I worked for a number of years with a meditation teacher who often mixed remarkably pragmatic, useful advice in with the other more esoteric or metaphysical subjects he taught. One of the most useful pieces of information I picked up from him had to do with what he said to students who came to him complaining either of a "cluttered mind," which made it difficult for them to meditate or concentrate on their work, or of "poor memory," in which they often forgot important tasks or bits of information. The advice was always the same, and it sounded a little crazy. He'd look at the person and ask, "When was the last time you cleaned your house?"
The shocker was that when we actually listened to the advice and gave our house a thorough cleaning, organizing everything and removing the clutter that had accumulated, it had the effect of doing exactly the same thing to our minds. I rely on this advice to this day, and if I'm having trouble concentrating on a task, one of the first things I do is take a look around my house. If it's cluttered and messy, so is my mind. So I clean house, and voilà, my mind becomes clear and sharp again. It's like magic…just magic that involves performing a little overdue housework.
Cleaning your house can prevent Alzheimer's
Recent research indicates that my teacher was onto something. For example, in a study recently published in the journal Neurology, scientists at the Memory and Aging Project being conducted at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago have found that cleaning house and doing yard work greatly reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer's in people over 80. In this study, the researchers determined that one of the key factors was the activity of cleaning house itself; those subjects with the lowest rates of physical activity had the highest risk of Alzheimer's, and were almost three times as likely to develop it as those who were active at least 3.3 hours per week.
Other research and experience gained from people acting as caregivers to those with Alzheimer's suggests the same benefits, although the caregivers place more emphasis on the actual organizing than on the activity surrounding it. "Not being able to find something" is one of the biggest sources of frustration and anxiety for Alzheimer's sufferer's. These caregivers and trainers of other caregivers have had great success at staving off the progression of the disease by helping their patients to better organize their lives. But the key, they say, is not to do the organization and the cleaning for them, but to urge the patients to perform as much of the reorganization and the removal of clutter as possible.
Cleaning house is good for the rest of us, too
It is possible, given other research done on activities such as doing crossword puzzles or taking up ballroom dancing, and those activities' proven ability to stave off the effects of Alzheimer's dementia, that the same mechanism comes into play when cleaning house. That is, activity that forces the person to do new things, and make new decisions helps to form new neural pathways in the brain. The more neural pathways in your brain, the greater your access to the information stored in it. Whatever the mechanism, the experience of hundreds of Alzheimer's caregivers seems to be the same as my former teachers' – clean your house, clean your mind.
But this beneficial effect is not limited to delaying or preventing the loss of our cognitive abilities due to diseases such as Alzheimer's. Many studies have shown that clutter in one's environment creates stress, and places an emotional drain on our time and our energy. Every minute you spend looking for something you just can't locate in the pile of things on your desk is a minute spent being less productive, and thus a minute spent getting stressed about that.
One tip on better organizing one's environment – and thus one's mind – comes from Barry A. Dennis, author of a book called The Chotchky Challenge: Clear the Clutter from Your Home, Heart, and Mind…and Discover the True Treasure of Your Soul. The "chotchkies" in Mr. Dennis' title comes from the Yiddish word tchotchke, meaning knickknacks or objects that just accumulate over time, while providing no real value. He advocates doing a systematic survey of such chotchkies from time to time, and eliminating as many of them as possible. A great place to start is your junk drawer or closet. When was the last time you looked at it? Even more important, when was the last time you used anything in it? Throwing out many of the things we don't need to hang onto (or even better, donating them to charity) can be extremely liberating.
But so can the simple act of "cleaning house," if you just look at it right. I've come to think of it not as tidying up my house but tidying up my mind. And it always works. I spend a few minutes cleaning up my desk and my office, and suddenly I'm inspired to work again, and am much more productive when I start working.
Even if this is just a "mind trick" I play on myself, or an instance of the placebo effect, I don't care. It works.