About Clutter

I am an uncertified decluttering expert. I go through old family stuff and newer family stuff, and friends’ stuff, and then of course there’s my own stuff, too.

There is a difference between keeping clutter and keeping tokens of memory or hope. If you took a trip to Paris when you were 20, still owning every ticket stub might be very meaningful to you because these items prove that your great adventure happened. They help you remember each moment. Similarly, if you plan someday to visit Paris, you might collect information about hotels, sites, and events you hope to see. These items help you toward making your dream a reality. Memory and hope. That’s why I still have a box or two filled with souvenirs of my time at Marvel Comics and at DC Comics. (I’ve heard of people who still had many cartons of files from their years of employment, so I’m not the only one.) I confess I own a dress that some day I hope I’ll be able to fit into. Just the one, though.

So, fine, some of our possessions rightly get a bye. We need to keep them to remind ourselves of who we once were, or to encourage us to become different people. But most of us need to take a tougher look at other possessions. Eyeglasses, for instance. I just cleaned out half-a-dozen pairs of glasses that belonged to my mother. They will be donated to the Lions Club shortly. Instead of taking up space in a drawer, they’ll be given to people who otherwise cannot afford glasses. Anyone who wears glasses knows that you only need to keep the last pair as a back-up. Previous pairs can go. So why did even my decluttering expert of a mother have so many? Lack of ruthlessness, I presume. We all need to get in touch with our inner ruthlessness if we are not to end up buried in clutter.

We also need to learn the difference between hope and clutter. I know someone who bought an office chair requiring assembly. She says every month that it is on her list of things to do.  But she doesn’t do it. I’ve assembled a few office chairs myself; it’s maybe a five-minute job. What’s the big deal here? I don’t know. But the box with the unassembled chair is definitely clutter. It is useless as is, but she has hopes she’ll some day put it together.

Clutter thus can be explained as the flotsam and jetsam of our hopes. We have big or little plans for these items we acquire and can’t let go of. Getting rid of them is like losing hope, I can see that, and that’s why we keep them. But keeping them and not using them is like denying the present. Everything will happen on some mysterious, unreachable day in the future. Why not now? What holds us back from following through on our plans?

Last year and the year before, I went through a huge stack of paperback books I’d had hanging around unread for a long time. Some of them for over a decade. And some were by my favorite authors, too, so what was the problem? I don’t know. But when I finally was ready to let them go, I read them in big gulps, and felt great about it, and my shelf was empty of all that nagging. A great feeling. Why did it take me so long? (I have a few answers about this, which I posted to the MyRomanceStory.com blog as “Guilty of Not Reading Romance.”)

Those unread books did nag at me. My Netflix movies also nag me. All right; I’m not claiming to be perfect here. Unfortunately, our possessions don’t just speak to us about our happy pasts or about our hopes for the future. They shout “You have this thing, why aren’t you using it?” Who among us does not have some piece of exercise equipment currently crying out to be used, but being ignored?

Why is it so hard to let go of these little hopes, or to turn them into realities? Assembling a chair? Five minutes. Ten if you won’t look at directions.

Dealing with food clutter, which goes over the line into hoarding since holding onto expired food is clearly irrational, is probably best left to the certified experts. Although I don’t notice any great success stories publicized by psychiatrists; they have not come up with a cure for extreme hoarding. Which after all is simply clutter to the max. I think they prescribe Celexa and hope things will improve if they allow the extreme clutterers to slowly go through item after item. Having dealt directly with this type of person, I know that the fatigue factor in going through stacks of possessions is usually too much for them. There’s got to be a better way.

The answer so far is to fight clutter as it comes in the door. Be ruthless about dumping what is useless, what is unnecessary, certainly what is ugly and annoying. Anything with a bad memory attached should go, of course, unless you can repurpose it and turn the bad memory into something good. How likely is that? Chuck it. You’ll feel better.

I talk a lot on my personal finance blog about clutter, because experts have linked clutter to poor financial habits and–surprisingly–to weight problems. The humane decluttering expert Peter Walsh has a book out about this very issue, Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? He also has a cardboard box test to help you sort out what items you use and which you don’t. This is for the kitchen, but it can apply in any room in your home. Worth trying.

I don’t have the answers. I know that rational appeals make no sense to irrational people. But before we become irrational about our possessions, we  have a window of opportunity–one that can be open for years–to reduce the load. Before we all turn into crazed packrats who rent multiple storage units and go trash picking, we can do better at removing the clutter from our lives. And that’s why this topic keeps bubbling up with me. We all can do better. We live in a rich country, the richest in the history of the world in terms of what ordinary individuals may acquire. Why squander our wealth on chairs we never sit in?


  1. There is so much to say about these issues! I just wrote a blog on how to tell the difference between Chronic disorganization and hoarding , if you are interested:

    Thanks for your thoughts

  2. And here’s yet another story of a crazy hoarder who just does not get it: http://tinyurl.com/ygvr2yf Sadly, tomorrow never comes for these people. They never get to the sorting out, and the items they claim to have salvaged rot under their care.

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