Do you have boxes of old memorabia, awards, kids' artwork, souvenirs, and other odds and ends that you haven't looked at in years? What causes you hold onto these things? One distinct possibility is a sense of obligation. You may be thinking something like:
Or some similar form of self-imposed censure or guilt...
The thing is, if the items were truly important to you, they wouldn't be boxed up in the attic or basement or closet. They would be on display or in use because that is what we do with the things that we love.
Chances are, you've forgotten about many of the things that lay buried in the bottoms of boxes and stashed in the darkest recesses of your home's storage spaces. While you may enjoy a brief moment of reminiscence upon being reunited with these items, you are not likely to miss them should they cease to inhabit a place in your plane of existence. Still, getting rid of the guilt that keeps you from getting rid of the things you feel duty bound to keep is often harder than getting rid of the items themselves.
The good news is there is a way to preserve the memories and relationships and history associated with things without keeping the actual objects. The solution is photographs combined with scrapbooking or journaling. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but taking the time to add a little information to accompany your photos will only add to the value of the image.
Implementing the Photographic Method of Decluttering
Some things are better suited to the photographic method of decluttering than others. You aren't likely, for instance, to feel the need to photograph kitchen utensils or other tools that you no longer use in order to preserve a memory of them. Indeed, you are also not likely to feel duty bound to keep such items.
The kinds of things that can be well-preserved with a photograph are the kinds of things we hold onto for sentimental reasons - they remind us of someone or something that we value. Let's look at a few examples and how to use photographs and journaling to let things go.
Kids tend to be prolific artists. While some of their work is truly memorable and worthy of preservation in its original form, the sheer volume makes it difficult to justify keeping all your child's artwork. Instead of storing boxes of underappreciated art, photograph or scan your kid's creations. You can then use the photos to create other things like calendars, stationery, notecards, coffee mugs, coasters, and more.
Consider taking a photo of your child with his or her creation, or if they are making it at home, photograph them in the process of creating. You can also take a video of them working on their masterpiece and ask them to describe it to you.
A cheap and simple way to recognize or thank someone within an organization is to give them a certificate. The important thing to keep in mind when sorting through piles of certificates is that the real value is in the gesture, not the piece of paper itself. Some certificates are worth keeping, others can be disposed of down the road. Only you can determine which is which as it is a personal decision.
One nice thing about certificates is that they fit nicely into page protectors which can then be inserted into scrapbooks. Whether you decide to photograph a certificate or keep the original, I recommend writing down the circumstances under which it was received. While the who, what, and when may be included on the certificate, a brief explanation of the larger context can add meaning, particularly for children and grandchildren when the time comes for them to sort through your things.
Trophies and Awards
My husband served for more than 28 years in the United States Army. In the military awards are often given at the end of each assignment and are often accompanied with a gift (usually a wall hanging of some sort). For part of my husband's military career, he worked extensively with foreign militaries who also felt the need to provide him with gifts, often just for visiting their unit or for some other brief interaction.
For many years, we kept the vast majority of these items in boxes. When we bought our first home near the end of his career, we decided to create what my husband calls an "I love me wall" to display all the things he had accumulated over the years. We chose a stairwell and used it to create a collage wall (walls, really). Then we moved, and there was no such space in our new home, so we decided it was time to be discerning about what we kept.
Certificates were removed from their frames and placed in page protectors as described in the previous section. Some items were tossed out. Others were photographed, and a select few made it onto a new display wall in the basement.
Of the items we opted to photograph, the following information was included:
Similar efforts could be made to preserve children's sports trophies and other common awards. Take a photo of the child with their trophy (preferably in their uniform, and ideally with their coach). Then write down the key information.: the name of the league they played in, the time frame, the coach's name, their win-loss record, what position the child played, his or her stats for the season, and any other relevant information that you or your child might like to recall at some later date.
Souvenirs can take many forms from a pamphlet or ticket stub to a cheap trinket to an expensive artifact. We often hang onto all of them, no matter their value. Paper souvenirs can easily be placed in a scrapbook along with photos of the event or vacation with which they are associated. Other bulkier items require some consideration. Often in the midst of a vacation, a cheap knick knack may catch our attention. Once home, these inexpensive remembrances frequently end up in a box of "keepsakes'. That's fine if you have endless space to store stuff you rarely (if ever) look at. If not, consider photographing the less-than-display-worthy items and then getting rid of the objects themselves.
Once again, it is recommended that you record any relevant information about the event or vacation to accompany the photograph. Where is it from? When were you there? What was it about the object that initially appealed to you?
I've just listed a few of the general kinds of items you might consider photographing as a means of decluttering. Now that you have a feel for this approach, consider applying the photographic method of decluttering as a means of downsizing any memorabilia or other knick knacks you may have stashed away in boxes somewhere. It's simple. Take a picture and toss the item. Be sure to document the item's significance in writing. Then reclaim the storage space those items have been hoarding. You may find that you actually get more enjoyment out of looking at the photos than you ever did having the items stashed away in boxes out of sight.
I love this quote. It reminds me that actions lead to habits, and that I can control what habits I develop by making mindful decisions about how to act and spend my time day in and day out.
In many ways, organization and clutter are habits. Dozens of small decisions throughout the day have a big cumulative impact on the amount of clutter that surrounds us.
In the Western world, everyone deals with clutter all the time. Even for the organized and tidy, the threat of impending clutter is ever present. It's a sort of by-product of our lifestyle and culture. The good news is, we can choose whether to fight off the threat or succumb to it. In other words, our actions can either add to or limit the amount of clutter in our lives.
So the question each of us must ask ourself is "Am I a clutter creator, or a clutter reducer?"
People who live relatively clutter-free lives are able to do so because they have developed habits that prevent things from piling up unnecessarily. Consequently, they practice reducing their clutter on a nearly continual basis.
Let's examine the differences in every day behaviors of clutter creators versus clutter reducers.
Where Does It Go?
It will come as no surprise that clutter reducers follow the famous advice of Benjamin Franklin, "A place for everything, and everything in its place."
A major contributor to the creation of clutter is the lack of an assigned space for things. When it is unclear where a thing belongs, that thing typically gets left lying around. Therefore, if you're serious about reducing clutter, you must determine a location for everything in your home. This may require some serious consideration up front, but it pays long term dividends towards living a clutter-reduced lifestyle.
If you don't know where a thing belongs, ask yourself why. Is it because there isn't room for the item in the place where you think it should belong? Or is it because the thing has no real meaning or value to you? Or is it something else? The answer to this question is the first step in resolving the overall issue.
Clutter reducers don't just manage the clutter in their homes; they also tend to make mindful decisions about what gets through the door. Instead of bringing home fliers and other bits of paper they take photos with their phones, thus allowing them to have the information without the clutter. They avoid free samples, SWAG, and other "free" gifts they know they won't use. They think before they buy and ask themselves questions like "Where will I put this if I bring it home with me?"
Clutter creators like stuff. It gives them a little thrill to get something "free", even if they don't actually want or need the item. They operate under the false assumption that you can't organize information that isn't printed out on a piece of paper. They accept every scrap of paper with potentially useful information on it to serve as a visual, physical reminder of something they want to do or to research or to purchase. They are much less likely to consider whether they have the space for an item before they make a purchase, only whether or not they like or want the item in question.
Clutter reducers are in the habit of putting things away. When they walk in the door, they hang up their coat, they tuck their shoes neatly away where they belong, they hang up their bag or place it in its permanent home. If they have made purchases, they put them away - right away. If they are carrying the mail with them, they sort through it and put it in its proper place (trash, recycling, action pile, etc.). When they are finished using a thing, they put the item where it belongs. When they are done eating, they clean up after themselves.
Clutter creators tend to function under the false assumption that things take longer to complete than is actually true. Hanging up their coat seems like more effort than tossing it over the nearest piece of furniture. Kicking their shoes aside haphazardly seems quicker than neatly setting them on a shoe rack. Taking the time to rinse and load a small handful of dishes into the dishwasher isn't worth the effort when there are just going to be more dishes later. When they are tired at the end of the day, it seems more prudent to pile packages, bags, and mail on the nearest surface than to "deal with" everything.
In reality, most of these tasks take mere seconds to complete, and all of them can be accomplished within a few minutes at most. What clutter creators don't realize is that taking those few seconds or minutes will actually leave them feeling better about their space, better about themselves, and better about life in general, thus making it easier to relax and unwind.
Ease of Use
Clutter reducers naturally understand and practice the concept of 'ease of use' and organize their homes accordingly. Simply stated, it's the practice of making the things you use easy to access (and easy to put away). It's a way of setting yourself up for success when it comes to maintaining clutter. It is not hard to implement ease of use strategies in your home; it just takes a little forethought and preparation to set things in motion. Examples of ease of use practices include:
Clutter creators sometimes make things harder than they need to be. They place things in illogical locations where they are difficult to access or even find. They buy elaborate storage systems that look nice but function poorly. In short, they have not learned how to create storage that is easy to use. The good news is, this is a skill, and it can be learned! To start with, read about basic concepts of decluttering here.
Systems for Success
One of the ways that clutter reducers set themselves and their families up for success in the battle against clutter is by creating systems. They may not even realize that this is what they are doing, but these systems are an integral part of their personal clutter control strategy.
A system is simply a way of doing things. Clutter control systems are specific methods designed to solve potential clutter issues. An example is the entry way. These often passed through and typically small spaces are at the front line in the battle against clutter. Those who have systems in place for storing incoming and outgoing gear, are much less likely to have a cluttered entry, and much more likely to have what they need when they walk out the door each day.
Clutter creators usually recognize problem areas, but they don't know how to deal with them. They wonder why the entry is always a mess, but they fail to create a system for avoiding this situation. They puzzle over the lack of space on their kitchen counters but continue to use them as a dumping ground for all sorts of non-kitchen items. If you're struggling to resolve specific clutter issues in your home, read about developing systems for decluttering here.
A Declutter Mindset
Decluttering is part of the clutter reducers mindset. They regularly evaluate the condition of their space and the value of the items that occupy it. They keep a box or bin in the garage (or other convenient but out-of-the-way location) where they place items they intend to donate, and when it's full, they take it to the thrift store.
Clutter reducers have learned that it is more comfortable and enjoyable not to live with things they no longer want, need, or use. Perhaps most important, they have learned to let go of guilt and fear - the two big factors that prevent people from getting rid of items that no longer serve a purpose or add value to their lives.
On the other hand, clutter creators are often driven by guilt or fear to hold onto things they really don't want or need. They worry that they might need an item at some future point or that someone will be offended if they give something away. It's also true that some clutter creators don't really think at all when it comes to stuff. They make no evaluation whatsoever, content (or not) to live with the growing collection of stuff that surrounds them, never giving thought to whether or not individual items have merit and meaning.
Which One Are You?
As you can see, there are clear distinctions in the way that clutter reducers and clutter creators think and act. If you are a clutter creator at heart, and you'd rather be a clutter reducer, simply begin now to implement some of the practices and thought patterns that help clutter reducers manage and contain the potential clutter in their lives. You can do as Aristotle indicated and make excellence (via organization) a habit.
Three of our four grandchildren have been visiting for the past two weeks. They are six months, two and a half, and almost five. Needless to say, it's been lively. When they are here, the house fairly pulses with energy. Now that they are gone, it feels empty and deflated. It also looks a little like a whirlwind came through.
As a young mother of four, I often found myself feeling overwhelmed by the constant struggle to maintain order. As a grandmother, I find myself joyfully embracing the chaos. The fact that there are toys strewn about and things out of place on all three floors of the house and in practically every room is a source of amusement and cheer. It serves as a reminder that little people are about curiously engaging with and exploring their environment. I'm glad to be able to provide a stimulating space that sparks their imagination.
As an organizer my natural tendency is to get rid of things that no longer serve a purpose in my life, but my husband and I intentionally made one significant exception to this rule. We saved many of our children's toys. We made this decision with our future grandchildren in mind. It meant moving and storing stuff that no one was really using for about ten years, but it was so worth the effort and space.
Now that we have grandchildren, the investment is paying off. When the littles come to visit, they have a blast discovering new things to play with. They refer to the bedroom where they sleep and where the toys are kept as their room, and they love it. Every morning when they wake up, they fill their hands with a selection of toys and wander downstairs to greet the day. They are never bored.
When we purchased our home it had a roughly finished space above the garage which could only be accessed by ducking through a small door at the back of our son's walk-in closet. In our minds, it was always destined to be the playroom, so we dubbed it Narnia. Several years ago we remodeled the second floor, turning the closet into a hallway and reading nook and making Narnia a legitimate bedroom. It's certainly non-traditional, but it's also a really fun space.
An interesting side effect of having a playroom full of toys is that I really don't have to childproof my home. The kiddos are so busy playing with the toys, they rarely get sidetracked by things we wouldn't want them to touch. Although occasionally they do stake a claim to a non-toy item, typically using it in some other way than what it was intended for.
On this particular visit, it was a candle holder shaped like a bird cage. My oldest granddaughter quickly surmised that it was the perfect spot for a little bird puppet to dwell and carried it about with her wherever she went in the house for the first several days she was here. Before long, she was using it to hold all her favorite toys, no doubt in a vain attempt to keep them out of her brother's reach.
For me the lesson in all of this is that sometimes there are legitimate exceptions to the rule. Stuff should serve a purpose in your life. If it doesn't it's clutter, and as such it becomes a burden. If, however, it brings you and others joy, it's worth the space and effort involved in its storage and upkeep. The key is understanding why you're holding onto things and being honest with yourself about the role they play in your life. Are you getting a return on your investment, or is your stuff controlling you?
I recognize that not everyone will understand my choice to go against my inner organizer instincts in this instance. I also realize that not everyone will be in a position to save a whole roomful of toys for their future grandchildren. Most people wouldn't even consider doing such a thing. But for us it has worked out wonderfully, and I am glad we lugged the storage containers full of toys around for a number of years and grateful we had the space to store them.
Watching my grandchildren play has helped me appreciate that all the world can be filled with wonder and that joy can be found in the simplest things. I have also been reminded that old things can serve interesting and surprising new purposes. Most of all, though, I have come to understand that even those of us who love and crave order can benefit from a little chaos every now and then.
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Mounting evidence suggests that clutter can have a significantly negative impact on your mental and physical health. Studies show that those who live in a messy household with lots of clutter have higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) in their bodies than those who live in an organized space.
While cortisol serves an important function in helping the body respond to imminent danger, overexposure to this hormone, resulting from extended periods of stress, can have serious mental and physical health implications. In addition to taking an emotional toll, prolonged stress can affect brain function in a variety of negative ways and lead to serious health problems such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
The Relationship Between Clutter and Stress
There are many ways in which clutter contributes to stress. These can be conscious or unconscious, so even if you don't think your clutter is impacting you, research suggests otherwise.
A cluttered environment is distracting. Visual clutter saps our attention and impedes our ability to focus. In addition, an untidy space fosters a sense of guilt and unease. This is because our brains register clutter as a myriad of unfinished tasks, making it difficult to relax.
Reduce Your Clutter and Reduce Your Stress
Fortunately, there is much that can be done to reduce the impact of visual clutter in our lives from employing effective decluttering techniques to implementing various interior design strategies.
Here are six ways to optimize the beauty of your home while simultaneously reducing visual clutter.
Small spaces often feel cluttered, even if they aren't. Adding visual depth to a space can help negate this impression. In addition to their practical and decorative uses, mirrors create an illusion of space. Hanging mirrors in strategic places can help to reduce visual clutter. If the room containing a mirror is kept tidy, the aura of peace and calm is enhanced significantly. As an added benefit, mirrors also reflect natural light into a room, giving it a warm glow and making it feel more spacious and inviting.
Select Right-sized Furniture for Your Space
Having the right furniture to suit a room can help significantly with decreasing visual clutter. The size and placement of furniture are both important factors.
A large overstuffed sofa or furniture suite will dwarf a small living room. A small bedroom will look cramped with a bulky bed frame and dressers. A heavy, chunky kitchen or dining room table will contribute significantly to visual clutter in all but the most spacious of rooms.
To increase the perceived size of a room, opt for right-sized furniture pieces and arrange the furniture in ways that utilize the space and increase it's functionality and flow. Avoid blocking windows and walkways. Leave visual space around the pieces. All this can increase the perceived size of the room and reduces visual clutter.
Choose Curtains Carefully
Believe it or not, the type, style, and position of curtains can add significantly to a room's visual clutter. Heavy, dark curtains made from thick fabrics tend to add 'weight' to a space. While this is desirable in some settings, more often than not, it clutters the space by making it feel dark and closed in. Likewise, brightly colored, elaborately designed curtains can be distracting and increase the sense of clutter in a space.
Poorly positioned curtains are equally burdensome to a space. A common practice is to hang curtains just above the windows, but this is a mistake. Doing so actually makes the ceiling appear shorter and the windows seem smaller.
The good news is the solutions to these problems are simple. Try light-weight curtains in light, simply patterned fabrics and reposition your curtain rods. Buy new curtain rods online and hang them six inches to one foot above the top of the window. This will make your windows appear larger and your ceiling look higher. This space optimization reduces visual clutter and enhances the vibe of the room.
Use Clear Containers in Your Kitchen
A decluttering technique that adds rustic charm and character to your kitchen is to remove labels on advertisement-laden packaging and place the contents of certain products into clear containers. Alternatively, wooden or plain colored containers may suit the design of your kitchen a little more. Having a kitchen filled with attractive, clear storage containers rather than distracting boxes and packaging greatly reduces visual clutter and enhances the appearance of your kitchen.
Clear Bathroom Countertops
Bathroom countertops are notorious for collecting clutter. While it is convenient to keep grooming products close at hand, it doesn't take many to leave the space feeling overcrowded and messy. Try to keep countertops clear by maximizing under counter storage and drawer space. Consider adding shelving where attractive baskets and bins can conceal clutter while still keeping it easily accessible.
Preserve Table Space
Clutter has a way of collecting on flat surfaces, but tables are not meant to be storage spaces. A cluttered surface not only looks messy, it makes using the item as it was intended frustrating, if not impossible. The temptation to pile papers and other things onto table and counter tops is real, but a little planning can alleviate the problem.
Typically things that end up piled on the table are there because they do not have a permanent home or they need to be dealt with. Evaluate the kinds of items that tend to accumulate on your flat surfaces and establish a place for them to live. A wall-mounted mail sorter is great for organizing papers that require action. You might also look for a console table with drawers and a shelf underneath for storing other items you want easy access to out of sight.
With a few simple tweaks, you can significantly impact the weight of visual clutter in your home. Try implementing these suggestions.
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While I was home for a visit last summer, my mother commented that we ought to do some organizing. That was all the invitation I needed! She suggested we tackle her kitchen cabinets, and I dove right in, literally - head first.
Her kitchen cabinets do not extend all the way to the ceiling, and she uses the space on top of the cabinets for display (at least she used to). That's where we began. I climbed on top of the counter and started pulling things down for her to examine. To my surprise, she voted to get rid of pretty much every item I handed her.
Next we went to work on the upper cabinets, starting with the cabinet above the refrigerator. Again, the entirety of the contents were placed in the donation pile. I was amazed and impressed. As we worked, we talked about the items, many of which had originally belonged to my grandmother. Mom confessed that when she first moved into her current home, she wasn't ready to let grandma go, so she just held onto all of grandma's things, even though she had no real use for many of them.
It was then that I introduced her to Marie Kondo. Not literally, of course. I just shared with her Marie's famous question from her book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (affiliate link) - "Does it spark joy?"
The concept really struck a cord with my mom. Over the next few days we decluttered her entire kitchen, her pantry, and her utility closet. As I held things up for her to examine, she frequently responded with, "Nope. That doesn't spark joy." I have to admit, her enthusiasm for the principle sparked a lot of joy for me, and we made some fond decluttering memories together. We also made three trips to Goodwill! Check out these pictures of some of the stuff we donated.
Following My Own Advice
Upon returning home, I found myself hyper-aware of items in my own home that hadn't sparked joy for me or anyone else in a long time. Before I knew it, I had a decent sized pile of donations prepared. Since then, I've made numerous trips to the thrift store to drop off a bag or two of stuff that no longer serves a useful purpose in our home. In the process, I've discovered something that consistently sparks joy for me - letting go.
My mom's enthusiasm for eliminating the non-joy producing things in her life has remained constant since our declutter marathon last year. She shared her appreciation of the concept with my nephew who gave her the above mug for Christmas last year. Needless-to-say, it sparks joy for her.
I admit I'm not the biggest Marie Kondo fan out there, but I do love this simple question that she introduced to the world: "Does it spark joy?"
Associated with the question is a principle of organization that, when embraced, can remove much of the guilt, fear, and other concerns that are often felt by people struggling to let go of things that no longer add value to their lives.
Personally, I find it liberating to let go of things that no longer spark joy in my life. It helps me appreciate better the things that do. If you're having trouble letting go of things that are bogging you down, try asking yourself, "Does it spark joy?"
Equilibrium can be defined as "a state in which opposing forces or influences are balanced." Clutter equilibrium is an idea I stumbled upon while talking with my husband about the concept of maintaining order once a space has been decluttered. Think of clutter equilibrium as the balance between an orderly space and incoming clutter.
I've written a lot about how to declutter, but it's also important to think about maintaining a clutter-free (or significantly clutter reduced) environment. That is the key to long-term success. So here are a few simple ideas for maintaining a healthy balance between clutter and...clarity.
Stop Clutter Before It Enters
Every day we're bombarded with potential clutter: free samples, junk mail, brochures, fliers, invitations, catalogs, kids' paperwork (to include artwork), etc., etc. etc. Sometimes it is thrust upon us, and sometimes we invite it in, either consciously or unconsciously.
Unconscious clutter includes the many seemingly innocuous bits of paper listed above. We pick up a brochure or flier because we're interested in whatever it's advertising. We receive an invitation in the mail Our kids bring home an information sheet about an upcoming school or sports activity. These things are all innocent enough...until they start to pile up. Conscious clutter is the stuff we choose to bring into our homes to stay - the new DVD or book or board game to add to our collection, the new kitchen gadget, the six bottles of our favorite shampoo that we found on sale. All of these things are perfectly normal and acceptable. We need access to information. We're going to get new stuff. But if all we ever do is bring stuff in without thought, our clutter equilibrium will quickly become a clutter imbalance.
Here are some suggestions for stopping clutter before it enters:
Establish and Maintain Systems for Decluttering
Sometimes clutter results from things being out of place or not having a place. You can solve these types of clutter problems by setting up and maintaining systems to keep things organized. A system is simply a way of doing things. I've written about the process of developing simple systems here.
We've all heard Benjamin Franklin's famous saying "a place for everything, and everything in its place." It's a simple, yet profound solution for preventing clutter. It's also an example of this concept. Having a designated place to puts things constitutes a basic system.
Almost everyone struggles with paper clutter in one form or another. While there are ways to limit the amount of paper that comes into or stays in our homes, there are also many papers that we want to hang onto for reference purposes. I've developed a simple three binder system for organizing paperwork. You can read more about it here.
Develop a Decluttering Mindset
One of the best ways to maintain a healthy clutter equilibrium is to develop a decluttering mindset. Make decluttering a habit, something that comes naturally to you. Here are some examples of what it means to have a decluttering mindset:
Clear a space for collecting items you wish to donate in your garage or mud room or some other out of the way space. Once a quarter (or whenever the space is full) gather up the items and take them to the thrift store.
People often talk about the need for maintaining balance in their lives. It's something we're all striving for. Clutter is one way in which a person's life can become out of balance. Decluttering is just half the battle when it comes to righting the situation. These simple suggestions can help you maintain your clutter equilibrium long-term.
Clutter blindness is a condition that is all too common. Simply stated, it is the inability to see clutter and/or recognize it for what it is. When you're clutter blind, your life is often negatively impacted in some way as a result of clutter. Here is an example.
A year or so ago I was helping a lady who was preparing to move to a much smaller home. She had recently lost her husband to a lengthy battle with cancer, she was basically being forced from her current home, and she was understandably feeling overwhelmed and adrift. During the two years that she served as her husband's caregiver, more and more of their home was gradually overrun with medical supplies, to include a large hospital bed which took up a significant portion of their dining room. As the medical supplies moved in, other things were forced to give up their space. There were piles of stuff literally everywhere. For many, many months she had simply been moving stuff aside and shifting things around because she lacked the physical and mental energy to deal with organizing and decluttering.
I spent a morning helping her move empty boxes from the middle of her living room to the back bedroom (which was mostly empty). As we moved the boxes to their new location, we sorted and stacked them according to size so that she could easily identify what she had and find the perfect size box for her needs. We did little more than move boxes and consolidate a few storage containers on that particular occasion, but when we were finished, she exclaimed, "Wow! This place is clutter-free now!"
Her statement surprised me. The room was obviously not clutter free. Every surface of the room was cluttered. Only the floor had been partially cleared. It was impossible to sit anywhere on the rather expansive sectional sofa without moving something out of the way. The same was true of every other piece of furniture in the room.
What I came to realize later was that she quite literally could not see the clutter. To her it had become a part of the landscape of the room. It belonged there, in a sense. She was so used to it, that it no longer registered as clutter to her brain.
This is what it means to be clutter blind. Because of the gradual way in which this "condition" develops, it can be difficult to "diagnose" it, particularly in oneself. Following are a list of "symptoms".
Symptoms of Clutter Blindness
Curing Clutter Blindness
Like any chronic condition, clutter blindness takes time and effort to cure. There is no miracle pill or magic solution, but a shift in mindset accompanied by a series of intentional steps can cure a person of this habitual plight.
As is the case in overcoming any persistent medical issue, consistency in following the prescribed treatment is essential to ensuring long term success. The solution outlined here will be most effective if followed in the recommended order.
If you are suffering from clutter blindness, you need help. You need someone who can see clearly what you are unable to see. You need someone who will offer support, encouragement, and accountability. You can turn to a family member or friend for assistance, but I strongly recommend seeking the services of a professional organizer in this case. Here's why:
If you live in the greater Kansas City area (Kansas or Missouri), contact me. I would love to help you! If you live elsewhere in the United States, you can start by doing a simple internet search, but I recommend going through the National Association of Productivity & Organizing Professionals (NAPO). To be featured on their site, professionals have to become certified, so you know they meet a certain standard and have a guaranteed degree of knowledge and experience. This is not true for sites like Home Advisor, Find My Organizer, and others. Just click on the Find a Pro tab to obtain a list of organizers near you.
Another great resource for locating professionals is The Institute for Challenging Disorganization.
It's one thing to recognize you have a problem. It's even better to acknowledge that you need help, but until you are mentally committed to making changes in your home and your habits, you are wasting your time. That may sound a bit harsh, but it's true. Real, lasting success is dependent upon unwavering, lasting commitment. Overcoming clutter blindness isn't something you can wish away or fix with minimal effort. The effort involved here is akin to losing a significant amount of weight or getting in shape for a significant athletic competition. The half-hearted approach will not succeed.
If you are truly committed, there are a few things you can do to ensure your success.
MAKE A PLAN: They say that a goal is just a wish unless you write it down. I would add that a goal cannot become a reality without a plan. The goal is what you ultimately hope to achieve. The plan is your path to get there.
Your plan should include the process you intend to implement. Consider the following:
UNDERSTAND THE PROCESS: Almost everyone recognizes a need to get organized, but most people don't really understand what that entails. Organization is a process. It starts with a vision for the space, whether it's a desk drawer, a closet, a room, or an entire home. To have success you must first define success. Otherwise, how will you know when you have achieved it?
The next step in the process is to dismantle. In the case of an entire house, this means working in small sections. If you are clutter blind, it will most likely mean tackling one pile or clearing one surface at a time. As you break down the stacks of stuff, you should be focused on decluttering and downsizing. Identify the things you no longer need and set them aside for disposal. The things you intend to keep will then be sorted and organized. The final step is to maintain your newly organized space. This will require the development of systems or habits that will help you keep things functioning smoothly and prevent the accumulation of clutter. This is a lot to remember, so here are some resources to help you wrap your head around the process.
This quote from the Chinese philosopher Confucius is applicable when it comes to overcoming clutter blindness.
When dealing with clutter people often feel overwhelmed and don't know where to start. The truth is, it doesn't matter where you start, only that you do. Pick a pile and go to work. When you finish with the first pile, move onto another, and just keep moving forward. Don't berate yourself if your pace is slow. Just keep plugging along. So long as you're progressing, you're succeeding.
Decluttering can be physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. It's tempting to cut corners or to set things aside to be dealt with at some future date. Resist the temptation. If you need to take a break and come back to something, that's great, but come back to it. Pick up where you left off after each session and don't abandon a particular aspect of the project until it's complete.
A system is just a method of doing things. When it comes to staying organized, it's useful to design systems that help you to maintain an organized space. I've outlined a simple procedure for designing systems. I call it the Three P's. You can read more about it here.
Labels are a great way to maintain organization once it's been established. Labels make it clear to everyone what goes where. They make it easy to find what you're looking for and easy to put things away. They also serve as a reminder that stuff has a designated space which can be important if you're used to piling things up instead of putting them away.
The concept of "resetting the room" comes from an IT developer named Oswald Nuckols, but I learned about it in James Clear's book Atomic Habits (affiliate link). It's something I've always done, but I had never put a name to it. The basic notion is to place things back where they belong before leaving a room so that when you return it's ready to be used for its intended purpose. One example provided by Mr. Nuckols is putting away the television remote, rearranging the sofa pillows, and folding the blanket after watching TV. These simple actions take seconds, but they make a big difference.
The condition in which you leave a room impacts your mindset whether you realize it or not. For instance, some people will argue that it makes no sense to make the bed if you are just going to get back in it at the end of the day. What they don't recognize is that an unmade bed sends a visual signal that communicates a powerful message: it's OK to be messy. Whereas, a made bed makes you feel accomplished the moment your day has begun and conveys a sense of responsibility for and control over your space that extends beyond the bed to the room and even the entire house.
If you can develop the habit of resetting the room after each use, maintaining order will become natural and habitual.
You won't find clutter blindness listed in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but that does not make it less real. As an organizer I have encountered it on many occasions. It's something to take seriously. If you have any or all of the symptoms I've identified here, please know that there is a solution (or cure). You do not have to be a slave of your stuff. You can gain the upper hand and feel comfortable and at peace in your space.
I hope you've found this information useful. If you know someone else who might benefit from the ideas expressed here, please share this post with them. I hope you will also feel comfortable sharing your thoughts on this rather personal and sometimes painful situation with me and my readers. I invite you to do so in the comments section below.
I absolutely love this quote (shown above) by Thomas Jefferson. For me it is a foundational axiom of household organization. If applied mindfully and intentionally, a person can use this maxim to create the kind of space that speaks to the soul, a space where one can not only feel at home, but also at peace.
The problem is, most of us do not approach the establishment, organization, and maintenance of our homes with this adage in mind. Instead of carefully curating a space that represents who we are and what matters most to us, we let the uninspiring, trivial, and outdated inundate our space and overshadow the things that truly bring us joy. I know I have been guilty of this at times. Chances are, you have been as well.
If your home, or portions thereof, have succumbed to the subtle, yet assertive influence of clutter, it may be sending a subliminal message, both to you and to others who enter, that is inconsistent with who you are or who you are striving to become.
To begin with, let's talk about what your clutter might be saying about you, your life, and your experiences.
What Message Are You Sending?
An excessive accumulation of clutter can send a variety of messages to observers. The type of message depends, in part, on the type of clutter. Here are a few of the most common subliminal interpretations that arise when people enter a cluttered space.
How to Curate a Space That Reflects Who You Are
As I consider the notion of curating spaces that befittingly represent "the museum of our soul and the archive of our experiences" a quote from Dr. Seuss's book Oh, The Places You'll Go! comes to mind:
In other words, it doesn't matter where you are now with regard to the state of your space. As the architect and administrator of that space, you are in control. You have the power to make meaningful changes that faithfully reflect your personality, passions, and preferences. Here are a few things you can do to begin the process of curating a space that speaks of and to you:
Show Your Stuff
A home is like a blank canvas. It will take on a different look for each new occupant. I observed this phenomenon as a military spouse living in on post housing. The houses were typically similar, if not identical, in structure and layout, but the look of each home was unique to its occupants. Whether you own or rent your home, you have the power to create a space that is reflective of you and your family, and if your space is saying things about you that you do not approve of, you have the power to make positive changes in your environment.
There is clutter, and then there is clutter. Some clutter is deep rooted, emotionally charged, and physically intimidating. Taming it demands an investment of time and energy. Surface clutter, the clutter that piles up on a day to day basis, mostly the result of procrastination, can be significantly reduced by implementing a few simple clutter-busting behaviors.
There are two simple steps involved in eliminating surface clutter.
Start by training yourself to notice things that are out of place. One way to do this is to routinely scan a room to identify items that have strayed from their proper home. As you practice scanning, make a mental note of the kinds of clutter that tend to pile up. This will give you a sense of where systems are needed. In particular, be on the lookout for common contributors of clutter – dishes, mail, clothing, etc.
The next step is to begin turning clutter-building habits into clutter-busting behaviors. It’s easier than you might think. To help you get started, I’ve identified five common problem areas and suggestions for building clutter-busting behaviors. These simple habits can significantly reduce the daily buildup of clutter. Consistently do these five things, and I guarantee you’ll notice a difference in the amount of surface clutter in your home.
The bed is the focal point of the bedroom, and as such, it has the power to dictate the mood of the space. A rumpled, unmade bed is an invitation to be messy. Clothing, shoes, and other articles strewn lazily about look perfectly at home with an unmade bed. On the other hand, a neatly made bed communicates order and inspires tidiness. To toss things about sloppily in such a space creates a sense of discord and unease. In essence, the space feels at odds with itself.
A made bed communicates something to its owner as well. It says, “I care. I’m invested in my space and myself.” Simply making the bed starts each day off on the right foot. Before leaving the bedroom, you have accomplished something productive and set a positive tone for the day.
It’s tempting to toss dirty dishes in the sink and walk away, but like an unmade bed, a sink full of dirty dishes sends a message that order is not a priority. It also serves as a nagging irritant. Those dirty dishes are a constant reminder of a thing that requires your attention. The fact that you’re not dealing with it can lead to feelings of guilt. The more dishes that pile up, the less appealing the task becomes, and the more you’ll feel like procrastinating. The longer you procrastinate, the more dishes pile up and the more time consuming the task becomes.
Before you know it, a few dirty dishes can lead to a whole lot of [unnecessary] stress. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Try these tips for controlling dirty dishes – so they won’t control you.
Clothing, whether dirty or clean, can be a major culprit in contributing to clutter. The funny thing is, it only takes a few seconds to hang up or put away a single article of clothing, barely more time than it takes to dump it on the floor, the bed, the furniture, etc. If, however, it’s left to pile up over the course of days, the time required to put things where they belong increases significantly. The key is to set yourself and your family up for success.
This can be achieved by simplifying the process as much as possible. Here are some examples:
For many people, there is something truly intimidating about mail. Mail requires decision making, and we often encounter it at a point in the day when we’re tired of making decisions. So, we leave it to deal with later, and before long, it has become an overwhelming pile. On the other hand, if you’re only dealing with a single day’s mail, it only takes a few minutes (sometimes less) to complete the task.
The secret to preventing pile up is to develop (and utilize) a system for dealing with the mail. Designate a spot for opening the mail each day. Make sure there is a pair of scissors or letter opener nearby. It’s also useful to have a bin handy for recycling junk mail. As soon as the mail enters your house, sort it according to type: things to be recycled (put them directly into the bin), things to be shredded, things that require immediate attention (to do now), and things that require action but can wait (to do later). Have a place for each type of item, and immediately put items in their proper place. If you have time to deal with an item that requires action, do it.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but a lot of clutter collects from people walking in the door and dumping whatever they're carrying. The best way to prevent this is to have a place for things like purses, keys, coats, and shoes, and put them in their place as soon as you enter.
If you’ve made purchases, put them away. If you’re carrying the mail, deal with it. Most things can be put away in a matter of minutes (or less). Not putting things away leaves the home feeling cluttered and invites buildup over time which requires significantly more effort to be dealt with.
Try implementing these five suggestions for conquering surface clutter. I think you'll find that it helps a great deal with controlling the overall clutter in your home.
Clutter is a byproduct of choice. With every advance in technology our choices increase, and with those increasing choices comes an increase in clutter. There are several reasons why this is true.
In some cases, advancing technology produces products we’ve never seen before but are sure we need to improve the quality of our lives. Sometimes, a newer, nicer version causes us to feel dissatisfied with our existing product, so we go out and by a replacement. Instead of actually replacing the outdated item, though, we hold onto it because “it’s still good” or “it might be worth something”. Thus, clutter is born.
People think the answer to their clutter problem is more space, but in reality, the answer is almost always less stuff. A surefire way to control clutter is to limit your choices. As a bonus, controlling clutter by limiting choices can actually lead to increased happiness. Studies show that the fewer choices we have, the more satisfied and content we feel.
Lauren Migliore explains it this way in her article “I Can’t Decide! Why An Increase in Choices Decreases Our Happiness”:
If too many choices lead to unhappiness and too much stuff leads to clutter, then a simple approach to this problem is to place limits on how much stuff we keep. The key is to make mindful decisions based on naturally (or in some cases self) imposed constraints. Such constraints can be spatial in nature, or they can be numeric.
Spatial constraints result when you let the available space determine what you keep. For instance, if you’re a book lover, but you only have space for one bookcase in your apartment, then the number of books you keep should be limited to the capacity of your bookcase. Books that don’t fit on the bookcase become clutter, and as such, they lose their identity, becoming part of the landscape.
If you are a crafter and you have a large closet available for storing craft supplies, then you must limit your craft supplies to what can be contained within that closet. Find ways to maximize the space and then minimize your supplies, keeping only those things you know you’ll actually use.
Young children are natural hoarders. They are unable to assign realistic value to things. In their eyes, the cheap plastic toy that came with their lunch is as valuable as the $50 building set they got for their last birthday. Value is directly linked to ownership. I own it, therefore it’s important to me. If left to their own devices, children’s rooms can quickly become overwhelmed with school papers, personal artwork, completed coloring books, birthday party favors, happy meal toys, bits of erasers and pencils, old greeting cards, etc.
A great way to compromise with your kids while simultaneously containing their clutter is to assign them a keepsake box. You determine the size of the box. They determine what goes inside. When the box starts to get full, it’s time to reassess its contents. This is the responsibility of the child. It is the space, and not the parent, that is limiting what they can keep, so you don’t have to be the bad guy, always threatening to toss things out. In addition, the child learns several important skills to include decision making, evaluating the true value of things, and self-limiting (because no matter what popular culture implies, we can’t have it all).
When there are no inherent restraints, you must create your own. Learn to limit yourself by deciding in advance how many of something you will own (shoes, handbags, kitchen gadgets, tubes of lipstick, video games, coffee mugs, etc.). Just because you have four functional pizza cutters in your kitchen drawer, that doesn’t mean you need four pizza cutters. Pick your favorite and part with the rest.
In order to remain within the numeric limits you set for yourself it will be necessary to purge regularly. When you find a black sweater you can't live without, go ahead and get it. Then sort through the six black sweaters already in your closet and choose one to part with.
Enjoy the Liberating Affects of Constraints
Too often we fret over things we don’t really want or need, or in some cases even like. We limit ourselves by remaining tied to things that don’t speak to our hearts or serve a valuable purpose in our lives. Instead of limiting yourself, I recommend limiting your stuff. Rather than worrying about what you spent, or who gave you something, or whether or not a thing still has value, try focusing on living comfortably within your space. I think you’ll find it tremendously liberating.