A friend posted an article to Facebook about the potential benefits of clutter. I haven’t read the piece yet. I actually don’t intend to read it. I don’t want to justify clutter in any way. In fact, I have already had so much experience with clutter in my life I already know its benefits and detractions.
I have empathy for all those who deal with clutter as a fact of life. From young moms and dads dealing with multiple children, their toys, laundry and toddler detritus, to caregivers dealing with the ongoing burden of health management. I’ve been there. Done that.
As a generally creative person, I know how clutter works, and doesn’t. I’ve been known to scatter materials over a desk or work area to the point where the word “organization” applies as a construct, but not a reality. I also know how to leave this well enough alone during the creative process. You can kill the flow of a project if you spend more time shuffling paper around when the painting or article or solutions are in the making.
Over time I’ve come to learn the balance. Cleaning up your studio before starting a new painting can make the difference between having materials at hand when you need them and having to stop and potentially lose an important moment when the paint is wet and the ideas are happening.
It’s true with watercolor or acrylic or pastel or any other medium in which you want to work. It’s true in writing fiction or non-fiction, B2B technical writing or a blog about hemlines in fashion. Creativity is a balance between organizing your thoughts at the beginning and bringing them out without interruption. I don’t buy the idea that creative people have to be messy in order to do their work. Creativity is both a freedom and a discipline.
Clutter can kill this balance. Throw it out of whack. Searching for notes to write an article or clamming around to find the right jar of paint during a project can bog things down, cause one to lose sight of the aim, and even blow and opportunity for success. All it takes is a missed train to blow an important meeting, or an untied shoelace to blow chances for a PR in a 10K race.
Again, I have total empathy for those dealing with clutter as a time-pressure of reality rather than a choice. For the last 15 years of my life, I’ve been a direct or indirect caregiver to both my parents and my late wife. During those years it has often been difficult to keep up with the physical and emotional clutter of details and things, always things, that can clutter and preoccupy the mind.
Only recently did my dog move out to live with my daughter. And while I miss his company some days, it has been revelatory to be able focus on my needs and priorities in some respects. He was back for a weekend visit and it was fun. But for now, I’m happy to have him enjoy life with my daughter.
Being responsible for others can be both a clutter maker and a clutter cleaner. You learn to cope, and it can refine your own methods and mind. But we need a bit of both. Obligation and freedom each act as a refining aspect in our lives.
People who live with hoarders know how difficult life among clutter can be. I recall threading my way through the home of an aged aunt when I was a child. There were stacks of magazines head-high throughout the whole house. Back then I did not understand what that meant. The musty, dusty home in which they lived was jammed with layers of goods both valuable and invaluable. That’s just how it was when we visited.
When they died, the house sat untended for a year. Finally, thieves broke into the house and made off with treasures of Indian arrowhead collections, antique clocks and who knows what else. So much for the clutter. Nature abhors both a vacuum and a stash.
The show American Pickers makes use of this kind of stored clutter to trace American history and celebrate that which we cannot bring ourselves to throw away. Hang onto anything long enough, the show says, and it becomes a keepsake.
With some objects, this is indeed true. Yesterday while cleaning out the closets in my bedroom and inventorying clothing to give to Goodwill or Amvets, I found a simple box at the back of a closet. Opening the box, I found a gold purse that had been owned by my late grandmother-in-law. It shone with its own life inside that box. And I knew that my daughter would want that clutch purse.
Indeed, it turned out to be the one thing she most prized in memory of her great-grandmother. So I delivered that purse to her last evening when I brought the dog back to her place.
That process of cleaning out all my closets turned up other valuables as well. I found my Chicago Blackhawks cap hanging all alone on the hat rope in the front hall closet. I also dug up my black arm warmers for cycling, and realized I need to look for the newer pair of cycling boots for winter riding.
That was the purpose of all this cleaning. My life is changing in some very good ways of late. The decision to open an art studio at Water Street Studios has made a big difference in productivity and interest in my work. I’ve been keeping that studio space organized and neat. That didn’t use to be my habit.
Going into the new year with cycling, I’ll soon have a new bike. With a new fit. And a new set of plans to train and race. I want to be organized about all of that. Want to respect the new equipment with regular upkeep. Not let the goo collect at the base of the bike frame. Nor let the chain get black and gritty. All of that dirt and grime slows you down at some level. As does hunting around for bike gear on the morning of a ride. Same goes for running and swimming gear as well.
Being organized and getting rid of clutter means making good choices before you even begin the workout or embark for a race. And what else is a Transition Zone in a triathlon but an organizational venture to get you in and out of T1 and T2 as fast as possible? It certainly does not help to have your gloves scattered and your shoes knotted. That’s why people lay all that out in advance, and have quicklaces in their shoes. It’s all to reduce the clutter of competition.
I have long reveled in the joy in being fully prepared for a race. After you’ve done the hard work and tested yourself in workouts that go well beyond the pain of racing, it feels good to lace on those shoes on a fresh morning and get warmed up. You’re organized. The clutter of doubt is vanquished from your mind. You are going to give it your best.
That’s how I want to live all of my life. And yes, there will be times when clutter comes back around. It always does. We’re all human. Yet being too possessive and neat is just as bad in some ways as being overwhelmed by clutter.
It is very important to understand that the emotional component of clutter is just as real as the physical. Just last year I tossed a bunch of meaningless trophies that had sat collecting dust for more than two decades. At what point do we divest ourselves of such needless memories? I simply did not need the first place trophy from the Amboy 5 Mile in 1984.
At the same time, I just bit the bullet and paid off an unhealthy chunk of credit card debt that had accrued through poor financial habits. Talk about clutter of the mind! Making minimum payments and watching interest cancel them out is no way to live. That was a financial tarsnake for sure. And while the big payoff hurt to accomplish, it sets the stage for a better future.
So I spent the day Sunday cleaning out closets and making decisions about what to keep and throw out. Granted, an organized closet filled with suits that I seldom wear is a philosophical conundrum of sorts. But when I do wear a suit, I know where to find them. And that’s what really counts. In fact, I recently gave away one of my suits to a young man that needed one to do a job interview. He got the job, and it’s making a big difference in his attitude, and his entire life.
I could have been sentimental about that suit. But it wasn’t worth it. It is perhaps as important to de-clutter our emotions as it is to fix the organization of our physical space. Clearing the mind for new adventures is a healthy thing. It makes room for imagination and its partner, endeavor.
So here’s my simple little list for reducing clutter in your life. It’s all about making decisions in the moment, so that you can see the long term.
- Tackle one “room” or one issue at a time, and stage clutter into categories so you can make decisions about what to keep and throw out.
- Get help if you need it. Having a third party take a look at your circumstance can be vital to making decisions about what to keep.
- Get real about the sentimental attachment to “things.” People often keep objects and things for unhealthy, unresolved reasons. If you find yourself bogged down by emotions about your possessions or clutter, talk to a therapist. All of us have emotional baggage, and that inevitable gets expressed in clutter. If hoarding is an issue for you or someone in your life, it needs to be addressed.
- Compare your “real” goals to a life with clutter. What is it you want to achieve, and why is clutter in the way? Often that is the source of clutter. People are typically afraid of what it really means to clean up, and step up. It obligates us to take action and confront the reality of our denial and procrastination on difficult ideas or challenges.
- Prioritize to shift clutter where it belongs. Bills sitting out on a counter along with magazines, plates and other detritus are simply decisions waiting to be made.
- Write down what it takes to succeed, and consider those habits that lead to that. When it comes to your running, riding and swimming, that may be simple as organizing your gear each week.
Coping with clutter is all about making decisions. In the end it will benefit you by clearing your mind for training and competition. And that’s worth it.
See you on the road.