Monday, August 9, 2010


One problem with "owning things" is that they can clutter up your life.

No one sets out to clutter up their home intentionally. Some decorators and decorator styles, like in the Victorian era, favored a cluttered look. But even then, it was a clean look, not jammed with junk and detritus.

But many homes end up being cluttered as the owners succumb to the need to "keep things" because they are "valuable" or "keepsakes". What they fail to see is that they are ugly and get in the way - and are never used. And when you live in an ugly environment, it wears on your soul. And clutter in your physical world tends to lead to clutter in your mental world. Just keeping track of all the junk you own does occupy a portion of your brain. Letting go of junk can often reduce your stress level.

We see the effects of clutter on our retirement island a lot. People sell off their four or five-bedroom homes "up North" and head down South, bringing four bedrooms worth of colonial furniture to their beach homes. The result is a mish-mash of styles and too much furniture, making for an unattractive and unappealing home.

Do you have too much clutter in your life? Ask yourself these questions:

  1. When you go into a room or down a hallway, do you have to twist or contort or do a two-step to get around an item of furniture or some box or other possession?
  2. Do you end up dusting a lot of items in your home, or worse yet, letting them get dusty?
  3. Are all the horizontal surfaces in your home - desk tops, table tops, counter space, and the like, all "spoken for" so that you can't set something down without moving something else?
  4. Is your garage barely large enough to fit your car, or worse yet, you have to park your car outside?
  5. Are there "choke points" in the walking routes in your home that are narrower than 36"?

Clutter can not only make your home less attractive, it can be physically damaging as well. Twisting and turning to get around items in your home can force your back into odd positions and cause you to throw your back out or other physical ailments. And yet many people have their homes set up in such a way that you have to do a limbo act, just to open a closet door or to get something off the shelf.

Studies have shown that it literally is harder to think in cluttered rooms full of junk. The visual distraction and psychological inertia from all that junk tends to clutter your mind as well as your physical space.

Of course, the opposite of clutter is what we often call spartan, named of course for the Spartans, who favored a very uncluttered look. Most of what we call "modern" design favors this sort of clutter-free look, with large airy spaces where it is easy to move around, and furniture and architecture with little in the way of bric-brac and fussy details. While the dramatic "modern" look may not be for you, there is a happy medium, I think, between the austere and the junked up.

As I noted in my previous posting, we recently sold a number of items that were cluttering up our barn. I was tripping over the roto-tiller and the utility trailer, and the kayaks took up entire shelves in the barn. Suddenly, it is easy to walk around in there, find things, and work on projects.

And that is the insidious nature of clutter - you often don't realize it exists until you take it away. And once it is gone, you feel a sense of relief - like gas releasing from a vessel to occupy a larger space.

Unfortunately, clutter tends to re-assert itself fairly quickly, if you let it. It is all too easy to let items accumulate by "just setting them down here for a moment". Before you know it, last week's junk mail is piled up on kitchen counter and boxes of junk are in the living room. And that big piece of Empire-style furniture that you "just had to have" is blocking the closet door from opening all the way.

It is hard to give up on "things" as they seem so important and valuable. After all, we scrimped and saved to buy them - selling them seems like giving up, or a defeat. So-called "heirlooms" handed down seem valuable because of their "history," but often they have little real value or even sentimental value to you. We think things are valuable because someone else said they were. But from a personal perspective, they are largely useless items occupying space, of value only in their potential resale price.

Our move to Jekyll is not easy. There is so much "stuff" that we own and each piece seems too good to "just give away" by selling. But in reality, most of it is not necessary to our existence - in fact none of it is. And if we stuff our smaller home with heavy furniture, it will not be a pleasant place to stay. Keeping stuff because it is "valuable" but not really useful makes no sense at all.

The other problem with clutter is that it is the incipient first stage of hoarding disorder. As I have noted before, hoarding disorder does not spring upon people from nowhere. It starts small and works it way up, like most mental illnesses. So the unread pile of junk mail sits, then grows, as the hoarder thinks, "there may be valuable coupons in there, but I don't have time to read it just now" and before you know it, the county health and fire inspectors are condemning the house.