Here’s What Clutter Does To Your Brain (And How To Fix It)

Heres What Clutter Does To Your Brain And How To Fix It

Are you depressed? Are you also disorganized? It turns out that these two (seemingly) unrelated problems may be much closer in causality than previously thought.

Recently, many books tackling these topics — such as The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up — have become massively popular. Why is this?

Well, it turns out that clutter can sometimes be a symptom of depression — and vice versa. Personally, I always like to be organized. I feel less in control and less happy when there are dirty dishes all over the counter, or many things strewn about. Interestingly, there have even been articles in top publications like the New York Times covering this very topic — even as far back as 2008.

So today I will be covering just what may be making you so blue about the clutter surrounding you — as well as what to do about it. Just because you may be naturally messy or unorganized doesn’t mean you have to stay that way! You will find that you’ll feel better, think more clearly, and possibly even sleep better just by cleaning up. So without further ado, here is the problem with clutter — and just how to fix it.

Why Do Our Brains Hate Clutter?

The brain likes a plan. This oft-repeated slogan is firmly rooted in truth, and many still don’t understand why. Quite simply, your brain does not enjoy stress. Not having a plan (or not being organized) creates stress. These days, life is plenty stressful even without being disorganized. There is absolutely no reason or excuse to add more stress to your overcrowded plate.

Anyone would agree that when your home is in constant chaos, it has an effect on your day-to-day life. Do you often forget or lose your car keys or house keys? Do you forget to do important tasks? Does it take you 20 minutes just to find the shirt you were looking for? These are universal problems that we have all faced at one time or another.

Is Being Messy A Real Medical Issue?

While being unorganized is not an actual medical diagnosis, hoarding behavior is much closer to (if not outright a part of) mental illness. We all know someone who is a hoarder. They can’t seem to part with newspapers from the 1980s — even though there is no importance attached to these particular papers.

I personally have family members who are compulsive hoarders. It is quite interesting to see it unfold, because while they may be extremely regimented and obsessive about other parts of their life (such as exercise), they lack an ability to deal with their extreme clutter. Some experts actually think this may be a way to deal with some form of trauma, or, more precisely, an inability to deal with this trauma.


Photo credit NCBI

They may be holding onto old possessions because they can’t let go or move on with their lives — or it could be symptomatic of a larger problem. Interestingly, scientific studies have found actual neural differences when it comes to decision-making in those with hoarding disorder. Specifically, it is common to see a biphasic abnormality in the anterior cingulate cortex in persons afflicted with hoarding. This disorder has also been linked to problems in identifying the emotional significance of a stimulus, and leads to an inability to generate an appropriate emotional response and the inability to make a decision.

Other scientific studies have shown that hoarders also do not respond to obsessive compulsive disorder treatments. Since research as recent as 6 months ago seems to offer very few solutions to hoarding behavior, it is best to seek professional help if this is something you or a loved one are dealing with. Now obviously not everyone is afflicted with the extremity of hoarding. But when it comes to the more common form of just being unorganized, there are still disturbing links and overlaps with depression.

How Is Clutter Linked To Depression?

One of the most common symptoms of depression is sleeping overly long hours — or the inability to sleep at all. Interestingly, this is commonly seen in people who are also unorganized. Another similarity is overeating or undereating. These are both seen in messiness, largely due to an inconsistent balance of energy which doesn’t allow time to clean things up.

The next big issue which overlaps is lethargy. How many times have you cooked dinner and not had the energy to get up and actually do the dishes? I think we can all admit this is more common than we’d like to own up to. But, when repeated over time, this may become an actual sign that something else is going on. If we look to the anecdotal evidence, we see many people confide how they become a “disorganized slob” when depressed. Other reports show large overlaps in being disorganized and the crippling problem of bipolar disorder. But you don’t have to have problems that severe to be depressed and messy.

How To Get Happy (And More Organized)

There are simple steps you can take to stop clutter from bringing you down. As I originally mentioned, the brain likes a plan. So the first thing you will want to do is make a plan of what areas you are going to clean up. Next would be to choose an area to start with. Confidence is built from small victories which add up over time. Sometimes just cleaning up something small can help to give you the strength to keep going (like folding your pile of clothes).

For those of us with children, the problem of tidiness becomes even harder to tackle. Since, in that scenario, you are not cleaning up after just one or two people — you are cleaning up after three or four.

So if you have children, one significant way to reduce the workload is to have them help you. However, it does often take a little more ingenuity than this. How do you do this? Simple — by making cleaning up a fun game! Tell your kids that they will get 30 more minutes of playing outside once everything is cleaned up. Give them a corner of the area to “own” and watch things magically get picked up!

If you live alone, turn up your favorite music, dance around a little bit, and reward yourself at the end. It’s not much different than how we get our children to help us clean up. Though in practice, your rewards may be a glass of red wine or other — more adult — choices.

Another tip that helps big time: Clean up your desktop daily. If you absolutely need the file, place it in a central folder that’s out of the way and that you can visit later. Same goes for you inbox, keep it tidy! Unsubscribe from any newsletters you haven’t read in the past month and put away any important emails into a designated folder. These little steps go a long when when attempting to control the digital flow of information in our lives.

The Bottom Line

As you can see, the seemingly innocuous act of being messy may affect your life much more than you realize. Over time, humans can adapt to just about anything. But that doesn’t mean that these adaptations are positive, or optimal for our health. The Power Of Habit is a great in-depth read if you’re interested in this topic. While not 100% focused on organization, it’s highly inspirational, and can help you stay motivated in any aspect of life.

Remember (for the last time, we promise!) — the brain likes a plan. If you’re not naturally tidy, develop a plan to help you get organized. If you or a loved one struggles with the more serious problem of hoarding, consider consulting a professional. The longer problems like this manifest themselves, the more serious and problematic they can become. I hope I’ve provided some help and guidance in the area of getting organized, and given you plenty of motivation to pick up that dirty pile of clothes (we all know it’s sitting there!).