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Clean Your Room & Other Dumb, Simplistic Advice

Clean Your Room & Other Dumb, Simplistic Advice

Every year, I notice a new set of self-help gurus come on the scene. Their well-intended recommendations are usually repackaged life advice that I can trace back to early 1900s authors and researchers. Some tips go back even further than that.

Of course, if simplistic, dumb advice worked, there’d be very little need for psychologists, therapists, and life coaches. “Oh, thanks for letting me know that all I needed to do was to pull myself up and use pure willpower to stop my addiction. That’s super helpful!”

Let’s take a look at some of the dumb, simplistic guidance being offered to people nowadays.

1. Clean your room and get organized

I guess parenting has truly gone out the window with any semblance of teaching kids some responsibility if one of the most popular self-help guru’s primary takeaway is, “Clean your room.” I reviewed Jordan Peterson’s not-too-successful attempt at a self-help book, Twelve Rules for Life. I did not come away impressed by his shallow thought processes and constant diving into tangential, largely unrelated topics in each chapter. This is what he says about Rule 6 in an interview:

Well, my sense is that if you want to change the world, you start from yourself and work outward. Because you build your competence that way. It’s like, I don’t know how you can go out and protest the structure of the entire economic system if you can’t keep your room organized.

Ah, yes. “Let he without sin cast the first stone.” Of course, perfectly disorganized people have helped change the world, because nobody has ever said, “Oh, no, you can’t be a leader, George Washington. Your room is messy!”

Keeping organized helps some people. For others, it causes a lot more stress to stay “organized” (using some third-party’s arbitrary metric of what good organization should be) than it is to stay messy. I have a pretty disorganized office, and always have. But I know precisely where everything is, because it’s organized for me. Does that mean the rest of my life is also disorganized? Of course not. The one has absolutely no direct bearing on the other. (I’d happily welcome research references demonstrating a causal link between the two.)

Dr. Grohol’s Reality Check:

Extroverts don’t understand why introverts don’t like the same things they do. The same is true of organization-driven people versus disorganized people — two different yet equally valid ways of being in this world.

2. You just need to try X, you’ll be feeling better in no time

So many well-meaning, well-intentioned people say this to folks who are struggling emotionally. But it’s probably one of the worst possible things you can say. While magic ingredient X — whether it be dieting, a supplement, exercise, a therapist, a new drug, whatever — may work just fine for you, that doesn’t mean squat about whether it’ll work for your friend or family member. Furthermore, the advice also presupposes — as most advice does — that the person hasn’t already tried X.

I may want to hear what worked for you if you’ve gone through something very similar to what I’m going through. But let me ask first, okay?

Dr. Grohol’s Reality Check:

Research consistently demonstrates that most things meant to help someone with a specific concern or problem don’t work well for most people. Only some of them do, for some people, some of the time — no matter whether it’s a specific diet, a type of exercise, psychotherapy, a supplement, or a drug. It’s overly simplistic to suggest that you know X will work.

3. Stop and smell the roses

This has gotten dusted off with the rise of mindfulness, which is not unlike simple meditation but with a little more focus thrown in. The key is to focus on your being, on your experience, in the moment. Sipping a cappuccino? Don’t just mindlessly look at your social media feed. Take a moment to enjoy the actual taste of the coffee in your mouth, smell the aroma, enjoy the swirl of cream on top.

This is all good and very well. And it can really work wonders the first five times you give it a try. But somewhere around the sixth time (sooner or later, depending upon your personality), you may start finding it more and more difficult to enjoy it the same way.

That’s not surprising, because psychology has taught us that human beings are creatures of habit and acclimation. Without such acclimation, it would be impossible for one to drive a car in the country because of all the wonder and nature found in such a drive.

Dr. Grohol’s Reality Check:

Humans are habit-driven and wear deep tracks in the trails of their daily routines and behaviors. While you absolutely will enjoy slowing down a moment when you can to reflect on the exact moment you’re living in, you should acknowledge and embrace the drive, habits, and energy that makes you alive and the person that you are.

4. Reinforce good behavior

Likely born out of BF Skinner’s research on rats and his theory on operant conditioning, there’s this idea — with some good research backing — that we should reinforce good behavior. Whether it be a few M&Ms for picking up your toys as a child, or a kiss on the cheek for taking out the trash without having to be asked, many people believe in this advice.

It’s generally okay advice, and tends to work well for children. But it only goes so far, especially for adults. You can’t reinforce good behavior in others simply through treats or behavioral rewards if they have no interest in the treats or rewards.

The research also shows when the rewards are external (e.g., money or treats) they tend to be far less motivating (and less dependable) than when the rewards are internal (e.g., self-esteem or selflessness). Of course, it’s far harder to understand, much less make use of, those internal rewards.

Dr. Grohol’s Reality Check:

People use external reinforcements for good behavior, which works better in children than for adults. Reinforcement that relies on external rewards rather than internal ones tend to be less powerful and dependable over the long term.

5. Stop hanging around negative people all the time

In the “You need better friends” category, we have this doozy. I don’t know of too many people who choose to hang around negative people, or maybe have a friend or two that are dysfunctional or even possibly toxic. We come into friendships in a variety of ways, but usually through shared association or interests over time.

Here’s the catch though — people change. All the time, people are changing. It’s an inevitable part of life. And that means what brought two people together as friends may no longer be something they both share. And family is worse, in that we don’t usually have much of a choice in needing to interact with them.

Do we ditch a person just because they’re going through a negative or rough patch? Hopefully, loyal friends don’t.

Dr. Grohol’s Reality Check:

Negativity is a part of everyone’s life. While there’s little value in holding onto it any longer than necessary, it serves an important purpose and balance. It would be nearly impossible to demand and expect only to have “positive” friends who support and agree with your every thought and action. While you could benefit from moving forward without truly toxic people in your life, you should realize and expect that some friends will always have a different outlook on life than yours, but can lend valuable perspective to your way of thinking.

6. Just start doing this or stop thinking that

Lots of self-help books have a similar problem. They paint a pretty picture of the destination but provide little in the way of guideposts on how to arrive there in any meaningful manner. It’s not surprising, once you understand how complex people really are. A single set of guideposts aren’t likely to be helpful to most people who read them.

Some authors fall into the trap of explaining why it’s good to stop doing some bad habit or unwanted behavior. Or why, if you just change your thinking, you can “think your way out” of depression or a problem in your life.

For a handful of people, such approaches might work. But usually insight and information is not nearly enough to effect meaningful change in a person’s life. That takes customized work and deeper understanding of a person’s own experiences, motivations, and beliefs.

Dr. Grohol’s Reality Check:

The fact is that change of any type is hard. Undoing a behavior or way of thinking you’ve been engaged in for many years is like getting rid of a bad habit. It’s going to take a fair amount of time, concerted effort, focus, and hard work. That’s where a psychotherapist can help.

Clean Your Room & Other Dumb, Simplistic Advice


John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.


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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2019). Clean Your Room & Other Dumb, Simplistic Advice. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 12, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/clean-your-room-other-dumb-simplistic-advice/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 31 Jan 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 31 Jan 2019
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