Few people in life enjoy cleaning and de-cluttering with the exception of some well-known gurus like the Japanese consultant Marie Kondo. And yet we all know how cathartic it can be.
It’s a principle that rings true for both our home and work lives. So what explains this disconnect: we avoid cleaning and throwing things out despite knowing how much better we’ll feel afterwards?
The answer lies in our emotional attachment to stuff that we no longer use or need. Research shows that the average person uses roughly 20% of what they own 80% of the time.
Yet once we accumulate too many items, our brains start to feel overwhelmed. This has negative consequences for both our mental health and productivity.
Feeling overwhelmed triggers the brain to adopt coping and avoidance mechanisms, which can then become a negative self-perpetuating cycle.
In an office environment, for example, we might avoid paying a bill on time because it lies under a mountain of paperwork. We then seek comfort from having avoiding the task at hand through coping strategies like snacking, which also has a negative physical impact on our health if we turn to junk food like potato chips and chocolate bars.
A 2017 study by Chicago’s DePaul University highlighted the links between clutter and productivity: the messier the environment, the more the people who lived in it were liable to procrastination.
A second study demonstrated how this state of affairs impacted their wellbeing. Clutter increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
This is because our brains like order: they are designed to process and file information so that we can make sense of the world around us. Clutter drains our brains’ cognitive reserves, making us tired and inefficient.
So how can we break this negative cycle and create a more productive office environment?
Well in Vietnam, one of our most important cultural traditions is cleaning our homes and offices in the run up to Tet (Lunar New Year). By sweeping away the old we make way for the new, setting us up for a prosperous new year.
At THP, we make this process a whole lot more enjoyable by turning our annual office “Big Clean” into a group activity. This has the additional benefit of forging closer collegiate bonds.
Our first step is to order items into the categories of used and unused. As Marie Kondo famously put it “to truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.”
The second step concerns re-arranging what remains so that it is convenient to retrieve, while ensuring the surrounding environment is clean and safe. This has further health and productivity benefits since dirty working spaces are a breeding ground for germs that make people sick and keep them off work.
The third step and fourth steps are all about ingraining good habits for the future. There are lots of studies, which show how this helps companies to be more efficient.
Research by the market intelligence firm IDC concluded that knowledge-based companies with 1,000 employees waste about $2.5 million a year simply because their employees cannot find the information they need quickly enough.
This year feels like an even more propitious one than usual when it comes to a focus on the benefits cleaning. In Vietnam, we are just about to enter the Year of the Cat, an animal renowned for spending up to half of each day cleaning itself.