9 Common Myths about Clearing Clutter.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day or List Day.

One of my key realizations about happiness, and a point oddly under-emphasized by positive psychologists, given its emphasis in popular culture, is that Outer order contributes to inner calm. More than it should.

After all, in the context of a happy life, a messy desk or house is a trivial problem—yet I’ve found, and other people tell me they feel the same way, that getting control of the stuff of life makes me feel more in control of my life generally. (Even if this is an illusion, it’s a helpful illusion.)

But as much as most of us want to keep our home, office, car, etc. in reasonable order, it’s tough. Here are some myths of de-cluttering that make it harder than it needs to be.

Myths of Cluttering:
1. “I need to get organized.” No! This is not your first step! Don’t get organized.

2. “The more organized I am, the better.” I fully appreciate the pleasure of having a place for everything, and perhaps counter-intuitively, I find it easier to put things away in an exact place, rather than a general place (“the third shelf of the coat closet,” not “a closet”). However, this impulse can become destructive: if you spend a lot of time alphabetizing your spices or setting up eighty categories for your home library, consider simplifying your approach. Also, some things simply won’t stay organized, so it’s not even worth trying; I’ve spent hours sorting magic markers and Calico Critters pieces, only to find everything a jumble the next day.

3. “I need to run out and buy some inventive storage containers.” See #1. I love cunning containers as much as anyone, but I’ve found that if I get rid of everything I don’t need, I often don’t need a container at all.

4. “I need to find the perfect recipient for everything I’m getting rid of.” True, it’s easier to let go of things when they’re going to a good home, but be wary of letting this kind intention become a source of clutter, itself. I have a friend who has multiple piles all over her house, each lovingly destined for a particular recipient. This is generous and thoughtful, but it contributes mightily to clutter. Try to find one or two good recipients, or create some kind of rigid system for moving stuff along quickly.

5. “I can’t get rid of anything that I might possibly need one day.” How terrible would it be if you needed a glass jar and didn’t have one? Do you need gigantic stores of rubber bands or coffee mugs?

6. “Someday, I might get that gizmo fixed.” Face it. If you’ve had something for more than six months, and it’s still not repaired, it’s clutter.

7. “After I lose some weight, I’ll fit into these clothes again.” If you lose a bunch of weight, you’ll likely want to buy a new pair of jeans, not dust off the pair you bought seven years ago.

8. “I need to keep this to remind me of the past.” I’m a huge fan of mementos; remembering happy times in the past gives you a big happiness boost in the present. But ask yourself: do I need to keep all these t-shirts to remind me of high school, or can I keep a few? Do I need to keep a giant armchair to remind me of my father, or can I use a photograph? Mementos work best when they’re carefully chosen—and when they don’t take up much room!

9. “I need to keep this object to show respect for the person who gave it to me.” You can love someone, but not want to keep a gift from that person. It’s okay to pass an item along to someone who will appreciate it more.

What other myths am I overlooking? Do these ring true for you?

* I just discovered Geoff Manaugh’s Bldg Blog—so much to see and read.

* My next book, Happier at Home, is inching toward completion. Just finishing the interior layout now. If you’d like to be notified when the book becomes available, sign up here. Now that the year has switched from 2011 to 2012, my publication date seems much, much closer.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Sara E

    I have a huge problem with #4, “I need to find the perfect recipient for everything I’m getting rid of.” In addition, I would also say I have a problem with “I can sell this for good money”.  Because of these two problems, I have kept way too many clothes and some other useful things, including toys and decorations. I recently cleaned out my closet and took five bags of clothes, shoes, etc. to Goodwill. A friend told me his wife makes $1000 a month selling Lots of items on eBay. But when I gave it some thought, I knew I would never be able to follow through with managing eBay items and shipping to buyers. I have to say that I am very pleased with my slimmed down closet contents and I don’t miss the clutter at all.

  • Anon

    #9 is a tough one. My husband’s grandmother travels a lot and brings us back souvenirs. I find it odd to clutter our tiny home with items from countries we’ve never been to. However, he doesn’t agree with me. The best compromise we were able to make was having a few of them out in the living room, and the rest go in his office. 

  • Caromisc

    RE: No. 9 ,showing respect:  What I do is, literally, kiss the thing goodbye. I use that a lot to winnow my kids’ artworks.  The kiss shows respect and honor, and frees me to discard. 

  • Cam

    To deal with No. 4, I use the same system as with general clutter–just as I have a box labeled Goodwill where I stash things to give away as I come upon them, I also have boxes labeled with recipients names, ebay, and consignment.  If I’m not giving it to one of the two named recipients (a niece and a cousin who get my children’s hand-me-downs), then it goes in one of the other piles. 

  • Julia

    Kevin, this made me smile as one of my own myths to justify my clutter
    was “creative people live in chaotic homes”. Other creative friends
    (artists, musicians, etc.) all lived in a similar way, but whilst
    justifying our cluttered, chaotic homes to ourselves, we were all
    fighting against the stuff.

    Last month, I decided that it was time to stop “trying” to de-clutter
    and have a real deep-cleanse. To clear the clutter to make way for
    clarity and productivity. I blogged about it here: http://bit.ly/NzFwLe

    How much more room there is to be creative without the clutter, now that
    I have my paper, pens, paints close at hand. I feel freer for having
    let go of so many things and, like you, have to allocate time daily to
    retain that calm and clutter-free space. I still have a long way to go,
    but with half of the house done, I feel able (and now really keen) to
    clear the rest.

    Gretchen, this is a really helpful post. I particularly love the tip
    about having a photograph of your special people instead of their
    stuff… such a great idea when letting go of family stuff. x

  • SxyConfidentWym

    But Cindy that is so lazy!

    • Elle scooter

      Organizing is pointless and a poor use of one’s limited time on earth. Go Cindy!

  • I do agree in some of these myths. One of my problem is when I still keep papers and documents from school that I thought I could recycle but in the end I couldn’t use it. I have many of these papers which is stock in my cabinet for years. When I found a time to check I have notice that those papers are better of in the garbage. Anyway great thoughts!

    Mini Clean