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Clutter as a Point of Entry


Most people regard piles of paper, an overstuffed closet and boxes in the attic as nothing more than your regular old run-of-the-mill junk. If these items inhabit your space, it’s merely more evidence that you are indeed a packrat – a hopeless, helpless collector of stuff. But if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a clutter crusade, you know how hurtful (and intimidating) it can feel when people pressure you to trash it all.   


The truth is, we each have a certain quantity of belongings and activities that anchor us. Some of us like to fill our spaces and keep a very full schedule, while others prefer more streamlined closets and calendars. There’s no right or wrong, better or worse, way to be. In my experience people who live in abundance can be every bit as organized and “zen” as a feng shui master.


We run into trouble when the objects in our spaces or the number of commitments on our calendars expand to an untenable degree. Regardless of what your ideal equilibrium looks like, in that situation, some adjusting needs to be done.


The question is how best to go about making those adjustments. Is it to toss it all, straightaway, to get back to zero as fast as possible? Or, is it to take a slower, more measured approach?


A point of entry


We often hear the word “clutter” associated with chaos, disorganization and mess. But “clutter” is actually much more than that. I’ve defined “clutter” as any obsolete object, commitment or behavior that weighs you down, distracts you, or depletes your energy. “Clutter” symbolizes an attachment to something from the past the must be released in order to create the space for change.


By characterizing all “clutter” as junk, you miss an opportunity to learn about your attachment, and find a way to truly release it. Half the people who appear on “makeover” shows or in stunning before & after shots on the glossy pages of magazines, end up right back where they started two months later. Why? Because they tossed their stuff without understanding why they were holding onto those objects in the first place. Believe it or not, your piles (of paper, clothing, whatever) fulfill a need. And failing to understand the need, before you toss it all away, almost guarantees that you will recreate those piles.


Truly removing the clutter requires you to adopt a new perspective; to see clutter as a “point of entry”. Dealing with your clutter is not always a simple mechanical exercise, it’s often a chance to uncover old belief systems, to find clues to your identity and to free up the space and energy to reinvigorate your life. Points of entry can exist in your physical space, in your schedule or in your behavior. It could be anything from spare bedroom to a specific cabinet or old filing system, a bad habit (procrastination, for example) or a PTA commitment you (secretly) wish would vanish from your schedule. The primary characteristic of any “point of entry” is that it feels suspiciously stagnant, irrelevant, de-energizing, and generally distracting.  You don’t want to look at it, deal with it, or engage.


Where does clutter come from?


How did the clutter, these points of entry, insinuate themselves into your life to begin with? There are three common explanations. The first and easiest is that the (now) clutter was relevant at one time, but has since lost its significance. You’re holding onto it either because you think you might need it again one day, or you simply haven’t gotten around to weeding through your old stuff. Old papers, books, magazines and clothing typically fall into this category. Activities and habits can fall here too. Continuing to attend your Thursday night book club meeting, for example, is clutter if you don’t enjoy the company of the group’s members, detest the reading selections and dread going every month. You just haven’t made time (or decided) to deal with this kind of clutter yet.


The second explanation is that the object (old furniture, antique radio, etc.) or activity (committee assignment, family gathering) was passed on to you, via gift or inheritance, and it therefore has some sentimental value. You never actually wanted your great aunt’s mauve colored china collection, but now that it’s been bequeathed to you, you can’t very well get rid of it. Or, if you’ve been given the honor of hosting the family “party” every July 4th weekend (even though everyone would rather be at the beach), who are you to end the tradition. Right?


Third, and arguably most tricky, is that you feel a strong attachment to the clutter not because of what it is, but because of what it represents. You are not attached to the particular contents of that junk drawer, you just like having that volume of stuff. The abundance keeps you company, it makes you feel safe. The commitments on your calendar aren’t particularly meaningful or interesting, you just like the feeling of being busy.  It makes you feel important. Your workaholism might not make you happy – in fact, it makes you anxious - but that bad habit oswho you are. It is a key element of the only identity you know.


Back in control


Your points of entry, wherever they are and whatever they may be, present an opportunity to take control. By pinpointing when you first acquired it, then identifying the need it serves, you can either release the object, activity, behavior (because the need it once met is no longer relevant), or you can recognize and respect the need it serves, then figure out a better, more productive way to honor it. Taking ownership of your clutter will start to transform the way you think and feel.


·        You don’t smoke for the nicotine buzz. You smoke for the time to think and for the breather (however ironic) that it builds into your day. 

·        You know you can’t use the crusted old paint supplies sitting in your front hall closet.  They are reminders of your creativity.

·        You don’t actually relish mindlessly channel surfing for hours every night. The television chatter keeps you company.

·        You don’t ever want to wear your college wardrobe again. You hold onto it because it represents how stylish you used to be (and might become, once more).


When you are feeling weighed down by something in your space your schedule, it is a natural impulse to pitch it all. You get caught up in a vision of clean surfaces and daydream about recreating the Boston Tea Party. Not so fast. To truly release the clutter, you have to slow down. You have to look backwards before you can move forward.



SIDEBAR: Ask yourself the following questions for each point of entry you identify in your space and schedule. 

When did I first acquire this “clutter”?

How long has it been stagnant or felt burdensome?
Was there ever when it was fully vibrant and relevant?

What changed in my life to cause it to go stale?
Is my reason for owning this object or committing to this activity valid right now?

If I were to get rid of this “clutter”, what would I miss?

What is my attachment to this object or activity?

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Comment posted on 12/15/2010 at 05:00 pm
Those piles of paper are tricky. Some have important papers, but some of them just have junk that I am not ready to deal with yet. And some of it just needs to be straight out recycled! They just seem to always be there living & growing...

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