Homes can be wonderful sources of joy, relaxation, and support. They can also be shrines to the past, consistently wearing us down as we walk around piles of unfinished projects, unrealized dreams, and distant memories. Instead of helping us embrace the possibilities that today might bring, piles trap us in an unpleasant "should have, could have" state of mind.
Various long-forgotten objects create piles of missed opportunities, regret, and mixed-emotion nostalgia. A client might take a deep breath as we unearth clothing from a departed loved one. Sometimes they cringe as they rediscover self-help books authored by "heroes" who have recently fallen from grace or are currently serving time in prison. Sometimes they chuckle as they pull out pants with impossibly tiny waistbands or tops with implausibly large shoulders.
All these items carry physical and emotional weight. It can be hard to let go, but all the unread books, unfinished craft projects, dust-collecting china sets, and twenty-year-old resumes weigh us down. They catch our eye and sometimes even seem to taunt us, especially when we do not have time to deal with them:
"Hey, what about me? What's next? Remember how frustrated you got when I became too overwhelming? Well, that's irrelevant; we're still not finished!"
"Hey, I see you looking at me. I know you feel guilty about not finishing, even though you moved on to more exciting projects. I'm still here, and every time you see me, I'm going to make a point of giving you a guilt trip that there's work to be done here!"
"Hey, remember, when you picked me up, and I told you how drastically I could improve your life? My pages are filled with tactics that will make your life amazing! You want an amazing life, right? Then why don't you read me?"
If enough of these objects are within view, they can collectively dampen our moods, even if they only momentarily rise to consciousness. We already feel stressed with the current load of activities that need our attention, and these piles from the past are not exactly helping us feel good in our daily lives.
Sometimes we become so accustomed to the long-term piles of clutter that we experience "clutter blindness." From an evolutionary standpoint, we apparently scan our environments looking for threats to our safety. Once we understand that particular objects are harmless, we stop noticing them. In this way, piles of clutter can become part of the scenery.
Additionally, clutter has a way of attracting more clutter. Our eyes see a pile of out-of-place objects, and on some level, we acknowledge that this must be the place where those types of items belong. Eventually, piles increase in volume and frequency to the point that we can no longer comfortably sit on our couches, have friends and family over for dinner, or have an office that supports our daily work.
So how do we tackle these unforgiving piles of clutter? There are too many tactics to list here comprehensively, but the strategies below are a great start:
You can take photos of the clutter to remove "blinders." Clients who send me "before" pictures are frequently shocked by the state of affairs, not previously realizing just how impacted the area had become. The photo's lack of three dimensions has a way of forcing the viewer to see the space in a new light. Take pictures from various vantage points to get a comprehensive perspective. It might feel uncomfortable, but it can also be incredibly empowering: along with awareness comes the power to decide that we are no longer willing to live with the status quo.
Another tactic is to ask yourself a few challenging questions:
"Has my home become a mausoleum to a past? Is it no longer coherent with who I am today?"
"What do I want my home to be: a space that supports a decade-old version of me, or one that supports my current version?"
"How much precious square footage am I willing to sacrifice to the past or some improbable future at the expense of my present needs?"
These tactics may not be easy, but they can cut through the visual noise straight to the true heart of the matter.
If you are diligently pruning possessions but are still not seeing the fruits of your labor, you may be overlooking a critical aspect of organizing. It is an often-overlooked part of the process and not nearly as well-addressed as purging, finding “homes,” and containing objects. Many individuals do not discard enough items for goals to be reached. A second cohort easily parts with excessive possessions yet still does not see progress.
Many culprits may cause the clutter, and I work with clients to identify them and create strategies to work around them (if we cannot outright eliminate them). However, over-acquisition is a common culprit that many have difficulty addressing because of its emotional charge.
I empathize with the thrill of the hunt and pride that comes with snagging a good deal, and I also understand the excitement of finding an object that solves a long-standing issue. I relate to those whose kryptonite comes in the form of organizational tools that sport beautiful colors, designs, fonts, and brushstrokes. Even in the age of pandemic-related supply-chain issues, we still find an abundance of tempting items and experience that enjoyable surge of dopamine as we line up at the cash register or click on the “checkout” button while shopping online.
Then we get home, and that dopamine surge is long gone, but that old familiar feeling of guilt has walked in the door with us. We face spaces that are already bursting at the seams. The new object might be placed on top of a pile of already-existing clutter since there is no space to designate its new home.
Acquiring can feel like a harmless activity, and it can be at times. There are many situations, though, when acquiring is the elephant in the room. If left unaddressed, no amount of organizing will fix the issues. Instead, we will tread water and wonder with frustration why our efforts did not result in expected gains. In those instances, we have to take an honest look at what we bring into the home. An occasional object here or there might not negatively impact a home’s ability to support the activities of its owner. If the space is already overburdened, though, even just one new possession can be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
You have most likely heard of the one-in/one-out rule. As we bring one item home, we donate, recycle, or trash an object of equal volume. The outgoing items are also preferably in the area where the new possession will live. It is a good rule for maintaining organization in the home. However, this is just the beginning of the entire theory.
If a home is already cluttered and there is not enough space for new items, a one-in/two-out rule needs to be applied. This will help slowly reduce the volume to a manageable level. Still, it will most likely disappoint many individuals because the process will take vastly longer than expected. If the amount of clutter is quite large, this rule is not nearly aggressive enough.
It is important to see progress to maintain motivation throughout a decluttering project. An effective yet lesser-known rule is the one-in/five-out rule. It might sound extreme, but if volume vastly exceeds available space, then five objects out for every one object in is the way to go. Some individuals need much higher proportions, but that is typically when a professional organizer’s help comes into play.
So, if you have been dutifully organizing your home but are frustrated with the results, I would recommend taking an honest look at what you are bringing home. It is often the missing piece that can complete the organizing puzzle. Additionally, you can slow down and take an objective look at tempting items before you acquire them. It allows you to decide if the item truly deserves a space in your home or if it moves you farther away from the goal of having a relaxing, supportive home environment.
If acquiring has taken on a life of its own and you feel that the urge is stronger than your ability to overcome it, please know that professional help is available. Therapists specializing in compulsive acquiring issues can be just the help needed to break free of the debilitating acquiring cycle.
Author: Judith Dold
Musings from yours truly about all things organizing.