The Science of Spring Cleaning

Kate Morgan
3 min readApr 1, 2021
“Cleaning Supplies at the 99¢ only store” by futurowoman is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Last week, I decided to paint my bathroom.

It seemed like a simple enough project. It’s the smallest room in the house, so it couldn’t possibly take long, I reasoned, to clean out and organize its cabinets and closet, then scrub, spackle, and sand the walls. And a fresh coat of paint would make it feel so clean: the pay-off was huge.

Days later, I’m still working on it; for such a small room, it really has been a disproportionate amount of work. But I’m doing myself a favor, and not just because at the end of it all I’ll have a new and improved place to shower.

I’ve leaned into this year’s spring cleaning itch with a vengeance, and I’m feeling what Katherine Milkman, behavioral economist and Wharton School professor, calls the “fresh start effect.”

Spring is what Milkman refers to as a “temporal landmark” — a time when people are most motivated to set and achieve goals. In a study, Milkman and her fellow researchers found that temporal landmarks get people moving on things that will better them or their lives because the landmark represents a line between a person’s past and their future. There’s a near universal desire for the future to be better than the past.

There are other temporal landmarks, too. (New Year’s is a big one, hence all the resolutions.) But there’s a reason people tend to start diets or exercise programs on the first of the month, or at the beginning of the week. And there’s a reason the first warm days of March made me want to paint my bathroom.

In other words, we get the urge to spring clean because spring in particular feels like a new lease on life. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s a time of renewal in the world around us. Seedlings emerge, trees explode into bloom, and our yards are full of baby animals. Of course spring seems like a fresh start.

And increased motivation and the satisfaction of an accomplished goal aren’t the only positive effects of spring cleaning. Multiple studies find that clutter really does a number on our mental health, and getting rid of it can be both cathartic and a long-term stress reliever.

A 2017 study in Current Psychology found that clutter led to a significant decrease in life satisfaction, across age groups but especially among…

--

--

Kate Morgan

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.