Curing The Clutter Epidemic

1 Feb, 2011 || by

“Curing The Clutter Epidemic: Why Americans Have So Much Stuff, And How We Can Learn To Hold On To What Really Matters” By: Kathleen Parrish

Published in July/August 2010 edition of  “The Saturday Evening Post

We live in a world of things, of junk, of stuff.  This fact was brought home to me – literally – when I left my job after 17 years.  I carted the contents of my office home in three garbage bags that sat around the house for the next six months.  Every time I tried to sort through those bags and commit to getting rid of any of it, I became paralyzed by fear (Would I need this later? Would I miss that once it was gone?) and overwhelmed by the task at hand.  And that was just three bags – most of it paper!  How would I ever sort through all the other stuff cluttering up my home and my life?

It’s a question many Americans ask themselves every day.  Thanks to an abundance of cheap goods, instant credit, and constant exposure to the persuasive powers of advertising, acquiring has in itself become a national pastime.  And a national problem, as our closets, attics, and lives become overwhelmed in an epidemic of uncontrolled clutter.

“We’ve begun to buy and hold on to so many items that we’re now having to acquire more and more space to accommodate our clutter,” says Dr. David Kantra, a psychologist in Fairhope, Alabama who studies the problem of clutter (see “Chronic Clutter Syndrome” & “The Psychology of Clutter“).  In the past 30 years, the size of the average American home has grown 53 percent, from 1,500 square feet to a little more than 2,300 square feet.  That’s an extra 800 square feet for stuff.  But instead of becoming more organized with this space, homeowners have filled it up, and outsourced their items to storage facilities.

Birth of an Obsession

The ready availability of merchandise of every stripe was something that didn’t exist throughout most of American history, but the problem of clutter traces its origins back further than you might think – all the way to the 19th century.  The rise of industrialization and the mass production of products created a cult of desire that has survived the decades, through economic booms and busts, where accumulating goods was viewed as the road to happiness,

That idea became more pronounced in the 20th century, as the power of advertising linked products to a lifestyle.  “The message became ‘you are what you own,'” says Dr. Lorrin Koran, professor emeritus of psychiatry at Stanford University Center.  Retailers responded to that insatiable desire for ownership.  Remember the general store?  It used to stock about 1000 items in three or four aisles with one lane for checkout: That was all we needed.  Today, you could fit almost the entire contents of that store into one aisle of a huge discount chain that sells everything from hamburger meat to motor oil to flat-screen TVs.  The average super retail center carries more than 100,000 products in mega-stores that stretch the equivalent of nearly five football fields.  Shopping malls have become veritable mini-cities containing hundreds of stores, food courts, ice skating rinks, movie theaters, even hotels.

And there’s always the Internet.  Last year, online shoppers spent $204 billion on merchandise: The auction site eBay alone reported sales of $59.7 billion on merchandise ranging from brand-new cars and homes to vintage collectibles and antiques.

We’re at a point where people don’t know how to make decisions about quantities of things and whether items serve a purpose,” Laura Leist, president of the 4,200-member National Association of Professional Organizers and the voice of a service industry that has sprung up to help people clear the chaos from their homes.  They aren’t the only ones: More than 20 states have chapters of Clutterers Anonymous for clutterers in crisis.

Back to Basics

I wasn’t ready for a 12-step program yet, but it was clear I needed some help.  So I consulted a local professional organizer, who helped me sort through my junk and discard what no longer had value.  One of the first rules many organizers instill in chronic clutterers is: make the time.  Just as someone trying to lose weight needs to set aside time for exercise, someone trying to shed stuff needs to commit to at least 30 to 60 minutes a week sorting through closets, files, and storage areas.  Mark the time on your calendar and treat it as a standing appointment.

I learned other tips to help whittle away the clutter in my house and control what I brought in so that new junk wasn’t replacing the old.  I’m still working on the rest of the house, but eventually got rid of that stuff I’d brought home from the office.  Now, the only garbage bags on my floor are the ones that are on their way to the trash.

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3 Responses to “Curing The Clutter Epidemic”

  1. Very good advice. Sometimes we all have a habit of holding on to things we don’t need for far too long. Best to prioritize our belongings and then give away the stuff we no longer value to charity (where it will find someone who WILL value it). It’s good for both the mind and heart.

  2. Thanks for this outstanding post. I look forward more of your writing on this topic in the not too distant future. Cheers again

  3. I needed this article!
    Hey, you haven’t posted since July?
    Hmmm, looks like you have a bit of the Stacy disease…I’m just sayin’

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