Clutter is just a speed bump. It’s important to remember that when we actually start rolling up our sleeves and sorting it out. This isn’t meant to be a new hobby! It’s something we can do over a brief period of time, and once we’ve gotten it over with, we can move on to things we like better. All the things we couldn’t do when our homes were full of extra stuff… The point of space clearing is to make room for life to start happening again.
There’s a phenomenon that I call “churning.” This is when someone starts constantly rearranging and reorganizing and purging and shopping and reorganizing stuff yet again. The reason for this is that many of us strongly prefer interacting with stuff over interacting with other humans. This is why I discourage people from looking to their stuff to “spark joy.” Stuff shouldn’t spark joy; people should spark joy. Living a life filled with purpose should spark joy. Dance and music and art and nature should spark joy. Joining the great conversation should spark joy. Instead, culturally, we’ve traded in almost all of that for screen time and cheap consumer goods.
Maybe that’s too much to ask, though. Maybe we’re far enough gone that most of us can’t reach the threshold for pleasant interactions, due to a general societal lack of civility and kindness. If the choices available are sorting through a stack of books or a tub of craft supplies, or trying to have a conversation with someone who is sarcastic or belligerent, it’s easy enough to see why so many of us are turning to coloring books or games instead. If the main point of space clearing is to have a home suitable for informal gatherings of family and friends, maybe we just have to shrug that one off and move further down the list.
The point of space clearing is to have a functional personal living environment that supports the things you want to do. A bedroom for sleeping, a bathroom for bathing, a kitchen for cooking, a dining table for eating meals, a living room for relaxing. If this all sounds perfectly obvious to you, then you probably don’t have a clutter problem.
This is what I see in my work:
Bedrooms full of dirty and clean laundry
Dressers and closets full to bursting, partly with clothes that don’t even fit
Kitchen sinks full of dirty dishes
Kitchen counters covered with dirty dishes, packages of food, mail, and random objects
Refrigerators full to the gills, mostly with stuff that has expired
Bathroom counters covered with bottles and random grooming tools
Desks buried under drifts of mail and other papers
Garages full from wall to wall
Uncashed checks and unused gift cards
(Sometimes) “craft rooms” too full of materials to actually make anything
The point of space clearing is to get these systems up and running. Systems, you say? Yes. The missing piece in all the homes where I have worked is that they don’t really have any systems. Material objects come in the door and they never go out again. Without any overall system, stuff gets left wherever, and when it can’t be found, sometimes it’s replaced, adding to the overall stuff problem. Default patterns that contribute to this are buying things on sale, “stocking up,” recreational shopping (such as yard saling), and poor boundaries with friends and relatives who are compulsive accumulators. A lot of people use gift-giving as an excuse for compulsive acquisition. “I saw this and I bought it, and I’m not sure why exactly, but here, you take it.”
Putting some systems in place can prevent clutter and chronic disorganization from getting worse. Space clearing usually needs to happen at some point, though, for things to really start working.
Get rid of anything in your kitchen that gets in the way of actually preparing simple meals.
Get rid of anything on your dining table that gets in the way of sitting down to eat.
Get rid of anything on your desk that prevents you from sitting there to work.
Get rid of anything in your bedroom, bathroom, or entryway that slows you down when you get ready in the morning.
Get rid of anything, anywhere, that you might trip over or step on.
Get rid of anything in your garage that prevents you from reaching your cool stuff, whether that’s a workbench, a kayak, an air hockey table, your bike, or anything you like more than boxes.
Get rid of anything you think is ugly, broken, depressing, or smelly.
Get rid of anything that makes you want to turn around and leave the room. Include your front and back yard in that assessment.
Get rid of everything in your storage unit, unless of course you’re independently wealthy.
We tend to get caught up in the many fascinations and charms of an individual object, such as a tomato-stained spatula, a dusty wicker basket, any object shaped like any animal, or anything that could loosely be described as “cute.” We hold things up and we set them right back down. We get distracted and wander off. It’s hard for us to learn to think in terms of an entire room rather than one silly little material object. Thinking in terms of systems is harder still. We aren’t sold on the advantages.
Am I having fun?
How do I feel when I walk in my door at the end of the day? Relieved, happy, satisfied…? Or bummed out, drained, resentful…?
Am I getting where I need to be, on time, all the time?
How are my finances? Do I actually know or am I intimidated by this thought?
Can I move freely through my home or is it easier to sit down and stay put?
Can I easily put together a meal, an outfit, and a financial statement?
Am I a good roommate to myself?
Do I like my life?
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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.