Ever since I moved into my very own office — away from the dirty laundry and magazine piles of my home office in the bedroom — I’ve been studying the relationship between space and productivity/mood. As I organize my files, hang paintings, and eliminate the first threats of clutter, I am paying special attention to what promotes health and creativity and what destroys it.
Interior designer John Linden knows this subject well. He is a nationally recognized designer of mirrors and other wall décor and is the editor of TheMostChic, where he shares some excellent advice and knowledge he has gained over the years as a designer. I enjoyed his piece The Science Of Staying Organized – 5 Ways I Learned To Keep A Tidy Home so much that I wanted to learn more.
Therese Borchard: Did you really test over 50 strategies to come up with your five best practices to get organized? I’m curious, what were some of the strategies that didn’t work?
John Linden: I did. My wife and I just moved into a new house about 16 months ago, so with that move, we wanted to break with some of our old habits. Once we made this decision, I found there was tons of advice out there about how to stay organized at home (and in general). I’m a tinkerer at heart, so we decided to give each idea a fair shake.
Many of the “best practices” I encountered were simply tactics, like “how to clean the microwave better” or “how to sort through your mail.” In general, the ideas that were too complicated or too time-consuming worked poorly. This leads to the next question, but this experience taught me that the most powerful ways to stay organized are also the simplest.
I work as an interior designer — and my wife works full time too — so the idea of working another few hours on home organization after a long day of my own work just was impractical.
Early on, some ideas I stumbled on were very focused on scheduling and preparation, especially with laundry and meal planning. Even when I was really trying, I just couldn’t keep up. Ultimately what stuck were bite-sized ideas that didn’t require a ton of thought or motion.
Therese: Your five steps differ a little with the KonMari method, in that you encourage people to begin where they are, not with a certain category. How would you tweak Kondo’s method with your own wisdom?
John: Just to start, I understand KonMari’s popularity and think it’s a good system. Fundamentally, Marie’s point is about simplifying, which is exactly what I found to be the trend among all the things that actually worked.
For differences, I think Marie’s “does it spark joy” idea has the right intention, but it’s a little too serious for me. Just speaking from experience here, whenever an idea — like lifting weights, keeping a healthy diet, or cleaning house — becomes too much of a personal statement, it can be really hard to pick it back up once you’ve dropped the ball.
To put it another way, whenever you raise the stakes on something, if you drop off, it can be really easy to put up psychological barriers to re-starting, as facing that failure can be tough. In my experience, a lighter touch and less pressure makes the normal rhythm of stops and starts more psychologically manageable.
Another thing to consider is that you really only see how people have completely changed their lives with KonMari. You never know how much is just for Instagram and how much is the truth. In any case, seeing tidy, perfect homes can be both a blessing and a curse. If you are just trying to do a little better, it can feel like a burden when every house you see is Architectural Digest-ready.
Therese: Let’s talk about health. What have you found in your research about clutter contributing to disease?
John: There’s the obvious stuff. I mention air purifiers in my article because they work really well, are cheap, and help with dust in the house. As we all know, a dusty environment can lead to problems breathing, especially if you have asthma, etc.
Air quality is the lowest hanging fruit for sure. I did read a bit about how cleaning can reduce the likelihood of common colds, flu, etc. but much of this was promoted by the cleaning industry, so there’s some bias there.
Some other things to consider are just the visibility problems associated with too much stuff. Mold, mildew, water damage (the list goes on) can be more expensive to repair and can cause more damage when you have more stuff. It can also be harder to spot.
Same goes for insects. I read an article about a brown recluse spider colony hiding out in a clutter-filled attic. Definitely not something you want in your house.
Therese: How does staying organized promote health and emotional resilience?
John: There is an old adage that your space reflects your mind. I’ve found this to be true. Very rarely does an organized mind tend toward a disorganized space and vice versa. To take that a step further, keeping a clean house, car, desk — whatever — has one huge benefit. Mundane organization tasks will drain your energy through the day.
There is this great book called “The Willpower Instinct” by a Stanford prof that talks all about how simple tasks, like deciding what to eat for breakfast, cleaning off your desk, etc all drain our energy and lead to poorer choices. The author’s theory is bigger, but that’s the idea. Here’s a summary.
The constant hum of tasks — think reshuffling paper on your desk, searching your fridge for food — will drain your energy, making your decision-making worse and your mental fatigue greater.
Therese: Explain how multitasking interferes with the organization.
John: I’m actually working on a multitasking article right now so I’ve been reading about it a lot. The basic principle is that you shouldn’t multitask. Forever researchers have been explaining how the brain can’t actually multitask — it can just switch from one thing to another thing quickly. This concept arrived way before the iPhone did. When smartphones started taking over, however, it became way more relevant.
To answer your question, most people multitask with their phones. The problem with this is that you actually never get anything done, so you feel like organizing your space is impossible — because it takes so long. Have you ever reflected on your day and wondered how it took 8 hours to make lunch and drop off a package at FedEx? Much of this “time warp” has to do with how multitasking affects our perception, making us feel like we’re getting things done while we are actually just on Instagram.
Since our minds are engaged, if halfheartedly, in organizing, we perceive it to be a much more laborious task than it really is. In other words, what five minutes of focused effort takes ends up being three hours of distracted time wasted. To your brain, however, you feel like getting anything done will take three hours, making the prospect of organizing less and less attractive.
Therese: I love what you say about looking at pictures. Can you expound on the power of images to inspire?
John: As an interior design, I know firsthand the power of images. I use inspiration boards for every project and learn about my clients’ needs through imagery more than anything else. People are drawn to beautiful images in general. Think about the biggest websites on the planet — Instagram, Pinterest, and so on. These are basically just collections of images.
Harnessing this power to encourage yourself can be very beneficial. People use this trick all the time with weight loss and other personal goals. Think about all the advice focused on “visualizing” success.
The other side of that coin should be considered. Remember that all that glitters isn’t gold, especially online. If you have a personality that is very alpha and competitive, you can work yourself up over not having the tidiest, most organized, best color coordinated and so on.
Like I mentioned in my article, know thy self. If you can take the good ideas others put online and integrate them into your own effort, then do it. If you can’t handle seeing the master organizers of the internet without turning green with envy, then stick to goals where you can feel like you’ve achieved something. This will help keep that motivational flame burning.