Clutter, physical and mental – or, organizing for the differently organized

I’m finally going to read all the books I have stacked up on de-cluttering and getting organized, and then I’m going to share the accumulated wisdom with you.  That is, I’m going to read them if I can find them.

One of the basic themes of this blog is managing mental clutter to become more productive in academia.  However, the world of things can also impinge on our ability to produce new knowledge.  Can you find the receipt from the hotel that you need for your expense report?  Did your library books get shoved onto a shelf of your own books, and then pushed into the back row of two on that shelf – or worse, lost under a pile of clothes that you might give away sometime?  Etc.

If you have consistent problems with organizing things, you may have wondered if it’s because you don’t know how to organize (lack of knowledge), you are bored by organizing (lack of willpower), or you just weren’t meant to organize things in the ways commonly done here and now (lack of ordinary brain wiring).  There are books (and websites, and TV shows) out there that offer all these explanations, and my next few posts are going to look at some of the books and a few of the websites.  (You can tell me about the TV shows – I don’t have TV service.)

When I decided in midlife to become a librarian, I started to visit librarians in their offices for the first time in many years, and I noticed that for the most part, their offices were piles with papers and books.  Just like me!  Except that I suspected that their houses might not be quite so out of control.

I had started reading up on clutter by the early 1990s, because during my twenty years in international development work, I had certainly amassed plenty of paper (someone estimated that professional employees at the World Bank had an average of 100,000 pages of paper cross their desks annually, and I kept a lot of it to read later).  I also bought textiles to display and wear in the countries I travelled to; I had some of my mother’s and grandmother’s painting and collages; and I collected vintage clothing and china.  My family considered me the family historian.  I had just completed a dissertation – can’t get rid of those notecards, or the back-up disks (5-1/4″ and 3.5″).  Or the working paper series I had edited years before, multiple copies in case the organization that produced them ran out.  You get the picture – or if you don’t, see below; but I swear, it’s not all like that table.

Can alternative ways of understanding help, since human intelligence has not?  Evaluna of Interspecies Solutions scopes out the problem

Can alternative ways of understanding help, since human intelligence has not? Evaluna of Interspecies Solutions scopes out the problem

Paper has always been hardest for me, but other things are certainly challenging, and nothing obvious has ever worked, including the books from the 1980s with their here’s – how – to – do – it systems. This first wave of books assumed that people lacked knowledge of how to clean, how to get rid of clutter, and how to be neat.  None of this ever really worked for me, any more than did the well-meaning friends who occasionally re-organized things so I couldn’t find anything.

So I abandoned the how-tos and started looking at the books that came along by the 1990s that promised that if I understood why, I could figure out how. These books have titles like Organizing for Creative People and Organizing from the Inside Out. It was comforting to have someone else tell me what I already knew: that solutions devised by left-brained people wouldn’t work for right-brained people like me/ creative people like me / kinetic thinkers like me – or whatever new style the book at hand had identified.  Furthermore, these books often recognized that being neat and being well organized are not the same thing. Things can be out of sight but unfindable, and conversely one can have lots of piles but know where things are in the piles.

This second generation of books eschew one right way for everyone in favor of several right ways, depending on one’s type,and they’ve been much more fun for me to read.  Some of these different solutions (like how to pile effectively) have helped. And this new way of thinking about neatness and organizational challenges offered insights that allowed people like me to feel better about ourselves in several ways:

  • they uncoupled neatness from functionality (if you can find the bill, it doesn’t matter if it’s in a file drawer, revealing a preference for neatness as a cultural bias (to a point)
  • they developed a sensible rule of thumb to separate cultural preference for neatness from serious dysfunction (are you unable to use most of your furniture because there’s so much stuff piled on it?)
  • especially for women, they eliminated shame and redefined the standard of housekeeping (are you going to keep friends out of your house because it’s not as neat as your mother’s was?)

I’m now seeing a third “generation” of resources, based in part on experience with adults with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).  At first these resources also were prescriptive, with neuronormative (or neurotypical) people telling neurovariant people how to get organized.  The difference between these books and those manuals of the first generation is largely that the newer books understand the problem as one of different wiring, so they do explain why the problem exists and they do propose solutions with great empathy for the challenges of working from brains that work less easily in the dominant mode. However, even newer approaches are less prescriptive as to organizing solutions; instead, they recommend that neurovariant (or highly creative, or right-brained, or ADHD, or organizationally challenged, or chronically disorganized) people do research on themselves and come up with their own solutions, based on their unique energy and interest patterns and our knowledge of habits and how they are formed and broken.

As Mary reported in May I Have Your Attention?, attention deficit sometimes seems to have become the new normal in our hyperconnected world.  I have long known that I have many symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, as do others in my family.  The ways of diagnosing adults seem unreliable to me so I don’t really worry about whether or not I actually have the disorder – but I do know that following some of the suggestions for adults with the disorder does help me.

While I have characterized these as different “generations” of self-help approaches, all of these strains of self-help material still exist side-by-side.  The earlier resources, with their “one right way” approach, have not disappeared, and they can still be a source of useful ideas.  And while multiple approaches to getting organized now exist, the issue of clutter has by no means disappeared.  Indeed, as older households downsize and the ideology of living simply or lightly on the earth takes hold, living with fewer objects may become desirable for more people.

In this series, I want to focus on the practical, but I also want to look at how the solutions are framed.  The field has come a long way; few authors now try to motivate with shame (originally connected with women’s failure to make beautiful, neat, clean homes or their families), and I recently came across a very interesting book addressing the gender elements of the self-help and life organization movement (Micki McGee, Self Help Inc: Makeover Culture in American Life, Oxford University Press, 2005). Even the question of how to characterize the subject under discussion has become charged:  The National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization became the Institute for Challenging Disorganization in order to sound less clinical and more positive, since they try to offer education and strategies for overcoming (or at least dealing with) disorganization.  Some members and interested parties like the change, others seem to find it counterproductive.  The terms neurotypical, neuronormative, and neurovariant have entered the mix at (I would say) the fringes of this discussion.

I don’t mean this as a historical survey, but the earliest book I am going to look at is Messie No More (Sandra Felton, 1989).  In the same vein, I have:
Organizing for the Creative Person, Dorothy Lehmkuhl and Dolores Cotter Lamping, 1993
Organizing from the Inside Out, Julie Morgenstern, 2004 (second edition)
Organizing for Your Brain Type, Lanna Nakone, 2005
Organizing Outside the Box, Hellen Buttigieg and Sari Brandes, 2009

On clutter, I have:
Let Go of Clutter, Harriet Schechter, 2001
Organizing Sourcebook, Kathy Waddill, 2001
When Organizing Isn’t Enough, SHED, Julie Morgenstern, 2008 (she wrote Time Management from the Inside Out, which I may tackle)
Unstuff Your Life, Andrew J. Mellen, 2010

Of the latest wave, my  main source right now is a website, Ariane Benefit’s AgilZen.  From the ADHD literature, I have ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your LIfe, Judith Kohlberg and Kathleen Nadeau, 2002.

And I do want to take a closer look at Self Help, Inc. by Micki McGee.

So, assuming I can keep these all found long enough to read, or in some cases, re-read them, you will hear more.



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