The Downside of Habituation

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?

33 thoughts on “The Downside of Habituation”

    1. Sort of a new term to me, but a concept that I know I have experienced. The only time it really works to leave something out as a reminder is in those situations where a person never leaves anything out because they hate the site of clutter — then it is quite visible!

  1. This is such an interesting perspective on the pros and cons of habits…or habituation. In the best sense, it helps us block out disturbances so that we can focus on what’s most important. I remember this growing up. There was always music in my house. My mom was a piano teacher and my siblings were also musicians. I found it very difficult to concentrate on studying or reading with the constant sound. But over time, I learned to tune it out. The unfortunate part is that while I love music, to really hear it, I have to listen very intently or my mind starts blocking it out. It’s one of the reasons I never sing the words to songs correctly.
    Linda Samuels recently posted…What Are Today’s Interesting Finds? – v11My Profile

    1. The brain is a pretty amazing thing! Habits, and learning to block out the “unimportant,” are a way of being efficient. They are powerful!! This illustration you share is a perfect example. Training the brain to “tune back in” is tricky and requires focus. I just find the whole thing interesting as well… still chewing on the idea, even though I finished the post!

  2. I call it being house “blind”, i tell this to clients who are getting ready to sell their homes. They are so used to “seeing” things the way they are, a fresh set of eyes helps them to really see. Hazel Thorton has great story about this!.

    1. Oh yes, and the realtors try and tell us that our houses need work… but maybe we don’t always listen! Acclimating to sights and sounds can make us more efficient when facing things we can’t control, but good to be aware of this tendency so that we don’t rely on our eyes to see something that our brain has stopped acknowledging!

  3. We live next to a town full of cows and it smells strongly of cows, especially in the summer, and I always wonder if the people there don’t smell it anymore. Or if they go to other places and smell like cows!
    Ah!
    Sorry, that was an aside.
    I’m too good at tuning things out – too good. I call it survival after living with four loud siblings for my childhood, but I do worry I get used to things and then miss them.
    Tamara recently posted…Ooey Gooey Raspberry Apple Pocket PiesMy Profile

    1. You have me laughing, Tamara! I know that odors often stay in our hair because apparently hair is hollow, so even after you shower, it is still there! I had the opposite experience from you… grew up in a very quiet household. I really struggled in college with all of the noise. Today I have Bose earphones, and they are part of survival for me when I travel.

  4. This is a new word to me, but definitely a familiar experience. The first thought that came to mind was of the time I removed the baseboard to paint my kitchen and never got around to putting it back or replacing it until we put the house on the market much later. I actually had to get rid of the in tray on my desk because I kept using it as a place to put low priority stuff I needed to do, and it usually sat there for weeks or even months. Without an in tray, I’m forced to make an immediate decision – do it or file it.
    Janet Barclay recently posted…ISTJ Organizing ProfileMy Profile

    1. An “in” tray can be a black hole for sure. I see them in many client’s homes. They make things look better, but it is just too easy to forget what is inside. If you want to use the tray, put the “to do” on a list, and then use the tray for pending items… that way, you won’t forget them. Loving the comments on this one!

    1. I had to learn the word myself, Sabrina. But once I understand the concept, it made a lot of sense. It is an amazingly efficient way that the brain adapts, but it can also cause us to forget things that we rely on our senses to remind us of!

  5. Love this
    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.

    Powerful reminder to keep the important stuff on a to do list

    1. I’m sure you see this as well, as it is a very common habit. Gotta keep that list as the “go to” place for all tasks. Few people have enough space, or enough attention, to rely on visual cues!

  6. I’ve become habituated to my son’s whining … I can tune out that noise clutter like no one’s business! Thanks for the introduction to this term, in talking about this with clients in the past I would use the term “wallpaper.” The million sticky notes on their fridge or the pile of clothes on the chair in their bedroom have become like wallpaper that they no longer notice or look at anymore. Now I can try out “habituation” on them! 😀

    1. I wish I could have tuned out whining – good for you! “Wallpaper” is another great term, as is “nose blind” in the TV commercial. Fun for me to learn a new word as well… sounds sort of impressive, right?

  7. What a great reminder. I need to look through my house, purse, etc. with fresh eyes and look for those items I’ve learned to live with over time. Life is too short to live with things just because we’ve forgotten to pay attention. Off to tackle my purse now.

    1. Great idea to look through the purse or briefcase – we definitely let items sit there and stop seeing them… even when they are making it difficult to find our keys! Hope you found a few things to clear out:)

  8. I think we sometimes get comfortable in our chaos and clutter and don’t see it for what it really is. I really like how you’ve been able to give a name to it and I love the story you shared! Great post and I hope it’s an encouragement to those who may read it!

    1. Thanks so much, Liana. I think we do “accept” a level of clutter, and at some level, that is a good thing. We don’t want to be constantly making our families feel that they can’t live, or that we need to be constantly making sure everything is perfect. However, once we stop seeing something that we ultimately want to change, we take one step away from progress.

  9. What a wonderful job of explaining a very complicated concept so that we can all understand and relate to it. It reminds me of when family came to visit not too long ago and we were driving near the foothills (outside Denver) and they asked, “does this view ever get old? It can’t, right?” I didn’t have the words to describe it at the time, but unfortunately I realized in that moment that I had become habituated to this view. A fresh set of eyes with a new perspective can be incredibly powerful.

    1. That’s a great example, Sarah! Visitors from other regions often tell me the same thing about our lush trees and beach. It is a gift when someone reminds me to enjoy the beauty around me:)

  10. I have another name for this challenge. It’s that our stuff becomes like “wallpaper”, we don’t see the stuff anymore because it is a given in our environment. It’s a challenge to move beyond this block and get a new perspective. Creating a new perspective can happen when we take a photo of the space. We see it in a new light and can move forward.

    1. Sarah also introduced me to the word, “wallpaper” and it make such sense. I love the idea of taking a photograph. What a great way to remove the subjectivity and familiarity and see things in a fresh way. This must be how realtors feel as well, when they enter a space that they know is dated but the homeowner things it looks just fine.

  11. Ha Seana! This reminds me so much of the spirit of familiarity. We tend to take things and people for granted when we’ve had them around for so long. Things we once admired…our car, our home, our stuff, family members, etc. – over time, if we’re not careful, we’ll start taking for granted and/or lose respect for.

    It kind of reminds me of a kid who has a toy they’ve always wanted. When they get the toy, they play with it, take care of it, etc. But soon, they lose interest, throw it in the back of the closet or put it under the bed, and when a friend comes over and admires it and wants to play with it – they get jealous and want it back to play with themselves. Funny how life is, huh? They’re are so many examples of how we habituate things in our lives. Thanks for reminding me Seana!! Have a wonderful rest of your week!
    Michell recently posted…Launch Day!My Profile

    1. I love your example of the child and the toy. This is just spot on! We want something until we tire of it. I agree that we tend to take things for granted that we see every day. Another commenter spoke about getting used to a beautiful mountain view. Intentionality and thankfulness can help, as can letting go of things that we no longer value. This clears out space (mental and physical), so we can truly enjoy what we have.

    1. Thanks Gingi… the word was new to me as well, but once I chewed on it for awhile, I realized that it has far-reaching implications. In so many situations it works in our favor, but there are a few instances where it can work against us. Thanks for reading:)

  12. I love this word! I am looking around my home with fresh eyes at the clutter I have become blind to. My fish tank sounds horribly loud too. Sitting on my couch I just noted at least three things I can do today to clear the clutter that I had become used to. Thanks for introducing me to this concept. It really opened my eyes!
    Jamie Steele recently posted…5 Back to School Tips for a Great School YearMy Profile

    1. You are making me laugh about the fish tank, Jamie! Noise clutter is definitely a “thing” to be aware of. I have an old beverage fridge that is quite loud. It is on its last leg, and I won’t be too sad when it needs to be replaced:)

  13. Pingback: Organizing Your Bulletin Board | The Seana Method Organizing & Productivity

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