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I have a confession. Sometimes when I’m alone and feeling tense, I’ll take a break from what I’m doing, grab my iPhone, and watch a certain type of video to take the edge off my stress: home-decluttering videos.
Watching a stranger masterfully fold a pile of shirts into neat, vertical bundles or transfer snacks from store-bought packaging to clear, acrylic containers with pretty labels is my guilty pleasure. Frivolous as they seem, these curated moments offer an oasis of order in a world that feels increasingly chaotic. After 10 minutes of seeing makeup drawers reorganized, refrigerator shelves restocked, and laundry rooms decluttered, I feel calm, more clearheaded.
While the dangers of doomscrolling have been well documented, it's also possible to reap mental health benefits from the deliberate consumption of digital content. But what was it about these specific videos I found so engaging?
“Our brains like order,” explains Kristi Phillips, a Minnesota-based psychologist. “And we know that having less stimuli around us helps promote relaxation.” She points out the popularity of home-decluttering Reels and TikToks, as well as the recent proliferation of TV series such as Netflix’s Get Organized With the Home Edit and HGTV’s Hot Mess House.
But while we all enjoy the afterglow of a cleaned-out junk drawer in real life, we still procrastinate when it comes to tackling more complex areas of clutter in our lives.
Phillips believes this factors into the allure of the videos I watch. “When we’re trying to declutter our own spaces, we have an emotional attachment to those items,” she says. Whether there are memories linked to those objects or simply the guilt of getting rid of something you spent money on, the task of mentally weighing each item can be overwhelming.
She explains that with a video, “you see the fast-forward of how quick it is … so it gives us that hope and positivity of, Oh, I can do that too.”
Before-and-after makeover videos, be they fashion, beauty, or home design, have universal appeal. But to better understand what’s happening from a neurological standpoint, I turned to psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Amit Etkin, a professor at Stanford University and founder and CEO of Alto Neuroscience.
Etkin explains that in the cerebral cortex—the outermost layer of the brain—are systems responsible for a number of higher functions, including cognitive functions like planning, attention, reasoning, memory, and learning; emotional functions; sensory functions; and motor functions. Because the brain finds uncertainty aversive, the emotional realm will respond to unpredictability with a signal.
For the past few years, many of us have experienced heightened, ongoing stress, whether it’s from climate anxiety, political discord and economic volatility, or the lingering pandemic. All have uncertainty in common, which triggers the brain to pay more attention.
“So that uncertainty signal, which is usually a signal that drives an increase in cognitive control, that’s what we would speculate you’re hijacking with these videos,” Etkin says. In other words, by watching scenes of order and predictability, I am interrupting my brain’s uncertainty response and shifting focus away from these major stressors.
Sasha Hamdani is a psychiatrist in Kansas who launched her own TikTok and Instagram accounts in the early days of the pandemic. She uses her platform to educate people about ADHD, a topic she speaks to both personally and as a clinician.
Hamdani says the videos I’m drawn to provide bite-size satisfaction—quick wins when I’m feeling burned out and seeking a sense of control. “These other things that need to be taken care of are bigger things and longer-term things,” she says. She describes reels and TikToks as digestible bits of content that are “almost immediately engaging by design.”
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If you asked me to watch video of a person putting away groceries or straightening a drawer in real time, I’d call you absurd. But produce a video of the same activity using fast-paced cuts, rapid narration, professional lighting, and a snippet of a popular song, and I’m captivated. “It’s entertaining,” Hamdani says. “It’s a tremendous amount of data in a small amount of time.”
She says it’s fine to derive inspiration from these videos, but she cautions against unrealistic comparisons, pointing out that content providers don’t live this way all the time. She suggests asking, “How could I make this work for me? And how could I utilize this image or this video to optimize my habits and routines as of right now, to make things easier or more aesthetically pleasing for me?”
Each of the experts emphasized the importance of balance: being deliberate with consumption and not losing track of time, and also getting exercise and fresh air, including morning sunlight to reset my circadian rhythm. They also recommend turning off screens several hours before bedtime for better sleep hygiene and making sure digital consumption doesn’t keep you from social, work, and family responsibilities.
Hamdani advises checking in with yourself after scrolling on your phone. If you feel tired, anxious, or unhappy about yourself or your life, that content may not be serving you.
While home-decluttering videos may motivate some people to get organized, they can also be a form of avoidance. Etkin explains that watching someone else clear out their closet in place of working on your own closet can be indicative of a “precontemplative” state of mind—where a person wants to be ready for change but isn’t quite there yet. “So they are getting ready to be ready for change—but oftentimes, that’s where it stops,” he says, adding that one of the biggest hurdles in behavioral change is moving from a precontemplative stage to any sort of action.
I decided to dig deeper and examine if my video habit could be masking my own avoidance. At first, it doesn’t track. I’m a tidy person. I make my bed every day and rarely leave unwashed dishes in the sink. I even purged my closet years ago using the KonMari method and have mostly managed to maintain it. Then it dawns on me.
For the past six months, my husband and I have been talking more seriously about the next phase of our lives. Pending empty nesters, our five-year plan likely involves downsizing from the home we’ve lived in for almost 25 years. I don’t have a drawer to declutter, I have an entire house full of memories and possessions to sort through and evaluate, to decided what I will keep, sell, or give away. It overwhelms me emotionally, and suddenly my fixation on a perfectly ordered linen closet makes sense.
In our conversation, I had asked Etkin about neuroplasticity, the brain’s remarkable ability to form new synapses. He confirmed, “There is no change in you that is not mediated by change in your brain.” Which leads me to this thought: If home organization videos can help me shift from the stress of uncertainty to a calmer frame of mind, could I harness the power of neuroplasticity to change my ambivalence about downsizing to excitement? Perhaps the right videos can move me closer to acceptance of this looming lifestyle change.
I asked Phillips about this. She tells me, “Everything that we do with our brain, the words that we use, the things that we see, have a huge impact on our moods and our motivation.”
Just as my apps use an algorithm to personalize my feed, I have the power to personalize my digital consumption and rewire my brain algorithm so it better serves my needs. I open TikTok and search #emptynestlife, #downsizing, and finally #beachliving. Minutes later, with a surge of energy, I walk to the back of my basement and gaze around me at boxes of photo albums, stacks of VHS tapes, a mountain of duffle bags, and a pile of cleats. I lift a box off a shelf, a tangle of random cables and power cords, and dig in.https://www.wired.com/story/why-watching-decluttering-videos-feels-so-good/