It’s easy to romanticize mess. Television and movies are filled with sexy-slacker-dudes and manic-pixie-dream-girls whose devil-may-care attitudes and artfully messy spaces are meant to inspire their organized and controlled love interest to break free from their orderly spaces and live a happier, less stressful life.
The problem with this trope? Mess actually has the opposite effect.
Your Mess and Your Brain
While mess may be a favorite movie metaphor for relaxation and comfort, scientists have found that clutter negatively affects people’s moods.
A study conducted by the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute focused on participants’ responses and performances when faced with organized versus disorganized stimuli. Scientists used a variety of readings, including Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), to track the brain’s response to these stimuli.
Fans of order will be unsurprised to hear that the study found that an organized environment not only resulted in more positive — less irritation or frustration — emotional responses, but also better overall productivity. When faced with disorganized stimuli, participants were more distracted, more irritable, less able to process information and less productive.
More Clutter, More Stress
A recent survey found clutter among the top five most common stressors. Between the results of the Princeton study and the placement of productivity and financial worries in the top five, it’s not too difficult to draw connections between mess and stress.
Mess makes it harder to concentrate, which in turn makes it difficult to be productive.
Clutter disrupts productivity in much the same way as multitasking. Many people assume multitaskers must have a talent for avoiding distraction or switching between tasks, when in fact the opposite is true. Multitaskers don’t get more done, they get less done. Switching between tasks isn’t a skill — it’s a distraction that makes it difficult for anyone to filter out irrelevant information or store memories. It may even negatively impact analytical thinking.
If a mess makes you less productive at work, it’s not hard to question whether there is a link between clutter stress, productivity stress and financial stress.
What’s more, clutter and mess bring with them a host of emotional stress. Recognizing the negative effects of a messy environment may not be enough to move an individual to improve their surroundings. Feelings of nostalgia, a fear that “I may need it someday” or the pain of sunk costs are just a few of the emotional stressors that make it difficult for people to toss out junk.
In fact, scientists at the Yale School of Medicine have found that the thought of parting with possessions can trigger the same areas of the brain that registers the pain and cravings experienced by drug addicts.
So although your mess may be destroying your focus, reasoning skills, productivity or happiness, you may be tempted to suffer those stressors rather than deal with the pain of parting with possessions.
Stress and Your Health
Stress has become such a popular topic that many Americans have become immune to the discussion. Stress is everywhere, so they assume they just have to accept it and keep going.
However, ignoring or resigning yourself to stress is actually dangerous for your health. A stress headache here and there may not seem like a big deal, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the medical ramifications of stress.
Stress does cause headaches or migraines. Tense muscles are a popular effect as well. But stress is also linked to heart disease, obesity, diabetes and depression. Doctors and scientists are also in the process of studying stress’s effects on Alzheimer’s disease and aging.
A messy home or workspace may seem like a minor issue: an inconvenience to be overlooked or a stress to be ignored. But that clutter has a trickle-down effect that starts by disrupting your focus, which lowers your productivity, which increases your stress, which in turn puts you at risk for a host of serious medical conditions.
Decrease Clutter, Decrease Stress
It can be difficult to begin to tackle messy spaces.
As stated above, parting with possessions can trigger your brain with painful signals similar to withdrawal. Emotional guilt over giving away gifts or parting with memory-rich items can stop the simplification process before it begins. Likewise, fear that you’ll need a pitched item later and the pain of sunk costs can make for a half-hearted attempt at organization.
If living with clutter and the decluttering process are both stressful, the question becomes: Which is worse?
Is it worse to resign yourself to a lifetime negatively affected by clutter that steals your focus, lowers your productivity, increases your health risks and serves as sources of irritation and frustration? Or is it worse to deal with the temporary guilt and discomfort that arises when you get rid of junk in order to give yourself a more serene and supportive environment?
Hopefully the answer is clear: It’s better to deal with a temporary stress than enable a chronic one.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Resolving to organize your mess is one thing, getting started is another. It can be overwhelming to think about all your mess at once, which is why it is important to work one space at a time.
Trying to declutter and reorganize your entire home or workplace in a day will only result in frustration. Instead, pick the most critical area to start. What is your biggest distraction? Is your computer desktop so cluttered you can’t get anything done? Is your kitchen the bane of your existence? Resolve to concentrate on your biggest focus-stealer first.
Even when narrowing your decluttering goal to a single area, it is still far too easy to become discouraged or frustrated. Once you decide which zone you’ll focus on, divide that area up into small, manageable goals. Step one to regaining control of your kitchen may be tossing expired food. A baby step to tackling your desktop may be picking a less busy, more serene background image. From there you may delete obsolete files or add more folders. Perhaps you’ll remove a few items from your kitchen countertops to reduce visual stimuli and regain workspace.
Your problem area will be unique to you, and so will your solutions. The goal is to reduce the mess that is causing you stress. Don’t add more stress by comparing your still-in-progress decluttering with someone else’s styled and organized space. Do what works for you and celebrate each inch of space you reclaim and each distracting stimuli you defeat. Before you know it your space — and head — will be clear.