Why clutter matters and decluttering is difficult

"I feel like if I could just get rid of all this clutter, I could go on to do great things," I say as I am pouring out my heart to Jennifer Hunter, a perfect stranger who happens to be a professional organizer.

"Maybe that's why you keep the clutter," she says, without any hesitation.

I am stunned. And vaguely defensive.

I'm not sure what I expected her to say exactly. But certainly not that the clutter I can't seem to banish from my life is serving as some sort of perverse excuse for underachieving.
Hunter tells me about the time she was organizing a client's house and a contractor who was there to paint the ceiling asked her what it was she did exactly.

As she explained, the painter began nodding. "I see," he said. "So you're sort of a therapist."

"Halfway between a therapist and a housekeeper," is how Hunter describes her work.

I make a mental note to avoid any further mentions of my childhood.

Clutter matters, Hunter says. It matters because it takes up space — not just in your surroundings, but in your head.

Of the two, the psychological effect of clutter is the most important.

"When we clear the clutter out of a space, people breathe a sigh of relief." The mood changes instantly. People feel lighter, more serene, more focus. "The effect is profound," she adds, "even when people say they don't notice it."

Hunter believes this is because the human brain is not equipped to deal with that much stimulation. If there's stuff everywhere you look, you are more likely to become stressed out and anxious. Clear out and organize your environment, and you can handle more.

The other effects of stuff-gone-wild are equally compelling, even for those whose clutter status does not rise to hoarder levels.

Clutter is expensive: It costs an average of $10 per square foot to store items in your house and almost 10% of American households rent storage units, spending more than $1,000 annually in rent. One quarter of people with two-car garages can't even get their cars in there because they are storing their junk instead. Twenty-three percent of us pay bills late and incur fees because we have lost the statements.

How's this for a reality check? The average American spends one year of his or her life looking for lost or misplaced items, according to the National Association of Professional Organizers. Get rid of the clutter and you will eliminate as much as 40% of the housework in an average home.

There's also the health hazard. Navigating piles make you susceptible to slips, trips and falls. Hunter has found mouse feces and other vermin remnants underneath longtime piles in the family's living areas. (Some of these were fancy homes!) The homeowners had no clue about the tiny house crashers.

But clearing the clutter and becoming organized is no easy feat. That's because a lot of what we hold on to is weighed down by emotional baggage.

People have intimate relationships with their stuff. It carries memories and obligations, reminds them of things they can't do anymore, things that upset them at one time, things they are feeling guilty about. Some of Hunter's clients refuse to part with gifts they don't like, simply because it was a gift. "Even if they hate it!"

Others may have problems with inertia. Depression and attention deficit disorder can become big barriers to becoming and remaining organized. Hunter advises clients with those types of inclinations to become really strict about keeping down the number of their possessions. If possible, don't bring stuff into the house. "Since your ability to wrangle it will be diminished, do your best not to take it on to begin with," she cautions.

Many of us are storing others' belongings. Lots of people — "women, mostly" — have a hard time saying no. Hunter believes it may be a matter of asserting boundaries.

One of Hunter's clients had a daughter who was holding the entire top floor of their house hostage with her stuff. The daughter, who no longer lived in the house, threw a fit anytime her parents moved any of her belongings. It's all very heavy, observes Hunter. Partners, husbands, wives, children and other family members can get into a great deal of conflict over stuff.

We all know people we suspect of creating endless unnecessary drama in life to distract from dealing with the real issues. That same principle may well apply to stuff. Hunter has dealt with people terrified of having wide-open spaces in their homes. "I have a hard time understanding it," she says, "because I love having empty spaces."

Clearing the clutter is doable. Becoming organized is doable. Like any other discipline, it depends on how motivated you are. Think of how a sudden ailment can drive you to change your diet and exercise habits, suggests Hunter. It may help to consider the morass, the fast-rising piles of junk, the quicksand of things that have no utility in your life in the same way.

Most of the time the clutter is not about the stuff, explains Hunter. It's about exploring your values. What's important to you? What do you need? What are you trying to avoid? What are your preferences about life?

If you want to be good at organizing, you have to know yourself.

This reminds me of a T.S. Eliot quote: "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time."

And perhaps that place may even be a wide-open space.

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