Nature loves clutter. Just think of all the stuff that drops from trees, washes in on the tide, or is blown by the wind into your backyard. Birds molt, animals shed, snakes slither out of their skin, and they all just leave it lying there to rot into the earth. Follow any two-year-old around for a day and you'll see that we're not much better.
Living in clutter does not mean that you are a slob or an undisciplined failure. It means that you are human, and your origins are showing. Way, way back in the farthest branches of your family tree, your ancient ancestors lived a somewhat more hand-to-mouth existence than we do. Stocking up was a smart thing to do when the antelope might not roam your way again for a while, and surviving a cold winter depended on how big a stash of firewood and dried berries you had in the back of the cave.
The urge to acquire is instinctive and completely normal. But the kinds of circumstances that could lead primitive man to use up the provisions he'd stashed away are no longer much of a threat to us. I am a big fan of Costco, eBay, and 24-hour convenience stores, but we don't really need them, and the effect on our closets and garages (not to mention our waistlines!) has been catastrophic.
There seems to be an agreement in our culture that life was "simpler" back whenever. Yearning for simplicity makes us believe that our clutter is against the way things should be. What was different in the past was they didn't have credit cards, mail order catalogs, and the Internet. Most people only bought what they needed and could afford. When was the last time any of us did that?
In the span of just a few generations the cost of goods has gone down dramatically due to mass production. Take a moment to think about how much a basic T-shirt would cost if it were knitted and stitched by hand. How many would you own then? What if you had to make it yourself? Would you be so ready to think you need another one in a slightly different color or cut, or maybe with a little Lycra in it?
A common lament about contemporary social norms bemoans the scattering of the nuclear family, the lack of a sense of community, and the loss of spirituality in daily life. We feel disconnected, stressed, empty, and we have been trained by mass media since early childhood that having more things will make us feel better. At some point someone told us "you can't buy happiness," but we didn't listen, because everyone likes new toys and buying things makes us feel secure, which is almost as good as feeling happy.
So we shop and shop and buy more things for our homes (and our cars, and our cell phones) until we're drowning in stuff. And then we shop for things to help us manage the other things and get them organized and neatly stored. Usually all that results from this is an over-abundance of misused, unused, or wrong-sized containers that metastasize into their own variety of clutter.
Combine a new "pre-approved" credit card offer in the mailbox every week, buy-in-bulk warehouse stores, easy internet shopping, and cable shopping networks beaming bargains into your television set 24 hours a day with the hard-wired delusion that giving in to these temptations is a good idea, and our once life-preserving impulse to stock up goes into overdrive. The problem isn't that we are completely lacking in judgment or self-discipline. The problem is that the primal parts of our brains, where the compulsion to stock up while it's available resides, is not programmed for a world in which more than we could ever possibly need will still be there tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that.
Once we recognize this, it becomes possible to acknowledge the instinctive urge to acquire and to use the more rational parts of our brains to remember that although we live in the midst of the greatest availability of consumer goods ever known in the history of mankind, lucky us: we don't need to buy it all today.
Conquering clutter happens in small increments on a day-by-day basis, not in one great to-the-death campaign. It starts with recognizing that clutter flows into our lives every day. Take a moment to think about everything that came to your home or office in the mail this past week. And the things you brought home from the store. And the library books, videos, and DVDs rented (and that will need to be returned in a few days or weeks, another task made more difficult by clutter).
If you have school-age children, you may feel like you need a bulldozer to deal with all the papers and projects that arrive home with them every day. Not to mention the happy meal toys. Then there are the take-out food flyers slid under your door, the lawn-service brochure stuck in your mailbox, the sale inserts from Safeway and Home Depot that sneak in with the newspaper.
The prospect of dealing with your existing clutter is exhausting enough. When you think about the fact that the incoming flow of clutter is not going to stop you may feel an overwhelming urge to just lie down on the floor and admit defeat -- assuming you can find a large-enough area of uncluttered carpet to occupy.
Don't give up before you start! That feeling of overwhelm can actually become the energy source that propels you to get out of this mess and stay out of it. When you feel overwhelmed, allow yourself to be with that feeling and explore it. Hidden beneath the fatigue and despair is a deep desire to be free, to become the highest expression of your true self, to live your dreams and share your unique talents with the world. Tap into that desire, and you will have the energy you need to conquer your clutter.
The secret is to give up on the misguided notion that you can do it all at once in one massive effort. Accept that it took time for all this mess to accumulate, and it will take time to winnow it out. Instead of waiting until you have the time and energy to begin, start now. Begin slowly. Proceed gently. Tackle one small area at a time. The clutter will dwindle and your energy will grow. You will one day triumph over the mess. You will live in a tidy and organized space. You will fall back in love with your home, and incoming clutter will be powerless in the face of your conscious, caring attention to your physical environment. © 2003 Stephanie Roberts [exerpted from "Clutter-Free Forever!", Lotus Pond Press, 2003]