Monday, January 31, 2011

Just a Little Bit of Clutter

I just watched an episode of professional organizer Peter Walsh's new show, "Enough Already." Whenever I watch that kind of television program, I'm always concerned that the people whose homes are being uncluttered are not getting the psychological help that they need in order to make the kinds of changes that are necessary to live uncluttered lives. I hope that there's some work done behind the scenes with professionals who understand on more than just a cursory intellectual level how and why the subjects' lives became consumed by clutter. As much as I'd like to believe that the uncluttering experts onscreen can transform lives, I have serious doubts.

I'm also amazed by the quantity of clutter that the subjects have acquired. With the exception of television shows devoted specifically to hoarders (we expect to see tons of stuff surrounding them), these programs feature average people whose clutter simply has overwhelmed them. Cluttered homes that look like the ones we see on TV are chosen because of their dramatic impact. No one would be particularly interested in watching a show about dealing with just a little bit of excess stuff; we like to see people in extreme situations, confronting demons larger than the ones we face. But the majority of clutter sufferers are not living in a state of chaos; we're living in a state of constant irritation. That's demoralizing, too, and can be surprisingly life-inhibiting.

"It's just a little bit of clutter," we say dismissively, as if it didn't really bother us. But it does. The reasons we tolerate our small amount of clutter can vary but, whatever they are, we end up accepting it as an annoying, yet "normal" part of life. However, "just a little bit of clutter" can cause us quite a lot of stress and anxiety. We shuffle it around to get it out of the way, hide it if friends are scheduled to come by, and curse it as we berate ourselves for our inefficiency. How much better would our lives be if we simply dealt with it? For example, I have a few small piles of papers that I can't seem to sort, file or toss. They sit in wicker trays, tormenting me whenever I look at them. I realize that they represent, as Peter Walsh likes to say, postponed decisions. And yet, I keep postponing.

What if I looked at my situation differently (and you looked at your situation differently, too)? What if we tried the Clean Slate method suggested by Jeffrey Tang, who blogs at The Art of Great Things? In a guest post on Leo Babauta's blog, ZenHabits, Jeffrey explains that rather than working to unclutter by subtraction -- removing things that are unnecessary -- we could try working by adding what we need as we need it. We would do this by literally boxing up all of our clutter and then pulling out what's needed at the time when we're going to use it. Eventually, the unnecessary stuff will be left in the box for an extended period of time and we'll figure out that we can let it go. This is a bit like the process I describe in my book, Sorting It Out, in which I suggest that we take an inventory of what we need rather than what we have and then use that list to help us make decisions about what to keep and what to let go. Jeffrey's system requires more heavy lifting, but for some of us, that may be what's required. There's a simplicity to this approach that's appealing, too, as well as the immediate gratification of a cleaned-up home.

Even more dramatic is the "nuclear option" which requires packing up stuff and getting it out of the house, period. There's no intermediate step of letting it sit for awhile in case we need to pull something out of the box later. If it's not in use, it goes. The nuclear option for papers is the shredder. Don't analyze, just take a cursory glance (in case there's a bill or a check in the stack), then shred. Sounds rather exhilarating, doesn't it? And maybe a bit scary.

Often the real problem in dealing with these small quantities of clutter that most of us keep around is that this is the stuff that causes us the greatest attachment anxiety. With things, the issue is usually sentimental; with papers, it's that they're "important." So, even though we don't know what to do with the stuff, we cling to it mindlessly, allowing it to occupy space in our homes and our heads. Of course, if we truly valued the items in question, we'd display them or use them; if the papers were truly important, they'd be appropriately filed for easy access.

So, what if we just let it all go? What's the worst that would happen? Regrets, perhaps. What's the best that could happen? Relief. Empty space. The ability to move on. Focusing on the moment, not the past. Life.

Will we let "just a little bit of clutter" continue to burden our minds, distracting us from things that are important to us now, or will we confront the annoying stuff and liberate ourselves from its tyranny? Making that decision sounds just as dramatic as anything I've seen on TV. Tune in next week . . . .

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: Harry Fodor at stock.xchng


Stacy said...

Great post! I love the idea of boxing stuff up and then adding it back in as necessary. Totally delays the decision making process!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Glad you enjoyed the post. Jeffrey Tang's system may be the only example of procrastination working for you rather than against you! Of course, the idea is that eventually you will make those hard decisions. But a little time living in an uncluttered environment should make that process easier. If you try this, I hope you'll let us know how it worked for you!

copy jane said...

While I am always pleased to get paper back into the recycling stream and save some trees, for papers, I strongly recommend that you do not go nuclear. Follow the GTD principle of does it require action? yes: do it or defer it (calendar, placement) no: is it a record or reference material -> file/binder, is it junk -> recycle, don't know -> file. Filing protocol is critical: you need to have the archive boxes or a file cabinet, a box of 100 file folders, and a consistent label e.g. one black Sharpie or a label printer. If you're waffling over a paper, the default should be to classify and file it. You can revisit your files later and prune them; it's important to give yourself and files time to become apparent what you need, what will come in useful, what can finally be deemed safe to get rid of. If you get rid of a paper that later you come to regret, it's a problem. It can even be a big problem. But once some initial discipline and your own experience has proven trustworthy, you'll find filing not such a pain in the butt. I've had a 5-drawer cabinet with follower blocks (superior to hanging-files) now for 10 years, in that time I've probably reclassified and pruned twice a year, and finally I am ready to downsize to a three-drawer.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

You sound well-organized and disciplined, Copy Jane, two qualities I admire!

I appreciate your concern about "the nuclear option" for papers, but the term really doesn't mean the wholesale destruction it sounds like. It still requires looking at everything first to make sure that nothing important ends up in the shredder. Because you have to move quickly, what it helps avoid is over-analyzing papers that many cluttered folks hang on to needlessly, for example, receipts kept long past the date required for tax purposes, expired coupons, and ancient magazines that will never be read (of course, the last two can go straight into the recycling bin without being shredded). And, as you point out, that pesky filing process can't be avoided, but at least it can be made easier if you have less to file.

Thanks for your comment!