Sunday, July 22, 2012

Cluttered Life in the 21st Century


Regular readers know that both The Thoughtful Consumer blog and my book, Sorting It Out, were inspired by my own uncluttering efforts several years ago. Like many people, I had been busy working and living and accumulating stuff until one day I had to acknowledge that my formerly simple, uncluttered home had become crowded and uncomfortable.

I'm a firm believer in a philosphy held by Blaise Pascal: "All of man's problems stem from his inability to sit quietly alone in an empty room." I wanted that quiet, empty space again -- or at least a room that was uncluttered enough to feel relaxing. That meant facing some "postponed decisions," as professional organizer Peter Walsh calls clutter.

The process of achieving a reasonably uncluttered state was challenging, and those challenges continue. I still hold on to some things that I honestly can't justify keeping. I still face temptation to buy things that I don't need. I still haven't conquered all of my organizing dilemmas. And, judging from the popularity of uncluttering books and workshops, and the burgeoning field of professional organizing, a lot of people have the same issues.

So, let's take a look at three recent, useful links to posts on that basic topic of clutter:

From the L.A. Times: "Clutter and Other Family Problems of the 21st Century"

"An interdisciplinary group of researchers — archaeologists, anthropologists, psychologists and other social scientists — found that mothers who described their houses as messy or cluttered experienced higher rates of a depressed mood in the evening. This correlation was one of many findings on human relationships and behavior with material possessions in the book Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, which was published in early July...Among the many findings, researchers discovered that families are generally over-scheduled, with less time being spent outdoors or eating dinner together. The families paid a lot of money renovating and remodeling a house, only to spend much of their time in front of a TV...About 75% of the garages in the study held so much overflow from the main house that a car no longer fit."

From Yahoo Homes: "Why Clutter Matters and Decluttering is Difficult"

"Clutter matters, [pro organizer Jennifer] Hunter says. It matters because it takes up space — not just in your surroundings, but in your head. Of the two, the psychological effect of clutter is the most important. 'When we clear the clutter out of a space, people breathe a sigh of relief.' The mood changes instantly. People feel lighter, more serene, more focused."

From Parade Magazine: "Is Your Stuff Weighing You Down?" Adapted from Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen. Published by Random House, a division of Random House Inc. © 2012 by Anna Quindlen.

"At some point desire and need became untethered in our lives, and shopping became a competitive sport...I fooled myself into thinking that House Beautiful should be subtitled Life Wonderful...Now that I’m nearing 60, I understand the truth about possessions, that they mean or prove or solve nothing. Stuff is not salvation."

In the uncluttering workshops that I teach occasionally, I always ask my students to identify what they would save if they had to leave the house immediately because of a disaster (in earthquake country, that's a particularly salient concern). They usually answer in the same general way that Anna Quindlen did in her article in Parade: grab some photos and the dogs and go. Protecting your family and the family pets is primary on everyone's mind in a crisis, so I have no doubt that even the photos would be abandoned, if necessary.

And yet we cling to so much more -- not just the necessities, not just a few important sentimental things, not just comfortable little luxuries we enjoy, but stuff that's useless, worn out, and weighing us down. "Possessions mean or prove or solve nothing." Will we ever understand that? When we do, and when we accept it wholeheartedly, we'll finally be able to stop postponing our decisions and act.