The crazier the world gets, the more I need my home to be a place of peace and sanctuary.
I have a very troubled relationship with my possessions. I have read many, many books and articles in my attempts to deal with my chronic clutter and disorganization. It has been a long journey to rewire my brain’s deeply ingrained poverty mentality. I’ve studied organizing, Feng Shui, decorating, cleaning, arranging. I have learned that clutter clearing, cleaning, and organizing are distinctly different things although they tend to overlap in my brain when I look at a space and think “what a mess, I need to clean this up”.
I have spent endless and exhausting hours in binges of sorting through possessions to clear a space of clutter (for example, the unfinished storage area in my basement). I’ve congratulated myself for my efforts, felt a happy sigh of relief, then felt despair and hopelessness when the space filled up with new clutter in a matter of days or weeks. That’s when I really lose my mind.
I’ve had difficult conversations with my husband around stuff (both his and mine), which we resolved by agreeing certain parts of the house cannot have clutter (I need to be able to lay my head down and sleep in peace, so no clutter in the bedroom). But other rooms are our individual clutter zones the other one isn’t allowed to touch. We both get inspired to deal with our individual spaces on occasion, but have no success inspiring the other one to clean out their untouchable zone. We both agree we love it when the clutter is gone and the space is clean and organized, but we both dread the time and energy and decisions the work requires.
Speaking of decisions, here are some questions I have learned to ask when I am sorting and purging possessions.
Do I need it?
Do I love it?
Do I take care of it?
Do I value the story it tells?
Does it have positive associations?
Can I find it when I need it?
Is it a duplicate?
Do I use it, or is it just one more thing I have to keep moving out of the way?
Does it fit into the life I have now?
Is it part of the future I’m envisioning?
Is it helping or hindering me in living my best life?
Is it beautiful?
Does it spark joy?
Is something I use, and enjoy using?
Does it anchor me to the past or does it contribute to the life I want to create now?
Is it usable in the current state it’s in?
Is it adding value to my life?
Would I buy it again today?
Does it block energy? Does it create stagnant, dead energy?
Would it be better off in someone else’s hands?
Is it past its expiration date?
Do I have room for it – does it fit inside the container space I have (drawer, shelf, house)?
Is it valuable enough to take up my time and energy?
Does it have a home (a logical place where it is put away when not in use)?
Do I have it simply because I’m downstream from someone who didn’t want it and I couldn’t say “no”?
Did I get it on impulse, or because it was “a great bargain”?
Am I keeping it because of how much I spent when I bought it, despite not using it?
Am I keeping it because I’m an indecisive, lazy procrastinator or because I genuinely want it in my life?
Just reading that list is exhausting. It’s best to focus on a few questions that are at the heart of why there is an overwhelming amount of stuff. What are the deeper issues behind accumulating and hanging onto more than enough stuff?
For me, one of the hardest parts of clutter clearing is the volume of decisions required. I’m a Libra; I weigh the pros and cons. I am naturally indecisive because I can always make an argument for either side. Papers are the worst for me because one stack can require hundreds of decisions. Sometimes I put mail in a box, and when I get to it a year later it’s a relief that almost everything is outdated and the decisions I put off by not dealing with it at the time have been made through inaction. That’s no way to deal with mail, but there it is.
Ditto with stacks of photos. So Many Decisions. Ditto my online storage – now I have electronic clutter that takes time and energy to deal with. So much time I could be doing something more fun. The real regret in dealing with this issue year in and year out is the time of my life I’ll never get back. I make myself feel better by telling myself this issue is part of my spiritual evolution; like any persistent issue, there is something it is teaching me. (So far, that boils down to unlearning a poverty and lack mentality.)
On a practical, rather than spiritual, level here are a few things I have learned on this journey…
It is easier to clean a house where things have a home where they belong and clutter has been cleared. This is obvious to most people, but I didn’t figure it out until I realized I spent more hours getting ready for the house cleaner to come than it took her to clean. My frantic efforts straightening things up and trying to figure out where things would be out of the way were just a part of having the housecleaner come. After she came, my entire house would be clean at one time (wonderful and exciting) and then it would immediately start to devolve so by the next day it was already going back to its natural state (depressing and dispiriting). It wasn’t until I cleaned my own house that I got some routines going to keep up with basic tidying and cleaning every day.
There really is such a thing as “stagnant energy”. Blocked energy is a massive drain on my personal energy level, creativity, and peace of mind. A mess constantly nags my brain to the point I can’t relax and enjoy life. I love going out of town because I immediately relax in a hotel room (so clean and uncluttered). No “to do” list of cleaning and organizing is calling for my attention. I have friends who easily tune those projects out, who are creative and productive despite their clutter, but I must have at least one room with no mess or I can’t relax.
Certain decorating styles are easier to clean. Minimalist, mid-century modern, and Scandinavian tend to be less busy than Country, Victorian, Bohemian. I go for an eclectic style so I have some of everything – rustic and polished, vintage and new, various eras. I incorporate what’s appealing, comfortable, beautiful, interesting to me. I like things that tell my story — things from my travels, or made by me and my family. I know next to nothing about decorating, but I do notice the trend toward streamlining and simplifying no matter what you label your design style. And, use one big accessory instead of a lot of little accessories if you want your space easier to clean and maintain.
Upsizing or downsizing the space doesn’t help. It’s a state of mind and habits of behavior that create clear space. I’ve lived in a sleeper apartment that didn’t have a kitchen or a bathroom and I’ve lived in a 3,400 square foot house that had huge rooms, and lots of them. The 200 square foot sleeper was faster to clean, and the big dream house had more space for things to store neatly or spread out and breathe, but space didn’t cure the issue. Any dwelling (house, apartment, camper or tent) defines the size of container you have for your stuff. Clever organizing and storage solutions only go so far.
Some hobbies and interests have less stuff, therefore less mess. I’m not willing to change who I am or how I like to spend my time. I just want a clean house so I can feel the freedom to spend time on creative pursuits without feeling guilty. But in general, hiking, reading and knitting are less messy than sewing, painting, and woodworking. There are people with beautiful and well-organized sewing rooms and woodworking shops, so that’s not really an excuse. And there are readers whose books and papers clutter every horizontal surface including the floor. And knitters overrun by their yarn stash. So saying it’s because of my hobbies is an oversimplification. Some manage the mess by reducing the number of interests, but I’m not going to do that. What I am willing to do is organize and declutter supplies so that when I have an idea I can put my hands on the tools and materials quickly enough that I don’t lose the energy to make it.
I’ve tried every approach there is – dealing with everything in one category (clothes, papers, etc.), dealing with one room at a time (empty it and only put back what you love and what serves the purpose of the space), doing it bit-by-bit in small time increments (15 minutes to clutter clear then clean and organize one drawer or closet), putting things in containers (more containers is more stuff, so don’t buy pretty containers for things you don’t need to keep in the first place, but in some spaces containers can make a huge difference), dealing with what you see first (quick results is motivating), working from the inside out (pulling everything out makes the mess worse before it is better, but is more rewarding then jamming all the clutter into spaces other people don’t see – but only do this if you have time to finish the project).
Sentimentality will bog you down. I’ve got nothing for you on this, other than to say commit to the future you want to create and eliminate things that will hold you back from moving forward with your dreams. And if you don’t use it, appreciate it, or give it a place of honor by proudly displaying it, then why keep it?
It is good to take before and after pictures on these projects. I often fail to celebrate progress and acknowledge the work I’ve done. My tendency is to see what still needs doing rather than what I accomplished.
It is possible to rewire the brain and form new habits. I had to learn things that are obvious to other people – instead of setting something down, put it back where it belongs, put the dirty dish into the dishwasher right away, make the bed every morning, recycle junk mail right when it comes into the house, create a daily/weekly/seasonal schedule for cleaning.
Don’t be afraid to get radical. Most people add storage when they remodel a kitchen. Instead, we took out all the upper cabinets and changed lower cabinets to drawers. We had to purge a few things, but everything has a specific home, a lot of countertop stuff went out of sight, and the drawers make better use of space because you can easily get to stuff in the back. It felt like we doubled the storage; I love it! Ditto with swapping out my desk to one half as big. I was so frustrated by the clutter that accumulated on my desktop and with less space it is less of a problem. My smaller desk is more useful.
Every little success builds on itself. One closet, one table top, one drawer getting cleaned and organized can be so gratifying that it inspires the next project.
I’m way too controlling to let someone come into my house and do if for me. When I see shows along that theme it is fun to imagine the results without the work, and super fun to imagine being done with a huge project in 2-3 days. But with the room and house makeovers, I always ask myself where did all their stuff go, and did the owner of the space learn anything that’ll keep it from reverting to a mess? Professional help and support to get through a project makes sense, having someone organize my stuff in a way that’s not logical for me (therefore I can’t find it) isn’t helpful.
Keep it real. I see some photos and articles where my immediate reaction is “no one lives like that”. My goal isn’t a pristine and sterile environment. I want my home to have life and energy. I’m not giving up my kid, my dog, or my partner no matter how big a mess they make. I want a house that’s well loved and lived in. Be clear on your goal.
I may not give up my partner or my kid, but everyone in the household needs to participate in keeping things tidy. Everyone needs to be considerate with shared spaces. No one should be the full time maid for everyone else.
Extroverts have an easier time keeping a nice house than introverts. Extroverts naturally care more about how things look. Introverts care more about ideas, more about what’s in their head than in their environment. You are who you are. Accept it and do your best.
Don’t do what won’t work. Organizing nail polish in rainbow order makes sense to me. But I’m never going to organize my books in rainbow order. It might look pretty, but I shelve books by subject so I can find the book I want when I want it. I don’t want to have to remember the color of the cover to put my hands on a book.
You’ll get more done treating yourself with kindness and compassion than by beating yourself up and shaming and bullying yourself to do it.
I hope I’ve shared some wisdom you can use on your journey to finding peace of mind in your own home. I offer my best wishes for your journey to find the perfect Zen vibe that keeps you calm and happy.