Psychology of Clutter

24 Dec, 2009 || by

My last column on the psychology of clutter resulted in more reader response then any column topic I’ve covered in the past.  Readers have called my office, sent me e-mail, and even stopped me in the grocery store to say how much they agreed with my commentary on how clutter has begun to burden our lives.  While reader response is certainly not a scientific measure of how prominent of a problem clutter has become, it at least suggests that the topic is of great interest and concern to many people.

Last time I wrote about the growing problem of clutter in our lives, the ineffective methods we utilize to cope with clutter, and how, psychologically, clutter puts a drain on our internal and external resources.  Several readers have since asked, “What can I do about it?”  That will be the focus of this article.

There are numerous articles, books, and websites devoted to the “how-to” of dealing with clutter.  One source I’ve enjoyed reading is Karen Kingston’s book, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui.  In this book, Ms. Kingston defines “clutter” as:

  • Things you do not use or love
  • Things that are untidy or disorganized
  • Too many things in too small a space
  • Anything unfinished

This definition is a bit more complicated than the dictionary definition of “a crowded and untidy collection of things.”  Getting out from under clutter, however, doesn’t have to be complicated and involved.  In fact, the best approach to dealing with clutter is to simplify (not clutter) the process.

There is an old riddle that asks, “What is the best way to eat an elephant?”  As is the case with many old riddles and proverbs, there is a great deal of wisdom to be gained from them.  The accumulated clutter in our lives often looks like the elephant we have to eat (and I hope I’m not offending any elephant advocates).  The task seems daunting and impossible.  Our response is to say, “I can’t” or “I don’t want to.”

The answer to the riddle of how to best eat an elephant is, “One bite at a time.”  Break any seemingly impossible task into more manageable steps; a simple approach to dealing with a complicated task.

I’m reminded of the signs I’ve seen year after year posted around town (usually outside my kids schools) that show a picture of a vertical thermometer with increments of red indicating how much money has been collected for some type of fund raiser (like the United Way).  The thermometer starts out without any red (no contributions), but as the weeks go by we see the red slowly creep up toward the top (the “goal”).  When the red area reaches the top, the goal has been reached.  I don’t know about you, but I like seeing the red area fill its way up to the top.  It gives me a visual picture of the goal and the progress being made to reach the goal.  I feel a sense of accomplishment when the red reaches the top.

So this brings me to my advice for dealing with the clutter (as defined by Ms. Kingston) in our lives.  Nothing too complicated.  Just two steps really:

  1. Make a concerted effort to stop adding to the clutter you already have.
  2. Break any project or task into more manageable steps.

Although simple in theory, this approach works.  Whether we’re talking about cleaning out the garage, losing weight, organizing your desk, writing a book, or building a skyscraper, the process is the same…break the task into smaller, simpler steps.

Once you’ve decided the project or task to undertake, sit down with a pencil and paper and draw a simple thermometer.  Along the right side of the thermometer, label the steps you can take to reach the top, the “goal.”  For example, if your project is to clean out the garage, the steps may look like this:

  • Step 1: Set a start date.
  • Step 2: Dividing the garage into 3 or 4 separate areas.
  • Step 3: Get the materials you’ll need to begin (i.e. trash bags, boxes for contributions or garage sale items, etc.).
  • Step 4: Start on area 1 and divide out things to throw away, things to donate, things to sell, and things to keep.
  • Step 5: Clean area 1.
  • Step 6: Start on area 2 and do the same.
  • Steps 7 on: More of the same until the project is finished.

Each step of the way, make sure to color in your red line on the thermometer.  Take pride each step you accomplish…it’s another step toward reducing the clutter in you life.

When our surroundings are cluttered and disorganized, we tend to feel burdened and uncomfortable.  Clearing your external environment of unused and unwanted clutter, and sorting through the accumulated mess around you, will psychologically help you attain a healthier live style and live a happier life.  Identify the current elephant in your life, make a plan, and take that first bite.

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4 Responses to “Psychology of Clutter”

  1. Really great and nice stuff, thanks.

  2. Dear Dr. Kantra, What an inspiring article. I especially love your thermometer idea! How great to have that visual representation of progress. Clutter definitely eats away at my serenity and productivity. I love your approach here and I couldn’t agree more. Thanks so much.

  3. Great idea! I will try it. Thanks


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