If you ever felt like you’re cleaning your desk one minute and the next it’s cluttered again, this post is for you.

It turns out, letting go of clutter, be it piles of paperwork or the junk in your closet, can be quite painful for some. 

In one study, researchers at Yale School of Medicine took a look at the brains of hoarders and non-hoarders, while asking them to sorry through items like junk mail and old newspapers. Some of the items belonged to the participants, others to the experimenter. Participants had to decide what to keep and what to throw out. 

As it turns out, hoarders who were confronted with their own junk showed increased activity in the same regions of the brain that produce the agonizing cravings felt by recovering smokers or drug addicts (in the anterior cingulate cortex and insula). The stronger the activation of these patterns in the brain becomes, the more powerful the craving, and the stronger the feelings of discomfort and anxiety. 

These brain patterns are what motivate us to look for opportunities to relieve that discomfort - that’s why smokers smoke, drug users use, and hoarders hold on to junk. 

Clutter and the sense of self

Previous research has also shown an increased activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) when hoarders think about whether to throw something out. This area is connected with a multiple mental experiences, but two of them are particularly relevant in the context of hoarding. 

First, the vmPFC governs the belief that something is relevant to your goals and desires. Hoarders oftentimes do have a conviction that something old and useless might become valuable in the future - even though this conviction might be completely irrational. To a much lesser degree, many of us keep unnecessary clutter on our workspaces, thinking that we might need it later. 

The vmPFC is also important for maintaining a sense of self. Increased activity in this area can suggest a sense of personal relevance and worthiness. Often, hoarders look at the objects they collect and feel they are connected to their sense of self. 

You’ve probably already felt it yourself many times, with old love letters, your children’s report cards or even some old sweatshirt you couldn’t part with. Getting rid of something that feels so personal and connected to what it makes you, you, can be extremely painful. 

Now, you’re most probably not a hoarder, but if you’re finding it hard to get organized and stay that way, or you’re indecisive about throwing away certain objects, then the above two studies can offer some insight for you. 

In the end, these studies of extreme behaviour show us that clutter challenges our willpower. Being mindful of our own patterns can give us more control over our behaviour. 

What you need to get organized

As with everything, it’s easier to prevent clutter than to ‘cure’ it. Whenever possible, try to prevent clutter from accumulating.

If you often find yourself navigating through stacks of paper all over the place, you probably don’t have a system to get rid of what you don’t need and to keep things organized. 

Be skeptical of your urge to hold on to things. Do you actually need that object/piece of paper? Or is it just your brain lying to you that you need it?

Changing habits is never easy, but with the help of both existing studies and our own practiced mindfulness, we can tweak our behaviour. 

Do you have a problem getting organized and staying that way? How does it manifest itself? Have you been able to change it? We’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.