The Connection Between Clutter & Decision Fatigue

Clutter & Decision Fatigue What is the connection and how does it rob you of a remarkable life

I’ve wasted countless hours (literally, hours) of my life looking for my keys.

I’d be all ready to go, the kids would be buckled in their carseats, and then, “KEYS? WHERE ARE MY KEYS?” Five, ten, 20 minutes later, I’d unearth them (check pockets, rifle through purse, scan top of dresser, desperately reach into couch cushions) and we’d finally be on our way.

A few years ago, I had an idea: I should have a place – a designated place – where I put the keys when I walk in the door. (I’m nothing if not an innovator.)

Lo and behold, this magical idea worked! Do I still lose my keys? Yes, on occasion. But 95% of the time, my  keys are right where I look for them — in the bowl on the kitchen shelf.

Do you realize how much better this makes my life? The reduction in stress alone is immeasurable. Having that bowl for my keys is an example of a system – a system that I have implemented in my life to solve a problem and make my life easier.

Just a few weeks ago, I implemented another such system, in response to a rather disastrous morning with my kids. Since my husband is saying kaddish, he has to be at morning minyan. This means that he leaves the house a few minutes before 6:30 and gets home around 7:35. My alarm goes off at 6:45 and the bus picks up the kids at 7:30.

Before morning minyan was a regular fixture in his life, Frankie and I would unofficially tag-team our morning routine: He’d deal with the boys, I’d deal with the girl. He’d make lunches and put some semblance of breakfast on the table, while I sorted out their backpacks and made sure all their winter gear was accounted for.

It wasn’t the model of efficiency, but it worked. Frankie being gone every morning, however, has forced me to come to the startling realization that no, I do not have four hands. In a mere 45 minutes, I alone am not able to wake the kids, drag them out of bed, get one of them dressed (as she flops about angrily in her bed), make their lunches, feed them breakfast, find their mittens, referee their fights, and make sure they have their backpacks.

There was much screaming and crying the first day that Frankie went to morning minyan. Two out of three kids ran out of time to eat breakfast. One wore Crocs despite the foot of snow on the ground because we couldn’t find his boots. When the bus blessedly arrived and the kids got on it, I collapsed on the couch.

“I can’t do this for another 11 months,” I whimpered to myself. We need a system.

Much like my bowl for the keys, I came up with a rather simple, yet life-altering, one: At night, the children must – under penalty of No X-Box for the Rest of Their Lives – make their lunches and pick out their clothes for the next day. In the morning, I must get up at 6:45 when my alarm goes off — no snoozing! And the children must NOT look at a screen in the morning: no TV, no Kindle, no iPod.

A few simple “rules” have made a world.of.difference. Our mornings are so much smoother. I haven’t yelled once, they haven’t cried once, no one’s worn Crocs to school, and everyone has eaten breakfast before the bus arrives. Success. All from a simple little system.

Erin Doland, author of Unclutter Your Life in One Week, has defined clutter as “any distraction that gets in the way of a remarkable life.”

Oh, you mean like the distraction of never knowing where my keys were? Or not being able to get my kids out the door without threatening, bribing or yelling?

And now that I have a system? And stress is reduced, mornings are calmer and our family functions more efficiently? Yeah, I’d call that pretty remarkable!

But how is it that streamlining works to create the space for a more remarkable life? Why, for example, has implementing a “rotating meal plan” relieved about 98% of the dinner hour angst at my house?

I think it’s because simple systems help to minimize decision fatigue.

In the modern world, we spend our days making countless micro-decisions – decisions so insignificant we may not even realize we’re making them: Which socks to wear, whether to have a smoothie or a waffle for breakfast, which winter boots to put on (these are warmer, but the treads are worn down, so maybe I should wear the other ones), which email to read first, which kind of tea to have.

Thousands upon thousands of decisions, all day long — and that’s just the small stuff. In our careers and in our parenting, in our friendships and our marriages, we are faced with dozens more daily choices — usually with far more serious implications than which blouse to wear.

The more the decision-making moments pile up, the more fatigued we become. First thing in the morning, we’re usually pretty fresh – so the decisions come quickly and easily. We may not even notice a lag between decision and action. By mid-afternoon, however, the fatigue from all these micro- and macro-choices starts to set in and we become far more likely to choose poorly. Even if we’re still making well-rationed decisions, we’re probably starting to feel some stress, anxiety, distraction or even resentment.

Sometimes we fixate over the less important decisions while avoiding the truly important ones. Sometimes we shut down entirely. More than once, Frankie has asked me what I want to make for dinner and I look at him like a deer in headlights: “I don’t know! Anything! You decide!”

Decision fatigue robs us of our ability to function efficiently and to live remarkably. We are so exhausted by the end of the day that we can’t see the forest for the trees. (To read more about this phenomenon, I recommend the New York Times article, Do You Suffer From Decision Fatigue, which gives a much more detailed explanation of how decision fatigue affects our modern lives. And this post from Scary Mommy about The Decision Fatigue of Motherhood, which speaks to the added dimension of decision fatigue when parenting little ones.)

So to Erin Doland’s definition of clutter, I’d add perhaps “any distraction that compounds decision fatigue, which is ultimately what gets in the way of a remarkable life.”

Simple systems like having a place for my keys, following a rotating menu plan, and implementing a night-time routine have eliminated my need to even think about certain issues.

These issues are clutter. Not the tangible kind, but clutter none the less. And implementing a few simple systems is decluttering. It’s streamlining my life so I can focus on the remarkable.

Are you bogged down by decision fatigue? Have you ever thought about clutter as the million and one choices you make on a daily basis? What systems have you introduced to declutter your day and streamline your life? 

31 Days of Decluttering

Day One: Decluttering the Toy Storage Closet
Day Two: Decluttering the Top of a Bedroom Dresser (Finish What You Start!)
Day Three & Four: Decluttering the Master Bathroom
Day Five: Decluttering My Desk
Day Six: Join the Decluttering Challenge
Day Seven: Decluttering the Computer
Day Eight: Decluttering the Night Stand
Day Nine: Decluttering a Kitchen Counter in Less than 10 Minutes
Reader Share: Decluttering the Front Door Hallway Table
Day 10: Decluttering a Bedroom Closet
Day 11: Taming the Paper Clutter
Day 12: Decluttering the Coat Closet
Day 13: Decluttering the Linen Closet
Day 14: Reader Share: Decluttering the Play Room
Day 15: Reader Share: Decluttering the Front Hall Table
Day 16: Is Clutter a Sensory Issue?
Day 17: Decluttering a Kitchen Cupboard


  1. Great article, Mara! My systems–things like never doing a shopping trip without a list, writing down what we need as soon as I see we’re low on it, etc., etc., are what keep me sane! I know that fatigue all too well, and keep working to declutter and simplify, slowly but surely. The funny thing is that my husband doesn’t understand why I don’t do things spontaneously… 🙂

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