These days, the internet is full of blogs and articles offering tips and hacks for a cleaner, less cluttered home. It’s something many of us strive towards and often struggle with daily. While it’s normal to want clean and well-organized surroundings, for some people, the desire for order and cleanliness goes deeper.
There are neat freaks among us.
According to some psychologists, the need for neatness falls along a spectrum, with people who aim for basic clutter control on one end and those whose drive for cleanliness becomes obsessive on the other. So, where does the need for neatness come from, and why does it vary so much from individual to individual? While there’s no simple answer that explains what makes one person crave complete order while another sees no harm in a little mess, psychology is learning more about how our drive for neatness forms.
THE ORIGINS OF CLEANLINESS
Our attitudes toward neatness begin forming during childhood and adolescence, where modeling from our families influence how we see the world. Often, neat freaks can trace their desire for cleanliness back to their parents, with one or both being neat freaks themselves. Alternately, one or both parents may have been messy enough to prompt a child to embrace neatness.
Media plays a role, too. Children often incorporate messages from film, television and books into their worldview. Even early-childhood favorites such as Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat tackle themes of household chaos and fear of parental disapproval. It’s easy to see how books like this, which may be read to a child over and over, can influence how a child grows to see the world.
It’s not just the messages we see, though. Some experts think the desire for neatness could be coded into our genes. Cleanliness would once have been a survival advantage, allowing early humans to ward off germs and diseases that could lead to their untimely death. This instinct for survival may now show itself as a tendency toward extreme neatness.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND NEAT FREAKS
Some neuroscientists believe that the desire for cleanliness may come about because of a specific neurological state related to the way we identify with our environment and the objects around us. Creating a clean environment may cause euphoria for some people, and those who experience this feeling want to repeat it again and again. Essentially, cleaning provides them with a natural high.
In fact, some people compare cleaning to meditation, citing similar results. The stress-reducing effect some people experience when cleaning may originate from the comfort human beings take in rituals. Evolutionary anthropologist Martin Lang notes that people often turn to rituals to reduce stress, even if that stress comes from an entirely separate aspect of their lives. He believes that rituals reflect a desire to control our environment and to avoid the anxiety that comes when things around us are unpredictable or chaotic.
Studies have also shown that when discarding objects infused with personal significance, neat freaks are far less likely than clutter bugs to experience anxiety or discomfort. This likely makes it easier for them to throw out unnecessary items, avoiding potential clutter.
COMMON TRAITS OF NEAT FREAKS
It’s interesting to note that neat freaks often share a set of common personality traits:
- Most neat freaks have a strong need for control. They don’t trust other people to create order in the world, so they create their own.
- Neat freaks are often conscientious and detail oriented.
- Neat freaks often experience anxiety. In extreme cases, the need to keep everything immaculate can turn into obsessive-compulsive disorder, which may have a genetic component.
- Neat freaks may have fears ranging from mild anxiety to actual phobias of germs and contamination.
- Neat freaks are often perfectionists. Both involve reaching for a standard that can never quite be attained.
THE BENEFITS OF BEING A NEAT FREAK
Some argue that messy environments promote creativity and free you from the restrictions of conventionality. Others claim that messy people save their time for tasks more important than cleaning. That may well be true. Still, most folks agree that it’s okay to be a neat freak and it can even be beneficial.
Studies suggest that people living in clean, uncluttered environments are less stressed and generally more relaxed. This could be due to clutter in your surroundings competing for your attention and interfering with your ability to focus and function. Clutter overstimulates the brain, making it work harder to process information. It also signals our brains that our work isn’t complete, making it harder to relax and triggering the release of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone.
Neat freaks also benefit from the efficiency that comes with a well-organized environment. Clean, mess-free surroundings promote productivity. Important documents are easy to find because they’re right where they’re supposed to be, and rarely will a neat freak be late for an engagement because she couldn’t find her keys.
Clean homes also tend to be healthier homes. Dust-free environments promote respiratory health, and sanitary kitchens and bathrooms mean fewer germs to spread. Plus, with less clutter, there’s less risk of accidents. Studies have also shown that people with clean homes are generally more active than those with messy homes, leading to an overall healthier lifestyle.
Still, there’s more. Some studies indicate that a clean environment may influence a person’s likelihood of making good choices. It may also increase generosity, promote healthy eating and even reduce their potential to commit a crime.
LEARNING FROM NEAT FREAKS
Most scientists agree on this: cleaning affects the brain, changing a person’s attitudes and behaviors. So, what can the rest of us learn from neat freaks?
- It’s okay to throw things out. Whether an item is broken, a duplicate or simply unused, don’t hold onto it out of an unnecessary sense of attachment.
- Give everything a home. Whether it’s a designated space in your dresser or desk, make sure that any item you bring into your house has a place. It’s the best way to avoid clutter.
- Clean up as you work. If you’re cooking, wash pots and pans as you go, rather than putting them in the sink. Put away ingredients once you’ve used them. You’ll have less mess at the end.
- Don’t put off cleaning. Often, the longer you wait, the more complicated a task gets. By accomplishing tasks as they arise, you’ll avoid feelings of being overwhelmed.
- Schedule chores. By integrating chores, such as laundry, into your weekly schedule, they’ll soon become routine.
- Tidying starts from within. Keeping out-of-sight storage spaces such as closets and drawers organized makes it easier to maintain whole-home organization.
- Keep disposable wipes handy. Rather than fumbling for cleaning solutions, sponges and rags, simply pop a wipe out of its dispenser for quick wipe-downs to keep kitchens and bathrooms disinfected.
- If possible, touch things only once. When you bring in the mail, open it and tend to it. Junk mail should never touch your countertop or table. It should go right into the recycling bin. When you return from a shopping trip, don’t simply set bags down. Empty them and put items where they belong. It’s a great way to stop clutter before it begins.
- Enlist the whole family. Let children learn the value of neatness with kid-friendly chores like sweeping and organizing toys. Clean together, or add music to make the experience fun for everyone.
You don’t need to be a neat freak to keep a tidy, well-organized house, but you can certainly learn useful strategies from them. The benefits of a cleaner environment are well worth the effort.