The mess started with typical office supplies—loose papers and pens. As the time she spent cooped up inside dragged on, Sarah Frances Hicks saw a whole new kind of clutter pile up on her desk. Hicks’ grandfather had died before the pandemic began, and she was sorting through his possessions to pass the time during lockdown. Not the type to start new projects before she finished old ones, Hicks quickly let that mission take over, filling her desk with a small ukulele-banjo, twirling batons, a violin case, old hymnals, and her grandfather’s laptop. Her productivity suffered.
“I can’t function with clutter,” says Hicks, a freelance writer in Orlando, Florida, who prefers working in coffee shops under normal circumstances. “I need everything in order to be able to focus on my work. Whenever I can see clutter, I can’t think of anything else until I deal with it.”
Hicks is far from alone in this feeling, which has only intensified as more people have had to live and work at home to avoid COVID-19. Since the early 20th century, and perhaps long before that, conventional wisdom has linked success with fastidiousness. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” theologian John Wesley said in a 1778 sermon.
More recently, neuroscientists and psychologists have studied the effect of clutter on our cognition, emotion, mental health, behavior, decision-making skills, and more. Researchers have made connections between low quality work environments, such as loud offices with harsh lighting, and a reduction in work productivity and job satisfaction. Disorganized or cluttered workspaces, specifically, seem to increase levels of stress and anxiety.
Neuroimaging has shown that some people’s brains react subconsciously to mere images of order and organization. Tidy images give many viewers a sense of calm. But when clutter reigns supreme, it can trigger one's fight-or-flight mode. For many people, cortisol levels leap, and they become emotionally exhausted or burnt out more quickly. This heady emotional stew can even affect our relationships.
For others, mess is a mark of creativity.
Lawrence J. Peter, known as author of the “Peter Principle,” famously asked, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” The line is often misattributed to Albert Einstein, who indeed had a messy desk; so did other innovative thinkers, such as Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. In a study from the University of Minnesota, students working in disorderly spaces came up with more creative ideas than their counterparts in clean areas.
Clearly, clutter causes more stress for some people than it does for others. And while the fix for folks who are perturbed—cleaning up messes—might seem easy to some, many people live in environments that they cannot change, so coping becomes a necessity.
Your divided attention
Sabine Kastner, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton University, started researching the science of attention in 2008. Curious how the human brain reacts to randomness and variation in our environments, Kastner created a study in which she showed images of street scenes to participants undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans, which show blood rushing to the active parts of the brain.
In multiple experiments spanning several years, Kastner asked subjects to focus on an item in the images, such as a person or a car. In every case, the frontal cortex, which plays a key role in cognitive control, working memory, attention, and emotional reactions, came alive on the fMRI screen. Participants’ brains were expending more energy trying to concentrate than on processing any one thing in the picture.
“Many of us aren’t good at processing clutter,” says Kastner. “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.
When you take away this strain on our brains from competing objects, focusing becomes much easier. In 2011, Kastner found that people who cleaned up their homes or workspaces were able to focus better, and their productivity increased. Other research teams have confirmed that decreasing visual distractions can reduce cognitive load and free up working memory.
Our environments influence more than just our attention. They can influence our hormones as well as our mood. Clutter can cause our bodies to release cortisol, the stress hormone associated with the fight-or-flight response. Long-term exposure to clutter can induce chronic stress, and clutter seems to stress out mothers even more, according to a 2009 study. Another study in 2010 showed that wives stress over clutter far more than husbands. Regardless of gender, clutter seems to cause some people to procrastinate in response to stress.
Mind over clutter
Although schools might never be the same in our post-pandemic world, before COVID-19, smart teachers harnessed the power of neuroscience to declutter and create learning-focused spaces.
Jared Smith, a high school exceptional education English teacher in Tampa, Florida, understands that organized, comfortable classrooms make better learning environments than chaotic, messy ones. So, he made his classroom an inviting space, decorating the walls with art and replacing the traditional desks with moveable tables and rolling chairs. He emphasized cleanliness, open space, and flexible seating. After he made the changes, all of his students’ test scores went up, he says. But changing his classroom to psychologically benefit his students was about more than the numbers. He says he could tell by the way they acted in his classroom: his students felt welcome.
Many of Smith’s students were already facing learning challenges because of their exceptionalities. “They’re already going to be adapting more than any other student,” says Smith. “I had to give them ways to do that, to be in control of their own space and feel comfortable where they are, so everything can fade into the background, and they can focus on learning.”
If cleaning up is difficult, other solutions exist. Like many people weathering the pandemic at home, Hannah McLane, a neurologist and occupational medicine specialist in Philadelphia, is juggling childcare and her job. But unlike many people who are stressing over the pileup of pandemic clutter, McLane can turn to her neuroscience background for some perspective. She knows being at home comes with distractions, so she implements a strategy of mindfulness, and she recommends her clients do the same.
“As you’re sitting in a room and trying to work, your mind can easily jump to different things and tell you to do something else,” says McLane. “You see a dirty dish, and you just have to clean it. You see a dress on the floor, and you pick it up. This can lead you into a series of thoughts, stressing about what you need to do or actually doing it, even though you should be focusing on something else.”
If messiness is affecting your ability to work from home, try to declutter or reduce other distracting stimuli, including noise. If you can’t get rid of the mess, McLane advises cultivating a mindfulness practice, which can help you stop worrying about problems in your home and focus on your work.
“When you notice you’re having cluttered thoughts, ask yourself if you’ve already thought that before. Do you really need to be thinking about that right now? Could you write it down instead?” McLane says. “Mindfulness definitely helps you stop overthinking, understand the thought processes behind your procrastination, and overcome distraction.”
The people who are coping with working from home best might not even be the neatest people, but they are the ones who have trained themselves to avoid distractions, or at least, not to react to them. Our perceptions of our environment, in other words, have a greater impact on us than the environment itself.
For some people, clutter can even be stimulating. “It depends on what your brain can deal with,” says Kastner. “There is no one size fits all. Our abilities come in such a broad spectrum. There is so much diversity in what our brains can do.”