5 Findings That Will Change the Way You Tackle Clutter
Need help organizing? Look to the fascinating science of your stuff.
Just How Messy Are You?
Soon you might be able to answer that question down to the decimal point. Researchers at MIT, led by cognitive scientist Ruth Rosenholtz, PhD, are working on a series of computer programs designed to quantify visual clutter by measuring color, contrast, "feature congestion," and visual complexity in maps and photographs of messy spaces. Rosenholtz's work could end debates over whether your teenager's room really is a pigsty (it is), help streamline Web sites and simplify maps, and maybe even lead to the creation of smart cars that can direct drivers to avoid overly cluttered—and therefore dangerous—streets.
Talk about the magic touch: In a 2008 study published in the journal Judgment and Decision Making, researchers confirmed that the longer we physically hold an item, the more we value it. Two groups of 42 test subjects bid on coffee mugs they'd held in their hands for either ten or 30 seconds; the group that had more physical contact with the objects bid significantly higher. The lesson? When cleaning house, it may be best to enlist a buddy to hold things up as you decide what stays and what goes. That way you can avoid forming new attachments to your junk—or rekindling old ones.
Her Days Are Numbered
The Quantified Self is a Web site where "self-trackers"—people who record, and look for patterns in, the empirical data of their lives—can post their findings. One self-tracker, Hulda Emilsdottir, detailed the methodology she and her husband, Josh Klein, used to clear out their Seattle apartment before moving to Iceland a few years ago. They logged every possession on a spreadsheet, then assigned each item to one of five categories: "I love this thing, and I use it all the time," "I love this thing because it's a good memory," "I love the way this thing looks, and I'm going to keep it," "This is useful but it's lacking somehow," or "This is useful, but I don't love it." Anything in the first three groups stayed; everything else went. "We got rid of about half of what we owned," Emilsdottir says. "And we get more joy out of what we kept," Klein adds.
An Object is Worth a Thousand Words
What would a stranger think of you if they examined every item you own? That's the burning question for University of Texas social psychologist Samuel Gosling, PhD. Gosling, the author of Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, enters a person's home or office, notes all items present, and, based on his findings, completes a "personality inventory," assessing traits like agreeableness and neuroticism. A desk with a dozen framed family pictures might suggest that you value home life—"but are the photos facing inward (for your enjoyment) or outward (to convey a message to others)?" Gosling asks. Snooping may not be an exact science, but certain truths are well documented. For example: "People assume—always—that you're a nicer person if your space is clean."
Forgive a Little Bit
If you have a penchant for procrastination, we've got good news: A 2010 study out of Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, found that to stop putting off onerous tasks, you should...forgive yourself for putting them off. Doing so decreases your chances of delaying similar chores in the future, because it eases the negative emotions surrounding the task. So if you're upset about letting your basement progress beyond disorganized to health hazard, the most useful thing you can do is get over it—and then get down to work.