I Can Get You Addicted to Cleaning: Dopamine and the Checklist

updated May 4, 2019
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Maybe I’m an addict.

Like many list-makers, crossing things off my list makes me feel really good and makes me want to cross the next thing off my list, and the next. What’s really going on here? More specifically, how can we harness this reaction to make the sometimes arduous task of cleaning not only less irritating, but even downright tempting?

Dopamine makes us feel good

Not to put checking things off a list on par with eating chocolate or sex, but dopamine is the neurotransmitter responsible for the “feel-good” effect of these activities. And as any human being knows, if it feels good, we’re driven to do it again.

Dopamine is indeed involved in less desirable activities and addiction (whether to heroin or to the little red bubble above that white f in the blue box). But rather than only fighting against this chain reaction, we can use it to our advantage — such as getting more things crossed off our lists.

Checklists trigger the release of dopamine

Of course, crossing something off of a list per se is not what causes the release of dopamine (at least not at first; we’ll get to that). It’s the act behind it, the sense of accomplishment, that makes us feel good.

As Brian Patrick Eha of Entrepreneur.com says in How to Reward Your Brain and Boost Productivity, “The key to achieving your goals may be in understanding your brain chemistry. When you succeed at something, your brain releases dopamine, a reward chemical which boosts memory and triggers increased concentration and a desire to repeat the experience.”

When we complete a task and get in the habit of crossing that item off of a list, the pleasant feeling becomes associated with the crossing off (think Pavlov’s dogs) and we become more productive.

The organizing gurus of Simply Placed put it this way:

Why does getting things done feel good? It’s the neurotransmitter dopamine that is responsible for feelings of achievement, satisfaction and happiness. When we recognize a small task or large project as being complete, this triggers a dopamine release. Not only does dopamine allow us to feel good about what we’ve done, it also serves to motivate us to do more so we can continue to feel pleasure.

Crossing something off a list helps us recognize a task as being complete. Boom: dopamine! And this is where the motivation comes in: The association between crossing something off a list and that good feeling becomes so strong that we’ll do just about anything — even scrub a toilet — to get it.

We want more

I’d venture to say that if you don’t like to clean, the effect is even more pronounced: if you disdain cleaning, any cleaning chore seems more monumental, no? So when the task is finished, the sense of accomplishment must be even greater. The folks at Simply Placed agree: “Recognizing you’ve completed a task triggers a dopamine response. The larger the task, the greater the surge.” Along this line, the more you clean and cross items off your list, the greater your sense of accomplishment and the more you want to clean. Soon you’ll be reaching for that checklist so you can get your fix.

Cleaning for your (mental) health

I don’t want to get too crazy here, but may I suggest that cleaning could become a way to feel good, that crossing something off your cleaning checklist could become a, shall we say, mood enhancer? It is for me. Go ahead, try it.