It’s easy to convince yourself that in order to meditate, write, create, or do a number of other important-for-your-sanity things, you must first clean your space, sanitize your yoga mat, have your first two cups of coffee, etc.

There are dozens of sayings about it: “Clean space, clear mind.” “Bare desk, bright work.” (Okay, I made both of those up but you get the picture.) But what’s the real deal? Are we really improving our chances of sitting down to do the thing that’s really important to us or are we just becoming incredibly productive procrastinators?

Let’s look at how clutter affects the brain…

According to a study conducted by the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, having multiple visual stimuli present within range of one’s view will result in those stimuli competing for neural representation. In layman’s terms, the more clutter you can see, the more easily you’ll find yourself distracted. Your brain is literally being presented with more than one sandwich to bite into and it becomes unsure of which to taste first.

What about procrastination?

In a research report published in Psychological Science, psychologists Dianne M. Tice and Roy F. Baumeister examined procrastination among college students, closely monitoring their behavior and academic grades throughout a semester. The procrastinators among the group reported lower stress and less illness than non-procrastinators early on in the semester (short-term benefits), but they reported higher stress and more illness later on (long-term costs). The procrastinators also received lower grades in general, illustrating a self-defeating behavior pattern.

So is your personal ritual of cleaning, decluttering, or playing your favorite song to get the creative juices flowing really helpful to you or not? Since when did we convince ourselves that we need a prerequisite clean-up before partaking in our favorite things?

To help unravel the mystery further, especially for those who love to declutter before getting to work, I reached out to professional organizer Dorothy Breininger, AKA “Dorothy The Organizer” whom you may recognize from the Emmy-nominated A&E TV series “Hoarders”, to get her take on the topic. (Procrastinating declutterers, you’re going to like what she has to say…)

The more clutter you can see, the more easily you’ll find yourself distracted.

Some “chaos” can be a good thing for creatives

When it comes to whether or not decluttering at home makes us more productive or not, Breininger thinks it does. “Yes, decluttering at home can make most of us more productive. However, with my right-brain clients (artists, musicians, writers, stylists—even crafters) they can gain creative inspiration from a bit of organized chaos.” She explains that this does not hold true over long periods of time, though, since many artists seem to “rage against the ordinary” when they feel the inspiration to create. When the inspiration disappears, they often organize their spaces again for a fresh start and to kick off the next waterfall of creative juice.

Clutter can be debilitating for some of us

Have you ever entered a cluttered office, initially excited to kick-start a new project, only to walk right back out because the mess “messed” too much with your concentration? For some of us, clutter can be downright debilitating.

Breininger recalls walking into clients’ offices, homes, as well as music, art, and yoga studios to meet with individuals who felt immobilized by clutter. She comments, “These people are smart moms, successful attorneys, brilliant authors, actors, and athletes—all of whom found themselves paralyzed by clutter. After an hour of working together, I could see their psychological and physiological transformations. They felt more relaxed with the open space and they suddenly spoke of immediate flashes of creativity. They experienced momentum in the areas where they were blocked, which in turn bred hope, vision and excitement toward what was important to them.”

Decluttering can mentally prepare us for other activities

Breininger believes it does so in three ways:

  1. It clears the physical space so we can partake in the activity.
  2. It provides us with a sense of accomplishment which translates into motivation.
  3. It gives us time to think about or organize the activity in which we are about to engage.

If by chance you have ADHD though, Breininger advises that there are two rules that can help you hone your attention: Try to only focus on clearing the space necessary for your current project, and set a timer to do it quickly. She adds, “We want to avoid the trap of making the organizing or clearing process the goal activityremember, we are only staging the space so that we can do that special activity.”

Does a clean space = a clear mind?

I asked Breininger whether or not clearing clutter was the key to a peaceful, ready-to-focus mind. She said, “No way! If you simply clear the clutter to the guest room as a temporary fix when friends come over for dinner, the thought of your newly cluttered area doesn’t leave your mind. For many people, even when everything is filed, folded, and fantastic, they may live a life that is overcommitted and may feel overwhelmed by other thingspeople, thoughts, constant activity.” An organized space can help set you up for success but it’s not the key to creative bliss.   

A general rule of thumb when it comes to whether or not it’s okay to spend time “setting the stage” before doing whatever makes your heart happy is to consider how this act of decluttering or mild procrastination affects your life. Breininger comments, “For some, (being organized) is all about being productive. For others, it’s all about being neat or being able to find what you need when you want it. If your cleaning leads you to self-sabotage (missing doctor’s appointments, decreased social engagements, or you’re late to work or school), definitely put down the broom, brush, or sponge.”

The next time you’re ready to sit down with a fresh project, take note of your pre-activity actions. Do you have the urge to tidy up? If so, ask yourself whether the act is part of your process or an unnecessary procrastination. If you feel any doubt, make a conscious decision to either finish up quickly or immediately drop the broom.