Mental bandwidth is how much attention we have available. We might imagine an air traffic controller at one end of the spectrum, and a meditating monk at the other. Many of us are trying to blast past the air traffic controller by pretending we have six arms and three brains, juggling everything on our to-do lists at once. I’ve seen people driving in rush hour traffic with a newspaper spread across the steering wheel, which may be less distracting than texting and driving. We don’t even know how to concentrate on one thing at a time anymore. It’s my contention that clutter is a further drain on our mental bandwidth.
Research has shown that multi-tasking, or switching back and forth between tasks, is counterproductive because it takes time for us to regain focus on the first task. Usually, the initial task is not resumed after an interruption at all. Many tasks involve physical objects, such as mail, laundry, dishes, jackets, bags, shoes, dog leashes, Nerf guns, etc. Sometimes we set stuff down while we’re in the middle of something, because the phone rang or Ed McMahon came to the door. Other times, we put something aside because we’re not ready to deal with it right now. Laundry and dishes are chief among these. “Oh, I really don’t want to do this, and it will be so much worse if I put it off until later, so I’d better just put it off until later. FU, Future Self.” There are enough physical manifestations of all the stuff circulating in our poor overloaded brains that one day is plenty long enough to result in total chaos. Maybe even one hour.
Let’s say I’m listening to a podcast and cleaning the bathroom while simultaneously doing laundry. Someone knocks on the door to deliver a package, and my dog starts barking. Then my phone rings. Now, in just ten seconds, I am aware that I have to try to take off my soapy gloves, deal with the phone call, and get the package while protecting the delivery person from my hypervigilant rat terrier. Inevitably, at this very moment, the load in the washing machine will become unbalanced. This is nothing compared to a typical hour in the life of an office assistant.
Extending the example scenario, let’s say I also have to wend my way through three loads of dirty clothes strewn on the hallway floor. On my way to the door I knock over a bunch of random stuff on a table. By the time everything has settled down, I’m feeling overwrought and tense. I probably yell at my dog. I go back to cleaning the bathroom, but by the time I’m done, my momentum has totally vanished. It’s all I can do to get the wet laundry into the dryer. I open the package but set aside the box and the packing material to deal with later. The rest of the overdue laundry doesn’t get done that day. The next time I’m trying to get caught up, it’s that much harder. And the beat goes on.
Now, let’s run through a few more scenarios.
It’s Monday morning and I have to get the kids ready for school before I go to work. There are missing shoes, incomplete homework, an unsigned permission slip, a damp soccer uniform, not enough clean bowls for breakfast, lunches to pack, we’re out of bread, and I just tore my tights. By the time I get to work, I feel like crying.
My in-laws have invited themselves to stay for the weekend, and it’s already Wednesday night. At minimum, I want to clear out the guest room, make the bed, and clean the bathroom. But we’re also behind on dishes and laundry and the floors and there’s a sewing project in progress on the dining table, plus we need to go grocery shopping. Can we get through this week without a fight?
Our landlord just informed us that he’s selling our house, and we have thirty days to find a new place, pack, and move. We never finished unpacking from last time, and none of the boxes are labeled.
Nightmares! Just writing this stuff is stressing me out!
Now, let’s do a counterexample from my life. The other day, someone knocked on the door. The conversation went like this:
“Hi, I’d like to buy your truck for $X.”
“Okay!” …”Babe, where’s the pink slip?”
“In the file box.” (found 2 minutes later)
Fast forward two hours. Truck is being towed away by new owner, DMV paperwork is already filled out, cash is in hand. All righty then!
(Yes, at our house, Opportunity literally knocks at our door).
Learning how to stay organized really does work. It’s not often that someone unexpectedly comes to the door wanting to make a significant business deal, and we couldn’t have anticipated that happening. But we were prepared when it did. We’ve also been prepared for surprise overnight visits from friends, sudden business travel, and two occasions when we had to relocate within two weeks. We know where our passports are. We don’t have piles of incompleteness distracting us everywhere.
Every object and unfinished task is tied to our minds by an invisible mental thread. The more there are, the more threads there are. The more threads there are, the greater the chance that they will get tangled. Constant nagging thoughts pull at our focus, often to fade away, only to return again just as we’re trying to fall asleep. Scattered objects are minefields, accidents waiting to happen. If there is a spill, it will stain the most important object available. If something gets broken, it’s either going to be the most prized object or the one that makes the biggest mess. In any conglomeration of clutter, the most important object will be the one to get buried under something. Why do we do this to ourselves? We do it unintentionally, because we have so little mental bandwidth left to deal with it. We aren’t familiar with the peace of mind that comes from an orderly environment. If we were, we’d drop everything until we could create this mental space for ourselves.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.