Organizing, Redesign & Staging

Friday, October 24, 2008

Causes of Clutter: An Important Review

As a professional organizer, I often get asked why and how we get disorganized and cluttered in our homes, our lives, and at work. There is a lot of psychology in my job because of the fact there is mental clutter as well as physical, and the reasons for clutter often have to do with what's going on in our heads. Sometimes, looking at the why we have items can help to eliminate clutter.

What causes clutter? If you want the short answer, there isn’t one. The long answer is that there are many reasons people get disorganized and cluttered. As a professional organizer, I find that the most common cause of clutter is too many things, without a place for them. It is not just that there is not enough space for everything -- it is that you don’t know where to put something. And since there’s no room for it, you ‘temporarily’ store it somewhere else and delay dealing with it. This way, items get lost among items they have nothing in common with or are forgotten. If you don't find them, you will most likely end up buying another! A good rule of thumb? Everything needs to have a home. If not, then either create a place or don't keep the object. Do not have junk drawers or “miscellaneous” files because that doesn’t help you to determine what is in there and what will be put in there.

Another cause of clutter is the fear of not being able to get something again. This is also referred to as the "depression era mentality" where people had to make do with very little and learned not to throw anything away. The mindset of "let's keep it in case I need it" is the rationale for keeping things. To avoid this, consider that, when the decision to throw an item away is made, almost everything can be found again. Since our world is now filled with many ways of getting almost anything (think Internet), it is unlikely that we would be truly unable to get something again should the need arise.

Many times the inability to make a decision about keeping or discarding an item can be overwhelming. You waffle back and forth because you are afraid you’re going to make the wrong decision. This is, however, a learned skill and, I promise you, gets easier the more you do it. When in doubt, throw it out! Guilt is also a powerful ally of clutter. Often we realize that we hold on to things we don’t need or want just because we spent a lot of money on it, it was a gift, or it once served a purpose. We feel guilty getting rid of it. But think about the control a material object is having over you. Instead toss, donate or use. You can keep things that were gifts, but you don't have to keep things just because they're a gift.

Another cause of clutter is due to grieving or memories of the past. It can be incredibly difficult to let go of your grandmother’s china or your father’s personal mementos because you feel like throwing them away means throwing away memories. Try to remember, however, that tangible items only represent the loved one; you’ll still remember them even without the actual item. Physical objects can trigger strong memories, but the memories themselves are the most important. Or how about holding on to one piece of a set or one part of a larger item to display and remind you of that person? Consider taking a photo of the items, or making a scrapbook or shadow box. You may also feel better knowing a donation will go to someone who needs it and will use it.