People are coming over. Quick! Hide the evidence!
‘Scoop and stuff’ is one of the classic techniques that my people use when they are working hard to make a good impression. It’s a gesture of hospitality. Hospitality infused with large quantities of shame, dread, and embarrassment, perhaps, but hospitality nonetheless. Welcome to my humble home, and please tell me if I’ve passed the audition.
The way it works is that you cast a wild eye around the room, looking for anything out of place, and then grab it and hide it somewhere. Many people keep their bedroom doors closed for this reason. Others have an office or guest bedroom, or even an official junk room, for this purpose. These locations are always intended to be temporary, in a way that attics, basements, and garages are not. The stuff itself may linger for years upon years, but the aura of intentionality is subtly different. This is part of how specific areas get cluttered. There’s the “deal with it later” area that got out of control. It is superseded by the “deal with it later, but SOONER later” pile. After that comes the “no, really, deal with it later, but not as later as those others” pile.
It calls to mind a rubber stamp a former supervisor had made that read EMERGENCY, because URGENT didn’t connote the desired level of urgency. (A true emergency generally involves the need to call 911). In my world, the stamps would read something like ‘anxiety,’ ‘dread,’ ‘frenzy,’ ‘panic,’ and ‘terror.’ It’s like all this misc is covered with venomous spiders or kale or something.
That’s the everyday level of anxiety and urgency that drives ‘scoop and stuff.’ Stacks and piles get stuffed into bags or boxes. Several scooped and stuffed bags will get popped into a box. The boxes will get stacked. Piles will collect on top of the boxes. It’s like excavating for fossils. There are often clear date markers in the strata. The next level is when the scooping and stuffing happened during a relocation. People who had no idea what was in any of the various piles or stacks are working as hard as they can to box everything up. They’re “helping.” It’s true that it is helpful to have one’s important papers rescued rather than shredded or burned, which is what most people would like to do with others’ clutter. We have to keep that in mind when we shake the boxes and the Dementors start shifting around and moaning.
These bags and boxes don’t scare me. On the contrary! I know from experience that many of the hidden bags are at least half full of:
‘Scoop and stuff’ happens most often in people’s cars. The bags get brought in because there may or may not be important mail in there. As often as not, there is, or at least it was important at some point. Usually it’s only 5-10% of the total volume, though. The next most common areas for ‘scoop and stuff’ are dining tables, kitchen counters, coffee tables, and desks.
What we do is to spread out our papers in the hope that it will help give us mental clarity, or at least a definable chronology. The pattern is the same, but the specifics vary from person to person. “I put it somewhere important” – and now, of course, I can’t find it. The “urgent emergency” spot for that individual may be on top of the microwave, in a windowsill, tucked sideways in a bookcase, or on the floor. Other, less urgent items get stuck there because there are only so many hidey-holes in one home.
Note that ‘scoop and stuff’ almost always consists of paper. This is because, for a small blip in the history of humanity, paper is cheap and widespread. I don’t think I even need to document the assertion that the people of antiquity did not have problems with paper clutter. Cholera and siege warfare, maybe. Junk mail, no. The main non-paper items that tend to get scooped are clothes, shoes, bags, and dishes. One jacket, one backpack, one pair of boots, and one pizza box can somehow spread themselves across an entire room, yet hiding them is relatively quick and easy.
I used to hide dirty dishes in my empty vegetable crisper on occasion. I knew even at the time that it would have been faster to wash them. That frantic feeling does things to us. It makes us feel that time is running out. It keeps us from thinking straight.
Clutter hides the emotions that were generated when it was laid down. As we start to excavate, the miasma of anxiety, grief, depression, or confusion wafts out. It’s like mold spores. Body fat does the same thing, storing our negative emotions just so that they can topple us twice. Once in the past when they were stored, the second time when Future Self finally has to deal with them.
This is part of why having a partner or coach can help so much. To anyone but the owner, a stack or pile or bag or box is just stuff. Sorting it is simple and obvious. Junk mail in one pile, receipts in another, anything that looks important in another. Anything like a spare hairbrush just gets put away. Suddenly, 80% of the mess is gone. All that’s left are a few scary-looking sealed envelopes, or a stack of important papers such as applications. We bury the things that scare us so we can uneasily pretend to forget them for a while. Our friends and allies aren’t scared, unless they’ve had a papercut to the eyelid like I once did.
‘Scoop and stuff’ is a dead giveaway of a certain thought process. It’s nearly universal among my people. There seems to be something sinister about plastic grocery bags that causes them to collect large amounts of clutter, usually with a “prize inside” – the one seriously important item that makes it necessary to sort the whole bag rather than throw it away. The bags themselves constitute a considerable quantity of clutter. Every time I have done a home visit, there have always been plenty of plastic bags to use for the inevitable thrift store donations.
What is this mysterious thought process? It’s simple. There is no structure or plan in place to deal with the daily influx of mail, paperwork, or shopping. (Many of the scooped and stuffed bags contain new things with the tags still on them). The only people who don’t have paper clutter are people who have a formal information management plan. This stuff doesn’t happen automatically. It’s not really hard to set up and maintain that flow of information, but it does require System Two thinking. That is the type of concentration we need to make decisions, do our taxes, book airline tickets, or read instruction manuals. When we’re tired, System Two thinking becomes difficult. We have to kick it in gear. When we’re tired at the end of the day, our brains get lazy. We grab whatever was in the car, whatever was in the mailbox, whatever else we brought home, and we. Set it down. For later.
There is never a signal for “later.” If we don’t schedule it, the only time we are signaled that it’s time to handle these items is when something unusual happens. Guests come over, the landlord or a repair person comes over, or we have to move. Depending on how infrequent these occasions are, the piles of “later” can get pretty big. The bigger the piles, the more dread we feel when we think about touching or interacting with them in any way.
When a spider appears in the house, most people freak out a little, especially if it shows up in the bedroom late at night and then vanishes. Personally, I carry spiders outside, and if I don’t act fast, my dog goes after them. It’s always interested me that we feel the same level of dread about sorting paper and other clutter, but we don’t feel the same sense of urgency about getting rid of it! Even when it’s obvious that spiders could hide in there.
If I had a mass of paper clutter and ‘scoop and stuff’ bags, and I was determined to clear them without help, this is what I would do. I’d set aside a predictable time slot every day to handle all the incoming stuff: shopping bags, mail, those stupid coupon circulars… Then I’d give myself an extra 5 minutes to go through some of the older stuff. “Touch it once.” Pick it up and force myself to make a permanent decision about it before I move on to the next thing. The secret here is that the most important stuff will come back to haunt us again. It catches up to us in the same way that skipped dental cleanings catch up to us. Bill collectors won’t forget, catalogue companies won’t forget, and the IRS definitely never forgets. A replacement notification will come if we lose the first few. What we’re trying to do is to build a solid new habit of processing information as it comes in. Dealing with clutter without a system in place just means it will build up again, and it’ll start the very next day.
One of the first things to do is to empty a bag. ‘Scoop and stuff’ items are usually together by sheer coincidence. They just happened to be near each other at the time of scooping. When ordinary stuff turns into misc, by dint of being combined with other ordinary stuff, it has supernatural powers of confusion and emotional darkening. The presence of one paperclip in a stack of paper can make it seem twice as hard to process as it should. What we want to do is to first engage System One thinking, whipping through and categorizing items as quickly as possible, getting rid of things like sticky cough drops as quickly as possible. At least 80% of clutter processing can usually be done relying only on System One thinking. We can come back and do the complicated, high-concentration System Two thinking later, when there’s space to sit and evaluate it.
It’s not impossible. There might not even be as much as you think there is. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about scooping and stuffing – on the contrary, the habit of feeling shame during ordinary daily activities is what drives the ‘scoop and stuff’ activity. We try to buy ourselves a feeling of peace and tranquility by putting off and delaying certain things, like sorting mail. Then the shame of “never good enough” pops up again when we blame ourselves for that desire for leisure. The interesting thing is that processing stuff as it comes in each day takes less time than trying to hide things – and later search for them – on a regular basis. Having an information processing system means spending a few minutes every day to handle things, and then being able to relax without nagging thoughts or dread. Or bags of junk everywhere.
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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.