- The definition of clutter: Clutter is defined as an overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces.
- Collecting vs. Cluttering vs. Hoarding
- A hoarder collects meaningless items, or things with little value. This person finds it difficult to let go of the items and they pile up in ways that are unsafe or affect the person’s dealings with others.
- The myth: Are you left-brained or right brained?
- Brain facts: The brain is made up of two hemispheres – the right and the left and they have a very similar anatomy and physiology. They do, however, process different things differently.
- The degree of clutter in our surroundings. Is it mild? Is it moderate or severe? Sometimes a professional organizer could help with the more serious clutter, and sometimes it could be a manifestation of another hidden disorder.
- The KonMari Method of decluttering.
- Clutter is not only physical, it can be digital and mental.
My mom and I always had a different definition of order and tidiness. According to her – my room was the epitome of entropy. I didn’t see things that way. I’ve always had a sense of order. Not OCD style, but I like my things to have a certain place in the room. My mom would smile every time when I’d say: “You can’t fight the forces of the Universe, mom! You just can’t!” She looks like a shining star when she smiles. It brightens up the whole day.
But, is there a connection between what’s happening in our head and how we clutter (or organize) our environment?
There’s collecting, there’s cluttering and then there’s hoarding.
It was difficult to dig out the academic articles about clutter. Google scholar, at first, threw out everything – from menstruation matters to pine forestry. I did find some information in the end. I also went a bit old school on the matter – went to the library and went through books made of an actual paper. Control+Find (Command+Find) didn’t work there. It was manual labor.
So, what did I find out?
First – the definition of clutter: Clutter is defined as an overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces. (1) It is described as collecting things that have value or personal meaning, but it is largely considered as something that is in the eyes of the beholder. (Exhibit A: my shoe collection-my brother called it clutter, I on the other hand, thought it was a unique assemblage.) Different people are comfortable with different degrees of clutter. More serious clutter would mean a home that does not look clean and tidy, even after cleaning or organizing. But, we cannot equate this degree of cluttering with hoarding.
Hoarding is a different ball game. Here, a person collects meaningless items, or things with little value – like ketchup packets, can openers or shoelaces. This person finds it difficult to let go of the items and they pile up in ways that are unsafe or affect the person’s dealings with others. Everything in their living space is turned into storage units – from shower stalls, to stairs, to ovens. Because of this, the biggest dangers that usually appear are fires and falls.
In 2013 hoarding was named a distinct mental illness, unlike clutter, where – as I said before – it’s in the eyes of the beholder. The shower stalls aren’t used as storage units. Some people are just sloppy, some have huge collections of things they value and some are just waiting for mom to clean their room.
Ok, now that we’ve cleared what cluttering and hoarding are, let’s dive in some more psychology and few theories.
The pseudo psychology (which I am not a fan of) would have you believe that people are divided into right-brained (creative, imaginative, intuitive, artistic, visual and emotional) and left-brained (analytical, logical, factual, sequential, mathematical, verbal and computational) people. That division was a myth that was busted and branded as bullshit.
Now the facts:
The brain is made up of two hemispheres – the right and the left and they have a very similar anatomy and physiology. They do, however, process different things (such as basic sensory features and more complex aspects, such as emotion, language and problem solving) differently. Our current understanding of the mapping between neural and functional properties is limited. It is not known, for example, why the left hemisphere area is crucially involved in a given function while the corresponding right hemisphere area, with the same basic cell types, neurochemistry, and inputs and outputs, is not.
A study was done at the department of psychology at the University of Illinois about the Hemispheric Differences in Semantic Processing and Memory. It was found that the left hemisphere (which is better at language production) seems to make predictions about what is likely to happen next (such as what word will come up in a sentence) and to get ready to process those inputs. In contrast, the right hemisphere seems biased toward the veridical maintenance of information and integration with working memory. Such a division of labor across the hemispheres may help the brain deal with the inherent tradeoff between efficiency and accuracy in information processing. (2)
The notion of different hemispheric thinking styles is based on a faulty presumption: each brain hemisphere is specialized and therefore each must work independently with a different thinking style. It’s overreaching: it uses scientific findings regarding functional asymmetries for the processing of stimuli to create conceptions about hemispheric differences on a different level, such as a cognitive thinking style. Furthermore, there is no direct scientific evidence supporting the idea that different thinking styles lie within each hemisphere. Deriving different hemispheric thinking styles from functional asymmetries is quite adventurous, which oversimplifies and misinterprets scientific findings. (3)
So, we’ve debunked the theory about being left and right brained, which means, that some people are messy and some people are not, and that is not connected to a sole brain hemisphere.
But, the question still remains: Is our stress or our scrambled thoughts responsible for the clutter in our environment?
First we should ask if we’re talking about chronic disorganization, because it could be (but not necessarily) connected to – ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), COD (Compulsive Obsessive Disorder) or even dementia. All of those are linked to difficulty focusing or making decisions. We should also ask about the degree of clutter in our surroundings. Is it mild? Not serious. Is it moderate or severe? Sometimes a professional organizer could help with the more serious clutter, and sometimes it could be a manifestation of another hidden disorder. Difficulty letting go of the stuff can go hand in hand with separation anxiety, procrastination, perfectionism, compulsive shopping and body-image issues.
Psychologists, however, say that in most cases, it’s about a flawed way of thinking that can make someone’s behavior go out of hand. The most used excuses for keeping stuff are: “I might need these someday.” “These might be valuable.” “These might fit again if I lose (or gain) weight.” This way of thinking, although a dysfunctional in some way, is pretty normal. We all have these kinds of thoughts. The trick is, to recognize what you truly don’t need and to substitute the thoughts that make you cling to those things with thoughts that help you let go. (4)
I recently read Marie Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”. I wanted to see what the big hype was all about. In it, she discusses ways of decluttering. She says, that the hardest things to let go are the things with sentimental value, and if you are planning to declutter you should “do” the sentimental items last. Start with the clothes, although if you love fashion, I’m sure, that would be a hard category to start with. So, maybe a good idea is to start with a category that doesn’t mean a lot to you (maybe paper, junk mail and miscellaneous stuff). Do buy the book, if you’re planning to declutter, it’s a big help. She says, you should do one category after another and take everything (from the category you are decluttering) out in plain view – from every drawer, from every room. And then decide. After you decide, put the things you are going to keep back in their place and then move on to the next category.
The categories, which she writes about in her book, are:
- Clothes & Accessories
- Hanging clothes like suits and coat
Activity specific clothes like swimsuits, bike shoes, helmets.
- General (fiction or nonfiction that’s read for pleasure)
- Reference (cookbooks, dictionaries, how to’s)
- Photo books (actual photo books, visual books like about design)
- Linens (Towels, sheets, rags)
- CDs & DVDs
- Electrical items & Cables
- House hold equipment and supplies Kitchen
- Cooking utensils
- Eating utensils
- Pots & Pans
- Dishes & Glasses
- Electronics & Gadgets
- Papers: The rule of thumb with papers is to discard everything, keeping only tax and other necessary documents and papers that are action required. Place any sentimental items you come across in a sentimental box to be dealt with last so that you can move through the papers swiftly.
- Specific hobbies (e.g., skiing, golf, crafting): Cull out any damaged or unneeded supplies, try to contain to a single storage container or area.
- Sentimental: These are the hardest things to discard. Consider whether it is something you can capture in a photo, or if it is something that needs to be transformed by framing, for example. (5)(6)
The simple action of getting rid of stuff will clear clutter temporarily, but it might not contribute to a long lasting clutter-free lifestyle. For example, when you lose weight, unless you understand why you were overweight in the first place, and why and how you ate the way you did, the weight will likely creep in. Similarly, if you jettison your stuff without understanding why you bought it, and hold on to it, stuff will creep back in. (7)
Research scientists have stressed that clutter does affect your brain. It negatively affects your ability to focus and process information. This is because everything that makes the clutter fights for your attention and after a while you become agitated and frustrated. Let’s not forget, that clutter can also be in a digital and mental form. We’re talking – from newsletters in your mail inbox to thoughts and need-to-dos locked in your head. Mental clutter can be cleaned out by using productivity apps, a nice little calendar (digital or paper), making to-do lists either on your phone or on paper and writing thoughts down in a journal. Trust me, it helps a lot.
In the end – the best thing we can do, is be honest with ourselves, figure out what is important to us and create an environment that supports that. The most important memories to us, have a special place in our minds and no matter how many times we declutter, they will not leave us. Bad memories will slowly, but surely fade, because they don’t define us. We can choose how to define ourselves, and if the cards we are dealt with aren’t the best, what’s important is how we play them.
- Roster CA., Ferrari JR., Jurkat MR.: The Dark Side of Home: Assessing Possession “Clutter” on Subjective Well-Being. Journal of Environmental Psychology. 46 (June 2016): 32-41. Online Source: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494416300159 (14.10.2016)
- Online Source: http://internal.psychology.illinois.edu/~kfederme/hemi.html (14.10.2016)
- Online Source: https://www.oecd.org/edu/ceri/neuromyth6.htm (14.10.2016)
- Online Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-psychology-of-clutter-1404772636 (14.10.2016)
- Marie Kondo: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Ten Speed Press (2014): 75-146
- Online Source: https://parparvdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2016/02/cc56f-konmaritemplate.pdf (14.10.2016)
- Babauta L. and Carver C.: ClutterFree. Kindle Edition (2012): 5