Tidying Up the Brain: 5 Reasons to Declutter Your Life

February 13th, 2019 No Comments Features

You’ve likely heard of the book—and the new Netflix series—featuring Marie Kondo. What we want to know is, how does tidying up your life affect your brain?

If you’re tuned into the self-optimization literature, chances are you’re familiar with Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. One common refrain that’s spreading through home improvement and well-being circles around the world is Kondo’s ultimatum, “Does it spark joy?” She urges us to examine our household items and ask ourselves this question as a method of simplifying our possessions and therefore our lives.

While this message may resonate with you, you may also harbor some doubts about how far a person should really take this. Recently there was some backlash on Twitter against Kondo’s method, especially among literature lovers who ridiculed the idea of only owning Kondo’s recommended “thirty books.” What about our personal libraries which hold spine after tattered spine of endless joy?

But the point is less literal (no pun intended). It’s not that we should really whittle down our possessions to diamonds and dust; it’s more about changing our approach from deciding what we should get rid of to deciding what we should keep. Only after we do that can we achieve the clarity and focus to tidy up ourselves.

“Kondo’s book isn’t really about cleaning your room,” writes Richard Meadows for The Deep Dish. “It’s about how the act of tidying forces you to deal with any issues you’ve been avoiding, stripping away the external distractions until you have no choice but to examine your inner state.”

Tidying up is a mental health issue as much as an organizational issue. Below we’ve collected a few points from the psychological literature which illuminate how tidying up can help the brain.

5 Reasons to Tidy Up

1. The brain exaggerates the mess.

What begins as a simple pile-up of clothing in your closet can become a nagging mental distraction the size of Everest. “The size of the mess may stay the same, but your feelings about the mess may get bigger and bigger,” says professional organizer Liz Savage. That’s one reason to nip even the smallest of messes in the bud: they’re liable to take up more cognitive than actual space if we’re not careful.

2.The brain loves compartments.

Our mind functions best when it can easily categorize experiences, memories, expectations, and external stimuli. A chaotic mind is one that can’t easily compartmentalize (though the upside of chaos is creativity). Our household items and possessions actually take up space in our mind—we can imagine them being there when we’re away from home and know where to look for them when we’re there—so physically organizing them will help us feel mentally organized as well.

Kondo writes: “The root of the problem lies in the fact that people often store the same type of item in more than one place. When we tidy each place separately, we fail to see that we’re repeating the same work in many locations and become locked into a vicious circle of tidying.”
The same can be said for the brain. Our minds work better if we store certain kinds of knowledge together and others separately.

3. Tidying improves our relationship with time.

Tidying helps us organize the past so we can be in the present and plan for the future.

“By handling each sentimental item and deciding what to discard, you process your past. If you just stow these things away in a drawer or cardboard box, before you realize it, your past will become a weight that holds you back and keeps you from living in the here and now. To put your things in order means to put your past in order, too.”

4. Organizing the mind benefits the body.

A 2016 U.S. study found that background clutter resulted in participants being less able to correctly interpret the emotional expressions on the faces of characters in a movie.

Other research has shown that disorganized environments prevent us from sleeping well and prompt us to eat more junk food.

5. Simplifying forces us to look within.

When we remove distracting external stimuli from our environment, what’s left? Ourselves and the family, friends, and colleagues we surround ourselves with. We can be in the moment and focus on what matters, and devote more time to determining what it is that truly makes us—and the people we care about—happy.

Choose Your Own Level

One caveat to all of this: tidying up, at least to the degree proposed by Kondo, is not for everyone.

“For someone like me, this book is good medicine,” Meadows writes. “I want more order and structure in my life. It soothes my soul. But for the severe, brush-teeth-before-kissing, hand-sanitizer-after-every-doorknob, Nurse Ratched type, following these ideas might actually fuel harmful neuroses. That person would probably benefit from introducing a little more chaos and randomness. Maybe they should go read The Doors of Perception or something.”

As similar as our brains are, we all have different personalities and needs. Experiment with different levels of joy-sparking and decide what works for you.


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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