Clearing clutter can feel like it will take forever. Almost nobody has steely enough nerves to truly get rid of it all in one pass. We keep going through the same boxes and bags and stacks and piles, gradually eroding them, feeling mentally and emotionally taxed by the effort of making all those choices. It can feel like pure drudgery combined with an emotional maelstrom that includes genuine grief. I submit that the process of clearing clutter can be treated and experienced as a game instead.
Picture a floor plan of your house. Better yet, draw a picture of it! I do this with clients all the time, and it works best at a neutral location where we can’t actually see our beloved stuff. Draw the floor plan and then scribble in areas that are cluttered. If you sent it to me, I could most likely freak you out with an eerie analysis of what is going on in your life. This drawing is for you, though. It’s your game board.
It’s the game of Clue. Where did this mess come from? I did it in the Dining Room with the Sewing Machine! My dog did it in the Living Room with his Muddy Paws! Colonel Mustard did it in the Kitchen with Every Pot and Pan in the House! Who are the usual suspects in my house? Not so much the players, but the rooms and the “weapons.” What tends to make my house look like a crime scene? Which room needs a chalk outline? Which objects are on the checklist of Instruments of Destruction? (Laundry, dishes, books, homework, shopping bags, toys?)
It’s the game of Monopoly. Which squares are the most valuable? Which strips of properties do you pray you’ll roll past? Does your house have a Jail where nobody wants to spend a turn? Which squares are controlled by which player? Which squares are filled so that no more houses or hotels can be added? Does anyone have any money, or are we about to be wiped out? Will anyone trade a square with anyone else, so a more valuable area can be completed? Are any squares generating rental income? (A functional work space for a home business, an Air B&B room, a kitchen that makes us want to cook at home more often…?)
It’s a checkerboard. You have to hop from square to square if you want to get across the board. You’re the last remaining red checker, and the black checkers are piles of laundry, boxes, toys, projects, or whatever else keeps you from simply walking through the house.
It’s a Scrabble board, filled with words. There are books and magazines and newspapers and newsletters and recipes and patterns and printouts everywhere. The further you get into the game, the fewer spaces are left to make any new words.
It’s a Go board. You are trying to capture territory, just as your opponent (the clutter) is trying to claim it and fill it with stones. Sometimes you think you’ve made an astute play, only to realize that you were playing right into the clutter’s best interests after all. (Bringing home “organizers” that prove to be unsuitable, bringing home materials for home improvement projects and then never using them). If only you could take the opposing stones and pitch them out the window!
It’s the game of Risk. You own a certain amount of territory, and the other people in the house are continually trying to take it over, because that’s how they roll. You thought you had Bedroom, but somehow it has filled up with laundry, and now Bathroom is as well. You really want Dining Room, but you’ll have to claim Kitchen and Living Room before you can even make an attempt at it. You’ve claimed territory at Storage Unit that isn’t even on the right continent. Every time you try to reclaim an area, there’s a conflict. Sometimes people aren’t speaking to each other by the end of someone’s turn.
What game is being played at your house? The game of mutual irritation? The game of waiting for the right mood? The game of fatigue or chronic illness? The game of scarcity? The game of resentment? Is this game fun for the whole family? Is it time to switch to a different game, such as lightheartedness, change, or passion?
The idea of clearing clutter is to make space for living. If it’s well organized, it gets used, and daily life is better with it than without it, it isn’t clutter. It’s clutter if there is too much of it, it’s in the way, you can’t find it when you need it, it isn’t functional (broken, stained, etc.), you don’t use it or need it, or just looking at it drains your energy. One way of dealing with it is to completely, completely, thoroughly clear an area, until it is exactly the way you want it. Then preserve that area of the game board and start working on the next one. Use your floor plan drawing as a way to keep score. Room after room, your territory expands, and your opponent’s area contracts. Before you know it, the entire board is clear, and you’ve won the game.
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.