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Calling all the neat freaks!

We have a sock muncher that lives in our house (leading to a mountain of socks in the laundry that have no match), hiking and sporting equipment piled up at the front door and random stacks of who-knows-what shoved under beds among the dust bunnies. There’s also a cat, a dog, kids and extended family at times, so excessive tidiness isn’t something my household embraces.

While some thrive in the calamity and chaos of a messy home, others like things squeaky-clean and neat and tidy.

Not sure where you fit in? Here’s a test. If you are a habitually tidy person, next time you pop your clothes in the clothes hamper — don’t. Drop them on the floor and leave them there for a day or so. For some, it feels very uncomfortable until the offending clothes are in their rightful place, while for others, it’s a welcome free pass to be messy. And a point to ponder: don’t share this with the kids — you might just start a tsunami of untidiness.

We all have messy moments where housework drops off the to-do list. Being untidy can be the result of many things like busy and time-poor households; it could be due to physical illness, stress or even burnout. It can also be a sign of depression. Prolonged feelings of sadness and hopelessness are the widely acknowledged signs of depression, but so too can overflowing rubbish bins, and towers of unwashed dishes piled haphazardly in the sink.

For some people, a messy mantra is just the way they roll. They just don’t see it. For example, “Mess? What mess?” cries your partner at the cataclysmic state of the kitchen after he’s cooked dinner for the gang.

Then perhaps your place is cluttered and shambolic, because you simply have too much stuff. According to research by Choosi, 73 per cent of Australian households reported being cluttered with unwanted or unused possessions — at an estimated price tag of $59.36 billion. If the possessions were packed into average-sized packing boxes stacked six high, it would surround the entire Aussie coastline. A staggering thought.

As for why some of us are clutter bugs, the research showed half is due to the modern malady of materialism, the desire to have the latest and greatest new gadgets, and the fear of missing out (FOMO) if you don’t. Backyards are shrinking as a result of our sedentary lifestyles, while houses are being upsized to store all the extra stuff we accumulate. We double or even triple up on things decades ago families only had one of, like TVs and fridges. Some homes these days even have two kitchens, both filled with appliances, an indoor one and an outdoor one.

Many people also live in the chaos of clutter because of emotional attachments to stuff. It can be a bit of a poignant tug of war to let go of things we no longer need, but most of us can eventually.

While it might feel good to be surrounded by lots of things, there is a dark side to accumulated clutter. Research by Joseph Ferrari and colleagues from DePaul University Chicago showed that accumulated clutter has a negative effect on a person’s emotional sense of wellbeing.

Then there is extreme clutter — or hoarding — where people can’t let go of anything. If you or someone you know and love is struggling with the motivation and desire to do simple routine tasks, or is exhibiting hoarding behaviours, help them to reach out for support.

Embracing your tidy god or goddess

An abundance of research shows a well-organised and neat home can help you to feel calmer, relaxed and more in control of your environment. In the workplace it’s also been shown to increase productivity.

Psychologist Dr Chris Stiff says the act of tidying allows you to have a feeling of mastery and accomplishment. “This is very important to people, and this self-efficacy as it’s known can generalise to other tasks,” he explains. “The next time we are facing something difficult, we can draw on our previous success to inspire us.”

On the flip side, too much mess and clutter can lead to feeling out of control. Julie Whiting from The Decluttering Co points out poor mental health can result in an accumulation of clutter, and likewise being around clutter can negatively impact on your mental health. “Clutter and emotions have a symbiotic relationship,” she says. “Living amidst chaos creates mental fog, stress, anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed.” We’ve all heard of media reports where people have been almost buried alive in the clutter within their own homes.

Psychologist Melissa Rafferty says there are concrete benefits to embracing a tidy ethos, and they’re linked to having less distraction around us. “It’s similar to the contrast with chaos and order or confusion vs clarity. When things are organised and neat, there is nothing really to be done but to be fully present,” she says. You also aren’t running late for appointments because you can’t find the car keys or replacing items that you simply have misplaced.

But like anything there is a tipping point. Being obsessively tidy is not only hard work, it can come at a cost. Setting the bar too high can be hazardous for your health, leading to increased stress levels; the need to constantly clean may even become a compulsion, at the cost of missing out on social engagements and time spent on leisure pursuits.

But there are many tidy experts who claim that being tidy can be life-changing, such as Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, called the KonMari Method. Follow her method and she says your home will be cleaner and more organised and you’ll feel a whole lot happier. Dr Stiff tried it, and while he acknowledges he had some success, for some it might make them feel worse.

“There is a potential for failing to declutter effectively; failing at a task can be demotivating and make you feel as if you are generally incapable of accomplishing things,” he says. “Also looking through your possessions can cause you to revise your life, or think about things in a rather self-critical way. Objects may remind you of troubling times — but of course, then it’s therapeutic to throw those things away!”

A neat and tidy home and a clean one usually go hand in hand. A home that’s filled with clutter can potentially harbour more dust, dander, mould and dangerous bacteria. Allergies, skin infections and food poisoning can all be more prevalent in grubby clutter-filled homes. As well as increased risk of illness, there’s also more potential for falls or trip hazards.

But what about a home that is super-squeaky-clean: can that also be dangerous to your immune health? There is a belief called the “hygiene hypothesis”: that kids exposed to viruses and bacteria early in life have stronger immune systems. But the jury is still out. Allergist and immunologist Dr James Fernandez says there’s still potential for debate. “Theoretically it makes sense but there isn’t a lot of strong science behind it,” he says.

The odd couple

If you and your spouse have different views on tidiness, that can add stress in your relationship. Some people are messy because they simply aren’t bothered — it’s not their personality to be neat and tidy. If your mismatched tidy habits are an issue, try appealing to their practical nature. For example, if the towels aren’t hung up, they’ll go mouldy and will have to be replaced. Always try to navigate issues calmly, and focus on the behaviours, not the person. Name-calling and finger-pointing won’t help. With patience, compassion and understanding you’ll discover a workable compromise.

Messy is my mojo

Yes, some people are just plain messy. Their work desk might look like an apocalyptic disaster, but move a paperclip an inch to the right, and they’ll know. New research shows a cluttered space is not necessarily the result of a slovenly or unkempt mind, but perhaps a super-smart one. Studies by Kathleen Vohs and colleagues of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management showed people with messy workspaces potentially have a higher than average IQ.

There is also a school of thought that being too neat can hamper creativity. Could your squeaky-clean home and workspace be crushing your creative vibe? The same researchers showed that when study participants were asked to brainstorm new uses for an old product, those who thrived in a disordered space generated more innovative ideas.

Dr Stiff agrees in part. “It may be something of a truism for messy people — that they are somehow compensating by being more creative!” he says.

OCD or super tidy?

So is being excessively tidy a personal preference or can it be linked to something more challenging like obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)? Rafferty says some people who are exceptionally well ordered take pride in their capacity to be neat and organised. “Extreme neatness is grounded in the values and core belief that things need to look
a certain way, which makes them feel good, as they like control and order,” she explains.

On the other hand, OCD is an anxiety disorder. If you have OCD, you don’t clean the benchtop at home because you want it to be neat and tidy. Rafferty explains that the compulsion is driven by anxiety. “The person might think, ‘If I don’t clear this entire bench before I leave for work, something bad will happen,’” she explains.

With OCD you can’t walk away in the middle of a task. OCD can also be a ritual like vacuuming the floor every day at 4.00am. The cleaning and organising are a way to self-soothe the anxiety.

Simple ways to declutter your life

If you want to declutter your life a little, there are some things that can be a challenge to let go of. So what’s a good rule of thumb to help you decide? Whiting suggests the following three tips are a good way to start. Do I need this item? Do I love this item? Do I want to bring this item into my future? “If all three are ‘No’, it’s time to say goodbye,” she says. Once you have decluttered, maintenance is important. Whiting says establishing zones for your belongings is important, so they have a home. “Also put things away when you get home from anything, including emptying bags and putting the contents away. Don’t put it off, put it away!”

Likewise, she suggests setting up a system for incoming mail, and unnecessary paper should go straight to recycling. “Don’t double-handle. Don’t put it in the fruit bowl for later,” she says.

Another way to cut the clutter is the stop the influx of stuff. Whiting suggests staying off shopping websites and out of the shops, to find a hobby other than acquiring material possessions. “If you must buy something new, make sure you have a concrete use for it and a practical place to keep it,” she says.

She also suggests a “one-in-one-out” policy and donate an equivalent item. “Always have a current donations bag in the house, and when it’s full, drop it off somewhere suitable.”

Finally, once you have decluttered, just a few minutes a day can help to stay in control. Whiting suggests doing a “reset tidy” before bed every day. “It should only take five minutes if you stay on top of things. It prevents build-up and minimises overwhelm the next day,” she explains.

Finding balance

In nature seasons ebb and flow, there is order and at times chaos in the natural world, but it usually evens out in the end. When cleaning, tidying and reducing clutter, Rafferty says the key really is to find that point of equilibrium. “A balanced approach to clutter and tidying is the healthiest way to be — know what your values are and don’t let clutter override them, but equally, spending time with family is more important than getting the dishes done regimentally.”

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.

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