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The Surprising Relationship Between Health and Clutter

clutter and healthWhat is it about a messy, cluttered house that causes stress and anxiety? And not just because you can’t find your keys or your pink belt, but just in general. I know a mess certainly rubs me the wrong way, even though I’m the one causing it half the time.

I’m not a neat person by nature. I really, really like clean and organized things, but keeping rooms that way is not one of my fortes. I wish they were neat and tidy, but instead it’s a never ending battle of clutter. No matter how many times I vacuum, pick up toys, wash dishes, or scrub the tub, everything always seems to stay in a constant state of mess. While I haven’t yet figured out how to master the art of cleanliness, I do know that the state of my house (or room or desk) directly reflects the state of my life. That sounds like a stretch and that I’m over-analyzing, but it’s true. But which affects which: Do I let things get messy when I’m feeling stressed or frantic, or am I stressed and frantic because everything’s a mess?

Well, there’s a study that has an answer for that. Researchers at the University of Minnesota looked at how mess and clutter affected different areas of life. I find the results fascinating: You’re more likely to be creative if you work at a messy desk; you’re more likely to be generous if you have a clean desk; and most interesting to me, you’re more likely to make healthy choices if you’re neat and tidy.

I love the last one. When you’ve got your act together, it’s reflected in your home. Things are put away, you’re on top of the laundry, and everything is sparkly clean. When you feel in control, you’re not just in control of your home, you’re in control of your life. That includes what you put in your mouth and whether you muster the energy to hit the gym. You’re empowered to make healthy choices. Stress can make us turn toward comfort food and bad habits.

Or again, is it the other way around? If you eat healthy foods and exercise, are you more likely to be neat?

That’s just me thinking about it. Here’s what the actual researchers did:

Volunteers were put in 1 of 2 rooms that looked the same, but one was messy and one was clean. They were asked to fill out a survey to keep their mind off what was really being studied. While they were there, they were also asked if they’d like to make a donation to charity or if they’d like to eat an apple or chocolate. The volunteers in the tidy room were more likely to make a donation and to choose the apple. Those in the messy room picked the chocolate.

A second scenario looked at creativity. Volunteers again sat in one of two rooms: One was bare and the other messy. They were asked to come up with 10 different uses for a ping pong table. While both groups came up with the same amount of ideas, the group in the messy room came out on top with more creative and interesting ideas. (The ideas were assessed by judges using a three-point scale. They didn’t know what was being studied.)

What I suppose this really means is that it depends what kind of result you’re looking for: Do you need to jog your brain to bust through that writer’s block or help your daughter come up with a totally unique idea for the school science fair? Maybe it’s OK to slack on the cleaning routine. But if you’re trying to lose weight or teach your kids to think of others, you might want to think about getting that messy bedroom in order.

So maybe tackling two battles at the same time, clutter and diet, is actually the way to go about it. But don’t fret if that’s just not going to work for you: ” … many ultra high-achievers including, it is believed, Einstein liked to be surrounded by clutter, they say.” (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

In the journey to health, sometimes we have to look outside the lines. Maybe your struggles with health and clutter are related and you can tackle them both in one swoop.

If you’re trying to reign in the clutter (and help your eating habits at the same time) try some of these simple tips:

- Place baskets or containers in every room that can serve as a “dump spot” or “catch all.” Then when it’s time to clean up, you can easily take the basket to other rooms as you put things where they belong.

- Spend 10 minutes picking up before you go to bed. You’d be surprised how much you can get done in such a short period of time and how refreshing it will feel to wake up to a tidy house.

- Make a cleaning schedule. Cleaning the whole house in one day can be overwhelming. Instead, pick a day for each activity. Organize the playroom on Monday, vacuum on Tuesday, clean the kitchen on Wednesday, etc.

- Recruit your kids to help. They help make the mess, they can help clean it up! Even my 2-year-old helps me pick up his toys (although many of them end up right back on the floor!). And yes, I have to sing the Barney “clean up” song to make it happen.

- Follow the “1 in, 1 out” rule: When you bring something new home, you have to get rid of something you already have. Make a donation pile and give things away once a month.

Do you buy it? Are clutter and health related?

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