Nicole Duxbury | March 26, 2018

We all remember being kids and Mom shouting: “Clean your room;” “Put away your toys;” “Behave!" And, to be fair, she was usually on point. A certain standard of cleanliness is important for maintaining good health, minimizing the risk of disease, and, let’s face it, keeping those around us happy. Furthermore, having a clean home can even improve mental and emotional wellbeing. But how? And how can we gain some everyday inspiration to tackle what can seem like an extremely tedious job?

Make a clean sweep

First, let’s be clear: obsessing over cleanliness is hardly conducive to good mental health, or physical health, for that matter. We’re not encouraging you to go out and blanket your bathroom with bleach or douse your children in disinfectant, nor do we cower at the sight of dirt. Still, maintaining a clean home does bring many benefits, mentally as well as physically.

One of the simplest reasons this works is that clean things are just more refreshing to be around. No matter how bad your sleep habits, clean sheets are always clean sheets. Likewise with your workspace: it’s much easier to concentrate on your work without layers of dust on your desk or a fly cemetery on the windowsill. These things can and do stress us out, though we may not notice it at the time. A clean workspace is both less distracting and more comfortable to work in.

The act of cleaning and keeping things clean is also a good way of clearing the mind. It gives instant satisfaction in terms of completing a task and helps us gain greater control over a messy situation, literally and metaphorically. A fascinating article on NPR notes that professional chefs have this concept of ‘mise-en-place’ (or ‘put in place’) almost beaten into them, a central tenet of which is: keep things clean. Not only for practical reasons – we all understand the danger of food poisoning(!) – but also because of the peace and clarity of mind it brings. As one chef exclaimed, “If you don't clean as you go it is a mess!” He added: “Isn't the worst thing at the end of a successful dinner party doing a whole bunch of dishes? Wouldn't you rather break them all and buy new ones? It actually saves time if you clean as you go. It makes life so much easier.”

So, if you’re stuck for inspiration or feeling a little overwhelmed, try cleaning something: your kitchen, your desk, even your shoes. Even something small can give your mind a break and help you refocus; it may even lift your spirits. How does that work?

Inside, outside, upside-down

A key trait of human beings is that the way we order our environment usually reflects our personalities and tendencies; our homes are a prime example. And that’s a good thing: I should feel comfortable in my own home! If a crazy, who-says-orange-should-only-be-an-accent-color style of décor makes you happy, do it; if, on the other hand, you’d prefer to have all your spoons labeled and in strict size order, you go right ahead.

But there is a dark side to this tendency. Sure, as we discussed, obsessive cleanliness can be a marker of extreme anxiety. But even worse, an extremely messy, dirty, cluttered home can be a hallmark of depression. As one clinically depressed person explained, her home was for years “a perfect reflection of [her] mental state: chaotic, uninspired, disorganized, and full of shameful secrets.” Returning home after a difficult day became a discouragement rather than a relief, and she became overwhelmed by the weight of all that needed to be done around the house. Many of us can relate.

The key turning point for this individual, though, was one which we can all keep in mind: cleanliness is a form of self-respect. She found that doing just one small task around the house per day gave her enough motivation to clean one more object or area the next day. And by doing this, she found she felt a sense of achievement and progress that her depression had otherwise denied her. It also meant that waking up in the morning or coming home from work became less of a disappointment; even, eventually, a relief.

So what's the point – that the cure for depression is cleaning? Not at all. Rather, the point is that it works both ways: not only does our mental state affect how we take care of our environment, but taking care of our environment also improves our mental state. A mixed-up mind often leads to a mixed-up house, so cleaning our homes can be a big first step in gaining control over our emotions and motivating us to keep going, no matter what’s happening inside.

In a nutshell

Why talk about clean homes on a fitness platform’s website? Well, there is a link – in fact, there are several. As an article in Time magazine pointed out, those who have developed a habit of cleaning their home are more physically active by default, both because active people find cleaning their homes easier, and also because cleaning can be a great physical activity. Also, those who keep a clean house tend to have greater self-motivation and procrastinate less than those who don’t (and procrastination is tough to beat). This means, it’s easier for them to motivate themselves to get to the gym, or to grab those dumbbells and do an at-home workout.

But most of all, as an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America put it, by being a little more organized and taking control of our respective environments, we gain more time for what’s important. Instead of being bogged down by all that needs to be done around the house and fighting through the mess just to check one item off the to-do list, we can make transform our homes into spaces that refresh us, clear our minds, and lift our spirits.