Some Thoughts On Clutter and “Minimalism”

I wasn’t much bothered by clutter growing up. My room was never horrific – no moldy apple cores or festering sports equipment lurking in the corners – but I left piles of papers on my desk and had shelves haphazardly filled with books that I would never have dreamed of organizing by author or height or binding colour. Good enough was good enough and I didn’t give much thought to the impact my surroundings might have on my emotional wellbeing and productivity.

And for good reason. As a teenager, I don’t think my environment did have much impact on my wellbeing and productivity. My responsibilities were limited – finish homework on time, study for tests, schedule fun adventures with friends, watch TV, read some books. Wash, rinse, repeat.

But as I’ve gotten older and the scope of my roles as a wife, mother, employee, and homeowner have evolved, I’ve increasingly craved order. Some of it is due to personality – I like a sense of control and appreciate predictability – but I think a lot of it stems from the sheer amount of stuff I have to manage!

Minimalism: the intentional promotion of things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from them.

The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own, Joshua Becker

I never considered myself to be a minimalist – I most certainly can’t fit all of my possessions in a book bag, as some famous influencers in this space have done. But, based on the quote above, I fit the brief. Minimalism doesn’t look to get rid of everything. It looks to prioritize those possessions or activities that are most valued and then removes the rest. Keep the flowers but pull the weeds.

I love getting rid of stuff that no longer serves a purpose, physical items that fill space mentally and physically. At the life level, this can mean prioritizing activities and behaviours that I value. And to do the latter, it’s so much easier when I have fewer material possessions distracting me.

THOUGHT #1: OWN less stuff

I’ve written about this before, but having less stuff is one of the easiest ways to reduce clutter.

While it’s a great way to reduce financial expenditures (lots of “minimalists” start their journey in an effort to get debt-free), it also reduces constant mental gymnastics. My friend, a decluttering ninja, recently sent me a link to The Minimal Mom’s discussion of The Silent To-Do List. It’s a concept that comes from the book Goodbye, Things whose author suggests that every single item in our house sends subliminal messages. For example:

  • A plant might say, “Find a place with better sunlight, water me, don’t let me die.”
  • Dirty dishes on the counter ask, “Why haven’t you cleaned me up yet? How long are you going to leave me laying here? Don’t you know you’re out of clean plates?”
  • Your overflowing wardrobe might chime in, “Why did you buy me – I’ve sat here on the shelf for years? When are you finally going to lose the 5lbs and fit into me? Do you actually think red looks good on you?”

So not only does excess stuff lead to physical clutter, it also can contribute to emotional clutter.

Thought #2: Everything should have a place

Building on my admonition to have less stuff, I’d also argue it’s important that everything have a place.

I’m a huge fan of resetting a room and this is so, so much easier when everything has a place. I can clean up any given space in auto-pilot. It also naturally helps eliminate redundancies (though sometimes having multiples can boost efficiency and make life easier).

We’ve achieved the right level of order when we can find what we need, feel good in our space, and don’t feel hindered by stuff.

Gretchen Rubin

Thought #3: Have catch-all places

While I love owning less stuff (even my worst day can be mildly improved by cleaning out a drawer and finding gently-used things to donate or broken things to put in the garbage) – and I like having a designated place for everything – I also have a lot of catch-alls.

My son’s bottom drawer is home to miscellaneous slippers, a whiteboard, and all the random detritus from school (Valentines I can’t get rid of until Easter, the attachments for his Batman action figure). My daughter has several totes full of “stuff” in her closet. Random purses, ticket stubs, singing birthday cards, and other beloved trinkets.

I have a designated shelf in the cupboard by my sink that serves the same purpose. I’ll stash things in here that I’m too lazy to put away; or, I’ll use it as a holding cell for items the kids have left lying around. If they don’t ask about that bouncy ball from the birthday party treat bag after a month, chances are it’s safe to pass it along to another home.

Things come in to our homes by one of two ways: we buy them, or they’re given to us…the responsibility lies squarely on our shoulders: we let them in.

Francine Jay

Who cares? And what’s THe goal?

There is nothing wrong with clutter. A messy closet doesn’t mean you can’t climb the professional ladder. An overflowing toybox doesn’t mean your child is going to fall behind at school. It’s just mess and clutter. If it doesn’t bother you, interfere with your wellbeing or ability to function and interact with others, then it doesn’t really matter.

So why would I want to reduce physical clutter in my life?

For most people, including me, outer order contributes to inner calm. Maybe you want to feel more comfortable hosting company? Maybe you have a lot of emotional baggage associated with physical possessions? Or maybe you want to spend less money buying, maintaining, and storing things?

We’re wrapping up a busy summer. When the dust (and sand) settles, we’ve spent almost 3 weeks visiting my parents at the lake. I’ve been going here every summer of my life, and that first glimpse of the lake is always magical. But there’s something else about summer on the water – it oozes the vacation vibe.

The word vacation comes from the Latin “vacare” which means “to be empty.” Sure vacation can be full of adventure and fun, but it rarely involves “stuff.” We go to sterile hotel rooms or rustic cottages and we love the freedom it brings. This might be because, if we’re lucky, we avoid the 24/7 tether to the mobile office we cart around in our pockets. But mostly I appreciate having so few belongings to manage (which also allows me to not worry too much about the mess of towels on the floor, the pile of flip-flops by the door, or the stack of unwashed cups beside the sink).

It’s not realistic to re-create permanent vacations at home; laundry needs doing and I want to see the shoes lined up neatly. But perhaps the spirit of the lifestyle we embrace, usually temporarily, can be ours for the taking the rest of the year too.

Empty to fill.

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