativity and ability to focus, and our experience of pain.

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But clutter isn't just physical. "When you have to-do items constantly floating around in your head, or you hear a ping every few minutes from your phone, your brain doesn't get a chance to fully enter creative flow or process experiences," says Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy, a New York Times bestseller on controlling the flow of information in the digital age.

The overconsumption of digital stuff—like social media notifications, news feeds, games and files on our computer—competes for our attention, creating a digital form of clutter that has the same effect on our brain as physical clutter.

Neatness and order support health—and oppose chaos.

So, what is going on? Our brains love order. The human body consists of thousands of integrated and interdependent biological and neurochemical systems, all organized and operating along circadian rhythms, without which our bodies would disintegrate into chaos. It's no wonder that the organization within our very own bodies naturally extends to the desire for order and tidiness in our homes. And, "order feels good, in part, because it's easier for our brains to deal with and not have to work so hard," says psychotherapist and professional organizer Cindy Glovinsky.

The science of cortisol

No matter the ways, reasons and means by which the creep of stuff exceeds our ability to mentally and physically manage it—all of it amounts to stress. Clutter can trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which can increase tension and anxiety and lead to unhealthy habits. Cortisol is a hormone produced in response to stress by the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA).

Chronic clutter can create prolonged stress, throwing us into a state of low-grade, perpetual fight-or-flight—the system designed to help us survive. The fight-or-flight response involves the complex interaction of many body systems and organs that activate needed functions and minimize unnecessary functions during times of stress. These systems must remain in balance to maintain optimum physical and psychological health.

According to a Cornell University study from 2016, stress triggered by clutter may also trigger coping and avoidance strategies, like eating junk food, oversleeping or binge-watching Netflix.

If we are not stressed, we get most of our cortisol in the morning to get us going. Levels taper off the rest of the day if we are relaxed, enabling us to enjoy psychological and physical well being. But a messy home environment can prevent our body's cortisol levels from naturally declining throughout the day. Taxing this system eventually results in higher levels of depression and anxiety, and a lower capacity to think clearly, make decisions, and stay focused.

To supply the body with the energy needed to deal with stress, there are several physiological changes that occur with elevated cortisol levels:

  • Diversion of blood flow to the muscles from other parts of the body
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood sugars
  • Increased fats in in the blood

If there is no relief from stress, all of these changes are bad for healthy brain activity and can cause lasting negative changes in brain function and structure. Additionally, when stress raises our body's cortisol levels, our overall health can be adversely affected, including organ damage, the suppression of our immune, endocrine and reproductive systems, the lowering of our metabolism, and the disruption of our sleep cycle, to name a few.

It is difficult to maintain a state of wellness over time when our body energy is channeled into coping with stress.

Just as concerning, when we are in a state of chronic stress and not thinking clearly, we tend to only see that which is negative and reinforces our sour point of view, perceived lack of social support and subsequent poor interrelationships.

Research from a 2009 study out of UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF) has shown that women who perceive their homes to be cluttered tend to have unhealthy patterns of cortisol levels. A team of professional archaeologists, anthropologists and other social scientists studied the home life of 32 middle-class, dual-income families with 2-3 children of ages 7-12 in Los Angeles. In the study, family members recorded self-directed home tours describing objects and spaces in their homes, during which saliva samples were taken at regular intervals to measure cortisol levels.

The data were collected for three days and compared to and correlated with vast amounts of other data previously collected over the course of four years. According to the CEFL study, the amount of stress women experience at home is directly proportional to the amount of stuff they and their family had accumulated.

We see what is relevant to us.

It's interesting to note in the UCLA study that men did not exhibit the same results, having normal cortisol fluctuations. Presumably they were not as stressed by the amount of stuff in their home. This can be explained possibly by the results of other studies that have shown that the home is traditionally perceived as women's domain and ultimate responsibility, even in households where both partners work.

Other studies also support the finding that if men don't think the responsibility of keeping the house tidy is relevant to them, they may not be inclined to see the clutter and so are not as stressed about it.

This may be explained further in part by research that has indicated that there are distinct differences in vision between men and women, since men have 25% more neurons in their visual cortex, a part of the cerebral cortex that processes visual information. The irony is that even though the visual cortex of a man has more neurons than a woman's, men are impacted more by the things they see that they think have to do with them, and less by the things they think do not.

The science of focus


From our computer desktop, to our car, to our kitchen counter and fridge—clutter is clutter, and it affects us whether we think so or not.

In a study by the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute, researchers monitored task performance when an individual was surrounded by organized versus disorganized environments.

Overall, subjects were more productive, less irritable and distracted in the clutter-free environment versus the disorganized environment where their stress increased.

Researchers concluded that physical clutter in our environment can overload the visual cortex, competing for attention in our brain and interfering with our ability to focus and process information.

So what's happening in our brain?

There are two neural mechanisms at work that interact dynamically when processing information. Stimulus-driven fast reactions and quick visual identification are considered bottom-up processes because they rely primarily on sensory information, whereas context-dependent motor control and directed attention are considered top-down processes because they are goal-directed. These two mechanisms work together to organize in our brain the visual stimuli—aka, clutter—in our home.

There is a reason why we have an urge to straighten up at home before we can sit down to focus on selecting a new healthcare plan.

The brain has a limited capacity to process information. To filter out extra stimuli and focus on what we are trying to achieve at any given moment, the top-down and bottom-up attention mechanisms compete. By mutually suppressing each other, brain power is exhausted, and ultimately we lose focus. Whether we know it or not, a kitchen counter stacked with mail and basket full of unfolded laundry can be as distracting to us as a toddler in the throes of a tantrum.

The science of decluttering

Now that we know what all of our extra stuff is doing to our health and ability to function, it's time to get rid of it, right?

...Oh, but if it were only that easy.

We collect things for many reasons–maybe we think we'll need to use them later, or they have sentimental value, or we spent good money on them so feel we need to keep them, even if we've never used them.

It literally can hurt our brain to get rid of things we probably made a mistake buying in the first place. Most of us can accomplish this with a little dedicated time and some degree of mild discomfort, though there are others who cannot manage to part with one. single. thing.

The American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) states that people with hoarding disorder have a conscious, ongoing compulsive urge to acquire unusually large amounts of possessions and an inability to voluntarily get rid of those possessions, even when they have no practical usefulness or real-world value, such as old magazines, newspapers, notes, outdated clothing, or old mail.

To understand what goes on in our brain when we throw things out, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine recently studied compulsive hoarders using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain-scan technology. While in the scanner, hoarders considered various possessions to determine whether to keep them or not. The items were destroyed in front of them, so they knew their decision was irreversible.

The pain is real.

When people with hoarding tendencies were faced with throwing out something with personal value, two regions of the brain associated with conflict and physical pain showed greater signs of activity, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) a part of the brain involved in decision-making and planning, and the Insula, the same area that produces nicotine cravings. By comparison, people who didn't hoard showed no extra brain activity. These are the same areas of the brain that light up when you feel physical pain from stubbing your toe or burning your mouth with hot coffee.

The brain views the loss of a valued possession the same way it does something that causes physical pain. Although most people don't experience heightened ACC/Insula activity to this degree, we can all identify with the feeling of angst when finally tossing that pile of unread magazines, or those ticket stubs from last summer's trip to New York to see Hamilton.

The scientific benefits of decluttering

The good news is, those who suffer from hoarding respond well to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. For the rest of us... there is decluttering.

In addition to improving our mood and focus, decluttering often acts as a catalyst to taking better care of other aspects of our life. "By purging unneeded items from our homes, it is like deleting files to create disk space on your computer. Suddenly, the whole operating system is more efficient… this decreases stress and increases your effectiveness personally and professionally," says Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Joyce Marter.

Decluttering promotes:

Better sleep

A study by Pamela Thacher, assistant professor of psychology at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., found that "People who sleep in cluttered rooms… are more likely to have sleeping problems. This includes having trouble falling asleep at night and experiencing rest disturbances." Additionally, people who make their beds every morning experience longer, more restful sleep, especially when they use fresh, clean sheets.

Better diet

Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that people who spent time in an unorganized room were twice as likely to eat a chocolate bar than an apple. And researchers at Florida State University reveal a link between hoarding and obesity, noting that "people with extremely cluttered homes are 77% more likely to be overweight."

In a more organized home, there is more time to plan and more space to prepare healthier meals, as well to relax and eat more slowly.

Better body

Research scientist and associate professor Nicole R. Keith, Ph.D., at Indiana University found that people with clean houses are healthier than those with messy houses, and tidy homes were even more of a predictor for physical health than neighborhood walkability.

In the study, Keith and her colleagues tracked the physical health of 998 African Americans between the ages of 49 and 65, a demographic known to be at an increased risk for heart disease. Those who kept their homes clean were healthier and more active than those who did not, the process of keeping a home clean constituting exercise.

Our stuff is consuming our energy and robbing us of health and satisfaction.

Since our brain is able to absorb only 1% of the visual information it gets, this suggests that information overload is real. Decluttering our home of things that bring us neither joy nor use can help us create spaces that help us relax, restore and rejuvenate.

So instead of blaming ourselves for noticing too much, or our partners for noticing too little, maybe we can just know that our brains are geared for order, step outside for some fresh air, and then enlist the family in clearing the path for a more peaceful and refreshing home.

Fewer, better, more beautiful. For the brain, less is actually more.

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When it comes to holiday gifts, we know what you really want, mama. A full night's sleep. Privacy in the bathroom. The opportunity to eat your dinner while it's still hot. Time to wash—and dry!—your hair. A complete wardrobe refresh.


While we can't help with everything on your list (we're still trying to figure out how to get some extra zzz's ourselves), here are 14 gift ideas that'll make you look, if not feel, like a whole new woman. Even when you're sleep deprived.

Gap Cable-Knit Turtleneck Sweater

When winter hits, one of our go-to outfits will be this tunic-length sweater and a pair of leggings. Warm and everyday-friendly, we can get behind that.

$69.95

Gap Cigarette Jeans

These high-waisted straight-leg jeans have secret smoothing panels to hide any lumps and bumps (because really, we've all got 'em).

$79.95

Tiny Tags Gold Skinny Bar Necklace

Whether engraved with a child's name or date of birth, this personalized necklace will become your go-to piece of everyday jewelry.

$135.00

Gap Brushed Pointelle Crew

This wear-with-anything soft pink sweater with delicate eyelet details can be dressed up for work or dressed down for weekend time with the family. Versatility for the win!

$79.95

Gap Flannel Pajama Set

For mamas who sleep warm, this PJ set offers the best of both worlds: cozy flannel and comfy shorts. Plus, it comes with a coordinating eye mask for a blissed-out slumber.

$69.95

Spafinder Gift Card

You can't give the gift of relaxation, per say, but you can give a gift certificate for a massage or spa service, and that's close enough!

$50.00

Gap Stripe Long Sleeve Crewneck

This featherweight long-sleeve tee is the perfect layering piece under hoodies, cardigans, and blazers.

$29.95

Gap Chenille Smartphone Gloves

Gone are the days of removing toasty gloves before accessing our touchscreen devices—thank goodness!

$9.95

Ember Temperature Control Smart Mug

Make multiple trips to the microwave a thing of the past with a app-controlled smart mug that'll keep your coffee or tea at the exact temperature you prefer for up to an hour.

$79.95

Gap Flannel Shirt

Our new favorite flannel boasts an easy-to-wear drapey fit and a flattering curved shirttail hem.

$59.95

Gap Sherpa-Lined Denim Jacket

Stay warm while looking cool in this iconic jean jacket, featuring teddy bear-soft fleece lining and a trendy oversized fit.

$98.00

Gap Crazy Stripe Scarf

Practical and stylish, this cozy scarf adds a pop of color—well, colors—to any winter ensemble.

$39.95

Nixplay Seed Frame

This digital picture frame is perfect for mamas who stay up late scrolling through their phone's photo album to glimpse their kiddos being adorable. By sending them to this smart frame to view throughout the day, you can get a few extra minutes of sleep at night!

$165.00

Gap Crewneck Sweater

Busy mamas will appreciate that this supersoft, super versatile Merino wool sweater is machine washable.

$59.95

This article was sponsored by GAP. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and Mamas.

Our Partners

Going through infertility let me know that there are some things in life that I just can't control. For someone who already has a hard time relinquishing control in life (call me a bit of a control nut!), entering the world of IVF was not only hard physically and mentally, but it also was incredibly difficult because it showed me things about myself that were at odds with this journey.

I realized how much I had needed to be in control of my life, how much I took for granted that my life path most often "always worked out" the way I imagined it would and I also realized how impatient I was.

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IVF treatment strips away a lot of yourself. You are forced to give up control and forced to wait….a lot. In our case, both my husband and I had potential issues and the two of us pulled away from the rest of our friends whose sperm romantically found their partner's ripe egg and impregnated them the old fashioned way.

While we were undergoing a lot of things physically and emotionally in a dark, isolating world of blood labs, doctor's offices and at many times, what seemed like barbaric tests. Something made me very "hush-hush" about it and I'm usually a wide-open book about everything. I guess you could say I was ashamed, I felt like it was a weakness or a flaw.

I only opened up about our struggle with fertility when I, finally, had a successful pregnancy and realized that once you go into the world of IVF there's no turning back. I was now an "IVF person." I became really passionate about the world of infertility especially once I started talking to others who went through it. This was one of the things that I felt now defined me, I had an "infertility journey," I was a #ttcsister, and because of IVF, I became a mom.

I embraced it and became proud of it. I launched my business by sharing my infertility story and it was so much a part of who I was. It motivated me to start to form an in-person community of women, pregnant, trying to conceive, or already moms based on my struggles with motherhood... before they even started! All while pregnant and then giving birth to my daughter.

Then a year and a half later I accidentally got pregnant.

The truth is, I never went back on birth control after having our baby because I didn't want to go through getting off of it again. Some people might not be able to relate to thinking you can't get pregnant on your own. They can't imagine the idea that you and your husband's test results indicate that the likelihood of pregnancy without IVF is basically zero.

But somehow, one of my husband's sperm in the millions of sperms that were morphologically corrupt found its way to my egg at the perfect time. The interesting part is that one of the most prominent thoughts I had when this happened was that I now felt like an imposter. How could I just get knocked up?!

I was helping and advocating for infertility and it was actually approaching National Infertility Awareness Week. I spent several weeks hiding just like I did during my last pregnancy.

Then, one day at work, I felt so sick from morning sickness and I couldn't tell anyone why. I went into the bathroom and just cried. Not just because of how debilitating the sickness was, but because of how alone I felt. Here I was trying to bring moms together yet I was isolating myself.

I was experiencing every IVF veteran's dream and I wasn't happy. I was feeling badly, torn, upset and just irrationally guilty and I needed support. I picked myself up, walked out of that bathroom and told every one of my colleagues at work "I'm pregnant, by mistake, and I need help."

The truth is, I've realized that just because I dodged IVF and some of those hardships this time around and truly feel like I was given the biggest stroke of luck, it doesn't change what I went through to get my first daughter. It also doesn't change my passion for advocacy in infertility and fighting with all my might for motherhood.

Life

Can you believe it's already time to start decorating for the holidays? And this year, Target is making it easier than ever to create inviting holiday spaces that are still neat, organized and clutter-free. Whether your style is whimsical, traditional or rustic, there are plenty of neutral creams, frosty whites and touches of evergreen that will take you through the holidays and well into the new year with style.

This holiday also marks the 3-year anniversary of the launch of Joanna Gaines' Hearth & Hand with Magnolia line. The collection features nearly 300 new pieces from gifting and décor to entertaining. Oh, and this season they have faux Christmas trees!

Ready to create your own modern winter wonderland at home? Grab our favorite minimalist piece:

Joy wire Christmas wreath

Joy wire Christmas wreath

The word "Joy" isn't a holiday classic for nothing—it's sure to bring lots of smiles and laughs to any home. And when it's atop the garland in this festive wreath, it's an instant pick-me-up. Plus, for an extra twist: This comes pre-strung with white LED bulbs for a little light to brighten dark spaces.

$45

Mini cable-knit stocking

Mini cable-knit stocking

This stocking brings simplistic holiday cheer to just about any living space. This mini size is perfect for little ones or if you just want stockings that don't take up too much space.

$4

Faux white pine garland

Faux white pine garland

Bring the outdoors indoors with a garland that can be framed around your door. Or add holiday spirit to your table runner with a garland centerpiece. We love how realistic this one looks for such an affordable price.

$24.99

Whitewash advent calendar

Whitewash advent calendar

Let's be honest, advent calendars are nice, but some have gone a bit overboard in how complicated they are. But not this one. The cutout shape of a tree features rows of numbers, while a roaming wreath moves the countdown along. Simple, yet chic.

$20

Round tree skirt

Round tree skirt

No tree is complete without a beautiful tree skirt. This striped one is a must-have for a farmhouse-inspired atmosphere. Even better if you want a splash of rustic charm that matches your other holiday décor.

$39.99

Mini marquee star wall sign

Mini marquee star wall sign

Brighten up your living room with this attention-grabbing statement piece. Hang the star sign on your entryway wall to help welcome guests, or place it on your mantel, shelf or end table alongside other accents to add touches of holiday cheer in a minimalist way.

$8

Ceramic house decorative figurine

Ceramic house decorative figurine

This tiny house with windows, door and a chimney lends realistic, whimsical appeal, but the solid ceramic design allows it to be used from season to season. Place a small light inside to light up your mantle when standard candles won't suffice.

$8

Wood garland

Wood garland

Sometimes less is more! Upgrade your staircase or tree with this simplistic wooded garland. Pair with fresh cedar and grapevine twigs to create a striking focal point on your home.

$12.99

Joy wall decor

Joy wall decor

Create holiday cheer in a small way by adding holiday wall art that sparks a bit of joy.

For a refined look, the decor offers a hardwood frame and the sawtooth back allows for easy display on tiny spaces that need a touch of holiday spirit.

$9.99

Stocking holder

Stocking holder

Minimalists will rejoice for this multi-tasking stocking holder—acting as both festive signage and a holder for multiple stockings. It's simple, charming and will look great on your mantle for years to come.

$29.99
Holiday Shopping Guides

Madison Vining, mama of six, recently posted an honest message that went viral on Instagram. In it she described how we can't really have the full picture of someone's life just by what they post on social media. It's little fragments of their life, which probably leave out the really good moments when people decide to put the phone down to be present, and also the really bad moments they don't want documented.

The post, which has almost 12,000 likes and hundreds of comments, received a lot of praise from other parents thanking her for hitting the nail on the head.

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The post reads:

"Instagram stories. Let's talk.

If someone uses the maximum amount of stories allowed in a day (all the teeny tiny dots) guess what? All together, it totals less than an hour of their 24-hour day. Does that surprise you? It's true. It's a peek of 1/24th of their day. Furthermore, it's probably the calmest parts. After all, when was the last time you got into a fight with your husband and thought "Hang on, let me insta-story this!" or had your hands full of screaming babies and thought "Hang on... let me try and hold a phone, too!"

I really want to challenge you.

Before you look at her life and become jealous: you likely did not see her raise her voice as she struggled through schoolwork with her kids, or her picking up trash after the dog ripped it up and dragged it all over the driveway, or her doctor give her a terrifying diagnosis, or her son's preschool teacher call and say he's been a problem... Again. Or her crying because she hates her body and hasn't felt like herself in so long. Or her going to bed each day feeling guilty and like she didn't do enough for everyone. Or her husband being out of work. Or her dad who walked out on her as a kid and it still hurts. Or her burning dinner and yelling a swear word in front of her kids.

Yeah, you don't see all the bad.

But you know what? Before you look at her life and become critical, know that you didn't see her singing worship music and taking extra time as she changed her baby's diaper. You didn't see her driving all the way to recycle center when the trash would have been easier. You didn't see her close her laptop, close her eyes, and stop to pray for someone she doesn't know. You didn't see her tell her daughter, "Just keep killing them with kindness, baby" as she sobbed in her arms about a bully. You didn't see her give up "me time" to prioritize date night with her husband. You didn't see her take her oldest to lunch. You didn't see her anonymous donation.

You don't see a lot of the beautiful things that happen in her life and in her heart, because they're sacred and the first thought that pops into her mind isn't, "I should grab my phone right now."

You don't see it all. Be kind to one another."

Thank you for saying what many think, mama.

Life

Do you feel it?

That little spark ✨ in the air that only comes around this time of year is starting to buzz and pop around us. There's nothing quite like the joy and excitement that comes with counting down to the holidays—especially with your kids who think last Christmas was forever ago.

And what better way to count down to Christmas than with an Advent calendar? We've rounded up our favorites that you can use year after year, mama.

House advent calendar

It's perfectly neutral to go with any type of holiday decor, but is made to bring a spark of magic and fun as your kids rush each morning to find out what's inside the tiny drawers.

$55.30

Advent calendar wreath

This has to be the most unique advent calendar we've ever seen. We love everything about it: The simple metal hoop, the greenery and the 24 kraft boxes that can be filled with goodies for both adults and kids. It's so pretty, we might even leave it up past Christmas!

$35

Countdown to Christmas advent calendar

We love that you can fill this one with your own treats that can change as your kids grow. And it doesn't have to be sweets. It can be filled with stickers, little toys, handmade goodies and more.

$38

Modern farmhouse Christmas countdown

No treats required for this simple, beautiful sign.

$34.95

Metal advent calendar

This sleek metal sign comes with 25 small muslin bags and 30 cards you can tuck into each one. The cards have an activity or kind gesture you and your kids can do to celebrate the season.

$40

Ernie and Irene llama advent calendar

Add a touch of whimsy and coziness with this sweet calendar featuring a knit llama.

$128

DIY advent calendar kit

For the crafty mamas in the group, this sweet kit has everything you and your family need to create your advent calendar together. Once you've assembled all the houses, you can fill it with whatever treats your family will love.

$36

Customizable advent calendar

This sweet and modern fabric calendar can be customized with your family name or cherished holiday phrase. It also comes with a set of 24 activity cards you can pop into each pocket.

$107

Clever Creations traditional wooden Christmas advent calendar

Clever Creations Traditional Wooden Christmas Advent Calendar

This beautiful calendar is a showpiece. It lights up to create a cozy and festive scene.

$43

Light-up stacking house glitter advent calendar

Enjoy a tower of pre-lit cottages that will light up your home each day leading up to Christmas.

$149

My Kindness advent calendar

My Kindness Advent Calendar

The holidays are all about giving—and that doesn't stop with just material items. We can give in the form of kindness every single day, and this calendar helps us do just that.

$75

Blue and gray Christmas socks advent calendar garland

We love the twist on a traditional calendar with this sweet garland of 24 stockings.

$29.69

Motherly is your daily #momlife manual; we are here to help you easily find the best, most beautiful products for your life that actually work. We share what we love—and we may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.

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