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Americans Are Obsessed With Tidying Up. But There’s a Downside to Being Organized

5 minute read

In her bestselling book and Netflix series, Marie Kondo makes the case that decluttering can “dramatically transform” your life. “Detoxing” your spaces of unused and unwanted stuff can make you happier, more confident and maybe even slimmer, Kondo writes in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

Judging by the popularity of her message and method, Kondo’s philosophy is scratching an itch for a lot of people. And there’s more evidence, much of it predating the “KonMari” phenomenon, that America has caught organization fever.

There’s the “Inbox Zero” movement, a popular approach to email management that emphasizes clearing your inbox at the end of every work day. Proponents say doing this can improve your productivity and time management, and maybe also lower your stress. Beyond self-improvement philosophies, there’s the popularity of “organization porn” on Pinterest and Instagram—images of household items, often food-related, arranged in neat and symmetrical grids. Spend any time exploring the world of graphic design, and you’ll see similar trends emphasizing “clean,” “simple,” and “minimalist” approaches.

In many ways, a lack of organization or neatness has come to seem inherently bad—like a kind of personal or existential defect that will mentally drag you down. But the evidence backing the benefits of decluttering is mixed.

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One 2013 study found that orderly spaces promote healthy choices but also “conventional” thinking, while working in a messy or disorganized space promotes creativity and new ideas. (Einstein, famously, had a disheveled desk and has been quoted as saying, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”)

Another study linked physical clutter to lower levels of life satisfaction. But one of the authors of that study says that clutter seems to be a symptom of other problems—namely, procrastination and rampant consumerism—rather than a problem in and of itself. “In this society of abundance we live in, I think the idea that we have to have more makes us less satisfied with life,” says Joseph Ferrari, coauthor of the study and a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago. “It isn’t abundance that’s the problem as much as attachment to abundance.”

Other psychologists say the drive to organize can be a sign of underlying mental angst or unrest. “During times of uncertainty, people usually search for activities that may help them control this uncertainty,” says Martin Lang, a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University. One of Lang’s studies linked anxiety to the performance of repetitive, ritualistic behaviors, and he says that cleaning up and organizing certainly qualifies. “It’s pretty well established that levels of chronic stress are rising, so you can draw this parallel that when people generally are more stressed—from work or life—ordering things around them is a response.”

And that response can be helpful. “When things in our lives feel out of our control, I think tidying up can be psychologically reinforcing,” says Michelle Newman, a professor of psychology and director of the Laboratory for Anxiety and Depression Research at Penn State University. “If you can exert some control over your inbox or your office space, these are small things you can attend to and feel good about,” she says.

Tidying is a task with a definite and satisfying ending. So in addition to helping people feel a sense of control, it can also provide the kind of resolution few get from the never-ending nature of modern work. “In more and more professions, there’s no feeling of closure or completion at the end of the day,” Newman says. Getting your inbox to zero at quitting time may be one way to achieve this sense of closure, she says.

But there’s a downside to tidying up. Newman says spending inordinate amounts of time and energy on organization is a problem. “Organizing becomes pathological when it’s interfering with your ability to focus or function, or it’s overly distressing,” she explains.

Technology may also be contributing to America’s keenness for organization. “We now live the bulk of our lives in digital spaces, and those spaces are every day becoming more compelling and chaotic and dysregulating,” says Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist and author of Deviced!: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World.

The complexity and disorderliness of life online encourages many people to seek order in their physical spaces, Dodgen-Magee says. “But then you find when your room or your inbox is organized, your world hasn’t stopped being complex,” she says. At this point, many people decide even more organizing is needed, she says. But this can lead to compulsive tidying and, inevitably, a sense of failure when you just can’t keep things as neat and orderly as you’d like them to be, she explains.

“The more of a mess our internal world becomes, the more likely we are to grab onto something that gives us this sense of peace or this shiny answer that seems easy or simple,” she says. While a little tidying can be a calming diversion, she says, it’s a temporary bandage, not a cure.

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