Clearing a path to less stress

STRESS AND MESS: A cluttered or messy environment might be stressing you out.
STRESS AND MESS: A cluttered or messy environment might be stressing you out.

I've got a date with a garden skip this weekend, to remove the growing pile of bark, leaves, weeds and soil that's been jarring my vision since we decided to 'clean up' our garden a few weeks ago.

I'm excited. Not about playing with thorns or getting my trainers dirty. It's just that this burgeoning mound of waste may as well be sitting squarely on my brain - it's taking up that much head space: a clear-cut case of matter over mind.

I'm sure I'm not alone in being bugged by such seemingly innocuous things.

It's often said a cluttered environment can clutter the mind. And anyone who likes a sense of order - things in their rightful place - will relate.

Whether it's clearing bills off the table or finding a home for your children's artistic masterpieces, or making space in the drawer for one extra cake container, keeping on top of things at home could be one small way to keep your stress in check too.

Does mess create stress?

There'll be countless people who couldn't care less about tidy surfaces and won't be introducing the Dewey Decimal System to their bookshelf any time soon.

But whichever camp you're in, there's been evidence over the years linking our environment to our levels of stress, wellbeing, and general behaviour too.

Studies done by the UCLA's Centre for the Everyday Lives of Families (CELF), found women who described their homes as messy or chaotic actually had flatter levels of cortisol - an indicator of stress.

"They also tended to show greater increases in depressed mood across the day, consistent with greater fatigue in the evening and a more difficult transition from work to home," the authors said.

In contrast, women who spoke more positively of their yards and outdoor features and who used words connoting relaxation at home - well their cortisol slopes showed less stress.

In this study women were more sensitive to their home environment than men, suggesting they may feel a greater sense of responsibility for the home (eg. feeling guilty about clutter).

Further investigations found that managing the volume of possessions in middle-class homes was such a crushing problem that it elevated levels of stress hormones for mums.

Only 25% of garages could be used to store cars because they were so packed with stuff.

Authors said the sheer volume of objects clinging to a fridge door - from the plumber's phone number to the date of the next doctor's appointment - may indicate how much clutter can be found throughout your home. Furthermore that clutter provides clues as to how much stress mums feel when they walk through the door after a day at work.

Another study by the University of Minnesota looked at the impact of ordered and disordered environments and found that order leads to "desirable, normatively-good behaviours", encouraging healthfulness, generosity and a mindset of tradition and convention.  

"Sitting in a tidy room led to healthier food choices and greater financial support of charitable institutions, relative to sitting in a cluttered room," the authors noted. Yes, they tested specifically for these things.

But in a lucky stroke for the disorganised amongst us, the same study found that physical disorder serves a different sort of purpose. It leads to enhanced creativity, an appreciation for novelty and a mindset of unconventionality. What that means is that people can harness the power of each environment to achieve their goals.

So if you're looking for a future in culture, business or the arts, then a dishevelled dwelling might be just the inspiration you need.

"Many creative individuals with Nobel prizes and other ultra-prestigious awards prefer - and in fact cultivate - messy environments as an aid to their work," said the authors. One such person was Einstein, who famously quipped, "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?"

Is it time for a spring clean?

Kiwi author and life coach Sarah Laurie sits clearly in the 'tidy home, clear mind' territory.

"When we introduce order, rituals and a touch of gorgeousness to our spaces, I'm quite sure that this extends to other areas of our life," she says.

"We may see greater opportunities at work, increased connectedness in our relationships or increased wellbeing. Clean, fresh and gorgeous is good for us!"

Laurie's advice for anyone wanting more order in their life, is that cleaning up is the easy part - keeping it that way is more challenging.

"It's key to work out what our triggers are, that return us to disorder. Perhaps it's rising too late in the mornings and having to rush, or not putting things away when we're finished, or dropping our clothes on the floor at the end of the day or as we change outfits, or running out of groceries, or a filing system that doesn't work [or no filing system], or failing to plan the day? 

"There are so many little, seemingly inconsequential habits that erode our opportunity to maintain a good rhythm. When we know them, we can address them - just one at a time."

Laurie's top five tips:

1. Make your bed. As soon as you rise, make your bed and your body will step into 'organised' mode.

2. Write a list each morning [with a pen]. Writing is a left-brain activity, so it gives structure and clarity to your thoughts - you feel more in control.

3. Create routine. Your body operates in rhythms, so try and establish patterns in your week. Whether it's the same bed time on week days, a morning plan that is the same each day or a set exercise time, routine will have a leveling effect on your more stressful responsibilities.

4. Get complete. Spend 10 minutes as you finish work, and then at the end of your day just tying up loose ends. Clear your desk for tomorrow and ensure phone calls are returned; put belongings in their place before bed. A fresh start in the morning feels productive.

5. Prioritise the little things. The missing sock in a pair, the dregs of milk that is not enough for your cereal, or the document that didn't quite make it to its file - seemingly inconsequential, yet frustrating and time-wasting when you're in a rush to get on with the bigger things.