Have you even been to a calm, quiet spa? How about an uncrowded beach or lakefront. Have you ever experienced a place where you felt peace and joy because it was a place where there was little confusion, little excess, and a lot of warmth and space to breathe? Doesn’t that sound like something you want for your children, your partner, your home, and most importantly yourself? Would you like to take my hand and go with me…right now? YES decluttering is something you CAN achieve!
In his Book, It’s All Too Much Workbook, The Tools You Need to Conquer Clutter and Create the Life You Want, professional organizer and consultant to Oprah Magazine, Peter Walsh gives this advice:
There is a real estate expression, “curb appeal,” which essentially means the first impression of a house as seen from the street. Forget about the clutter inside for a minute, and go out and take a look at the outside of your house. Seriously. Now! Go do it! Close your eyes and think back to the first time you saw this house. What did you imagine your life in this home would be like? I’ll venture a guess that overwhelming clutter and feeling stressed by that clutter were never part of your original dream.
While it may seem that getting organized is the answer to clutter, in reality the first step has nothing to do with ‘the stuff.’
The workbook goes on to ask a series of questions ranging from “What dream does your home represent to you?” To “What most excited you about your home?” To “How did it feel the first day you moved in?” to get to the basics of how you’ve always wanted to live in your home. Click on the link blow to be whisked away to Amazon for your own copy!
Let’s talk about clutter. More specifically let’s talk about the psychology of clutter, what causes it, what makes it so hard to declutter, and what all that extra “stuff” in our lives does to our brains and our wellbeing.
It’s a hot topic and for good reason. As a society in the western world, and the US in particular we have more stuff than ever before. Our houses are bigger, our closets are bigger, yet every closet, the spare bedroom and the garage is full of stuff. There is an entire industry that’s grown up around helping us deal with our clutter from stores that sell organizing solutions, to organizing and decluttering consultants, and even storage units that allow us to keep even more stuff we don’t have room for.
If nothing else, all this clutter and all this extra stuff can be very distracting. When was the last time you spent more than a couple of minutes trying to find something among all the extra things you’re keeping around “just in case”? Think about the time you’re wasting each and every day searching for stuff, or shifting things around to get to the item you need. That’s time you’re not getting back.
Even when you’re not actively looking for something, the clutter can be very distracting. You may not think that you’re noticing it, but you are. You’re keeping mental tabs on everything around you and that can be quite distracting. It’s much more relaxing and a lot easier to focus in a relatively clean and clutter-free environment.
Clutter can also keep us from moving on. It’s a coping mechanism that keeps us stuck in the past and it all has to do with why we hang on to so much stuff in the first place. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, says, “Clutter is the enemy of clarity,” and she’s right. How can we even concentrate if we’re surrounded by stuff and messiness? If you’re too depressed by your surroundings to think clearly, how do you function? How do you get any work done? How do you progress spiritually, mentally, or even physically?
Some things we keep because of the memories attached to them. Others we hold on to because it causes us too much pain to let them go. Most of us have an old t-shit or stuffed animal hidden in the back of the closet that we’ll never wear again or snuggle with. We hold on to it because it reminds us of our childhood or youth or some other pleasant memory. You may hold on to other things that either remind you of your own past or that belonged to a loved one that you can’t make yourself part with. Letting go of things and getting rid of physical items that we’ve grown attached to can hurt us. But sometimes facing that pain is part of the overall healing process. We hold on to notebooks and paperwork from that failed business opportunity or the treadmill we bought to get into shape.
Clutter can even hurt your brain. It’s much harder to focus on anything from simple household chores to doing your taxes, finishing up an important report for your boss, or writing a paper. It makes it harder to process information so everything that’s going on around you in a cluttered environment takes a lot more brain power. That in turn leaves you with less energy for the fun stuff.
“It’s hard for me to even imagine talking about clutter without talking about the emotional benefits of decluttering,” says Hazel Thornton, professional organizer and owner of Organized for Life, a consulting service in Albuquerque, N.M. in an interview for Experience Life Magazine. “There’s no one who calls me who isn’t stressed out, frustrated, or feeling inadequate, incompetent in their job, or guilty. It’s all about emotions—definitely it’s more about emotions than it is about the stuff.”
Clutter stresses us out. I’m sure you’ve noticed this yourself and it’s the reason most meditation or yoga spaces are sparsely furnished and never cluttered. We’re a lot more stressed when we’re living in a cluttered space. I’m sure part of it has to do with the fact that we have to keep mental tabs on all the extra things surrounding us. Add to that the mental and digital clutter we’re dealing with on a regular basis and it’s no wonder we’re so stressed out in the western world. With that comes all sorts of stress related illnesses including an increased risk of stroke and heart disease. (Note: though I couldn’t find an article on the CDC website attributing clutter stress to, say, heart disease in particular, I did find a number of articles that suggested that things such as work-related stress, familial stress, stress in the home, and lack of sleep are giant contributing factors to stress related illnesses and injuries. Stress can lead to all kinds of awful things from insomnia to a car crash to a heart attack. And though I can’t prove your clutter is clogging your arteries, I can bet it is stressing you out and causing you a lot of discomfort. Things to ponder…) Who knew that part of the solution could be something as simple as decluttering? No, I’m not saying that cleaning out your closet will lower your cholesterol by 20 points. But I am saying that if you join me on this journey, we may be able to cut your stress points by a whole lot more than that.
The clutter we have to deal with and that can often do us more harm than good, isn’t limited to just physical clutter. With the advent of computers and mobile devices, we’ve gotten very good at holding on to digital clutter as well. Since it doesn’t take up a lot of physical space, it’s even easier to accumulate this digital clutter.
This is an area of my life where I definitely need a lot of work and a lot of space. My phone is out of data space. My cloud storage is almost full and I’m about to start having to pay more money per month. I have over 8000 emails in my inbox. It’s time for me to declutter my digital life. Will you join me?
Take a few minutes and figure out where exactly you’re keeping your digital clutter. Places to start looking are your computer, external hard drives, laptops and tablets, your phone, but also memory cards that hold digital photos. Then there are digital storage solutions that don’t take up any physical space at your home like your cloud backups and email accounts for example. You may not think much about the 587,097 emails sitting in your Gmail inbox, but it’s all digital clutter that adds up. You don’t even realize how much that full email inbox is weighing on your mind until you make the effort to clear it out. It is incredible how freeing that feeling is. Give it a try and you’ll realize first-hand that digital clutter impacts you just as much as physical clutter does.
Clutter, be it physical, digital, or even the clutter of ideas and dreams in our head, takes up room. It takes up physical space, digital space, and most importantly it takes up room in our brain to keep track of it all. Start thinking about how you can reduce that clutter to leave more “headspace” for the important stuff. Something as simple as a brain dump exercise can be a great place to start. Not only will it help you declutter and organize your thoughts, a lot of thoughts about all your physical and digital clutter will come up as well and help you come up with a plan to tackle them one at a time.
Doing a “brain dump” is very easy to do. It can be a bit exhausting while you do it, but the end result and the peace of mind you get from it are well worth the effort. Grab a notebook or a few pages of scrap paper and a pen. Then start writing down everything you need to or want to get done. Write down your dreams, aspirations, and goals. Write down appointments you need to remember and chores that need taking care of. Don’t edit, don’t second guess yourself. Simply focus on getting it all out of your head and onto the paper. When you’re all done, take a deep breath and notice the freeing and calming feeling.
Later on, you can go through the list, organize it, cross out items you don’t really need, and use the rest as a starting point to organize and declutter your life from physical, digital, and mental “stuff”.
There is one more psychological aspect of clutter that we need to talk about before we wrap up this short report, and that’s finding your own clutter “sweet spot”. Here’s what I’m talking about…
Some people thrive in a very sparse and clean environment with no unneeded items in sight and everything in its place. Others need quite a bit of organized decor around them to feel calm and comfortable. Most of us fall somewhere in the middle.
It’s important to realize that your house doesn’t have to be Architectural Digest perfect at the end of the day. Mine certainly isn’t and it never will be. How chilly would that be? I’m going more for a fairy tale cottage look, but maybe you’re mid-century or Americana. Perhaps Shabby Chic is to your taste or you love the look of an industrial loft. Whatever your dream looks like, it simply has to work well for you and your family. This means you don’t have to work from a blank desk and that the books on your shelves don’t have to be perfectly organized by topic, author, or size. If you work better at a desk that includes a couple of family pictures, a notepad and assortment of pens, and a stress ball, then go for it. Just be careful that you don’t let the clutter take over. It has a tendency to multiply.
The key is to find your very own sweet spot when it comes to clutter and how much stuff you have laying around. Finding the spot can be a little tricky. To find it, start with a completely clutter-free environment. Spend the time and effort to declutter, clean, and organize until you’re left with a space that’s as sparse as you can make it. Don’t strive for perfection, but do the very best you can for your personal situation. For example, if you’re living with little children, your house will never look like a model home and there will always be toys around. That’s ok. Give it your best and use that as your starting point. If you’re comfortable there, great. If it feels a little cold and uncomfortable, start adding a few more personal items here and there. Add a comfy blanket to the couch or put a scented candle on your desk. Put a few personal items here and there and see how you feel about your space now. Rinse and repeat until you find your very own sweet spot when it comes to personalized décor then do your best to keep it there. Of course, this paragraph is a highly simplistic way of looking at organizing. There are many more steps to decluttering, purging, sorting, and homing your belongings. I have created an email series to get you started. If you would like to join me on the journey, sign up below and I will happily send you the series of non-overwhelming, fun emails to get you started.
There are some books I highly recommend. The first is my most cherished organizing tome, Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morganstern. Julie takes a very positive approach with her SPACE method” Sort: go through all of your belongs and decide what to keep, what to toss, what to donate; Purge: donate your unwanted belongings to charity and get them in the car and on their way; Assign everything a home; Containerize: put everything into a beautiful container that you love only AFTER you’ve decided what you’re going to keep and have made your measurements and know where everything is going to go; and finally Equalize: maintain your beautiful new look by keeping everything in place, neat, tidy, and clean.
The second book is Toni Hammersley’s The Complete Book of Home Organization which comes complete with great illustrations and beautiful pictures to guide you room-by-room and shelf-by-shelf through your home-to-be. A slight warning—reading this book cover to cover is a bit intimidating, so take it in bite sized chunks.
My third and fourth recommendations are Peter Walsh’s It’s All Too Much and It’s All Too Much Workbook. I am currently making my way through the workbook and find it incredibly insightful. Peter is an organizational consultant and therapist and has appeared numerous times on the Oprah Winfey Show as well as the Oprah and Friends XM radio network. I find him a little kick ass and a little tough love and a whole lot understanding (like my grammar? I write some good English).
Remember, over time clutter will sneak up on you. I’m sure you’ve experienced this first hand. You start out with a clean dining room table, put one item on it and before long the table is so covered that you can no longer see the surface. Clutter attracts more clutter and you have to stay on top of it or it will start to take over. One of the big appeals of minimalism for many of us is that we no longer have to worry about clutter taking over. You don’t have to go that far of course. You simply need to be aware of the phenomenon and deal with it as time goes by. Give your home or office a quick scan once a week and see if there’s an area where clutter is accumulating. Take care of it by returning items to the place they belong or getting rid of them. If you find the same spot attracting clutter week after week, see if you can come up with a solution. Maybe there needs to be a new house rule that nothing can be left on the dining room table, or maybe you can put a pretty table cloth and some candles on it in an effort to avoid the clutter attraction.
I hope you’ve found this short exploration on the psychology of clutter helpful. If nothing else, it should inspire you to examine the spaces you live and work in and make you think about how comfortable you are in those spaces.
This article is super simplistic and just the tip of the iceberg. But don’t quit on me yet! I promise that if you give me just a few days of emails and a couple hours a day, maybe even less than that! for a little while, we can accomplish big things together. I have started down the path to a well organized home and I am finding so much joy and peace after so many years of chaos and stress. I have been bitten and smitten by the organizing bug and you can be too! Join me on this journey, Mama. It’s a hard one for sure. I’m going to ask a lot of you. It’s gonna take elbow grease, it’s gonna take brain power, it’s gonna mean less Game of Thrones time (I know, I hear you groaning because I’m groaning too). But when we do take breaks, they will oh so much sweeter and fun time will be oh so much more fun because we will have a clean, organized home to enjoy those times in. And in the long run we will have more time to work and play and enjoy our children and our hobbies! Sign up for my email series below and let’s get started together!