Skip to comments.How Clutter Affects Your Brain (and What You Can Do About It)
Posted on 08/24/2014 7:35:06 PM PDT by CharlesOConnell
A few years ago, I worked at a web design agency as a product manager. The part of the job I loved the most was working on product with our design team and clients. Unfortunately, this was only about 10 percent of the work that I actually got to do. The majority of the time, I was trying to control the constant flow of stuffkeeping track of meeting notes, searching for files, and trying to stay up-to-date with the latest technology news.
I was mentally exhausted. I’d get home feeling that I hadn’t really accomplished anything. Once I left the agency and started ooomf, I wanted to fix how I approached consumption in my life. Over the last few years, I’ve discovered ways to reduce the noise of stuff around me so I can focus on creation and have more time for the things that matter most. The last year has been the most productive of my life and I owe a lot of it to understanding the importance of decreasing how much I consume and coming up with ways to cut clutter.
How Clutter Happens
You collect things for a number of reasonsmaybe you think you’ll need to use it later, it has sentimental value, or you spent good money on it so you feel you need to keep the item, even if you haven’t touched or used it in weeks, months, or years. You might be holding on to that book you bought a year ago that you swear you’ll read or those killer pair of shoes that you’ll bring out for just the right occasion.
But the reality is, you probably made a mistake in buying those things and it literally hurts your brain to come to terms with that fact. Researchers at Yale recently identified that two areas in your brain associated with pain, the anterior cingulate cortex and insula, light up in response to letting go of items you own and feel a connection towards:
This is the same area of the brain that lights up when you feel physical pain from a paper cut or drinking coffee that’s too hot. Your brain views the loss of one of your valued possessions as the same as something that causes you physical pain. And the more you’ve commited emotionally or financially to an item, the more you want to keep it around.
Why Apple Wants You to Touch Their Stuff
When it comes to physical things, merely touching an item can cause you to become more emotionally attached to it. In this study, researchers gave participants coffee mugs to touch and examine prior to participating in an auction. The researchers varied the amount of time the participants were able to handle the mugs to see if this would have an effect on the amount of money participants would be willing to spend on the mugs during the auction.
The results of the study showed that participants who held the mugs longer, were willing to pay over 60 percent more for the mugs than participants who hed the mugs for shorter periods. The study concluded, the longer you touch an object, the greater the value you assign to it.
Apple is familiar with the effect of touch on your psychology and has brilliantly designed its retail stores to help you build an emotional attachment to their products. Here’s a shot of an Apple Store:
Author Carmine Gallo is writing a book about the ins and outs of the Apple Store. Gallo explains that everything in the Apple Store is designed for you to touch and play with, to make you feel like it’s your own. Gallo states:
The main reason notebook computers screens are slightly angled is to encourage customers to adjust the screen to their ideal viewing angle The ownership experience is more important than a sale.
When you introduce new items into your life, you immedietely associate value with these items,making it harder for you to give them up in the future. This psychological connection to things is what leads to the accumulation of stuff.
Clutter’s Impact on Your Brain
Whether it be your closet or office desk, excess things in your surroundings can have a negative impact on your ability to focus and process information. That’s exactly what neuroscientists at Princeton University found when they looked at people’s task performance in an organized versus disorganized environment. The results of the study showed that physical clutter in your surroundings competes for your attention, resulting in decreased performance and increased stress.
A team of UCLA researchers recently observed 32 Los Angeles families and found that all of the mothers’ stress hormones spiked during the time they spent dealing with their belongings. Similar to what multitasking does to your brain, physical clutter overloads your senses, making you feel stressed, and impairs your ability to think creatively.
Clutter Isn’t Just Physical
Files on your computer, notifications from your Twitter and Facebook accounts, and anything that goes “ping” in the night competes for your attention. This creates a digital form of clutter that erodes your ability to focus and perform creative tasks. Mark Hurst, author of Bit Literacy, a New York Times best seller on controlling the flow of information in the digital age, put it best when he said:
Bit Literacy: Productivity in the Age of Information and E-mail Overload
Bits are a new material.
When you have to-do items constantly floating around in your head or you hear a ping or vibrate every few minutes from your phone, your brain doesn’t get a chance to fully enter creative flow or process experiences. When your brain has too much on its plate, it splits its power up. The result? You become awful at:
The overconsumption of digital stuff has the same effect on your brain as physical clutter.
Finding Your Perfect Storm
I like to keep things neat but when I used to clean my room to perfection, my mom would still see that same room as a disaster. Everyone’s tolerance for clutter is different. Researchers have even found that certain people need a bit of a mess in their surroundings to feel inspired and get work done, stating that:
A clean desk can be seen as a dormant area, an indication that no thought or work is being undertaken.
For instance, if you look at this photo of the home office of Steve Jobs, it’s not exactly the picture you’d expect of a zen-like visionary obsessed with less:
On the other hand, there’s TreeHugger founder Graham Hill, who traded in his million dollar mansion for a 420 square foot apartment that only has the bare essentials. His kitchen consists of 12 salad bowls and utensils:
In an interview with the New York Times, Hill stated:
I like material things as much as anyone. I studied product design in school. I’m into gadgets, clothing and all kinds of things. But my experiences show that after a certain point, material objects have a tendency to crowd out the emotional needs they are meant to support.
While clutter has been shown to negatively effect your performance, it is your perception of clutter that matters, not someone else’s.
If having a notebook, pen, or a photo of your significant other on your desk, doesn’t feel like clutter to you, then it’s not.
You should seek to create spaces that make you feel at ease.
Editing the Noise: 4 Ways to Master Clutter
There are millions of sources of information and things for you to consume so it’s important to figure out a way to control these streams so you have more time to do things that matter.
Here’s 4 things that have been working for me:
1. Apply Constraints
One of the principals of good design is constraints. You can apply this same theory to create a system for mastering consumption. For instance, set a limit for how many people you follow on Twitter, how many books you buy, or how many apps you own. I set a limit of 200 people I follow on Twitter and I don’t buy any books until I’ve finished the current book I’m reading. I also don’t purchase or download any apps until I need them.
There will always be more information available than you can consume so set limits so you’re no longer simply trying to just get through it all but rather enjoying more of what you consume.
2. Use Small Storage Spaces
Cutting down on your storage space can do wonders for limiting consumption. Try cutting your closet down to 10 hangers or force yourself to use a small bag when you travel. Do you really need a walk-in closet or a rack for all your shoes? Try constraining your storage spaces and you’ll quickly identify what you really need.
3. Conduct a Monthly Review of Your Closet
Every month, review your closet looking for items you haven’t worn. If it’s summer and you have t-shirts, shorts, or shoes that you aren’t using, put them in a bag to sell on eBay or Craigslist or give them away.
Another option is to try and get rid of one item a week until you’ve cut your belongings down to the things you actually use.
4. Remove All Files From Your Desktop Daily
If you work on a computer, having a cluttered desktop every time you turn on your computer can give you a constant uneasy feeling. At the end of each day, remove every file from your desktop. If you don’t have an immediate place to move the file, create one folder on your desktop and drop the stray files in there. Here’s a screenshot of my desktop screen with one “Home” folder:
Clutter, whether physical or digital, is something you’ll always have to deal with but it can be controlled. Finding ways to stear the streams of consumption in your favor will give you a sense of power and a freed mind, leaving room for you to create and experience life without constantly filling your cup to the top with someone else’s sugar.456
How clutter affects you and what you can do about it | Ooomf
Mikael Cho is the co-founder of ooomf, a creative marketplace connecting mobile & web projects with vetted, first class developers and designers from around the world. Mikael writes more posts on psychology, startups, and product marketing over on the ooomf blog. Find him on Twitter @mikaelcho.
March, 2014 | Michelle Crouch | rd.com/slideshows/personal-organizers-secrets-free/
1) Create 5 piles. When youre organizing, you should sort everything into five piles: move to another room, donate, give to a specific person, throw away, and, finally, the marinating pile. Pack up the marinating items, and label the box with a date thats six months to a year later. If you never open the box before that date, you can safely discard those items.
2) To make an organizing project go faster: Create rules about what youre keeping and what youre discarding. In your closet, for example, you can decide to give away any clothing thats not between size x and size y, thats stained, or that needs to be repaired. With periodicals, you can decide not to keep anything thats more than a year old.
3) It will always take you at least five times longer to sort through a box of personal papers than you think it will.
4) Avoid lids on laundry baskets, bins, and other containers. They just make it harder to put things away. For other items, Im a huge fan of clear sweater boxes. Not only do they hold sweaters in your closet, but theyre perfect for holding beans, rice, and pasta in your pantry, Legos in your playroom, the stuff you collect at trade shows, and more. They fit on almost any shelf in any home and can hold most of the stuff in your house. I order them by the case.
5) Your goal should be to remove the clutter, not create more storage space. People who think theyre disorganized always run out and start buying baskets, containers and hooks. You come home and try to use them, and theyre not the right type or size, because you didnt sort through your stuff first. Thats just backward. All those new containers just end up adding to your clutter.
6) The number one problem for all my clients? Too much paper. The whole idea of a paperless society is a complete myth. People are seriously scared to get rid of it. Remember, 80 percent of the paper you get you dont need to keep. So its imperative to keep weeding out every single day, whether thats magazines, catalogs, mail, receipts, or anything else.
7) Are you holding on to a big piece of the past? If youre keeping something that doesnt fit in your home for sentimental reasonssay, Aunt Jennys blue recliner or Grandmas chandelierrecognize its the memory you cherish, not the item. Then take a picture of it and give it away to someone who actually has space for it who will love it. That said, if you really love that paperweight collection, grandmas old photographs, or that heirloom quilt, why are you letting them get ruined, moldy, or eaten by moths in cardboard boxes in the attic? Honor your favorite keepsakes by getting them out and displaying them.
8) Sure, you could sell that item on eBay. But are you interested in finishing your organizing project or starting a new career hocking used stuff? Unless you sell online all the time or need the money, I recommend just giving things away so you can move on.
9) Watch out for flat surfaces, which can quickly become drop zones for clutter. When my clients have a dining table that is always getting covered with junk, Ill have them clear it off, put a flower arrangement in the middle, and set it with place settings. That usually prevents them from parking stuff there.
10) Anything that needs to go somewhere should be in your car not in your house. Keep your coupons there in a clear folder so you have them if you need them. Get an errand basket to hold items that need to be returned. Use crates to store kids toys and emergency supplies. Also, a car trash bag is a simple thingget one!
11) Put everything on your calendar. Even errands, exercise, cleaning the house should go on it. Then make sure you prioritize the things that are important to you. If its not on your schedule, its not on your life.
12) My biggest secret? Dont procrastinate. If you postpone things that take a few minutes, it adds up and suddenly youre looking at several hours to clear your clutter. Always open your mail right away, do dishes right after you use them, and put things away as soon as youre done with them.
13) If you have lots piles of papers youre always looking through, thats a big time waster. Heres what I suggest: every time you look at a piece of paper, put a red dot on it. If youre ending up with 10 or 20 dots on one piece of paper, you need a new system to deal with your paperwork.
14) Please, get rid of that storage unit. You could buy all the stuff thats in there for the price of the annual rental feeand that doesnt include the cost of the moving truck and your time. Plus Im sorry, but the items you own are almost never worth as much as you think. And even if they are, who cares? Thats still not a good excuse to hold onto things you dont use.
15) My favorite tip for a roomier kitchen is to adjust cabinet shelves; it can create a lot more space. Also, get that popcorn machine, bread machine and the other huge appliances off your counter. If you dont use it every week, store it in the attic or basement and get it out only when you need it. And do you really need all those plastic containers? Most people have cabinets full of them, but they only ever use a few. Figure out which ones you really use and donate the rest.
16) Heres my favorite little kitchen tip: Always load the dishwasher in an organized way. So instead of throwing all the silverware into the utensil box, put the forks in one area, the spoons in another, and the knives in another, and then when youre unloading you just grab all the spoons and put them in the drawer.
17) Go into your closet today and hang everything backward on the rod. the normal way. A year from now, if you still have some things still hanging backward, youre obviously not wearing them, so get rid of them.
18) Heres a simple way to transform your closet: Switch to one type of hanger. It makes a huge difference. If you have varying kinds, they get caught on each other, theyre not the same height and you cant see everything as well. I especially love the thin hangers that are covered in velvet. Because theyre super slim, you can fit more into your closet, and your clothes wont slip off them.
19) Maximize your closet space by putting in an extra tension rod so you can hang shirts on top and skirts on the bottom, and always add hooks to hang jewelry and scarves if you have extra wall space. You can even put a chest of drawers in there if you have the room.
20) I love hanging shoe bags. In addition to shoes, I use them for gloves and hats in winter, for sunblock, sunglasses and goggles in summer, and for crafts, toiletries and makeup.
21) Youre going to be more motivated to get an area organized if you make some changes you can get excited about. When youre doing your closet, for example, throw up a coat of new paint, put down some cool floor tiles or a rug, or add a beautiful fixture. It will make you want to keep it organized.
22) Ditch the cardboard. One client asked me to help carry a bunch of cardboard storage boxes into her newly renovated house. As I opened the first one, out came hundreds of cockroaches. Thats why you should never use cardboard. You name the pest; I assure you it loves cardboard.
23) I swear Im not a neat freak. Being organized doesnt mean everything is in its place; it means everything has a place. If you can get your house ready for a surprise guest in 30 minutes, then youre organized. Believe it: I have not one, but two junk drawers in my kitchenand I sleep just fine at night.
24) Your kids will be so grateful if you label and organize your photos now and if you stick a note on keepsakes explaining their significance. We settle a lot of estates, and its frustrating to the next generation when they dont understand why something was left to them.
25) Parents feel so guilty about throwing away their childrens artwork. My solution? A Lil Davinci art cabinet. Its a beautiful frame that you can hang up, but you can also store up to 50 pieces of art inside it.
26) My biggest motivator for being organized: I have more time to have fun and be spontaneous.
Sources: Professional organizers Kate Brown, owner of Impact Organizing in Sarasota, Florida; Laurie Martin,
owner of Simplicity in Charlotte, North Carolina; Julie Isaacs, founder of The Uncluttered Home in Scotch Plains, New Jersey; Melissa Picheny, owner of declutter + design in New York City; and Maria Gracia, author of Finally Organized, Finally Free and owner of getorganizednow.com.
bookmark for sorting later
Unfortunately the Home folder has 600 subfolders and 1200 other files.
Into my “Mark 4 Later” Stack.
Bookmarking for the day I clean my bookmarks.
Brain clutter and physical clutter? I am beyond salvation.
oh boy..too much info! www.antidoteforall.com has a much simpler and highly effective way to declutter!
And then there are some people, of which I am one, who have to have things just as complex as they can be. ;-)
Effective File Search is a utility I can't do without. I've used it for years, it's one of my most useful utilities. It searches better than the default search utility on many Windows operating systems, it will output a data file of all your files, that can be opened in Excel or Microsoft Access. I paid $30 for it in 2007, but it's free now at https://www.google.com/search?q=effective+file+search
Piece of cake. I shove them in here...
That's another subject.
I’ve got an audiobook (somewhere) that I highly recommend, it completely destroys the whole manic “get organized” cult.
One example that comes to mind, from the book, is how penicillin was discovered because the discoverer took a trip for a few weeks, and as usual had left the remains of his lunch on the workbench. Years later, when his cluttered mess of a lab was made an exhibit, he was asked what he might have accomplished if he’d just kept everything neat and organized. “Nothing.”
A team of UCLA researchers recently observed 32 Los Angeles families and found that all of the mothers stress hormones spiked during the time they spent dealing with their belongings. Similar to what multitasking does to your brain, physical clutter overloads your senses, making you feel stressed, and impairs your ability to think creatively.
Ping to read THOROUGHLY
Complete crap. Messy, disorganized, chaotic piles of it.
You totally get it.
I am at a point (and I have been here for a while now) that modern life is just sucking my soul. I am lucky to remember when bills are due because my mind is completely full with a jumble of userids and online passwords.
I am ready to just burn everything and find a nice (legitimately) Amish girl to marry.
Um.. did you see where I put my glasses?
Send everything to the IRS. They will destroy it for you consequence free?
On the Miss Marple chain around your neck. Where you left them. :)
I can be a pack rat if I allow myself to do it. But, I can also be an over the top neat freak, again if I allow myself to do it. Sanity dictated that I begin chucking anything that had sat long enough to gather dust, and to develop something of a blind spot for that dust. I have two decent sized dogs. I love them and without question they’re going to be with me wherever I go, whenever possible, but they do generate dust in spades.
Twice annual top to bottom cleaning, one around the arrival of spring, the other between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Just light maintenance cleaning and occasional organizing in between. I’d hire it out if I were in a position to do so, to put distance between me and that task.
As far as work, I’m a firm believer in the pile management system. You’ve got your today pile, your tomorrow pile and your whenever pile. Everything else goes straight to the trash. Computer desktop is strewn with folders and downloads. Friday afternoons, after the phone calls slowly come to a halt, I consolidate and discard. If I haven’t touched it in a month but anticipate still needing it, it’s compressed and put onto a backup hard drive.
Is this perfect? No. But it de-stressed several areas that were leading to frustration, and it works for me.
Nevermind. < /Emilylatella>
I once worked at a company with a President who was a clean desk freak. I worked in a small HR department where we did everything....so...one day he comes to my desk to retrieve his Executive Assistant’s Performance Review file which was under review or something....anyway....I had on my desk multitudes of Files and papers...and he kinda looks at the desk with his “Oh, what a mess” look....and I reached right to where the file was and handed it to him...I didn’t tell him...SOME of us don’t have Exec Assistants, and we HAVE to multi-task!...but I sure wanted to that day.
My clothes are in big piles on the bedroom floor. Winter kind of to one side and summer to the other. I do put dirty stuff in the hamper, though.
A clean desk is a sign of a sick mind, or of someone who has nothing else to do.
When I worked at Fluor in Lost Angeles, we were told that our competitor C.F. Braun in Pasadena had very strict rules; dark suits and ties, white only shirts, only one piece of paper on the desk.
That only works if everybody does it, sort of like not smelling of garlic if everybody eats it.
My desk is always clean—I have this computer thingy that stores all my work. The coolest thing about it is that I no longer have to try to decipher those illegible notes that used to litter that old analog surface. :p
Solution: Replace all flat surfaces with tilted ones similar to the following:
>> I am lucky to remember when bills are due because my mind is completely full with a jumble of userids and online passwords.
That is something there is a solution for:
Just invest 30 minutes in learning how to use it properly.
Bookmark for later
bookmark to re-read ten times and figure out if I need to keep all the crap in my garage that I haven’t used in years but know I will need the day after I get rid of it.
I have enough to think about without forming bonds with objects.....
The only problem I have with objects is that I often won’t throw them away. Not because of a bond, but because I somehow think I might use it for something later, like a broken electronics and stuff.
So yeah...I’m a packrat but I only save stuff I can built something else out of.
But no emotional bonds...I save that for my wife. And I gave up organizing in 1978...
I totally believe the “brain pain” part. I find sorting out all my junk and getting rid of some of it to be really painful, and have always felt silly for feeling that way. Hah! I was right! :)
I need to add this to my collection of stuff...
Thanks for the link.
I don’t do well sharing kitchens with others. The last time I shared a kitchen the only reason things went reasonably well is they let me be the boss of the kitchen. In exchange, they got to use my microwave and I did most if the kitchen cleaning. I am one of those people who likes to keep stuff out on counters and surfaces. Then this one guy moved in. He was the kind who wanted counters all free of clutter. He complained to the landlady, and she forwarded the complaints to me. He bitched about my little kitchen counter compost container. He was also a heroin addict who was bringing in girlfriends who were also addicts and sometimes shooting up in the bathroom and creating other problems. His rent got paid on time, though, because his dad was his payee ( he was on some sort of entitlement, probably Disability)and he took care of it. I wasn’t the only tenant who left because if him and the landlady finally figured this out. After I left, I found out that she told him “one more person leaves because of you—you’re out”. One more police call—she was good on her word.
So pardon me if I don’t have a lot of patience with these near freaks, especially when they’re also control freaks telling others how to live.
Or stack of stuff, as Rush would say.
ccl, next time you have a neat-freak heroin addict trying to sort out your kitchen pin them down with your best santoku knife and force them to repeat ‘mise en place’ until it sinks in.
Kafkaesque sense of humor you’ve got there.
Bump for categorizing and saving to the appropriate folder later.
LOL Good one!
bump for later
I’m the technological equivalent of Charles Schulz’s Pig-pen character.
But instead of a cloud of dust, I am followed by a heap of electronics stuff. That heap will follow me until the day I die, then the heap will attach itself to whoever gets to clean out my house.
Life is great!
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