Overcoming The Psychological Barriers To Cleaning Your Messy Desk

If the thought of getting rid of all your junk makes you anxious, you need to read this.

Overcoming The Psychological Barriers To Cleaning Your Messy Desk
Image: Flickr user Tekniska Museet]

If you have sneakers, wine bottles, and gloves crowding your desk, then you may already be aware of the findings from Yale Medical School: clutter can be painful to get rid of. Literally.


In the study, researchers asked groups of both self-described hoarders (who answered a call for people with “clutter problems”) and non-hoarders to sort through junk mail, old newspapers, and other items they typically get thrown away. Then they asked what to hold onto and what to toss, with their brain activity tracked throughout.

As Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal detailed, a painful pattern emerged in the Yale study:

Hoarders showed increased activity in two regions of the brain when confronted with their own junk. Those two areas: the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula. And the more a hoarder reported feeling “not right” about throwing something out, the stronger this pattern of activation was.

Both of these regions of the brain are associated with conflict and pain–and you see the same pattern of brain activation in other forms of psychological pain.

When smokers and drug addicts try to quit, those same regions “produce gut-wrenching cravings,” McGonigal says. Intriguingly, the same pattern emerges when shoppers encounter sticker shock: the high price gives them psychological pain.


“The brain circuit motivates you to look for an opportunity to prevent harm or relieve anxiety,” she explains. “So smokers smoke, shoppers put down the pricey item, and hoarders hold on to junk.”

Hoarding, traditionally defined as “as the excessive acquisition of and inability to discard objects” can become self sustaining, McGonigal says. Like when holding onto something provides the hoarder a sense of safety and calm and a relief of the anxiety–which can become addictive. But, it’s not that simple, there are many reasons that people hold on to seemingly useless things:

  • Hoarders feel like some old, useless thing might have value in the future, so getting rid of it is painful.
  • Hoarders see themselves in their junk: that tchotchke, paperpile, or spare sneaker is “me,” in the same way your sweatshirt from college is.
  • In the case of clutter-y nonhoarders, it’s an aesthetic: they often just have a higher tolerance for mess.
  • Another reason you might not de-clutter: your brain feels like the task isn’t worth the energy.
  • Or you’re too busy to pay attention to anything.

While hoarding provides an extreme case, McGonigal says, studying it can help us to better understand our milder patterns of messy behavior.


How to handle the urge to clutter

“Mindfulness of our own brain habits seems to give us more control over our choices,” McGonigal says.

What she asks of clutterers is the same that she asks of smokers: to exercise emotional agility: to surf the wave of the urge as it comes up, rather than immediately get pushed over by it. This technique helps dieters and smokers resists temptation–and could help clutterers navigate the anxiety they have of letting go. This leads to a bigger conclusion: to not believe every worry, emotion, or want that our brain regions throw into our minds.

And if you’re looking to take action on your desk-clutter, take some of Lifehacker’s advice, like:

  • Go through each item and ask if it has a function. If not, get rid of it.
  • Take a moment (and a few paper clips) to tame your cables.
  • Reset your desk at the end of every day: a decluttering ritual.

When you do, you’ll feel much lighter.

Hat tip: Psychology Today


About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.


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