The Neuroscience of Spring Cleaning
By: Ayla Khosroshahi
New beginnings often encourage rituals of cleaning, clearing, decluttering and reorganizing. These processes are far more mental, emotional, and even a spiritual acts, than physical ones. The simple yet profound act of clearing your space(s) can improve mood, increase productivity, and heighten creativity. These MINDSHIFT tools will help you clear the congestion that can occupy your physical spaces.
What’s in a space?
The energy we receive, and which is taken, by our physical spaces is remarkable. Our “stuff” can create barriers for our thinking and our growth. The art of letting go can entice a revival and renewal of energy and ideas. Piles of laundry, dishes, and papers are endless to-dos for the brain. It’s exhausting, stress inducing, and inhibits the brain’s ability to focus and make clear decisions.
This is a two-way ripple effect – clearing away the clutter can help you make healthier choices, improve your relationships, and boost your productivity.
From your computer desktop, to your car, to your fridge – clutter is clutter and it affects you whether you see it or not. Studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) mapped the brain’s responses to organized and disorganized stimuli. The research concluded that optimal focus and information processing requires a clutter-free home and work environment. The research illustrated that a decluttered and organized home and office can help you to be more calm, productive, and focused.
What’s happening in the brain?
The brain has a limited capacity to process information. Looking at too many things at once overloads the visual cortex. This reduces the brain’s ability to process information, focus, and make decisions. The visual intake of multiple stimuli makes us feel overwhelmed. Studies have shown that the brain is able to absorb only 1% of the visual information presented. This suggests that information overload is real. For the brain, less is actually more.
Clutter can trigger the stress hormone cortisol. This increases tension and anxiety. This stress can lead to unhealthy habits and coping mechanisms – from consuming unhealthy foods, to avoidance coping strategies like oversleeping, or binge watching television. Studies show that those who describe their home as “cluttered,” or full of “unfinished projects,” have higher levels of depression, anxiety, and a lower capacity to think clearly, make decisions, and stay focused. It also affects relationships, both work and at home. A mess can create silent tension.
- PERCEPTION OF TIME
Our perception of time can change too. Clutter can tell the brain that there is too much to do. This means that we might cancel plans, miss gym appointments, etc. Clear and organized spaces decrease this sense of being overwhelmed. As a result, time seems longer and we feel we can tackle the day more effectively.
I often hear, “the clutter does not affect me.” This means you have built a coping mechanism, and therefore a numbness to the clutter without realizing it. Your perceptive abilities have lowered because they have been overloaded, and thus shut down. If you are numb to the mess then how numb are you to other parts of your life? We can stop being present and aware of our surroundings. However, the more attention we pay to our surroundings, the more we notice how they affect our mood, health, and energy.
- CHANGE RESISTANT
Your stuff is consuming energy. It might be making you resistant to change, as well. Keeping your things just the way they are can also mean you are only seeing things in one way. Believe it or not, by keeping your space(s) the same way year after year may mean that you continue to see people, challenges, and the world in the same way too. Challenge yourself every so often by moving things around. It might inspire MINDSHIFT.
Spring Cleaning the MINDSHIFT Way:
- Two step process. Think of this process as two separate and distinct activities: first, declutter, and then reorganize. Do not do both at the same time. They are different types of thinking, so you should focus on one at a time. Spend time really decluttering, otherwise you are just rearranging the chaos. Decluttering first will allow you to reorganize with a clean slate – physically and mentally.
- Set aside the time. Depending on your goal – from your desk, to your whole house – set aside the appropriate time, and make it your main focus. When you get down to it, you can even use a timer per task, or area, to help you focus. If you get overwhelmed, take a break. It’s better to recharge than rush through this process, otherwise you end up repeating the mess. You need to be mindful and present every step of the way.
STEP ONE: DECLUTTER
- Think in categories (and subcategories), not spaces. Categories (and subcategories) are your best friends when decluttering. The brain likes to group items to make better sense of them. Find all the similar things and bring them together: clothes (then: jeans, coats, bathing suits, etc), books, vitamins, spices, etc. Get everything out (of your shelves, cupboards, from under your bed, etc) and into like categories.
- Keep, Trash, Donate. One category at a time, decide what you keep, what is trash/ recyclable, and what gets donated. These classic piles work great. Some have “fix” (e.g. hem, paint, etc) and “sell” piles, but note these are endless to-do list waiting to happen so use them sparingly and mindfully.
- Only keep what adds value. Don’t convince yourself. It should be obvious. What brings you joy, or has a distinct purpose? Keep things that make you smile and motivate you. When you start to struggle with attachment, ask yourself: What does this item represent? Why is keeping it necessary? Why can’t I live without it? Does this make my day better? If the value isn’t obvious, then it’s taking up precious space.
- Get it out. Once you have decided on what goes, get it out. Before you start to reorganize, get the stuff out of the way. Drop off donations, trash, and recyclables. You want to start the next stage with a fresh space and mind.
STEP TWO: REORGANIZE
- Look at your space with fresh eyes. Reorganization can mean rearranging and re-evaluating where things go and why. Before you start this next stage take a break and come back to your space with fresh eyes. Allow yourself to challenge your old ways and see if there aren’t new and better ways of organizing.
- Think about process when you decide on placement. Now that you have everything organized in categories of like things, and you have decided what to keep, it’s time to put things back where they belong. Consciously decide what goes where. Think in terms of process to determine placement. Process mapping how you live and use your things ensures that everything is where it should be, and you are less likely to just put something somewhere for no reason (and start the clutter up again). Go through your space(s) and ask yourself questions about how you use your things. e.g. When I am cooking, what do I need around me, what can go in the cupboards, where is the best place for my spices? What do I need in the bathroom, what should go on the counter, and what can be put away? What do I really need on my night stand?
- Don’t re-clutter your space. Now that you have come this far don’t re-clutter your spaces. Stay present, and be conscious of your choices. At this stage people start getting tired and putting things anywhere, hiding them in drawers, etc. If you’re tired take a break, but don’t speed through a process that needs your full attention. If there is no space for something, then you might re-evaluate your reason for keeping it. Go back to ‘only keep what adds value’ and determine if you really need this item. Make keeping things tidy easier by capitalizing on closet space, and getting storage boxes when necessary. This doesn’t mean creating more space to have more stuff, it means creating a system to keep your stuff organized.
- Make it part of your day. Make it a way of being, instead of a thing you have to do. Make it a ritual. Over time, it will consume less effort, and become more automatic. All of this will make your day more productive and will put you more at ease, both consciously and subconsciously. Imagine it: you wake up, your kitchen is clean, you desk is orderly, everything is in its place, you can start your day fresh, without yesterday’s mess. When you come to bed, the bed is made, the room is clean – it all allows you to relax and peacefully end your day. Habits are powerful and life changing. Before you shutdown your computer ensure that your desk is clutter-free. Before you go to bed ensure your dishes are done. When you wake up, make your bed. Ideally, when being tidy is a daily habit you don’t have to spend much time doing it.
Bring some mindfulness to all your physical spaces. Use the principles above and look at:
- Your digital devices: phone screen, computer desktop, files, etc.
- Your work spaces: office, physical desk, filing cabinet, shelves, etc.
- Each room of your home: bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, family room, etc.
- The spaces you don’t think of: shed, garage, fridge, car, storage, etc.
Clearing and organizing your space creates space for new things and balance in your life. It has a direct effect on your mind – your thinking and your emotions. Set time seasonally to check back through this list. You will see that the more you do this, the less there is to do, and the more enjoyable it becomes. Clearing your space(s) makes room for growth, new opportunities, fresh perspectives, and MINDSHIFT. Living clutter-free will help you do better by thinking better.
Need help decluttering and reorganizing? Who you gonna call? MINDSHIFT NINJA
More on the Neurosciences:
- Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human visual cortex
- Learning Acts on Distinct Processes for Visual Form Perception in the Human Brain