Affluenza, anyone?

When I began this miniseries reviewing self-help books on organizing your physical surroundings, I thought I would organize the posts according to how the books deal with clutterers; that is, with whether a book prescribes one right way to achieve neatness and order, or divides the world into types such as creatives vs analytics, or identifies some more complex set of social, biological, and/or cognitive forces at work.

However, as I got further into these books, I discovered that while almost all address de-cluttering to some degree, some of them only address de-cluttering, or reducing the number of physical objects in one’s space.

This post will deal with this aspect of getting organized, and the different approaches exemplified by these books.

There are excellent reasons to begin with reducing the amount of stuff first:

  • “The average three bedroom home has 350,000 things in it” according to Laura Nakone, Organizing for Your Brain Type, 2005.  (emphasis mine)
  • Without reducing the amount of physical objects, organizing can just be moving around masses of goods that aren’t used, that are too voluminous for the space, and that will  eventually become problematic again due to continued acquisition.  According to
  • If someone is acquiring without regard to considerations of space, the problem will certainly arise again
  • Some understanding of cause is required to undertake proper solutions and prevent recurrence of organizational problems.
    • does the person (or people) involved lack organizing skills?
    • is the person bored by the routines of keeping things organized?
    • does the person have trouble deciding how to properly dispose of things, or lack the time to do so?
    • are there emotional issues at take, such as symbolic attachments or fear of scarcity?
    • is the problem an alternative cognitive processing system that has been overwhelmed by the mass of objects made possible by modern affluence?
    • is the problem chronic, or has it been brought on by en event such as consolidation of households by marriage or inheritance; growth of a family; other drastic changes of circumstance where someone hasn’t been able to adapt quickly and decisively?

Depending on the cause, the situation can be addressed by disposing of excess things and organizing the rest, by teaching the person a system they can adopt, by developing a system in partnership with the person, or by helping them make decisions.  However, setting up a standard organizing system for someone who has trouble making decisions about what to discard is not likely to work.

Most of these books define clutter somewhere near the beginning.  In general, clutter is stuff that gets in the way of accomplishing desired purposes; hence, it can be mental or emotional, though I am dealing only with physical clutter as the starting point.  One can think of information overload as mental clutter and negative stress as emotional clutter.

As I read through this literature, I was struck by the similarities in the discussion of chronic struggles with too much stuff and ongoing struggles with too much weight.  Both have grown in magnitude in the last 30 or so years (sticking to the US); in both cases, the solutions seem obvious yet are very difficult for many people to follow in the long term; some people follow common-sense advice successfully and others go through cycles of finding determination, adopting a new organizing system or diet, adhering to it for a while, and slipping back into old ways; and both have spawned industries that include self-help books; TV shows; coaches, assistants, and organizations; private companies (storage and file systems for the organizing industry; large-sized clothing and furniture, among others, for the weight industry); and health sectors (much smaller for organizational problems, limited, as far as I know, to some specialists dealing with ADHD, obsessive compulsive disorder, and hoarding, which I have seen classified in several ways as a mental health issue).  And then, of course, there is shame as a motivator.  I won’t go further with this, but it certainly has made me wonder about the parallels.

Now, on to the books.

Jeff Campbell’s 1992 Clutter Control is a straightforward example of the traditional approach.  “When in doubt, throw it out” and “use it or lose it” are some of the Campbell’s rules.  Campbell, of The Clean Team, believes that clutterers (my term, for lack of a better) don’t know how to organize.  They know that they should get stuff out of the way and have garage sales, but they don’t know how to get to those endpoints.  Half the book explains how to sort and half offers suggestions for specific issues such as keys and photos (hence, half the book is in organizing, not de-cluttering, territory).

clutter control

So, if you have too much disorganized stuff and no idea how to make decisions about what to keep, a book like this could help.  One suggestion I found useful was number 6: pick a number and stick with it.  Some people feel compelled to stockpile certain items just in case – for me, it’s padded mailing envelopes.  Campbell recommends deciding how many is enough – three should do it for me – and never keeping more than that number.  When I use one, I can save the next one that comes in.

Let Go of Clutter, Harriet Schechter, Mcgraw-Hill, 2001  letgoclutter

In contrast to Campbell’s just-do-it, one-size-fits-all approach, Schechter thinks it’s important for people to understand why they have too much stuff and to stop blaming themselves before they start working on clearing. Let Go of Clutter is a workbook with exercises readers can fill in, working through their own issues.

This was the first book I looked at that discussed the difference between organizing and decluttering: Schechter specifically tells readers that this is not an organizing book.  Organizing books too often help people “putter with the clutter” and may even add to the problem when people run out and buy oodles of organizing supplies they won’t end up using.

Schechter guides us to think about the past, present and future of cluttering behavior.  Past addresses why letting go is difficult. Here she attempts to de-stigmatize clutter issues, seeing what we define into this realm as partly socially and culturally defined.

She starts with clarifications:

  • Cleaning is removing dirt
  • Decluttering is reducing the amount of things
  • Neatening is straightening, tidying, and/or putting things away to give the appearance of orderliness (note that it may not actually be orderliness
  • Organizing is putting things in a logical order for the purpose of making it easy to relocate them

Schechter points out that some decorating styles, such as country or Victorian, are almost defined by large numbers of objects crowded into space.  While minimalists may experience them as cluttered,  many people who find them beautiful, even comforting.  Thus, there are both social and personal aesthetic elements of how clutter is defined.  Clearly there is a continuum , and there is at least one clutter and hoarding scales used by professionals which attempts to distinguish blockage of daily functioning and health issues from aesthetic considerations: see resources at the Institute for Challenging Disorganization  (I found a copy of their Clutter – Hoarding Scale at the National Association of Social Workers which I was unable to access at the Institute for Challenging Disorganization).  Hence, clutter is not some sheer quantification of objects owned, but the relationship of objects, space, and the ability to accomplish functions and reach goals (we don’t normally call rich people clutterers because they usually have enough space to accommodate large amounts of “stuff”, and if someone was rich enough and influential enough, the house may eventually be called a museum.  (Think Sir John Soane – read the Wikipedia article on the museum, or take a video tour.)

In the present, Schechter recommends steps for satisfying results:

  • Visualize desirable outcomes (for example, being able to have guests drop in without embarrassment)
  • Make plans for visible results so that whatever activity you undertake will not feel futile (for example, spend an hour  de-cluttering one area, rather than dispersing your efforts widely.  In an hour, you will have more impact in a limited area).
  • Reward yourself (just don’t add to your problem by buying more stuff)

There’s a separate chapter on the topic of paper, which is what Schechter calls “condensed clutter.”  A foot high stack of paper, she says, could contain a thousand pieces of paper – potentially 1,000 separate decision to make!  (I knew there was a reason this is my weakest point).  She acknowledges that some people have organized piles, but goes on to talk about how to sort and file, including how to use a file index.  This might help people who have never had much success with filing systems.

Another chapter deals with “sentimental clutter” – those items that evoke strong emotions, whether positive or negative.  Schechter differs from some consultants who advise only keeping objects that inspire positive feelings. She recommends inventorying everything, noting what kind of emotion each object or collection evokes and how strong the reaction is.  You keep only those that are the strongest and most special, whether sad or happy.  For the rest, you might keep images, and she has a chapter on photos.

The final section, on your clutter future, deals with staying at your clutter comfort level.  This means developing the ability to be mindful when shopping (like not doing the grocery shopping when you are hungry if you are dieting?).  The other aspect of the future is maintenance of the clutter level, and final chapter on mental clutter suggests effective list-making as a way to stay on top of things.

Cut the Clutter and Stow the Stuff, Lori Baird, Rodale, 2002  Cut clutter

One of the most interesting things about Baird’s approach is that she classifies everyone in terms of their relationship with physical objects – not just the “problem” people.  She also looks at how different types of people interact.  Most clutter and organizing books are directed at the people with the problem – the ones who are not neat, and who therefore not only blame themselves but who are blamed by others.  Baird asks, what happens when an Accumulator partners with a Concealer?  Where others see a cluttered physical environment in terms of one person who needs to be reformed, Baird describes two people with different ways of relating to the physical objects in their environment.

She outlines a five-step process (QUICK) for dealing with these objects.  The pre-step is to identify your reasons for wanting to get rid of any excess – not other people’s reasons; yours.


Quantify:  what do you have, and how much?  What space do you have?  Once you know this, you can start imagining what life would be like without some of it.  When people work together at this stage, curiosity is more important than judgement: “What meaning does this have for you?” rather than “Surely you can toss this ugly [insert name of object]”

Unload Bairs has creative suggestions in case doing this all at once is too overwhelming.  For example, work in increments of 30 minutes in one area, or remove 5 things every time you walk into a room.

The final three steps (isolate, contain, and keep it up) belong to the next post on organizing, so I’ll save those for then.

The last two books for this week embody pure process approaches, where the focus is not on organizing at all, but on the idea that many of us live amid layers of objects from stages of our pasts.  Many of these are unnecessary as we move forward, and indeed they may keep us tethered to past patterns which are now undesirable.  However, we have emotional attachments to the stuff which makes it hard to let go.  Authors of this kind of book never tell you to get rid of things you haven’t used in a year; they will tell you to look inside to understand why you have needed (or thought you have needed) these things until now, to the point where you are tripping over them or renting space for them.  These are books for people who have persistently failed to reduce the amount of things they live with, despite a desire to do so; they are not books for people who just don’t know where to recycle old electronics, and they won’t help much with ordinary paperwork (sentimental papers are another matter: old letters, family documents, etc.)

When Organizing Isn’t Enough: S H E D Your Stuff, Change Your Life, Julie Morgenstern,  shedSimon and Schuster, 2008.

 Morgenstern, who wrote Organizing from the Inside Out and Time Management from the Inside Out, has now produced this for people whose accumulation of possessions has taken them beyond the point where organizing will help.  It’s specifically meant for people moving to new stages in their lives.  As distinct from routine decluttering, S H E D is “a transformative process for letting go of things that represent that past so you can grow and move forward” ( 7).  The process begins with naming the themes from your recent past and foreseeable future.  Understanding these will help you discard but only in line with “self-discovery and healthy growth.”

According to Morgenstern, de-cluttering to get organized, without understanding of these identity issues, often doesn’t work because objects fulfill existential needs.  The objects will be replaced if the reasons and feelings are not identified, and the relationships with the objects understood.  Morgenstern says organizing is a process of identifying priorities and finding ways to access the most important things, and this can work when existential purpose has been scrutinized and physical environment aligned with the current theme.

The first two steps of S H E D fall within the scope of this post:

Separate out what matters for the present and future: what energizes you and has value for what is to come.  Clutter, in this context, is “any obsolete object, space, commitment or behavior that weighs you down, distracts you or depletes your energy” (36).  The “treasures” that you will take forward can be valuable in either of two ways:

  • for their practical contribution to daily life or your new theme
  • as symbolic or sentimental objects which bring joy, inspiration, or energy

You don’t want to do this too quickly; you may need time to reflect to truly understand what objects mean in your life.

If you have collections that reflect important past activities or aspects of your identify, you may want to keep several of the best.  If you have things packed away that you don’t want to give up, how could you bring them, or some representation of them, into the open where they can be enjoyed, rather than burdening you with taking care of space for objects you can’t enjoy?

I suspect the most interesting part of the book is on finding “schedule treasures, ” which deals with habit; however, that belongs to a future post.

Heave the trash  This is familiar stuff: sell, recycle, donate, throw away.

The final elements, Embrace your identity and Drive yourself forward, don’t deal with physical clutter.  I did wonder, however, if our stuff does relate so closely to our identity, what’s to prevent us from accumulating a whole new and overwhelming set of possessions to fit our next identity?  Most books up to this point have included strategies for ending the acquisition habit; that was not included here.

Finally, I looked at Take the U Out of Clutter: The Last Clutter Book You’ll Ever Need (Mark Brunetz and Carmen Renee Berry, Berkley Books, 2010).  Who could resist a title like that?  It’ll be the last book you’ll read about in this post, anyway.

u clutter

If you could imagine the opposite of everything you ever expected to find in clutter control book, this would probably be it.  Here’s the first paragraph:  “Don’t buy another organizer bin!  Don’t plan another yard sale!  Don’t call a local charity to pick up your donations!  In fact, don’t do anything but get a cup of tea and sit with us for a little while!”

Brunetz and Berry promise they won’t make you feel like you have a psychological problem that needs to be fixed, and they point out that in fact there are so many people just like you that a whole industry has grown up around you (well, us).  The manufacturing and retail end of the industry and many of the consultants treat clutter as a problem of method and technology/physical organizing systems.  Brunetz and Berry claim that to be different because they address the inside first, giving clutterers motivation to sustain their ability to work on the clutter.  While others in the industry try to make clutterers dependent on experts, Brunetz and Berry will give us the tools to define our own issues and solve our problems.

Clutter industry experts’ message (according to B&B):

  • your house is a mess, therefore
  • you are a mess, so
  • you couldn’t possibly fix yourself, therefore
  • you need us to fix you!

Brunetz and Berry’s message:

  • you house may be a mess, but
  • you are not your house;
  • yes, we have written a self-help book, but
  • unlike them, we are going to give you tools for necessary internal transformation which will lead to
  • understanding why your house is a mess, which will lead to
  • making good choices about what to get rid of, so that
  • you won’t keep letting stuff back in.

Technologies without deep understanding = lack of motivation = repeated false starts

The first step in achieving understanding is to look at what is really there – just the facts; describe what you see, not what you feel about it (yet).

Then tell the stories of the objects; identify the feelings and assess the stress associated with the objects and stories (or thoughts of getting rid of the objects).

Think about how the objects affect your ability to live the future you want.

Sort the stories, look for patterns, and then retain, release, or rewrite the stories.  Are there stories you now see in a different way, given the current circumstances of your life?

Now you are ready to identify patterns of meaning associated with objects and can assess the places they occupy in your life.  You are also ready to start deciding what to do with them; once you understand how the stories relate you your present, you will have authentic motivation to let go of some of them.

This book may not help you much if you hate filing, but it might be the book for you if you have bundles of letters you haven’t looked at in 15 years, boxes of unfinished craft projects, 257 figurines people have given you since you were eight, or your grandparents’ furniture.

These are just a few of the many books on the subject, but I think they  typify the approaches:

  • direct and no-nonsense, follow the rules and get it done, your feelings are mostly beside the point
  • dismiss self-blame, understand the cultural bases of clutter, you need to be motivated by something more than convention, now that you feel better about yourself here are some ideas, and of course you are especially attached to certain kinds of sentimental objects, here’s what to do about them
  • it’s important to know your type, and once you do, there are actions you should take that work best with your natural inclinations
  • you need a deep understanding of why you have developed these patterns of attachment and behavior, and it takes serious inquiry into your relationships with the stuff you have; ruminate, reflect, allow yourself to feel, and it will become clear.

Whichever of these works best for you, you will still need to organize what you have left and stop even more stuff from coming in.  For the next post, I expect to look at organizing and its systems.  I will revisit parts of two of these books (Schechter and Baird).  There might be a third on maintenance and resistance, or developing new habits.  And I still want to reflect on what it all means, so I am not sure how I will bring this to a close.

I find myself having difficulty balancing the sensible, productivity-oriented side of this discussion with curiosity about cultural significance and gender differences.  Yes, it’s good to be able to find the tax papers, but is it any worse to be a piler (who knows where things are in their piles) than to be an introvert?  I have a rebellious side that just knows that filers shouldn’t dominate the world.  But you have to lock the house before you go to the revolution.

Now, where did I put the keys?

Evaluna cleanup 2

Evaluna ( a Principal Consultant with Interspecies Solutions) ponders the disappearance of the basket of stuff you saw in the last post.  Did it get filed and organized while she was off making a plan?  Not exactly.  We had a dinner party, and I stashed it in the storage room with a few other things.  This is a typical strategy of messy people when faced with company.






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