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Spring Cleaning for Your Mind: Bar Talk with Eric Bartosz

Spring cleaning

Eric explains the phenomenon of “clutter anxiety,” what prompts it and what you can do to help conquer it.

Est. Read Time: 5 mins

May is a beautiful month for multiple reasons. Aside from nature being in full bloom and summer around the corner, we have Mother’s Day, Memorial Day, and, of course, Cinco De Mayo (even if we don’t fully understand it, we know it’s a good reason for a party).

May is also known as a time for spring cleaning, and it happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month, which means it’s a perfect opportunity to discuss how those two topics are linked.

Let’s start with the main headline: our brain is not a fan of clutter and does not do well with it, whether we consciously realize it or not.

Being in the presence of a mess creates cognitive overload for our brain, which has a hardwired preference for order over chaos. When we enter an environment with many different things competing for our attention simultaneously, our bodies trigger a stress response as our brain rapidly scans, processes and prioritizes the multiple focus areas in disarray.

I’ll pause here to point out that the conscious awareness of clutter-induced stress and anxiety will vary depending on the individual, but behind the scenes, our brain is reacting to the mess whether we realize it or not.

For example, let’s say you hosted a Cinco De Mayo party and had a houseful of people over on Saturday night. The margaritas were flowing, the music was cranking and by the time the last guest left, it was after midnight, and you had no interest in tackling clean-up duty. Sunday morning, you go out to the kitchen and see the disaster of the party’s aftermath. Imagine a sink full of dishes, plates with leftover food everywhere, baked food in casserole dishes on the stove, a broken blender, decorations, deflated balloons and all the crime scene evidence of what must have been an awesome party. You take one look and decide nothing is happening until after a cup of coffee and some time on the couch with some scrolling on your phone. Your spouse enters the scene and, seeing the ruin, immediately gets to work cleaning because the sight of that kitchen calamity is overwhelming and must be dealt with immediately. You may have a higher conscious tolerance for disorder and visual chaos than your spouse, but it’s safe to say that both of your brains have very similar subconscious stress-triggered reactions. Consider the likelihood that what you thought was a conscious choice to go to the other room to relax on the couch is likely a subconscious prompt to remove yourself from the ‘system overload’ environment.

This post-party isolated incident of a mess is a simple example with an easy fix. The bigger picture area of opportunity is reducing the untidiness and clutter that accumulates over time throughout our living environments in every room. This is especially true in bedrooms, which tend to achieve maximum messiness as we know that guests rarely see that part of the house. Unfortunately, we tend to spend about one-third of our day in that room, so when it’s filled with clutter, stacks of clothes and general disarray, we end up having significant exposure to an environment that is continuously creating a stress-inducing reaction, possibly on a conscious level, but certainly on the subconscious level.

I recently wrote about monotasking versus multitasking, stating that our brains do best when focusing on one thing at a time. In a cluttered living area, our brain is perpetually in overdrive, multitasking to sort the important from the unimportant. Also, as most of us can relate, trying to find something we need in a mess of drawers, closets or stacks of stuff leads to frustration and wasted time, needlessly increasing our daily stress and anxiety levels.

Here’s the good news. We can significantly improve this area of life without significant effort, and you will see and feel the results immediately. Here are a few simple ideas to help you get going:

  • Start small. Like many tasks in life that can seem overwhelming, they are much more manageable when broken down into bite-sized chunks. Prioritize what areas you want to work on first and tackle them one at a time instead of bouncing around doing a little bit in multiple places. For example, start with your bedroom or bathroom, and once that space is cleaned/decluttered, move to the living room. The sense of accomplishment in completing one area will help fuel your motivation for the next one. If it helps, commit to writing out a schedule of what area of the house you’ll focus on each week in the next month.
  • Out with the old! Clutter often consists of stuff we no longer use and hold on to out of sentimentality. This habit can be tricky, and you don’t have to be a hoarder to be reluctant to part with old things, especially clothes. If you need help with this, ask a friend or family member to help you be objective in filling up the boxes for donation. (For example, my daughter Riley is a cold-eyed assassin of clutter and ruthlessly efficient in ensuring anything old finds its way to a new home). Take pleasure in knowing that many people will benefit significantly from what you part with, which is no longer used and gathering dust.
  • Be realistic. If the idea of decluttering induces analysis paralysis and even starting seems overwhelming, commit to some micro-cleaning. First, plan on taking 5 or 10 minutes in one small area. Is there a desk or bookshelf that has somehow turned into something looking like a yard sale of miscellaneous stuff? Turn up some of your favorite music, grab a cardboard box, set a timer on your phone for 10 minutes and start clearing some stuff out. Even that brief amount of time will deliver some progress and a sense of achievement that helps create the habit towards more. (Even 10 minutes a day is still over an hour per week of positive change!)

When it comes to improving our environment, reducing the amount of clutter that creates distracting visual stimuli is the main objective. Simply being in the environment of abundant messiness can trigger a stress response. The opposite is true with tidy surroundings, which bring a sense of calm relaxation.

I’ll give the final motivational word to Marie Kondo, the author of the New York Times bestseller “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” with this 5-minute excerpt from the audiobook version of Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up on YouTube.

It would be a stretch to say you’ll start looking forward to cleaning the house every week, but I am confident that you’ll get addicted to a stress-free environment where there is a place for everything and everything is (mostly) in its place. After all, perfection is an impossible destination, but the road to improvement is always under construction.

Eric BartoszEric Bartosz is the founder of BAR40 and the author of the internationally acclaimed and bestselling book ‘BAR40: Achieving Personal Excellence.’ He lives in Center Valley with his wife Trish, daughter Riley and pug Piper, is an adjunct MBA professor at DeSales University and serves the community as an Upper Saucon firefighter, a board member of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Lehigh Valley and a local race organizer. Eric is a 20+ year runner and racer and can often be found logging miles on the Saucon Rail TrailCatch up on Eric’s latest Bar Talk columns here.


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Eric Bartosz

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