When was the last time you saw your dining room table? Or to be more accurate, the top of your dining room table? If you’re like most busy people, you know it’s there somewhere – it’s just buried under piles of old mail, stacks of unread newspapers and copies of your kids’ report cards.
Maybe it’s your car, hall closet or garage that’s stuffed to the gills. Clutter can easily materialize in all the corners of our living and working spaces. And where clutter accumulates, it complicates. It confounds our thinking. It limits our movements. It saps our energy. It impedes our progress.
Clutter is a uniquely human affliction – one that has gotten worse as modern life has grown busier, more crowded and faster-paced. Ironically, the very things we buy in order to make our lives “simpler” and more convenient often end up exacerbating the problem. We get bigger closets, bigger storage bins and organizing systems, bigger houses and garages to put it all in. But somehow, the stuff always keeps pace.
Clutter sneaks up on us so insidiously that by the time we see all the stacks and piles and layers for what they really are, the mere thought of waging battle against them can be terrifying. But take heart: Clearing clutter is well worth the effort. And if you are really looking to simplify your life, there’s no better way to begin.
In the past few years, a whole clutter-clearing industry has sprung to life. You can now consult de-cluttering experts, read clutter-busting books, attend Feng Shui clutter-cutting seminars – even enlist your own clutter-clearing coach to help you tackle the dirty work.
But one thing that virtually all these sources will tell you is this: Ridding yourself of physical clutter is only one part of the job. Fail to consider clutter’s psychological, emotional and spiritual aspects, and not only will you have a harder time clearing excess stuff away, but your clutter will also be that much more likely to come back and haunt you – perhaps indefinitely.
As space-clearing specialist Karen Kingston explains in her book Clear Your Clutter, “Clutter accumulates where energy stagnates, and likewise, energy stagnates where clutter accumulates.” This means that if you are “blocked” or “stuck” in one area of your life, your physical space will tend to accumulate clutter in a way that reflects that. But it also means that by clearing out your physical spaces, you can often free up an enormous amount of life energy – sometimes with dramatic and surprising results.
Feng Shui consultant and professional de-clutterer Andrea Marina has seen this dynamic play out with clients countless times. She offers the story of a married couple so oppressed by their mess that they were about to call it quits.
“They had stopped communicating,” she recalls. “The money had stopped flowing into their household. They both felt drained of energy – everything seemed stuck.” Knowing that some of their conflicts were stemming from the serious disarray in their home, the couple called in Marina for a consultation. It was immediately evident to her that her clients’ clutter was stifling them – not just physically, but emotionally.
“The first thing I noticed was that all of the windowsills were layered with dusty dead stuff,” she recounts. “Overgrown hanging plants, dried flowers, shells, rocks – the surface clutter was literally blocking their ability to see out the windows.” In Feng Shui terms, she explains, this visual blockage was also “preventing them from seeing future possibilities.”
At that first appointment, Marina worked with her clients to move just a few things. “It was the equivalent of clearing off the windshield,” she explains, “so that they could at least see the horizon out in front of them.” Even those small changes were energizing enough to spur her clients on to a broader de-cluttering mission.
“By the end of that first clearing session, they were saying ‘We’ve always worked well together. We can do this together, too,’” notes Marina. “This was from a couple who had been nearly ready to give up on each other just hours before.”
By examining the nature of their clutter, Marina’s clients were also able to glean some important insights into deeper issues. “One of the reasons much of this stuff had accumulated in the first place,” Marina explains “was that this couples’ life had changed a great deal over the past 10 years. They’d changed as individuals, too, outgrowing interests and activities, taking on new ones – but they hadn’t really ever taken stock of that evolution.”
Over time, certain furnishings, objects and arrangements fell out of use and appreciation, but the couple tended to just “work around them.” There were bunkbeds their children didn’t sleep in anymore, a concrete block to hold open a door that no longer existed, a gate for a dog that had long passed away – all just taking up space.
To Marina, the large number of overgrown, undernourished and bedraggled plants suggested that her clients probably had taken on more responsibilities and commitments than they could reasonably handle, and their time and energy were stretched too thin.
Another thing Marina noted: “They tended to display things they’d gathered on trips and vacations – mostly trips taken years ago.” After consulting with her clients about various objects’ origins and meanings, it became clear to her that the couple was, in effect, creating a mausoleum of experiences they’d shared during happier, less harried times. But these collections were no longer delighting them or bringing them joy – just collecting dust.
Marina surmised that this couple was really longing to spend more fun, relaxed, rewarding time together in the present. But their house was so messy and crammed with stuff, there was nowhere to even sit and talk. In effect, the couple’s clutter was sending them an SOS signal: “Rather than being suffocated by the remnants of past experiences,” she says, “they needed to start creating space for new ones.”
Wide Open Spaces
The first step toward ridding yourself of clutter is identifying it, and that can be tougher than you think. For one thing, as Marina’s clients demonstrated, we can grow so accustomed to living with our gradually expanding messes that we no longer see them.
Sometimes clutter represents the life we want to be leading, but aren’t. And sometimes objects have a powerful sentimental or symbolic value we haven’t even admitted to ourselves.
The other thing is, what’s clutter to one person might be another person’s pride and joy. Is that lovely bowl on your coffee table clutter? What about your collection of china figurines? Your childhood store of comic books? It depends on your relationship with the objects, the pleasure they bring you, and the respect you accord them.
Most professional clutter busters will classify as clutter any stuff in our living spaces that create physical barriers between us and our aspirations. In Kingston’s view, that includes all of the following:
- Things you do not use or love
- Things that are untidy or disorganized
- Too many things in a too-small space
- Anything unfinished
You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted tip from British designer and writer William Morris: “Have nothing in your house that is not both useful and beautiful.” Marina suggests you employ that guideline, then take it one step further: “Ask yourself whether each object is useful and beautiful enough – to justify the visual and physical space it takes up, and the maintenance it requires to stay clean, dust-free and in good repair.”
Marina also emphasizes that no matter how much you love all your stuff, it’s still important that you leave an ample amount of space open and clear. Without enough visual space to set them off, even the most beautiful objects will disappear. And if a room is so cramped that you can’t stand to be in it, it hardly matters how many lovely things it contains.
Take a look around and consider how much your stuff is costing you – physically, mentally, economically, energetically. Then consider parting with some, or even a lot, of it. Once your space is cleared out, you may be surprised how powerfully your new clutter-free zones influence you. You might start throwing dinner parties again, or doing yoga in a sunroom that used to be too crowded, or writing letters at a table that was previously piled with bills. The repercussions of such changes, and the accompanying shifts in attitude and self-esteem, can be life changing.
Carole Hyder, a nationally respected Feng Shui consultant and teacher, tells the story of a client, a smoker, who had lived in the same house for five years and still hadn’t unpacked his moving boxes. Hyder helped him to tackle the unpacked boxes and then reduce the clutter that had accumulated in his house. When the work was through, her client was so proud of his now-orderly surroundings that he promptly stopped smoking. “The way he explained it, he now had such a clean, beautiful space to live in that he didn’t want to bring cigarettes into it,” Hyder says.
Ready to start your de-cluttering efforts? Here’s your battle plan
- Put on some energizing music, open a window and make sure you have enough light. If you’re dealing with dust or mildew, don a mask and/or run an air purifier.
- Gather some good-sized boxes and mark them: “Give,” “Toss,” “Repair,” “Put Away” or whatever categories suit your purpose. Figure you’ll probably need three times the number of boxes and bags you’d expect.
- Set your intent and visualize the space as it will be when you are done: clean, clear and beautiful!
- Begin with a single room or even with one small area, such as a desk, car or closet. Many experts suggest starting with your bedroom.
- If you’re dealing with a huge area (like an attic), visually designate a smaller area or corner of it as your current de-cluttering project. Go section by section ? that way you’ll have visible, interim accomplishments to celebrate, an increasing amount of clear area to work in, and you’ll be less likely to get overwhelmed.
- Don’t feel you have to do everything in one day or weekend. For most, de-cluttering is a long-term, ongoing process.
- If you’re having a hard time getting motivated or you just don’t know where to begin, consult a book or Web site for inspiration (see Resources at end of article). You might also enlist a pal for a clutter-clearing trade, or consider hiring a Feng Shui expert of other professional de-clutterer to help you develop and implement a solid battle plan.
- Remember, the goal is to lighten your load. Use Kingston’s clutter test: Does it lift my energy when I think about it or look at it? Do I love it? Is it genuinely useful? IF you have the slightest doubt, let it go.
- “Do not create piles of objects with the intention of deciding later where they will go,” warns Kingston. Decide right then and there what each object’s fate will be. Fill the boxes, then take the boxes to their destinations.
- If you are really torn about saying goodbye to something, Kingston recommends putting it a “Dilemma” box. Close up the box and seal it. Store it for six months, and if you can’t remember what’s in it (or don’t care), get rid of it.
- While cleaning a clutter zone is a good first step, follow-through is also important. Given the smallest chance, clutter has a nasty way of reattaching itself to you, so make a point of removing clutter from your property completely.
- Resist the temptation to just move your clutter from place to place or repackage it in fancy bins.
- Don’t wait for that garage sale you’ve never had, and never will. Call the garbage collectors, bring your load of bottles to the recycling center, make that trip to Goodwill right away.
- If you are dealing with a large amount of clutter (especially basement and attic clutter), look into renting a small dumpster.
Keep It Up
- Commit to acquiring and keeping fewer material belongings in your life.
- For birthdays and holidays, request no gifts (or let people know you prefer “experience-oriented” gifts).
- Avoid shopping (whether department stores or garage sales) “just to shop.” You’ll tend to collect stuff that is clutter waiting to happen.
- To stop clutter-creep up, every time you get something new, give, donate or recycle something old.
- Schedule regular clutter-busting sessions and involve the whole family.
- If clutter starts accumulating again, for nine days in a row remove nine objects.
Andy Steiner is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor.