The Downside of Habituation

cluttered desk


Have you ever heard of habituation? Even if you don’t know the word, you have likely experienced its impact. Habituation simply refers to the decrease in a person’s (or animal’s) response to stimuli after the stimuli are repeated. In other words, it is when we “get used to” things in our environment, and therefore stop focusing on them.

In many situations, this is wonderfully useful. The ability to tune out an unimportant sound, texture, or sight allows us to be more productive. For instance, when someone first moves into an urban apartment, he may be disturbed by the traffic noise below and unable to sleep. However, over time, his ears learn to disregard the sound and rest peacefully. Another example is when a person moves to an area that has a strong odor, such as next to a pig or mushroom farm. Initially, the smell may be distracting, but over time, it almost disappears.

Habituation also impacts the way we experience our visual spaces. Imagine you purchase a new piece of art, hang new curtains, or paint a wall. At first, you likely notice the change every time you walk by. Over time, however, the new addition morphs into the new normal, and therefore you cease to notice.

In most cases, this adaptive ability allows our brains to acknowledge and prioritize what might be important, threatening, or urgent.

While habituation is largely beneficial, it does have a downside when it comes to getting organized. To introduce this idea, I share a funny story…

When I was living in my first apartment, my roommate and I had very little money and hardly any furniture. At a flea market, my roommate purchased an old secretary desk. It was functional, but had layers of chipping paint. With gusto, we spread out a tarp and began the process of stripping the desk for repainting. 

And then, we got busy.

You can probably guess what happened next. A half-stripped, very ugly piece of furniture sat on a tarp in the middle of the living room for months. At first, we felt badly about it, and would often say, “We really need to finish this project so we don’t have this ugly thing in the middle of our apartment.” However, young professional careers demanded our time, so we finally pushed the desk up against the wall. Walking by the desk multiple times a day, we got used to having it there, and in essence stopped “seeing” it. It wasn’t until a repairman made a snarky comment on our decorating taste that we finally finished the project.

Often, people tell me that they are hanging a note or leaving a piece of paper on the counter to remind them to make a call or take a specific action. Unfortunately, just as my roommate and I disregarded the desk, most people stop noticing items that hang or sit within view for any length of time. Once you become habituated to seeing an object, it will no longer drive you to perform a task. Furthermore, if you believe that you need visual cues, you are likely to hang more notes, pile more papers, and add increasing layers of clutter to your space, obscuring the very items you were counting on seeing. Ironically, the more you believe in the need for visual prompts, the less effective these reminders are likely to be.

Rather than fill your space with objects, record everything you need to do on a “to do” list or in an app. If you fear losing track of the associated materials, simply note in your “to do” list where you have put them. Working through a concise, prioritized list is much more productive than rifling through a stack of papers or scanning a bulletin board, trying to recall what needs to get done.

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Does the idea of habituation make sense to you? Have you ever left something “out” and then forgotten all about it?

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