The havoc clutter wreaks on our brains

Lily Cole by Tim Walker for British Vogue
Lily Cole for British Vogue, July 2005
Image: Tim Walker

Chaos is an integral part of life according to many philosophical teachings. Physicists echo this when they state that the universe’s continuity consists of entropy, an eternal lack of order. Some believe that evolution is an outcome of spontaneous events. Risk analysts advise allocating a 20-30% reserve of resources to anticipate unpredictable occurrences. This compelling amount of disorder has a significant influence on our lives. It is inevitable that this external havoc impacts our minds.

There really is not much we can do about the atomic order of our external world, or the risks of our economic systems for that matter. There are, however, some lessons we can draw from the immediate clutter we are surrounded by. This is where our homes and the walls that frame our lives come into play. The state of your workstation or home in many ways defines your habits, productivity, clear thinking and proneness to anxiety. Having a tidy home is the first step to an organised life.

We look into the impact of clutter on our lives from the point of view of cognitive science.

How the havoc clutter wreaks on our brains
‘Garbage Girls’ series
Image: Maya Fuhr

1/ A reduction in productivity and attention span

In the same way multi-tasking slows down our brains, dispersing our attention onto a myriad of tasks at once, disorder paralyses productivity. It comes hand in hand with scatty thoughts and sensory overload.

According to a study by Princeton University’s Neuroscience Institute, people who live in a disorderly environment surrounded by clutter are less productive and disciplined. The external chaos and important intellectual pursuits literally compete for our attention. Instead of giving our brains a distraction-free setting for solving vital problems, we inundate it with more tasks.

The background chatter of multi-tasking gives way to irritability.

The very idea of those dirty dishes sitting in your sink blocks all other thought processes in the brain and brings it to the forefront of its activity. Few would enjoy such persistent contemplations of daunting house chores while trying to focus on work, and so the background chatter of multi-tasking gives way to irritability.

There are all sorts of disorder that can reduce attention span.

  • Desktop clutter in the form of a dozen browsing windows, hundreds of screengrabs and other digital disarray can be very disorienting.
  • An inbox exploding with unread messages is akin to a long and impatient line of postmen queueing at your door.
  • An informational overload and fast digital content contribute to a state of chaos, intertwined with mental, spiritual and digital clutter.
Disorder leads to a reduction in productivity and attention span
‘Garbage Girls’ series
Image: Maya Fuhr

2/ Fear of loss and nostalgia

All of this begs the question. How have our brains not realised that such an irrational dispersion of attention is problematic? As much as we understand it, we also tend to go for the lesser of the two evils. We prioritise mess and hoarding over our unwillingness to part with the familiar, and therefore comfortable and pleasant, memories that these objects exude.

There are two particular cognitive distortions that can explain this way of thinking:  ownership and the fear of loss. The former is to do with our tendency to attribute higher importance to the objects that belong to us. The latter - with our susceptibility to avoiding loss and pain by not parting with whatever it is that we own.

Nostalgia is a complex and personal issue but it is worth remembering that our memories live in our minds rather than on our shelves.

These cognitive mechanisms boil down to evolution. An organism with a strong reaction to a tangible threat of loss is more likely to survive. Considering the economic reality we live in, which is prone to thoughtless consumption and distortion of human nature, we should really address this ancient cognitive strategy with more scrutiny.

On one hand, we purchase and become attached to objects we do not need and that have no purpose in our lives. On the other, we are unwilling to part with our old childhood PJs, which is a lot more to do with its sentimental value than anything else. What is the best way to handle this kind of nostalgic state? This is a complex and personal issue but it is worth remembering that our memories live in our minds rather than on our shelves.

Decluttering strategy
‘Garbage Girls’ series
Image: Maya Fuhr

3/ Addiction

Researchers from Yale University have demonstrated that parting with familiar objects activates the same part of our brains as the one responsible for physical and psychological pain and aversion.The more we activate these areas, the stronger the sense of anxiety and discomfort at the idea of potential loss. Scientists suggest that hoarding is a form of addiction. It might not be as detrimental as smoking or binge drinking, but it is worth noting that it is the same areas of the brain that become activated in nicotine addicts who are trying to quit and experience withdrawals.

Scientists suggest that hoarding is a form of addiction.

Every time our brain clings onto something known, we feel more at peace. The relief that comes with sticking to a familiar, and therefore important, object is like salvaging this object. Addiction develops when every object becomes like an old friend, which you are unable to part with.

Not every disorder is disruptive

When it comes to a tidy home, it is a question of personal preference. A perfectly clean home can be appealing to one person and overly sterile and anxiety inducing to another. According to clinical psychologist Dr Carla Marie Manly, a comfortably chaotic home packed with knick-knacks can be a soothing sight to one type of person but a completely daunting and claustrophobic to another.

While it is great to avoid a desk full of stacks of paper on every surface, minimalism is not the only way forward. What matters is listening to your own instincts when it comes to tidiness, irrespective of marketing fads and unsolicited advice.

Scientists suggest that hoarding is a form of addiction.
‘Garbage Girls’ series
Image: Maya Fuhr

Decluttering strategy

A conscious awareness of our brain’s treacherous habits and cognitive distortions is an important tool which allows us to take rational decisions and curb anxiety. Why not see your next cleaning session as a stress therapy.

  • Make tackling that pile of dirty dishes your priority to regain control. The dopamine levels from this small feat will be your first reward that will energise you towards solving other more complex and unpleasant house chores. Perhaps even set up a rule to wash the dishes right after a meal.
  • Tidy up your workstation. It is more than just tidying those piles of papers on your desk by organising them into folders or saving them on the Cloud. Sort your files in folders and clear out your browser. Consider saving the articles you want to read on Pocket and other useful tabs in Tabli or similar platforms.
  • Delete or upload your old phone photos and screenshots to the Cloud.
  • Purge your wardrobe of any nice clothes that you no longer wear by giving them away to a local charity or reselling them. Anything not worth keeping can be recycled. Remember that cosmetic products have expiry dates too.
  • Review your subscriptions. Only keep the accounts and news sources you actually use for work, fun or self-development. Get rid of anything that causes negativity or toxic thoughts.
  • Open those unread messages already!

Decluttering is best done on your own. Hiring a professional can speed things up but it is important to process your own mess to regain control. By regularly giving the various areas of your life a refresh and freeing up space, you will gain time, energy and willpower to focus on other things.

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