Scientists find physical clutter negatively affects your ability to focus, process information

Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute published the results of a study they conducted in the January issue of The Journal of Neuroscience that relates directly to uncluttered and organized living. From their report “Interactions of Top-Down and Bottom-Up Mechanisms in Human Visual Cortex”:

Multiple stimuli present in the visual field at the same time compete for neural representation by mutually suppressing their evoked activity throughout visual cortex, providing a neural correlate for the limited processing capacity of the visual system.

Or, to paraphrase in non-neuroscience jargon: When your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus. The clutter also limits your brain’s ability to process information. Clutter makes you distracted and unable to process information as well as you do in an uncluttered, organized, and serene environment.

The clutter competes for your attention in the same way a toddler might stand next to you annoyingly repeating, “candy, candy, candy, candy, I want candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy, candy …” Even though you might be able to focus a little, you’re still aware that a screaming toddler is also vying for your attention. The annoyance also wears down your mental resources and you’re more likely to become frustrated.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other physiological measurement tools to map the brain’s responses to organized and disorganized stimuli and to monitor task performance. The conclusions were strong — if you want to focus to the best of your ability and process information as effectively as possible, you need to clear the clutter from your home and work environment. This research shows that you will be less irritable, more productive, distracted less often, and able to process information better with an uncluttered and organized home and office.

If you don’t subscribe to The Journal of Neuroscience, I recommend heading to your local library to read the full article. Also, thanks to the reader who brought this research to our attention.

Hidden benefits of uncluttering

Here at Unclutterer we espouse the clutter-free lifestyle. The reasons are mostly obvious: a clean, tidy home means less time is spent searching for things, knowing what you actually own, etc.

In this post, I want to look at the less obvious benefits of uncluttering. These less obvious advantages are just as powerful as those listed above. Let’s get started with time. Time, not money, is the only valuable commodity we have. Would you rather lose ten dollars or ten years? Without time, nothing else has value, so the wise person treats it as precious.

Finish small tasks right away. Schedule time to spend on big tasks and stick to it. Clean as you go. Adopt a calendar/planner that fits your lifestyle and use a productivity system you trust. You’ll spend less time on household chores, and more time with family and friends.

Next, and this is a rather specific example but bear with me. Being uncluttered means that unexpected visitors do not elicit a stressful frenzy of straightening up. It might not happen often, but when that unannounced guest is en route to your door, a few minutes of tidying is all that is needed to make the house presentable. Compare that to the frenzy of straightening a cluttered house.

Before I continue, an important note. A working home is not a museum. As I said in 2015:

“These are the years spent in the trenches. The years where my wife and I argue over who gets to be the one to grocery shop, because grocery shopping means you get 25 minutes to yourself. If guests arrive and there’s a stack of papers on a table somewhere or library books strewn about or if our dear visitors have to witness a round of my favorite 7:38 a.m. game, ‘Where Are Your Clean Socks And Why Must We Go Through This Every Blessed Day?’, Fine.

The people who are nice enough to travel and spend money just to be in our company understand where we are at this stage in our lives. They love us, and know that transferring the breakfast cereal into labeled Tupperware containers is just under ‘jewel-encrusted, heated driveway’ on our list of current priorities.”

It’s completely unreasonable, in my opinion, to live in a clutter-free home 24/7/365. That’s not what I’m proposing. Just make an effort to tidy as you go to save some stress.

Next, your family will catch the uncluttering bug. I know, that sounds crazy. I have two teenagers whose favorite activities include sleeping, eating and playing video games. (Perhaps you’re familiar with this scenario.) If the house is routinely tidy, they won’t like it when it isn’t. In fact, they’ll start to organize to keep things on an even, tidy keel. I’ve seen it happen and it’s glorious.

When the tidying starts to happen consistently, you’ll feel more creative. This one is backed by science. Researchers at the Princeton University Neuroscience Institute demonstrated that a cluttered environment restricts one’s ability to focus. Having trouble finishing that novel or getting some work done? A cluttered desk or office could be a contributing factor.

Lastly, you’ll likely get more sleep. A sleep study conducted in 2015 showed that people who routinely sleep in cluttered rooms are more likely to have sleep disturbances and get less restful sleep than counterparts in tidy rooms. Who doesn’t want better sleep? I sure do.

There you have a few less obvious benefits to pursuing the uncluttered lifestyle. If you’ve discovered any hidden benefits to being uncluttered, please share them with readers in the comments below.

Scientists find that a cluttered environment leads to discrimination, stereotyping, and antisocial behavior

Last Thursday, Discover Magazine published the article “Disordered environments promote stereotypes and discrimination.” The article examines a study by Dutch researchers who performed five experiments on stereotyping and discrimination. All five of the experiments strongly concluded that when an environment is in disarray, people yearn for order and hastily attempt to put information they’ve gathered from their surroundings into categories. This leads to harsher stereotypes against minority populations and higher incidence of crime. The experiments also found that people are more relaxed, open minded, and generous when their world is orderly.

When our surroundings are full of chaos — be it dirt or uncertainty — we react by seeking order, structure and predictability. Stereotypes, for all their problems, satisfy that need.

The study continues:

“The message for policy-makers is clear: One way to fight unwanted stereotyping and discrimination is to diagnose environmental disorder early and to intervene immediately by cleaning up and creating physical order. Signs of disorder such as broken windows, graffiti, and scattered litter will not only increase antisocial behaviour, they will also automatically lead to stereotyping and discrimination. Investing in repair and renovation, and preventing neighborhoods [from falling] into disarray, may be relatively inexpensive and effective ways reduce stereotyping and discrimination.”

The testing methods were very interesting, so I recommend checking out the full article for details.

(Images from Discover Magazine. Thanks to the many readers who forwarded us this article.)

Do we outsource our memory too much?

Recently I started a new course that’s rather stressful and time-consuming. To prepare for it, at work, I wrote down everything I have to do between now and my August holidays. For Unclutterer, I didn’t do anything because Jacki has a lovely Google Calendar with all our publishing dates. And I informed my husband of when I would need to work on my course so that he wouldn’t feel ignored.

All good things, right? Communication, written task lists, and using sharing technology to its fullest. The height of personal organization.

But then, at work in doing one of my monthly tasks, I left half of it undone. Plus I didn’t go look at Jacki’s calendar and almost missed a publishing date (thanks for reminding me, Jacki). The only thing that didn’t go wrong was my relationship.

I asked myself why that happened.

I began by looking at my task list at work. When I’d written down the monthly task, I wrote down only the information for the first part of the task and nothing about the second. When I relied solely on my memory, I always went through a mental checklist to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. Having written it down, I didn’t feel the need to go through that list and didn’t even remember the second part existed and it’s something I’ve been doing monthly for over 3 years!

Then I thought about the calendar and why I didn’t consult it. Lack of habit and assuming that I already knew it. I have to admit that last one is a biggie for me. I get convinced of something so much that I don’t bother checking to make sure that it is true.

This led me to wonder about using lists, relying on memory, or employing technology. Which works best and why?

With smartphones and prior to that day-planners, we have external memory devices around us all the time. No need to actually remember anything, right? But is that lazy of us? Over on Life Hacker, Thorin Klosowski did a personal experiment back in 2012 where he stopped relying on anything other than his brain to remember what he had to do and where he had to go.

To make sure he did everything he needed to, he would walk himself through the day each morning, similar to what I did for my monthly work tasks before making the mistake of half-writing them down. He found the experiment extremely helpful and although he didn’t stick to a brain-only memory prompt, he did decide to rely less on paper and technology.

Fascinated by Klosowski’s experiment, I thought I’d go see what else was out there and found an article in Wired from 2014 that looked at an experiment that tested people’s ability to remember things with or without the ability to write it down first. The results did not support note-taking as a memory tool. Those who relied solely on memory performed better.

“Okay, okay, maybe these are two isolated incidents,” I said to myself. “Let’s see what else is out there.”

Moving up to 2016, Motherboard published an article about how using technology to remember tasks makes it easier to forget them.

The author, Rachel Pick, was in a situation really close to mine — lots of commitments with different dates and requirements and no simple way to merge them all into a single list. She tried a physical planner, but just like me, she forgot to take it with her. She then tried apps, which were either too complex or too restrictive.

She finally tried Google Keep (which I use to remember restaurants in other cities, birthday gift ideas for my husband, and things that we have to take to the cottage). And she liked it, so much so that if something wasn’t written down in the app, it was like it never existed.

Being a curious person, Pick spoke with a neuroscientist to find out why this was happening. What he told her was basically what Klosowski discovered on his own — Pick was outsourcing her memory to Google Keep and was changing the way neurons were firing in her brain.

What was the neuroscientists advice? Rely more on memory and less on tools.

With so many things going on in my life, I can’t rely on just my memory, but what I have to do is start asking myself, “Are you sure that’s all? Are you missing anything?” and go through my mental checklists with paper and technology acting as prompts and light support only.

Making the most of commute time

According to the U.S. Census Bureau (PDF), the average travel time to work (one way) in 2011 was 25.5 minutes. Of those who worked outside the home, 8.1 percent had commutes that were 60 minutes or longer. That means the average person spent 4.25 hours commuting each week, and a significant minority spent 10 hours or more.

If you’re one of those people with a sizable commute, how do you make good use of that time? The answer will vary depending on whether you drive, bike, or take public transit, but the following are some suggestions.

If you’re driving: Don’t use your phone

I’ve already written about how dangerous it is to talk on the phone when driving, even if you’re doing it hands-free. And obviously texting is dangerous, too. If you need to check your messages or reply to a call, please find a safe place to pull over before responding.

Use the time for learning

If you’re driving, you can listen to informative radio shows or put interesting podcasts and audio books on your smartphone or other mobile device. Also, a number of universities provide free audio lectures on a wide range of subjects.

You can also save articles from the web to the Pocket app and then use the “listen” function to have them read to you.

You might also use apps or CDs to help you learn a foreign language. I learned some rudimentary but useful French by listening to a few tapes over and over in the car, until the vocabulary stuck. (Yes, tapes — it was a while ago.)

If you’re using public transit, you can obviously expand your possibilities to include magazines, newspapers, physical books, e-books, etc.

Use the time for relaxation

Podcasts, audio books and such don’t have to be educational — they can be just pure fun. Sometimes it’s nice to just get lost in a good novel. Or you might choose to listen to music, either on the radio or on your mobile device. The right music might put you in a good mood to begin the day or might help take the edge off a not-so-wonderful workday on the way home.

If you’re using public transit and have an Internet connection, you could use the time for reading and updating social media, such as Facebook or Twitter.

Another idea would be to use the commute to practice mindfulness, as Maria Gonzalez explained in the Harvard Business Review:

The idea is that you are continuously aware of three things: your body, what you see, and what you hear. This is what it is to be mindfully present as you drive.

Use the time for work

If it isn’t feasible to leave work behind, and you’re using public transit, you could use your commute time to handle some of your email. You might also update your to-do lists or take some time for planning and strategizing.

Strike up a conversation

If you’re driving, it can sometimes be nice to have a commute partner. Some years ago, I drove to a yoga class that was a half hour from home with someone else from my area, and we both enjoyed getting to know each other better. It even led to a job for me.

And here’s something that might interest those taking public transit. Kathleen Elkins reported in Business Insider on a study done by two behavioral scientists, Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder, and published in October 2014:

Epley and Schroeder took their experiment to the subway. They randomly assigned three groups of commuters: One was instructed to connect with a stranger, one was asked to remain disconnected, and the control group commuted as they normally would.

While participants predicted their ride would be more enjoyable sitting in solitude, the research team found the exact opposite — those asked to engage in conversation reported a more positive, and no less productive, experience.

How do you use your commute time? Let us know in the comments.

Avoiding impulse buys: mandatory waiting times and a Possible Purchases file

You’ve gone to a store to buy something specific and then something you had no intention of buying catches your eye. Or, you’re online, and read about something that sounds useful. Maybe you’re talking to some friends, and they recommend books they’ve just read. What do you do?

Here’s what I do. Sometimes, the item under consideration is something I can tell immediately I need or love, and it fits within my budget. That doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I just make the purchase right then.

But more often, I make a note of the item — by writing a reminder or taking a photo — and add it to my Possible Purchases file when I get home.

I actually have three Possible Purchases files. Right now, I have a physical file for things I’ve clipped out of the few catalogs I get, a collection of online bookmarks (also called favorites, depending on what browser you use), and a list of books at Amazon.com. I may buy the books elsewhere, if I ever wind up buying them, but it’s easy to quickly note them in an Amazon.com wish list.

There are many other ways to collect such information, too. For example, some people would choose to use Evernote and some might use Pinterest. Various sites, not just Amazon.com, provide wish list capabilities.

What kinds of things make it into my Possible Purchases file? Lots of cat-related stuff, for starters. I also have gift ideas, t-shirts, towels, sunscreen, comfortable shoes, and whimsical stuff like a Lava Lite night light.

My Possible Purchases file fits well with the approach, recommended by many people, of creating some sort of mandatory waiting period before buying anything except your standard purchases of groceries and necessities.

On The Christian Science Monitor website, Trent Hamm of The Simple Dollar said:

Whenever I’m considering making a purchase of any kind, I simply stop for ten seconds and ask myself whether this is really a worthwhile purchase. … I don’t watch the clock on this or anything – I just do it for roughly ten seconds or so.

At the end of those ten seconds, if I’m still convinced that making this purchase is the best idea, then I’ll go ahead and buy it without guilt or remorse. However, I’ve come to find that the ten-second rule frees me from making a lot of unnecessary purchases.

On the Psychology Today website, Kelly McGonigal mentioned the benefits of a somewhat longer pause:

Neuroscientists have found that having to wait even ten minutes for a reward dramatically reduces the brain’s response to it. If you can walk out of a store, or switch to a different website, for just 10 minutes, you’ll see the “value” of that purchase more clearly.

And over on Mint.com, Mary Hiers recommended an even longer waiting period:

If you see an item that captures your interest, sleep on it. Make it a rule that if you see something you want that you didn’t specifically go shopping for, you’ll wait 48 hours before buying it.

For a slightly different approach, Dustin Senos quoted Larry Wall: “Don’t buy something until you’ve wanted it 3 times.”

Different strategies will work for different people — but finding one that works for you will save you money and help minimize clutter.

What we have been reading

I feel like I have been unintentionally collecting links to great articles recently. I’ll spot something clutter/organizing/productivity-related in the news, immediately think it would make such a terrific topic for an Unclutterer post, save the link to a text file of post ideas, and then do nothing further. Apparently, I want ALL the links for myself. All of them. Mine.

Since this is ridiculous and there is no good reason for me to be collecting all these links and not sharing them, I thought an ol’ fashion link roundup post was in order. Please enjoy all of these links that have been catching our attention:

  • Why aren’t hoarders bothered by all that junk? Scientists find a clue
    This article from NBC looks at a recent brain study by psychologist David Tolin that was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. According to the research, clinically diagnosed hoarders’ brains respond differently to physical stuff than the brains of the general population. As a result, their ability to make decisions is significantly limited.
  • Three habits that drive down productivity
    I’m still trying to decide what I think about this article from the Memphis Business Journal. The article references a study that analyzes the work product and attendance records of employees with very different lifestyles at three large corporations. The article concludes that healthier people are more productive workers and it specifically names smoking, poor diet, and lack of exercise as productivity killers.
  • Plan of Work for a Small Servantless House (3 or 4 in family)
    After the war in Britain, many homes and estates that once had servants found themselves unable to afford any servants in the house. To help women learn how to keep house, someone (the British government?) published this guide for how a woman should spend her time. My friend Julie introduced me to this page from the I Love Charts tumblr, and I think it is a fabulous look back in time. I’m still confused as to how a woman with one or two children only seems to attend to them for an hour and a half each day “if necessary,” but maybe “servantless” doesn’t include nannies?
  • Re:Re:Fw:Re: Workers Spend 650 Hours a Year on Email
    This article from The Atlantic confirms that most people with desk jobs (referred to as an “office stiff” in the text) spend “13 hours a week, or 28 percent of our office time, on email.” A quarter of one’s job is consumed with reading and answering email. The article also reports that time spent on tasks specific to one’s role at the company only consumes 39 percent of one’s time at work.
  • You Probably Have Too Much Stuff
    This short piece from The New York Times looks at the burdens of being “over-prepared.” I like the use of the phrase “over-prepared” in the article because it so aptly reflects the “I might need this one day” mentality.

As you also know, I’ve been doing some writing for the Women and Co. website lately. Most of what I’ve been writing continues to be about home and office organizing, but they’ve been letting me branch out a bit and pick up some other topics. It reminds me of the days I wrote the Sunday news for the local commercial radio station in Lawrence, Kansas, so very, very, very long ago …

Anyway, this is what I wrote in July: