Brainwash your way to a clutter-free life?

Getting rid of clutter, organizing your home and office, and living simply can be ambitious goals, especially if you find it difficult to become motivated or to muster up the self-discipline to get started. I’m not passing judgment, as I understand the desire to sit on the couch and watch television instead of tackling an attic organization project.

But, if your stuff is stressing you out and you want to change, you’ll probably need some help altering your behavior. Unfortunately, most of the popular self-help books on procrastination are based on two flawed assumptions:

  1. They assume that someone who wants to complete a task is actually motivated enough to start that activity, which isn’t necessarily the case. A 2005 article in Fast Company magazine entitled โ€œChange or Dieโ€ explains that 90 percent of people do not change their destructive lifestyle after having bypass heart surgery. You read that correctly — 90 percent of bypass surgery patients choose almost-certain death over changing their behavior.
  2. These books also assume that if people have a system in place, they’ll finish a project. If someone doesn’t start a project, however, then a system is pointless. I like systems. Getting Things Done is a wonderful productivity method. But, just having a system doesn’t mean that someone is actively using it.

John T. Molloy’s 1987 book How to Work the Competition into the Ground and Have Fun Doing It doesn’t make either of these assumptions about behavior and recognizes a person can lack motivation or self-discipline. It does, however, have a controversial bent. Its suggested method for improving self discipline involves brainwashing.

Molloy was fascinated with cults and their ability to completely change people’s personalities and get them to abandon their families, friends, and lives. He admits that he doesn’t support what cults do, but he knows that they do it well. He decided to research the methods cults employ to brainwash their membership, and see if there was a way to positively use the techniques to help people gain more self-discipline and motivation.

Here are a few of his observations:

  • People are more susceptible to programming when they’re exhausted. If you’re going to listen to motivational tapes or talk yourself into being self-disciplined enough to do work, you should do it right before bed after a long day of physical and mental activity. He recorded a series of positive messages and repeatedly played them as he was falling asleep.
  • He also decided that these positive messages could be played at other times, more as background noise throughout the day, to act as a motivating reminder. If you’re trying to become motivated to clear clutter from your home or office, then your recorded message could focus on that activity: “I live an uncluttered life and have the motivation to keep it perpetually uncluttered.”
  • Do what you can to participate in a “dynamic event” to get a rush from an outside force. Attending a conference on uncluttering, going to hear a motivational speaker, watching a show like Clean Sweep or even reading Unclutterer can help you to think about the subject in a positive way and believe that you are capable of being an uncluttered person.
  • Subliminal messages apparently work. Try making a playlist on iTunes that has short, positive recorded messages between every song. “Back to work,” he suggests, is a good one to help with productivity.
  • Block out distractions with repetitious self-talk. Whenever your mind wanders while uncluttering, chant your “back to work” or “I’m uncluttered” message. This was one of the most successful methods employed by his research subjects. The block out chants used by cult members usually relate to their leader or their guiding purpose. Creepy, but effective.
  • Molloy’s book and many other sources, including the Fast Company article mentioned earlier, discuss the power of others to help teach you to be the person you want to become. For the purposes of uncluttering, a professional organizer might be that guide. If you can’t afford a professional organizer, getting a group of people together to talk about uncluttering can provide a motivating peer pressure and inspirational guidance.

While I find brainwashing to be freaky and bizarre, it still might be a worthwhile method for helping people become more motivated and increase self-discipline. Molloy’s suggestions seem to be fairly reasonable in concrete form, albeit a little quirky. Also, the effort involved in reciting a productive chant is so small that anyone can do it. I tried it sporadically, and, after a few days, it was impossible to walk past my laundry heap without wanting to wash my clothes — so, I washed my clothes.

What do you think of these suggestions? Have you read Molloy’s book? Do you have any thoughts about it? Whatever your opinion, I’d be interested in reading it in the comments. This is bound to be a controversial topic…

29 Comments for “Brainwash your way to a clutter-free life?”

  1. posted by mamacita on

    The most important thing is that I want it to work. I have to give it a try.

  2. posted by grrlpup on

    I visited a hypnotherapist to get over a fear of dentists, and her main tool was making me a tape to play while falling asleep, in the car, and so on. It had general relaxation cues, visualizations that we’d talked about, and dentist-specific stuff. It worked great: I even took the tape with me to my dentist appointments and felt like I had an old friend there.

    If I were making one for myself, though, I’d want to make sure the messages really were positive. “Back to work” sounds chiding to me.

  3. posted by helix on

    Brainwashing sounds a little extreme.

    For many of us, seeing positive results is the most compelling thing. I get inspired, for example, by seeing some of the photos of workspaces in the unclutterer flickr group. This is enough to get me motivated to make changes. YMMV.

  4. posted by amy on


    but I always make resolutions just befoer i fall asleep – just as I notice something that needs doing, but then I get up the next morning and off to work then home again wacked… etc

    Worth considering

  5. posted by Aegir on

    Anyone who’s ever quit smoking using the Allen Carr book knows that brainwashing is an effective way to change your behaviour. Repetition, reinforcement, blocking mantras, they can all be used to great positive effect. I hadn’t thought of it for changing the broader range of behaviours that lead to clutter though… worth a try though!

  6. posted by Anastasia on

    I think the brainwashing idea (while scary) is something I could try. I would prefer it come from working with people who help employ a system. I have learned that doing things over and over with someone creates habits. When I was in college, I would sit with one of friends and fold laundry. I started folding clothes like she did and it has stuck with me to this day. I learn by doing. I have tried working with professional organizers but each one did not work with me to teach me a system, they were just concerned with clearing the space which did not stick with me. I would love to learn how people who were not that organized to start with learned how to organize as an adult.

  7. posted by Phil on

    I think it’s bunk.

    Or mostly bunk. Certainly it will be effective to change one’s cognitive framework and one’s self-talk. And if Molloy’s techniques help a person do this, then there should be some payoff.

    But this isn’t “brainwashing.” Cults are effective because they induce people to hand over their executive function thinking to a cult leader, who thereafter makes all their decisions for them.

    It sounds from the post like Molloy is taking the stuff of cults and suggesting that people use it as a type of metacognition, offloading your brain onto a tape for instance. Metacognition is a fancy way to say GTD, and there may be other, more direct ways to reshape your cognitive framework than by making your own “subliminal” brainwash tapes. If tapes work for you, well peachy. But they are probably working because they are helping you create a new narrative structure for your behavior, not because you are “brainwashing” yourself.

    I’m just now messing around with a Narrative Therapy approach to uncluttering and blogging about it at my site:

  8. posted by Josephine on

    I think some personalities are more susceptible to brainwashing / falling into cults.

    My belief: You change when you’re tired of being tired.

  9. posted by Daniel on

    I think Phil is right to say we need to re-frame this phenomenon.

    When it happens in a cult, it’s taken in a bad direction that removes people’s ability to choose and think for themselves… thus we call it “brainwashing.” But is “brainwashing” the right word in this case?

    As with word pairs like arrogant/confident, busybody/active, blather/conversation, should “brainwashing” have a near-synonym with a more positive connotation? It seems to me to have more to do with discipline, which can come through training.

  10. posted by barb on

    I was very interested to read your article today on brainwashing! I have lately been thinking that if only there was a way to brainwash my brain to enjoy exercising I would be able to lose some weight and I would like to also “brainwash” myself to get organized and stay organized! I think I will try some of the methods you suggest and see if they help.

    What chant did you use to get yourself to wash clothes?

  11. posted by beth on

    Subliminal/repetitious stuff isn’t my style, but if you want a book about procrastination that helps with the getting started stuff, I highly recommend The Now Habit.

    I like that it doesn’t just tell you to get back to work, or that you’re a bad person for procrastinating – rather it says that procrastinating is a perfectly understandable strategy for coping with certain fears and stresses. However, there are better strategies. The book is all about low-pressure ways to make yourself WANT to practice those better strategies.

  12. posted by Andy on

    Very interesting article. A tactic I had not thought of to make myself more productive. Maybe I’ll try it. Do you think it would work for attracting blog readers?

    The New Cook

  13. posted by lucy on

    i find that most of the “bad habits” we formed were nurtured and developed by our own thought. so it’s reasonable that you would use the same method, that got you there in the first place, to get you out.

    when i felt myself sinking into this loophole of negative thoughts i had to consciously make an effort of replacing it with something positive. next thing i knew, i wasn’t thinking about the negative AS MUCH. then it became less and less.

  14. posted by Grosa Prap on


    Yes, it’s called reprogramming when you aren’t talking about the negative aspects of the process (and deprogramming if you are talking about reversing either.)

    However I think that brainwashing is an appropriate title to use given how much context is currently packed into the word. “Reprogram your way to a clutter-free life?” would sound as if you were doing an automated household setup.

  15. posted by Pinbot on

    I got that book, “The Now Habit,” haven’t read it yet though.

  16. posted by Susan on

    Actually, it makes perfect sense.
    I work in the health field, and while there’s always a hope for what I call “The glorious impossible” of a sudden cold-turkey revelation and change it’s usually in pedestrian little steps mixed with the manipulation of good luck and timing that help us make long-term change.
    We are a funny, endearing mix of animal and divine (in my perception) and it amuses and frustrates me that people seem to dig in their heels and stubbornly demand that they are so extra-super-special above the rest of our fellow creatures that something so pedestrian as a slow number of steps (or the brain-tricks that are proven to work for so many cults or cultures) can’t POSSIBLY work–or it must only work on inferior feeble-minded gits
    unlike themselves.
    Only in the health field, we call the “exhausted and hung-over” period “the teachable/receptive moment” and talk about the cycle of prep-thinking and almost unconscious fact-gathering that goes with it as a “pre-contemplative phase”.
    I’ve done pretty well with and their daily e-minders so far. I’m not doing it perfectly, but since they stress NOT doing it perfectly, I feel pretty good about the amount I’ve done so far.

  17. posted by Sasha on

    I’ve done this, no big deal. Note however that according to the common wisdom about affirmations, “I live an uncluttered life” still evokes the word *clutter*. It would be better to state it with a positive rather than a negative, such as “I live a clear and simple/easy life.” There is also the idea of focusing on the feelings that an uncluttered environment evokes in you… when you already feel that way, you’ll naturally want to declutter so that your environment matches your feelings.

  18. posted by Candice on

    Pinbot, you made me laugh out loud.
    Personally I find it very amusing how some people get all high and mighty (defensive in other words) about being ‘above’ certain things like ‘brainwashing’. As someone rightly pointed out – it is programming and, like it or not, we are all doing it to ourselves every moment of every day. Why not replace the negative brainwashing that most people unconciously do to themselves with some intentional positives? It isn’t sinister if we are controlling the process.

  19. posted by Candice on

    Oops, I meant ‘unconsciously’…..
    I had to correct that because I have brainwashed myself about being able to spell well! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  20. posted by Jon a Baptist on

    The concept of changing the life by changing the mind is an old and sound one. It can be seen in the Bible verse:

    “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he”.

    We are more than what we eat … we are what we see, hear and meditate upon. Pick the correct things with which to fill your mind and it will have a profoundly positive impact on both your outlook and attitude.

  21. posted by jbw on

    I’ve gone through this process before of playing recorded messages on a loop and having music play over them. It actually worked really well. I used AT&Ts tool to record the messages: because I found my own voice to be too distracting. I saved the files and made a playlist in winamp that was put on loop. I then played classical music in windows media player at a slightly higher volume at the same time. Worked like a charm.

  22. posted by Lynn on

    When it comes to know-how about persuading humans to change behavior, the advertising industry is the 800 pound gorilla. The average American is exposed to a marketing message every 15 seconds! I write a blog about using advertising strategies to achieve our own goals, like exercising and getting rid of clutter, over at Take Back Your Brain!

  23. posted by Allysson on

    How’s this for a brainwashing chant?

    The Mulberry Bush

    Here we go round the mulberry bush
    The mulberry bush, the mulberry bush
    Here we go round the mulberry bush
    So early in the morning

    This is the way we wash our clothes
    Wash our clothes, wash our clothes
    This is the way we wash our clothes
    So early Monday morning

    This is the way we iron our clothes
    Iron our clothes, iron our clothes
    This is the way we iron our clothes
    So early Tuesday morning

    This is the way we mend our clothes
    Mend our clothes, mend our clothes
    This is the way we mend our clothes
    So early Wednesday morning

    This is the way we sweep the floor
    Sweep the floor, sweep the floor
    This is the way we sweep the floor
    So early Thursday morning

    This is the way we scrub the floor
    Scrub the floor, scrub the floor
    This is the way we scrub the floor
    So early Friday morning

    This is the way we bake our bread
    Bake our bread, bake our bread
    This is the way we bake our bread
    So early Saturday morning

    This is the way we go to church
    Go to church, go to church
    This is the way we go to church
    So early Sunday morning

  24. posted by Pauly on

    It would be worth taking a look at the subject of NLP if anyone is interested in this stuff.

    I like listening to Richard Bandler’s “Your Own Personal Genius”. I’ve started to make and mix my own personal mp3s with some repeated affirmations with some trance or cool tracks in the background with the suggestion from Shad Helmstetter’s “What to Say When you Talk To Yourself”.

    The word brainwashing is not helpful. Most people don’t realize they’re “brainwashing” themselves all day everyday with the things they hate and the things they don’t want. Rather if you started talking to yourself in a posiitive tonality and positive affirmations you’ll see progress in the right direction.

    e.g. “I am more comfortable when I move out of my comfort zone. I have more energy when I use more energy.”

  25. posted by Catherine on

    This sounds to me more like it’s “hypnosis” than “brainwashing”. I have seen a hypnotherapist and used hypnosis CD’s with great success to help me not just lose weight, but change my habits from the core, so that I just don’t want to eat junk, etc. anymore.

    I don’t think it’s “brainwashing” because I know full well what’s being said in each session. And I’m always in control of my own free will, it’s just that when I see a big greasy burger on television my first thought is now “ugh” instead of “yum” and when I reach for a snack, my first thought is now zucchini slices, not potato chips.

    That said, I find hypnotherapy incredibly relaxing, and I’m in love with the 20 minute sessions I have on my iPod. When I come home, instead of grabbing a drink to relax, I go upstairs, lie back and listen to a CD and relax, with positive messages. I can easily see this working for all sorts of habits, including decluttering. Too bad someone hasn’t already developed a CD for it! ๐Ÿ™‚

  26. posted by Nancy on

    As Catherine says, it’s not “brainwashing”, but self-hypnosis. If that can help you do things like quit smoking, it can certainly help you Unclutter! Nothin’ weird about it!

    Thanks for the suggestions! It’s New Year’s Eve, and getting organized, in my home and my life, IS my list!

    I just have to remember, it’s a process!

  27. posted by Kema E. on

    I love this blog. I think you are doing something good by sharing your life experiences with people like myself that need an extra push lol. I discovered a site that allows people to get rid of clutter by donating their items free. What do you think about using that method? Thanks

  28. posted by Sparkzy on

    This is in line with what’s mentioned in the book, “The Brain That Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge, MD. The examples in the book support the theory of neuroplasticity — that our thoughts can change the structure of our brains, and that this process can continue throughout our lives.

    I though it was a facinating read, and I like the idea of “brainwashing” myself with good habits, new skills, and even being a happier person.

  29. posted by Deb on

    Further to Sasha’s point, I did a course on NLP, and one of the things stressed there was the importance of positive messages. Apparently the subconscious doesn’t deal well with negatives, so “I will *not* eat bad things” is understood the same way as “I *will* eat bad things”.
    If you’re going to use self-hypnosis, you need to be aware of the messages you’re sending yourself, and ensure they are non-negative. “I love living in a clear and clean space” will probably work much better than “I don’t like a cluttered life”.

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