There is so much to do, so much stuff, we just don’t know where to begin. We feel defeated before we have even begun, and we are cranky. Instead of the calm we want in our heart so we can be the mama we want to be for our family, that heavy feeling we have drains all our good and sullies us with blame and shame.
This can be paralyzing. But when we know what kind of a mess we really have and give ourselves an ounce of self-awareness and a pound of self-compassion, we can set upon a diet of reduction and maintenance of the excess that threatens to consume us, mind, body and soul.
Mess leads to stress.
“Clutter is largely in the eyes of the beholder,” says Margit Novack, president of the National Association of Senior Move Managers. “Different people are comfortable with different degrees of clutter,” so if having a notebook, pen, or a photo of our dog on our desk doesn’t feel like clutter to us, then it’s not.
Steve Jobs famously lived in an austere home, yet pictures of his office reveal he had a messy side. Julie Morgenstern author of Organizing from the Inside Out, believes that, “If you can find what you need when you need it, are happy in your space, and don’t feel like your clutter is getting in your way, you are sufficiently well organized.”
Disorganization is defined as the absence of organization or orderly arrangement.
According to Agile Living Life Design Coach, Ariane Benefit, there are two different types of disorganization that can lead to clutter. We can find ourselves in a state of situational disorganization when normal times of transition and life events, like getting married, having a baby, moving or dealing with grief, create a certain amount of chaos, clutter and disorganization.
When we do not recover or restore order after these life events, we find ourselves in a state of chronic disorganization, where our order does not improve, may worsen, and clutter continues to accumulate.
We are chronically disorganized when:
- Disorganization and clutter often disrupt our marriage, relationships, work or health
- We can’t seem to let go of items, even when we no longer need them
- Clutter prevents us from using areas of our home as we would like to
- We’ve tried to get organize many times but can’t seem to maintain it
- We’ve purchased organizing books and containers but can’t apply them to our situation
- We feel there’s something wrong with us because we continue to fail to organize
This is a slippery slope. Our emotional state can become greatly affected and we can find ourselves so defeated and depressed that we cannot seem to muster the heart or strength to start the process of decluttering. Some of us can become almost numb to our situation so we don’t even realize the chronic pain we are in, except for when something triggers us and we flare with frustration and anger, or overwhelming grief and sadness for what our life could be like.
There may come a point where our daily life becomes overwhelmingly stressful, and clutter’s ugly sister, chronic procrastination, shows up to further taunt us and leaden the load. This is when we employ other addictive or compulsive behaviors to help us cope—like shopping, eating, self-isolating, working too much or binge watching Netflix—and escape our feelings of disappointment and self disdain.
Do we clutter or do we hoard?
Most of us live with some sort of mess but our home is safe to move around in, and it is relatively easy for us to straighten up enough to feel comfortable having guests. Rooms are used the way they’re meant to be, and the things we collect have value or personal meaning and bring pleasure, pride and good memories—not the shame or sadness that often comes with hoarding. At its most extreme, chronic disorganization is called hoarding.
For many, not being able to control clutter is an annoyance, but for others it can be a sign of a far deeper problems and psychiatric disorders, like depression, ADHD, or obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). About a quarter of all people with OCD are also compulsive hoarders.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), states that people with hoarding disorder have a conscious, ongoing compulsive urge to acquire unusually large amounts of possessions as well as corresponding feelings of anxiety or mental anguish and an inability to voluntarily get rid of those possessions, even when they have no practical usefulness or real-world value. Defined in part by clutter that so extreme that it overtakes the practical use of living, dining and sleeping spaces, hoarding harms quality of life and also can lead to safety issues in the home.
Answering yes to any of these questions may mean our clutter is a problem for us and others, and we may need to seek help:
- We buy many of the same things over time, because we can’t find what we already have
- Our stuff prevents us from having people over or having enough money
- We are late paying bills because we can’t find them
- We have trouble getting dinner ready on time
- We feel out of control or bad about ourselves when looking at our piles of clutter
- We feel a euphoric high when accumulating stuff
- We have narrow trails throughout our house so we can walk between piles of stuff
In a survey conducted by About.com, pollsters found that, “one-third of respondents admitted they avoided spending time at home so they didn’t have to deal with their mess.”
If you are ashamed of your home, avoid going home, or feel stressed about your home, these are signs your clutter is problematic.
Remember: What we have is not who we are.
It’s hard to comprehend why hoarders are unable to throw things out. But research shows that a hoarder’s brain reacts differently to decluttering than that of a normal person. In a study conducted at the Yale School of Medicine, researchers using brain scan technology discovered that the same area of the brain that lights up when you feel physical pain, like bumping your head, also shows greater activity in the brains of compulsive hoarders when they were faced with throwing out something of personal value. By comparison, people who didn’t hoard showed no extra brain activity.
Although most people don’t experience heightened brain activity to that degree, we can all identify with the angst we feel when tossing those old college t-shirts or that broken bike in the garage. And with good reason: Items like these may be tied to emotionally significant memories and may represent a piece of our identity.
10 tips to toss clutter:
- Commit to toss, recycle or donate that which isn’t used, wanted or needed.
- Focus on one area at a time and get started with an area that is most bothersome, even if it’s an area as small as a drawer.
- Set a timer and work in concentrated bursts with a popular concentration hack, called the Pomodoro technique.
- Tackle de-cluttering as a family. “Start with a room everyone uses and making each person responsible for a section,” says Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, who specializes in the area of women and stress.
- Sell unwanted items in a yard sale or on Craigslist or eBay. This takes extra time, so check prices to make sure it’s worth it.
- Deal with unwanted gifts and family heirlooms. Despite the love with which they were given, or what they meant to our dead relatives, in the end, they are just things. Removing these items from our life if they aren’t precious to us, and letting go of any object—however lovely or sentimental—is crucial if looking at it disturbing or depressing.
- Donate clothes and shoes that have not been worn in the past year.
- Limit the time we are willing to store something for someone else.
- Realistically look at our stuff and toss whatever our “wishing self” is hanging onto.
- Take stock of all our projects currently “in process,” then be willing to let go, clean up and move on.
It is very important to get unwanted stuff out of the way by dropping off donations, trash, and recyclables before we start to reorganize and our decision making becomes muddied with regret, or we spend valuable time and energy moving bags and boxes around while we continue on our quest. And if there seems to be a constant flow in to our home, sustaining a constant flow out is critical to maintaining any newfound order.
And 10 more ways to stay organized:
- Consciously decide what goes where and make sure it is where it should be.
- Set a limit on how much stuff can be tolerated, and where.
- For every item we bring into our home, take one out.
- Designate spaces for frequently used items. Store any overflow in an easy-access see-through bin in the garage.
- Create an action folder to help clear workspaces and make pending projects and bills easy to locate.
- Go through papers as soon as possible, tossing what isn’t and storing what is needed in their proper place.
- Make decluttering a habit—make 15 minutes of every day time for upkeep.
- Streamline routines to increase the likelihood of sticking to them.
- Seek ongoing support via friends, or self-help groups like, Clutterers Anonymous, and Messies Anonymous.
- Minimize digital clutter by setting a limit on how many people to follow on social media, books to buy, or apps to own, allowing more time to do things that matter.
Little things add up.
In her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, author and KonMari Method founder, Marie Kondo, famously recommends turning your home inside out when you finally decide to declutter. By literally dumping everything you own on the floor of one room, Kondo says it becomes quite clear which of your possessions spark joy and thus are worthy of space in your home. For some, upending our lives in one fell swoop is exactly what we need to be able to see what really is valuable to us. But for most of us, just the thought of it can stop us in our tracks and leave us feeling more overwhelmed, depressed and anxious.
So start small.
In an article for Psychology Today, psychologist Dana Gionta, Ph.D., says, “The more control we perceive we have over our lives translates into less depression and anxiety down the road.” We can carve out little victories of order for ourselves each day that may encourage us to keep working towards our decluttering goals. And little things like checking smoke alarm batteries, changing the heater filter or cleaning out sippy cups from the car, may just give us the momentum we need to get the bigger ball rolling.
And we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves in the process. “By being kinder and more forgiving of ourselves, we use the energy that would be spent on feeling bad for actually moving ourselves in the right direction,” says Benefit.
Fewer, better and more beautiful things make for a cozy and welcoming respite that provides the peace and comfort we need to nourish the souls and strengthen bonds of our family.
Where to get additional help:
The Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) is devoted primarily to providing education and training specifically to help people with chronic disorganization.
Cognitive behavioral therapy can help hoarding patients reduce their clutter dramatically.
Others may need to work with healthcare professionals who can treat any mental health conditions that are co-occurring and contributing to cluttering and hoarding. Medications to reduce anxiety, obsessive thinking, impulsivity and/or depression may be indicated along with counseling.