How to outwit your messy gene

How to outwit your messy gene

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 everyone knows it’s 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 into 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 behaviour 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 surprisingly 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.”

Genetic tendency or not, there’s little beside wild accusations flying from your partner to prove just how messy you are. A possible solution? A good old-fashioned quiz you can take together…

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Quiz: How messy are you really?

Take this quick quiz to discover if you have a sloppy style or tidy temperament. Don’t mess about — you need to be honest if you and your partner are to work through any dirty fights.

If police were to conduct a fingerprint test in your home, what would they find?

a) Their own reflection grimacing back at them through all that polish.

b) The odd bit of dust, but nothing visible to the eye.

c) Small mounds of dust, handfuls of decades-old receipts and a couple of things that must first be taken to a lab to be examined.

Dishes are ferried to the sink after dinner. How long is it acceptable for them to sit there?

a) Only as long as it takes you to reach for the dishwashing detergent and sponge. How could there be any other acceptable answer?

b) Up to two — maybe three — episodes of Ozark.

c) It’s fine to leave them until the first cockroach announces itself (could be hours or days, depending on the season).

What does your bed look like on any given day?

a) So immaculate you’ve been fielding calls from the army to teach soldiers.

b) You manage to pull the covers up every morning, so it’s neat enough.

c) Unmade, naturally. You fail to understand why anyone would make a bed when they’re only going to get back in it later.

The sight of a dining table stacked with paperwork and laundry that needs ironing makes you feel…

a) Like there’s nothing good left in the world.

b) As though your to-do list will never end.

c) What dining table? You haven’t seen yours in months.

What do you do when your kitchen bin starts to get full?

a) Yours doesn’t get ‘full’. You take it out to the street bin when it’s just over half-full.

b) You push it down to make room and buy yourself more time before you need to make the trip outside.

c) You just keep adding on to the

The verdict

If you answered mostly As, you’re as clean as a whistle, which poses the question: if you’re already militant about your cleaning habits, what does that say about your accuser? It could be time for your partner to take a look at his or her own habits.

If you answered mostly Bs, you’re an average person on the messiness/tidiness scale. Hygiene remains important to you, but because this is a grey area, Dr Ferguson recommends open, fair communication and plenty of compromise to keep your relationship on track.

If you answered mostly Cs, you’re essentially a one-man rock band on tour every day of the week. It’s time to euthanise your pet dust bunnies, apologise to your partner and listen up — there are plenty of ways to unlearn some of your behaviours.

Rewiring a messy brain

It’s time for the $64,000 question: do you actually want to be a tidier person? Dr Zietsch says how you 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 every day to practise 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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