The Psychology behind Spring Cleaning

Andrea Hewitt | Mar 20, 2014 @ 03:22 PM

I think we can all agree that there are two different kinds of people in the world: messy and clean. You can look around your office or home and it’s probably easy to group everyone into these two categories. If you’re a clean person, it’s probably much easier for you to identify those of us that enjoy clutter.

With spring cleaning sneaking up, this is probably a point of contention in your life. Your coworkers or roommates might have a different idea of which of your collectibles from the year should be kept, thrown away or moved into a storage unit.

That’s because everyone reacts to clutter differently. Some people function better in a messy home or office. For others, clutter can lead to depression and anxiety. Keep this in mind and try to respect others’ feelings during spring cleaning season.

Spring Cleaning at the Homestead

Feng shui consultant Kathryn Weber says living in a cluttered space can have a very negative impact on your mental health but can also impact your physical health.

“Dirty, cluttered houses can make you fatigued, constipated, have back pain, and congested. Not just because there’s stuff everywhere, but because there is dust on all that stuff — and dust is nothing but negative energy.” - Kathryn Weber

So not only could your clutter be mentally exhausting for your roommates, but you could all be inhaling each other’s dead skin cells. Still need more reasons to move your excess belongings to storage?

The perks of a clean, de-cluttered home:

  1. You’ll get active. Researchers have known for years that exercise can curb depression and anxiety, but you don’t have to do it on the treadmill. A recent study found that 20 straight minutes of intense cleaning once a week could cut your likeliness to suffer from anxiety by 20 percent.
  2. You’ll de-stress. According to an article in Psychology Today, “Clutter bombards our minds with excessive stimuli (visual, olfactory, tactile), causing our senses to work overtime on stimuli that aren't necessary or important.” Not only that but it leads to feelings of guilt and embarrassment when others stop by. You can cut out these feelings by taking a couple minutes a day to make sure everything is picked up.
  3. You’ll feel less tired. Looking around at all your clutter is a visual and psychological drain on your brain. Living in a clean home can give you more energy.

Spring Cleaning at the Office

Although it’s proven to be better for your mental health to have a clean home, that’s not exactly the case with your office or desk. In fact, Albert Einstein might be your biggest advocate if you hold the title of the messiest coworker:

If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?

He’s not our only ally. Two big wigs in the tech industry, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, have also been spotted sporting a cluttered workspace.

Mark Zuckerberg's dirty, cluttered, messy desk.

Steve Job's dirty, cluttered, messy desk.

But the question still remains: Is it better to have a clean or cluttered desk? University of Minnesota conducted a study that found employees with messy desks are more likely to be creative and take risks. Their clean counterparts are rule followers that are less likely to try new things.

The authors of the study told The New York Times magazine, “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights.”

So if you want to boost your creativity, try to let the clutter be and see how it affects your work. But this theory doesn’t work for everyone. For example, if you are OCD, you’ll function better with a clean desk and everything in the right place.

Social Perception

One thing to remember about having a messy desk is that it can affect how people view your level of professionalism. The International Association of Administrative Professionals did a study that found 83 percent of professionals judge others on the state of their desks.

"A tidy desk won't necessarily boost your career, but a messy one can leave a bad impression on colleagues," said Robert Hosking, executive director of OfficeTeam.

"By taking simple steps to organize your workspace, you also will be able to find materials more easily and increase your productivity."

So you might find yourself in a more creative headspace, but at what cost?

Overcoming the Barriers

A recent Yale study found that it is literally painful for some people to get rid of their excess belongings. Researchers tracked the brain patterns of self-described hoarders and non-hoarders going through a pile of mail and deciding what to throw out. Two areas of the brain showed increased activity for the hoarders: the same two that create cravings for smokers and drug addicts trying to quit.

“When I read this very specific finding, I had an instant feeling of recognition. I know that neural signature.”

“Both of these regions of the brain are associated with conflict and pain—and you see the same pattern of brain activation in other forms of psychological pain.” – Dr. Kelly McGonigal wrote in Psychology Today.

McGonigal says that the best way to overcome this physical urge to not clean or de-clutter is to be aware of your brain activities. She says that mindfulness gives you more control over your actions. Once you recognize what the problem is, it’s much easier to overcome.

Getting Started

If you’ve decided to make the change to a de-cluttered lifestyle, use these tips to get started and keep things from getting too cluttered again.

  1. Ask yourself these three simple questions about everything you come across: Is this necessary to keep in the house? Can this be moved to my storage unit? Should this get thrown away?
  2. Don’t tackle that huge mess by yourself. Instead, make it a family event. Give everyone specific spaces to clear out and work on the project together at the same time.
  3. Make cleaning fun. Plug in your iPod and blast your favorite songs. It will make the time fly by.
  4. Create several designated spaces for things that you use often, like scissors or a hammer. Get in the habit of putting everything back in it’s space right after you use it so the clutter doesn’t start forming again.
  5. Every night when you leave work, give your workspace a quick clean. Put papers and pens back where they belong. This way, you won’t have days of clutter stacked up around your cube and you can come in to a clean space the next morning.

Whether clutter bothers you or not, talk to your roommates and coworkers about their needs. Everyone should keep in mind that what works for them won’t always work for others. If you’re a clean freak, remember that spring cleaning is much harder for a hoarder. And if you’re a hoarder, you could be physically and mentally harming yourself and your peers.

Most people won’t be one of these extremes but somewhere toward the middle of the spectrum. Take the right steps this spring to find a balance that fits every personality in your home and office.