I know why we surround ourselves with stuff. Because we’re bored.
We can’t think of any reasons to clean up that are interesting enough to actually get down and do it.
We’re totally okay with doing almost the exact same things almost every single day. We’re fine with having the same things to vent and complain about. We’re good with having the same unfinished projects, open loops, and procrastinated chores from one week to the next.
Wake up. Go to work. Come home. Eat. Get maximum amount of screen time. Lather, rinse, repeat.
There are thousands upon thousands of things we could be doing with the physical space that we’ve claimed with our clutter. We simply choose to leave it filled up with stuff because we don’t have any better ideas.
I’m a horrible snoop. When I walk around town, and someone’s garage door is up, I always take a peek. Here in the US, almost every garage looks about the same: full of boxes with a goat trail over to the washer and dryer. Sometimes there will be one that’s set up with a “bedroom” space or two. People sleep out there in the heat. That’s interesting, but maybe in a bad way?
What else do I see?
Surgically immaculate space with nothing but a car, a laundry area, and a rack of mops and brooms.
A woman’s kickboxing practice area. (I’d offer to make friends with her, but unfortunately we were already planning to move).
Various weightlifting gyms.
Various motorcycle and custom auto shops.
Various wood shops.
Ping-pong tables, pool tables, air hockey tables, foosball tables – open and actually in use.
The neighborhood social hub, with a dozen laughing people in their 20s and a couple of hookahs and bean bag chairs.
What I’ve noticed with the working garages is that they’re all really cool in their own unique way. The guys who run custom vehicle shops usually have a bunch of signs, neon, and often a mini fridge. The many gyms I see in use are clean, well-lit, and usually playing music. The dens of socializing tend to have chairs and party lights. It often seems like the garage is the center of the home, that at least one household member spends more time out there than the rest of the house put together.
The only thing they all have in common is that they’re not boring. They’ve all been carefully arranged for maximum use and enjoyment.
Patios can be the same way. Everyone in my 1930s-era suburban neighborhood has a back yard. Tiny SoCal yards, but yards all the same. Some people have a lot of yard parties and barbecues. Others don’t. Some have them filled with stacks of rubber tubs covered with tarps. We can thank whoever remodeled our rental house for putting in a covered patio with a ceiling fan and leaving behind a great outdoor dining table and chairs. It’s the first yard I’ve had that makes me want to be out there all the time. In fact, I like it so much that I took a picture of it and put it on the lock screen of my phone. There’s nothing out there but the table, the fan, and my parrot’s climbing tree, but it looks perfect to me. Noelle loves it so much that she resists every time it’s time to go back inside, even if it’s getting chilly and windy.
Why do we buy things we don’t need? I think it’s usually because we’d rather be at that particular store than back at home. Every store tends to be better organized, cleaner, and better lit than most people’s home living areas. It’s the same reason we like to go out to eat, even when the food is contributing to problems such as our rapidly expanding debt. We don’t have to fight over who does the dishes and we don’t have to clear counter space first. Home and hearth aren’t nurturing, relaxing spaces where we feel our most fulfilled. Our homes are instead places of irritation, resentment, frustration, and boredom.
When we got back from Spain, we realized that we physically hadn’t sat on a couch in three weeks. We had been everywhere in planes, trains, buses, ferries, funiculars, and taxis. We had slept either in sleeping bags or the beds of four-star hotels. We had climbed a few hundred flights of stairs. What we hadn’t done was to simply sit on a couch. It was a revelation! We wallowed in it. We were jet lagged, so we unapologetically lounged all over it with our dog. A month later, it had somehow transformed from Cushions of Wonder to plain old ordinary couch again.
We’re careful, though. We put our planning focus, after maxing out our retirement contributions for the year, on travel. That means whenever we pick up an object and think about buying it, we see the price tag in terms of what experience we’re trading off. The two of us took a day trip to Morocco for about $65. We could spend the same amount on an average Saturday by going out for breakfast, picking up Starbucks, going to a movie, and buying a bucket of popcorn. Or I could spend it on a single pair of shoes that were too uncomfortable to even wear. We could also fritter it away slowly on sodas and bags of chips. It’s the same money, but we’re more likely to notice the impact when we plan a peak experience versus letting it trickle out on dumb stuff over weeks or months.
We didn’t clean out any closets while we were in Spain. We didn’t clean out the garage, either. That’s because we didn’t have to. We have the money to go on cool trips every couple of years because we don’t spend it fighting everyday boredom the rest of the time. We don’t have to clean out closets all the time because we don’t fill them with stuff. These things are connected. We build our lives around activities other than shopping, screen time, and procrastination. I sometimes rush to work ahead a bit, because I like leaving an immaculate house before locking the door for a long trip. We keep the house clear because we’re paying for the smallest house we could find, and we physically don’t have the space to fill with anything we don’t actively need. Our version of a life worth living doesn’t include a bunch of extra physical possessions.
What could you do with your space that would be more interesting than the way it is now? Clear out a storage unit and use the money to take a class, or to free yourself from the shackle of debt? Clear out a “spare” room, scour the house top to bottom, and start renting the space on AirBnB? Have an empty room for dance or yoga? Have a home office and start seeing clients? (Bookkeeping, palmistry, or what-have-you). Clear out the garage and make a robotics laboratory? (Oh, that’s us). What’s the most interesting thing you can think of doing? If you’re not doing it, what could you do to make it happen? My guess is that it would include freeing up either space, money, time, or all three. What’s stopping you?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.