Living Lighter

Clearing Away Our Clutter

By Nora Brunner

Originally published in Skin Deep, October/November 2006.

Just as smelling too many fragrances at the perfume counter causes the olfactory sense to briefly shut down, some other parts of the brain might be on overload because of all the clutter in our lives. Some of our possessions, no longer useful or enjoyable, are constantly demanding our attention and time in ways that may distract us from real living. They have gradually morphed into junk. But do we even notice?

Any place in our lives—kitchens, desks, computers, purses, and cars—can become a trap for clutter. What began as convenience items or aesthetic treasures may have deteriorated into daily hurdles that rob us of emotional and psychic energy.

The Dalai Lama has observed in recent years the modern world has us living in bigger houses with fewer children, and using more conveniences but having less time. The Public Broadcasting Service website notes many of today’s three-car garages occupy nine-hundred square feet, about the average size of an American home in the 1950s. Many of those giant garages are packed with forgotten or little-used stuff.

Understanding Value

As working people, it’s a good bet we won’t be featured on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But it’s not about the quantity of our stuff per se. Even with fewer or less expensive possessions, we can become psychologically burdened by a slow accumulation of items encroaching on every wall, shelf, and surface. Do we keep that glossy coffee-table book from Aunt Edna because we truly use and enjoy it? Or has it been sitting there like the sphinx so long we don’t even see it anymore?

“I have found every one of us is a junker,” home-cleaning expert and author Don Aslett says. “We have to pay for (junk), keep track of it, protect it, clean it, store it, insure it, and worry about it. This takes energy and real effort.”

While we may have found joy in discovering a bargain blouse, marked down because it was missing a button, it can grow into a source of distress as we undertake a mission to find replacement buttons, a skirt, sweater, and accessories to match. Little by little, our valuable find chews up our time and energy. These seemingly small units that soak up life can pile up faster than the fall leaves in our backyards. Some bargain! Any place this phenomenon works in our lives becomes life draining instead of life sustaining.

Getting Tough With Our Stuff

Of course we’ll keep things we use and enjoy, but why not pitch or ditch things hanging around only because of our guilt, indecision, and procrastination? Perhaps we fear the new time and energy de-junking will create for us. Who could we become if we could crawl out from under our piles, papers, boxes, and burdens?

Aslett says not even an expert can say flat out what the junk in our lives is. But he offers this thumbnail definition: it’s junk if it’s broken, obsolete, we’ve always hated it, it’s not the right color, style, or size, using it is a bother, or it generates bad feelings, no matter how irrational the reason. The lovely Valentine’s Day necklace we once cherished may have subtly evolved into a reminder of that bad breakup.

Experts warn us not to fall for the fancy systems and storage tools promising to ease our quest to get organized. They might be helpful, but only after we’ve concluded our ruthless campaign to separate the wheat from the gaffes.

“Clutter busting in the twentieth century was using all kinds of clever containers to make clutter look cool,” Rita Emmett, time-management expert, author, and recovered packrat says. “Twenty-first-century clutter busting means we must learn to get rid of stuff.”

As we travel a little lighter, we may discover the joy of owning our stuff instead of having it own us.