Get Rid of Clutter and Think More Clearly

I, like many other people with multiple sclerosis, struggle with cognitive dysfunction.

Some days are worse than others, of course – those are the times that following a familiar recipe seems as difficult as building a combustion engine from scratch. Conversations seem to be in another language, with it taking so long for me to formulate a response that the topic has usually changed, often more than once. On these days, I feel like I am viewing and interacting with the world from inside a phone booth, with walls between myself and the rest of my environment.
I utilize all sorts of mental aids in my quest for functionality. Sticky notes, organization systems, electronic calendars and reminders all come into play. I try to function in a world that is increasingly becoming geared to the multi-tasker.
What really slows things down in my fuzzy-headed existence, however, is clutter. I'm talking about stuff, the kind of stuff that just happens as a result of life. I have six-year-old twin girls, so it is possible to look around and find tiny Barbie shoes, tiny kid shoes, a goldfish cracker or two, school backpacks, Lego blocks, beads that fell off of a half-finished necklace, markers and several pieces of paper with failed attempts to draw Pegasus unicorn creatures. All of this can occur within an hour of the girls being home from school while I am trying to cook dinner.
We also have two adults living in the house with these little people. My husband might leave his shoes in the hallway or walk away from the kitchen, sandwich in hand, with all of the fixings still on the counter. I am not innocent, either. I blame my flighty brain on things left in truly bizarre places (recent head-scratchers include milk in the laundry room, one shoe on the kitchen counter, a wooden spoon on top of my dresser).
All of this is perfectly normal, of course. However, clutter can be a mental drain. You focus on the stuff scattered about and start thinking about how you wish it was gone, you wonder how it got there, you think about who to ask to clean it up, etc.
We all need a quiet place to rest our eyes, yet many of us don't have that. Let's regain (or create) it by tackling the clutter.
Here are some tips:

  • Talk to your family. Explain to them that it makes your brain work more slowly when clutter is present. Ask them to help you keep things neat. 
  • Spend 15 minutes a day getting rid of clutter. Set a timer if you need to, but just pick an area and go to work, preferably at the same time every day. If you do this for a week, you will make good progress. 
  • "Quarantine" your clutter. If it seems overwhelming, grab a large cardboard box and pile stuff in there, then put the box out of sight. You will know where it is if you need it later. It will be much easier to sort it in a week, as you can sit in one area and make piles of stuff to "keep" or "throw away," rather than picking things up one at a time and trying to put them in proper places at that moment. 
  • Look at ways to prevent clutter. We recently installed a shoe rack on the back of the closet door near the entrance to our house, eliminating all sizes of shoes from the floor. A big bin is great to collect toys at the end of the day – sorting can happen later. Make it easy for everyone to help. 
  • Once you get rid of all the junk that is not supposed to be there, take a hard look at what is left. Try "quarantining" any decorative items that are not serving a function. If you still miss them after a couple of weeks, bring them back out.
Trust me, getting rid of your clutter is one of the best things you can do to help your brain. It will also make you feel better about your surroundings (and your family, if they are clutter offenders). Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.
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Julie Stachowiak, PhD

Julie is the author of the Multiple Sclerosis Manifesto, the winner of the 2009 ForeWord Book of the Year Award in the Health Category. She is an epidemiologist who is also a person living with MS, Julie has an in-depth understanding about current research and scientific developments around MS. She also has first-hand knowledge of the frustrations and anxiety surrounding the disease, as she had MS for at least 15 years before receiving a diagnosis in 2003 and has had several relapses since her diagnosis.