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Why Your Brain Loves, Loathes Spring Cleaning

Courtesy of Creative Commons
The brain releases dopamine when you complete tasks like spring cleaning but it can be hard to get started.

If you find yourself loving the idea of spring cleaning, but loathe starting it, it’s not just in your head.

Procrastinating any big undertaking, like the annual spring cleanup, is the brain’s way of protecting itself. That’s according to Dr. Randall O’Reilly, psychology and neuroscience professor at the University of Colorado - Boulder. He said the brain is wired to track progress. Once you start a project, it takes over.

If a positive outcome isn’t assured, your brain may be overly cautious about taking it on, he said.

“In some ways it’s quite rational,” O’Reilly said. “Should you invest all this time and energy cleaning up your house? Or should you do something that’s more immediately rewarding? And the brain is really optimized to derive pleasure, to get these dopamine bursts, and so it is actually a bit of a mystery why we take on something like spring cleaning.”

The answer may be in the brain’s equal love for order, he said. It’s the same reason people like to make lists they can check accomplishments off. Every time you complete a task, your brain releases more dopamine, one of the so-called “feel-good hormones.” Completing tasks literally makes you feel good.

“So, when you’re sitting there thinking: ‘Should I start spring cleaning?’ your brain is basically weighing the pleasure of getting things organized against all the effort and cost that it’s going to require,” O’Reilly said.

But there is a way to encourage your brain to forge ahead. O’Reilly said starting small can help. That tricks the brain into releasing some dopamine after finishing a small task, which helps you keep working so that you can complete a bigger one.

Tips for decluttering and spring cleaning:

  • Start with the simplest tasks. If you think about the magnitude of what lies ahead of you, starting can be too difficult.
  • Move to the next simple task and then the next, and so on. That’s when momentum kicks in.
  • Don’t beat yourself up. Realize that dealing with a mess is hard and everyone has trouble with it.
  • Dopamine is a chemical released by neurons that sends signals to other nerve cells and plays a major role in both mood and reward-motivated behavior.
  • Take a photo of an item that has sentimental value to you -- such as your child’s artwork -- so you have the memory of it, but you don’t have to hold onto it.
Stacy was KUNC's arts and culture reporter from 2015 to 2021.
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