Why Are We So Obsessed With Organizing? The Psychological Influences Behind Tidying Up

There's good reason many people feel so good when your space is tidy—and why some don't.

Organization is everywhere. Even if it isn’t in your own home (yet), we see it on social media, read about it in books, and watch it on Netflix. We are constantly being told by society that organization is the key to a good life, and we eat it right up.

So why are we so obsessed with organizing?

A hyper-organized pantry by Alice Lane Interiors.

It turns out there’s a lot of psychology at play. “Humans are naturally inclined to find comfort in the predictable,” says Dr. Bethany Cook, a licensed clinical psychologist in Chicago. If something is predictable, it’s safe. And while this is literally true in the animal kingdom (where predictability could mean life or death), it also applies within the context of our homes today, manifesting through the concept of organization. “Organizing your living space means you know where things are without searching, and this feels safe,” says Dr. Cook.

"When our thoughts feel muddled, organizing our physical surroundings gives a sense of control"

But safety is only the beginning. Perhaps more importantly—at least in contemporary society, when we’re not usually worried about being eaten by a predator—organization gives us a sense of control, not just of our physical space, but of our thoughts and emotions, too.

“The act of organizing can serve as a physical outlet for what sometimes feels unorganized or chaotic in the mind,” says Rebecca Phillips, a Texas-based licensed professional counselor at Mend Modern Therapy. “When our thoughts feel muddled, the act of organizing our physical surroundings can help us to feel a semblance of control.”

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And control feeds into other positive results, such as a sense of accomplishment when you’ve put everything in its place. “When we organize and sort through our stuff, it can result in several experiences that can make us feel good, like feeling nostalgia as you rediscover a forgotten yet cherished item,” says Dr. Cook. “Or throwing away or donating things you no longer need frees up space and feels good.”

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There’s a physical benefit to being organized, too. “Studies have shown that it’s more difficult for a person to focus when their visual cortex is over-stimulated. As such, when the space is organized, it doesn't deplete an individual's energy level just to concentrate,” says Dr. Cook.

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A kitchen by Laura McCroskey with spices neatly tucked behind sliding doors.
Nate Sheets

Rather unsurprisingly, society’s collective desire for control through organization took off during the pandemic, when so many things felt chaotic and uncontrollable—and while we were all stuck at home. “Many spaces felt too small, too big, too cluttered, or shared by too many people,” says Phillips. “Organizing one’s space was one thing that could be done in a situation where many felt a lack of control coupled with feeling trapped.”

But our obsession with organization started long before COVID-19 entered the scene. Case in point: the celebrity status of pro-organizer Marie Kondo. After Kondo’s first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, reached the United States in 2014, people across the country took to her organization methodology.

“Her technique is unlike any other self-help for organization that’s ever existed because it’s built on a joy-forward premise. Keep what brings you joy. Look for what brings you joy. That’s a concept!” says Dr. Dena DiNardo, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, who’s an adjunct professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “The positive mission inspires—here’s how to have more joy in your life. The negative mission shames—you have too much stuff, what is wrong with you?”

Kondo also provides a solid foil to other celebrity figures who have much louder presences. “In a world where we regularly experience the high energy of YouTubers, motivational speakers, and TV personalities, the warm and gentle presence of Marie Kondo can be a pleasant disruption,” says Dr. DiNardo. “She’s provided a permission slip to slow down and be present while also being productive. It’s a win-win.”

“Not everyone prefers an organized lifestyle, and that is just fine."

But for all the positives that come with organization, being obsessed with tidying up can go too far. “Organization can be an illusion that we have our life together, when in reality there are big issues just underneath the surface,” says Natalie Capano, a licensed psychotherapist at Cobb Psychotherapy in New York. “Some people believe that their home represents their life, so if their pantry is perfect, their relationships must be, too.”

furniture, room, interior design, property, chest of drawers, cupboard, cabinetry, closet, ceiling, shelf,
A closet by Heather Hilliard with space for everything.
Dacian Groza

An organization obsession can even become a true addiction—especially for individuals who had difficult upbringings in which they had very little control as children—which can create deep issues with your relationships in adulthood. “When you start sacrificing your mental health at the expense of a tidy home, you’ve gone too far, “ says Dr. Cook. “Are you yelling at your young kids because they did what kids do and made a mess? Are your relationships, work, or hobbies suffering because you spend so much time tidying?”

For those with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), organizing can actually exacerbate their symptoms. “It can be a slippery slope for some,” says Phillips.

Then there are those who don’t actually derive any sort of pleasure from being organized at all, whether as a result of trauma, neurodiversity, or simply a matter of preference. “Not everyone prefers an organized lifestyle, and that is just fine,” says Capano. “Organized chaos works for some people, and this can feel as good to them as a neat and orderly space can feel to others.”

As with most everything in the home—trends aside, it should come down to what makes you happy.

If you do want to get organized, click through below for solutions for every room of the house.

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