The environment created in a home has always been important—but this year, as we’ve spent more time behind those precious four walls, the environment within them has had an even bigger effect on our lives.
There’s no place like home…
For most of us, where we live is more than just a place that we stop by—it’s our “home”—and it is a form of self-expression. For starters, where we hang our hats, so to speak, reflects our perspective on whether home is a place to “live” or whether its purpose is strictly more functional—we sleep there, we might work there but frankly, we’d really prefer to be elsewhere. Someone close to me felt that way, saying that there were so many other more interesting places to be than home. I can see it. Why not? That said, home is my favorite place to be.
For those of us that “live” in our home, the physical place doesn’t have to be big or extravagantly decorated to provide a welcoming and comfortable environment. The 1072-square foot, Cape Cod-style house that I grew up in accommodated our family of five—and our cat😊—very nicely. It may have been modest but it always felt comfortable and homey. And it definitely never felt small. As with many things in life, you can do a lot with a little if you think about what you’re doing.
For starters, we owned less stuff back in the day. Much of the credit for that feeling of space and comfort, though, stemmed from both of my parents’ insistence that every item that we owned had a place, and whatever it was, it belonged in that place when it wasn’t being used. There was no playing one parent against the other on that rule. And when we were done with whatever we had out, we’d darn well better put it back in its proper place. Messiness wasn’t an option. Marie Kondo had nothing on Gete (my mom).
Time goes on, and Mike and I raised our own family of five. We accumulated our own stuff, and plenty of it. For a number of years, we also had a live-in nanny—and a cat😊. The house where we lived was a little over twice the size of the house that I grew up in, but still not very big by today’s standards for a group of that size. I wish I could say that our house was as uncluttered as that little house on Sinclair Street but it wasn’t. When my mom would visit, she would shake her head and say, “Honey, do you really need all this?” “Yes,” I would say, I thought we did. There was definitely more stuff than she was used to seeing but I don’t think it was excessive. I always tried to make sure that things were picked up and organized. Though I wasn’t always successful, most of the time I was pretty successful. I really don’t like clutter. It stresses me out.
In fact, clutter stresses a lot of people out. I’m not talking about hoarding, just having too much stuff that is visible when you walk into a room. One of the pieces that I read in preparing this post presented clutter as stealing from us—our time, money, energy, contentment, productivity, freedom, peace, and physical health.[i] That post contended that when you have more stuff than you use, need, or love, you spend a lot of time managing and taking care of it, and have less time for more important things. All that excess is an emotional, time-and-money-sucking drain.
Effects on physical health
My personal view on clutter was best described by my friend, Sherry, as “an assault on our senses.” You walk into a room and can’t even really see the room because of all the stuff. It’s over stimulation, which has a negative effect on stress levels and productivity. In fact, clutter in my own surroundings gives me writers’ block. I need to get up and physically tidy (and often clean) things up before my thoughts will begin to flow again.
I’m far from being alone. A study published in Current Psychology found a strong link between procrastination and clutter across the 20-, 30-, and 50-something age groups that participated in their research. Further, they found, frustration with clutter tended to increase with age, and clutter problems were also associated with life dissatisfaction.[ii]
Research out of UCLA in 2009 found that mothers who described their homes as “cluttered” had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood.[iii] Sometimes cortisol levels spike, which can cause emotional exhaustion—but a constant, low-grade state of “fight-or-flight” has a negative effect on our immune and digestive systems, and also increases our risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease.[iv] Our fight-or-flight response was designed to help us face threats to our survival, not everyday living. The moms in this study tended to have a more depressed mood during the day, were more tired in the evenings, and had a harder time transitioning from work to home. [v]
By contrast, in 2011, neuroscience researchers using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other physiological measurements found that clearing clutter from their home and work environments resulted in a better ability to focus and process information, and also increased productivity.[vi]
“Many of us aren’t good at processing clutter,” according to Sabine Kastner, professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton University. “It can become overwhelming and make our brains do more work to complete simple tasks.” The more conflicting stimuli we’re dealing with, the more our brain has to work to filter out what we need.[vii]
And there’s more… Clutter has been associated with sleep problems and poor eating choices. Research reported by the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners found that sleeping in a cluttered room made it harder for people to fall asleep and more likely for them to be disturbed during the night. People in a cluttered environment also ate more snacks—as in twice as many cookies as participants in an organized kitchen environment. Still, other research showed that participants in a messy room were twice as likely to eat a chocolate bar instead of an apple.[viii]
The connection between health and clutter continued. Tidy homes were found to be a predictor of physical health. Participants whose homes were cleaner were more active and had better health. By contrast, people in extremely cluttered homes were 77% more likely to be overweight.[ix] Extremely cluttered homes also presented other health issues, like high levels of dust—and respiratory issues—and bacteria.
Most of us have probably heard that a cluttered workspace is associated with greater creativity—turns out, it’s true. Albert Einstein had a messy desk, and so did Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. And as the author of the “Peter Principle,” Lawrence J. Peter has asked, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”
Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that creative geniuses prefer chaotic workspaces. The study looked at participants in both tidy and disorderly work areas, testing to see how well each group came up with ideas. They later had impartial judges evaluate the groups’ ideas. The findings? While both groups generated the same number of ideas, the judges determined that the ideas of the group in the messy room were more far interesting and creative.[x] Huh. Not just more interesting and creative—far more interesting and creative. Go figure.
A number of people close to me share that love-of-messy sentiment. They prefer a “lived-in look” and in fact, have told me that they can’t relax in what they’d call a “too tidy” environment for fear that they’ll do something to upset the atmosphere(?) in the room. Another has said that she likes everything out so that she can see what she’s got.
Okay, as long as I don’t have to be there…
And I have to say, the people that I mentioned above are light years ahead of me in terms of creativity. That’s why I write personal blog posts and research articles instead of anything creative. Don’t be expecting the next great American novel to come out of this laptop.
The bottom line, as I see it, is love where you live whether you’re a neat ‘n tidy organizer or a creative genius (or a budding creative genius)—as, the amount of time we’ve all spent in our homes this year makes loving where you live one of the biggest points “driven home” in 2020.
Until next time,
[i] Simple Lionheart Life; (14 July 2019); The Negative Effects of Clutter: 12 ways your stuff is stealing from you!; https://simplelionheartlife.com/negative-effects-of-clutter/
.[ii] Lucchesi, Emilie Le Beau; (3 Jan 2019); The Unbearable Heaviness of Clutter; The New York Times; https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/03/well/mind/clutter-stress-procrastination-psychology.html
[iii] Troung, Dr. Tiffany; (4 January 2019); How clutter affects your health; ABC News; https://abcnews.go.com/Health/clutter-affects-health/story?id=60367240
[iv] The Royal Australian college of General Practitioners (RACGP); (25 Jan 2019); What does clutter do to your brain and body? https://www1.racgp.org.au/newsgp/clinical/what-does-clutter-do-to-your-brain-and-body
[v] Troung, Dr. Tiffany; (4 January 2019); How clutter affects your health; ABC News; https://abcnews.go.com/Health/clutter-affects-health/story?id=60367240
[vi] The Royal Australian college of General Practitioners (RACGP); (25 Jan 2019); What does clutter do to your brain and body? https://www1.racgp.org.au/newsgp/clinical/what-does-clutter-do-to-your-brain-and-body
[vii] Renner, Rebecca; (4 August 2020); Why pandemic stress breeds clutter—and how to break the cycle; National Geographic; https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/08/why-coronavirus-stress-breeds-clutter-how-to-break-cycle/
[viii] The Royal Australian college of General Practitioners (RACGP); (25 Jan 2019); What does clutter do to your brain and body? https://www1.racgp.org.au/newsgp/clinical/what-does-clutter-do-to-your-brain-and-body
[x] Young, Sarah; (11 July 2017); Messy desks could be a sign of genius, say researchers; Independent; https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/messy-desks-genius-sign-work-environment-creative-interesting-university-minnesota-a7834786.html