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Can You Outwit Your Messy Gene? - Body + Soul, The Sunday Telegraph - May 3, 2020

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

Article written by Dilvin Yasa

A tidier home could be just around the corner. The caveat? You have to really want it

Beauty, famously, claims to be in the eye of the beholder, but so too is mess. "Your stacks of paperwork make our home look like a squatter's den," will shout one (insufferably neat) partner, to which the guilty party will retort: "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then is an empty desk a sign?" Invoking Albert Einstein during an argument may be dirty, but every know's its a win.

In a previous, pre-pandemic life, neat vs messy may not have mattered so much, but as lockdown measures force couples to live in confined spaces 24/7, every habit, every wet towel flung across a bed, can be magnified, says psychologist Dr Amanda Ferguson.

"This is a curious time because people are all grating on each other in a way they've never experienced before," she explains. "it could be that your partner has a habit you once thought was quite sweet but now that you're witnessing it hour after hour, day after day, you don't just dislike it, you also have plenty of time to think about how much you hate it."

Some habits may be harder to swallow than others (humming loudly, breaking out in Phil Collins-style drum solos, for example), but could it be that with messiness, some people really can't help it?

Dr Brendan Zietsch of the University of Queensland studies the genetic underpinnings of human behavior and says people can inherit a genetic tendency for messiness from one or both parents. "Both genes and environment play a role in influencing traits in general. But twin studies show that upbringing - the shared home environment - plays a surprising small role," he explains. "We can see this because non-identical twins - and other siblings - who grow up in the same home environment are not very similar at all in personality."


It's time for the $64,000 question: do you actually want to be a tidier person? Dr Zietsch says how yo answer this question will determine how successful you'll be moving forwards. "Genetic influences are not deterministic. They may make it more or less difficult to be tidy, but you can still overcome that with enough effort."

Assuming you've answered 'yes', Dr Ferguson recommends taking time out ever day to practice mindfulness or meditation - two activities that increase self-regulation.

"Self-control depletes your energy but self-regulation is invigorating because it requires less effort for tasks and concentration," she says. "This will make you more likely to follow through on both messiness and effective conflict resolution with your partner."

Following basic hygiene recommendations should always be top of mind (a clean kitchen and bathroom are a must), but outside of that it's up to you to work out how best to proceed. "It could be deciding to focus on keeping one or two main rooms tidy and leaving the door closed on the guest bedroom, or assigning tasks to each party depending on your individual strengths," recommends Dr Ferguson.

"If you find the process boring, you could look for ways to spice things up - tidying in your lingerie would be beneficial for both the state of your home and your relationship!"

If the process is too difficult and deeper issues are at play, it may be worth considering counselling. "I always recommend people try downloading the Black Dog Institute's myCompass self-help program [], but if you find the fog isn't clearing, it's helpful to know most mental-health professionals are still open for business, for both face-to-face appointments and by telehealth."


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