What is Clutter and Do You Have It?
There's much talk these days about 'decluttering' and organizing as magic bullet solutions to all that ails us. We are told by those selling us solutions for our messes that getting tidy will make us happier, more productive, more creative, more appreciative of what we have and richer because we won't buy as much to replace things we can't find. We know we ought to do something about all that stuff - those piles of paper, the dark shadowy corners of closets, dusty boxes still not unpacked from last time - but find it difficult to begin. Why?
Part of the problem is that having lots of stuff in contemporary culture is a tricky proposition. On the one hand, we are constantly encouraged to acquire more, better, newer and told our self-worth is measured by how much and what sort of stuff we have. On the other hand, given the vastly greater amounts of stuff that the average person can own, does own, needs to own and will own over the course of a lifetime, we now face the demand to demonstrate our worth by how well we organize, 'edit', purge and control the quantities of stuff we have. The perfect living space is tidy and near-minimalist. These are contradictory propositions so no wonder people give up before they start.
The first challenge then is to move away from any moral assessment of your space and your stuff. If you have acquired it legally, you don't need to waste time on feeling guilty for having it. What would be a better use of your time is doing a short diagnostic test on whether or not you have a stuff-problem, otherwise known in the trade as clutter.
To begin with not all spaces brimming with stuff are cluttered and nor do they require any intervention. There are design aesthetics that make lots of stuff an art form and these are not to be dismissed just because the contemporary sensibility is for 'hotel-inspired' home living (meaning bland minimalism in most instances).
Some examples of beautiful and plentiful stuff:
The Gallery Wall
The Victorian Aesthetic
A Surprising Collection
If you like the look of these images, you may be someone drawn to having lots of visual stimulation and that's just fine - it's not clutter and it's not a problem to be solved.
Do you have a clutter problem? Or do you simply have an eclectic taste in stuff?
Take the clutter test:
However, you may also or instead have a clutter problem. If you're not sure, take this simple test to figure out if you may benefit from decluttering and organizing your life, just answer yes or no and keep track of how many yeses you have:
1. Getting dressed for work or an event is often difficult because you can't see what you have to wear and/or you pull things out that are so rumpled or crushed that you can't wear them.
2. Routine tasks often take a long time because you can't find what you need (keys, tools, ingredients etc.).
3. You avoid certain chores because accessing the tools is so much work.
4. There are areas of your living space you prefer not to think about because there is 'stuff' there that you don't know how to deal with.
5. There are areas of your living space you don't show visitors because you're embarrassed.
6. When you do tidy an area, you often find multiples of basic items that you have bought because you couldn't find one when you needed it.
7. You fantasize about organized and tidy spaces but just can't seem to make a start to get there or you literally cannot find a corner to tidy because there's no space to put the stuff you clean out of it.
8. You would love to have someone clean your living space for you but you couldn't hire anyone right now because there's too much mess for anyone to be able to clean the space.
9. Your financial affairs are sometimes in chaos because you can't find the papers you need to maintain order.
10. You find yourself missing important deadlines (license renewal, taxes) because you misplace the reminders or the documents you need to deal with matters.
11. Coming home or having time at home on weekends is not pleasurable because you don't like your living space.
12. You often have to devote time to big clean-ups (picking up all your clothes for laundry day or clearing kitchen counters after days of doing nothing, or huge blitzes to prepare for visitors at the holidays) which are exhausting.
If you answered Yes to more than one or two of these, you may have a clutter problem. Clutter is when our stuff is no longer facilitating an enjoyable life but is making you unhappy, frustrated, embarrassed, guilty or stressed. Stuff shouldn't do that to its owner. We owners shouldn't let stuff do that to us.
I Think I Have Clutter, What Should I Do?
This article could be as short as an aphorism you may have heard from your grandmother: "A place for everything and everything in its place." Simple, finito, 'nuff said.
Right, well, if it were that easy there wouldn't be a whole industry devoted to 'storage solutions' and another devoted to helping people declutter and organize.
Let's start with the first bit first: a place for everything. That is the crux of the matter but that fact that all your stuff doesn't seem to have a proper place is likely not entirely your fault. It may be subject to your control though if you think 'outside the box' as they say.
So why do so many people face the challenge of having enough space or the right places for their stuff? There are dozens of personal reasons why people may find their stuff exceeding their space but there are a couple of facts that we all face:
1. Modern life requires more stuff;
2. Living spaces aren't designed for modern life.
While it's not strictly true that getting the bare necessities requires more stuff, who, other than religious devotees, lives with the goal of getting the BARE necessities? We live as members of groups and families and societies that demand our full participation in social rites and rituals that, in turn, require us to have certain kinds of stuff. To use a simple example, whereas most people were satisfied with a couple of sets of working clothes and a 'Sunday Best' outfit before WWII, nowadays you are expected to wear different clothes every work day and to have a variety of dressy outfits, not to mention having purpose-specific sports and lounge wear. That sort of scaling up has happened across all aspects of life - think of outfitting a modern kitchen, a home entertainment zone, a kid's room or the stuff you've acquired to enable your hobbies and interests.
We have scaled up the material side of life but mostly continue to have to live in spaces designed for different social demands and lives lived with less (and different) stuff. Not only do our homes not have sufficient or the right kind of storage, but they are still being built with a functional layout that may not really 'function' that well for modern families. We find ourselves drowning under piles of of stuff that just doesn't have a 'place' and it really isn't our fault.
What can be done?
Start by taking stock of the space you have and how you actually use it. Here it is important to be brutally honest with yourself or your family. What do you do in your space everyday? What do you do even though space is tight and you have to move things around to make it possible? These activities need to be accommodated properly. Other activities that you think you MIGHT want to do but never have do NOT have to be accommodated if space is tight. A few examples may make this clearer.
-- You have an outfitted formal dining room (table, chairs, buffet or sideboard) but no one ever eats there and so the space attracts everyone's junk and piles of paper. Meanwhile, your kids are doing homework on the coffee table and eating off the sofa arm.
-- You have a spare bedroom but have overnight visitors once/year or less. Meanwhile, your clothes closet is overbrimming with stuff.
-- You have a formal living room but spend every evening in the smaller 'den' where your entertainment gear is spilling out of every nook and cranny.
Once these scenarios are laid out, solutions appear obvious (and they are) but to make them happen, we have to acknowledge that modern life has changed and we need to adapt our spaces to fit it. The formal parlour and dining spaces most homes and apartments have could serve so many more useful functions from being informal living space to becoming home offices, studies and libraries, to being entertainment or exercise zones. Spare bedrooms should first serve those living in the house before they are turned over to infrequent guests who could be accommodated when needed. Lots is possible if you break out of traditional notions of how best to use your space.
To repeat then, if the amount of space you have is a problem, start with a brutally honest assessment of what your space must accommodate and get rid of anything in it that doesn't contribute to those core goals. You may find that this opens up a 'space for everything' as you eliminate stuff you only had because you thought you had to have it and re-imagines spaces to novel and creative uses.
Part 3. Putting Everything in its Place
If you know you have clutter (Part 1) and you've made sure you're using your space wisely (Part 2), what can you do to get your stuff in place and keep it there?
There are literally dozens of websites that help you get started with tidying messy spaces. This short article will not repeat all those great ideas here. I think it is important to consider a couple of things as you embark on getting your stuff under control.
First, if you know you have a problem with clutter and want to change it but cannot make a start - i.e. you procrastinate endlessly at the expense of your mental or physical or social health, you may want to talk to a therapist. There are lots of reasons we get 'stuck' with our stuff and some are not easily shaken with a few 'how to' tips on a website. If you think you may have a problem, get help, don't just beat yourself up.
Second, if getting sorted is a really big job, start with something you have to do everyday or love to do so that the reward is felt immediately. For example, making leaving the house each morning easier by organizing and tidying your entry hall and getting your work or school clothes ready in advance creates an instant reward for good behaviour that you experience every day. If you love to cook, commit to organizing the kitchen and keeping it that way. When that is habit, move to another space knowing how good it was to tidy up the kitchen, the entry or your closet.
Third, if you need others to get involved, involve them and make sure they experience rewards too. Get your kids excited about creating a new, larger entertainment zone in the living room and tie access to keeping their homework and school stuff tidy at their workspaces. Get your kids home 'lockers' or storage units for their stuff to make tidying easier. Trading space with a partner can be a way to get their buy-in on keeping stuff neat - does he need the dining room table for his hobby? does she need the whole closet in the bedroom to keep work clothes in good shape? Maybe this trade-off is worth it for everyone.
Fourth, do not lose hope or heart. If you've lived for years with chaos and disorder, it's unlikely to change overnight. You will have to change how you interact with your space, how you deal with your stuff and how you prioritize your time. You will have to form new habits and break old ones. Give yourself credit for making any and all progress and if you backslide, forgive yourself and make a new plan.
Fifth, remember that all that stuff is supposed to enable you to live the life you want. If it's not doing that, there's a problem requiring your attention. Pay attention and fix the problem and get back to living life.
Having a place for everything and everything in its place probably will make you happier and more productive and may even save you some money so it's worth aspiring to and committing some time and resources to. Just keep your perspective on what you can or can't do and what tools you have to work with and make sure the rewards outweigh the costs!