The oddest thing happens when you have a lot of work to do. Instead of sitting down to write your thesis or tackle a jam-packed inbox, you feel compelled to get up and... wash the dishes? This is a common phenomenon that’s often referred to as “procrastination cleaning” — a term with over 5 million views on TikTok. The urge to clean might feel out of place in moments like this, but experts say there are quite a few reasons why so many of us do it.
While it doesn’t affect everyone, it’s relatively common to get distracted by messy, chaotic surroundings, says Ann Robinson, LCSW, a therapist with Two Rivers Therapy and Consulting. It can be annoying or overwhelming to stare at a disorganized desk or a cluttered room, which is why it might feel good to tidy papers, fold blankets, or do a quick de-clutter before working on more important things. Once you’re in a fresh, clean space, it’ll feel like your brain is fresh and clean, too.
The act of cleaning is also a go-to form of stress relief for many people, which is another reason it comes in handy whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed or stuck on a particularly daunting task. According to Robinson, cleaning is essentially a type of moving meditation, and one that provides a mental break. If you’re stressed out by a project, it helps to focus on something low-stakes for a while — like vacuuming — as a way to reset.
Of course, setting off on a random cleaning expedition is always a good excuse to take a physical break from sitting at a desk or staring at a screen, too. This is why you’re suddenly in love with the idea of taking out the trash at 2 p.m., even though it normally seems so exhausting. As Robinson says, “It serves as a reset, helping to clear your mind and refocus your energy.”
There’s also something to be said for the way a mini-cleaning sesh can get you on a roll. Once you check a few menial chores off your to-do list, Robinson says you’ll feel more motivated to keep going and complete more tasks, like sending that big scary email to your boss.
The urge to clean doesn’t just strike people with messy apartments, though. Even if your space is neat and tidy, you might find yourself cleaning things that don’t need to be cleaned simply as a form of distraction, says therapist Heidi McBain, MA, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C. And especially so if you’re having trouble focusing on a task. Cut to you polishing silverware you didn’t even know you had, simply because you needed the break.
Niermann, HC. (2014). The relation between procrastination and symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in undergraduate students. Int J Methods Psychiatr Res. doi: 10.1002/mpr.1440.
Heidi McBain, , MA, LMFT, LPC, PMH-C, therapist