The Perils of Clutter

Can you get on with your life with old CDs, clothes & relationships in the way?

Posted Jun 14, 2012

Today I got an email from a friend who sounded genuinely excited about something. Even without emoticons like :-) , I could feel the energy in her words. So what was behind all this excitement? Did she have a new boyfriend? A promotion at work? A winning lottery ticket? No, nothing like that. The excitement was all about her living space. They were putting in a closet! She was about to have some real storage space.

Her apartment wasn’t getting any bigger. It wasn’t about to be cleaned. There were no new appliances, no flat screen TV. It was simply about taking the existing space and creating a closet for her. She’d be able to hang up some clothes and put boxes of papers away. Store them in an orderly fashion. Get things out of sight. Reduce the chaos in her life. It was thrilling. It was worth an email to me, and probably to others. She was going to have her very own closet!

Even if this sounds odd, the truth is there is nothing wrong with my friend. Her response to having orderly storage space is quite normal. Try to imagine your own living space without some convenient areas tucked away with shelves and rods and hangers and a door to separate your stored possessions from the everyday business of your life. Take a cue from Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter. When his mind gets too cluttered with thoughts and ideas, Dumbledore visits his trusty pensieve—a stone basin into which the mental clutter can be physically set aside until the old wizard wants to revisit it. If you want those clothes or those old bills or letters from a boyfriend, you know just where to find them. They’re right there, stored away behind that door. But you don’t have to look at them every day. You have a place to walk, to talk, to play, without having to trip over the detritus of your life. It’s the stuff you’re not ready to throw away, but don’t want to deal with every day or be reminded of on a regular basis.

Why is this article in Psychology Today rather than in a home decorating magazine? There are plenty of newspaper supplements and magazines around with that kind of agenda. Why am I publishing it here? The answer is that the unpleasantness of clutter is as much, if not more, a psychological issue as it is a topic of home design. Clutter can be a matter of the mind. It can immobilize us. It can get in the way of clear thinking, even clear functioning. It can derail us when it becomes excessive. Being able to put stuff away, whether it represents unfinished projects or old relationships, or alternative wardrobes, is essential to the business of living.

Although partitioning off other parts of our life can be a psychological coping skill, some part of it really does have to do with how our living space is designed. Without a set of drawers or a closet to stash things, we’re surrounded with cues about the other parts of our lives that we don’t want intruding on our present living. There’s only so much time in the day and we need to allocate our precious resources. A closet helps us do just that. Not having a closet contributes to the chaos all of us feel as our lives get more and more complicated and we continue to accumulate experiences and people.

This is hardly a secret, although it hasn’t been written about very often. Several corporations (e.g. The Container Store) know about it and thrive on our need for order. Perhaps the most famous of these stores is called Ikea. Sure, Ikea sells picture frames and reasonably priced sofas and chairs and spatulas. But they also sell shelves. And racks. And boxes. I haven’t done a systematic study, but it seems to me that nearly half of what Ikea sells is devoted to our need to store things away neatly, whether they’re old photographs and safety pins, or larger items like books and LPs.

Go to Ikea some time and watch customers standing enraptured in front of a stack of little boxes or filing cabinets or wall units. In their minds they’re probably gathering all those unruly piles of books or LPs that haven’t been read or played since the ‘80s. They’re filing them away neatly. Clearing up space in their lives! Reducing clutter!

Just ask yourself: where does that clutter really exist? Is it on the floor of your apartment, or is it buried somewhere in the maze of axons and dendrites and synapses that make up your brain? Hook up these people to an fMRI and ask them to fantasize about a visit to Ikea. Maybe ask them to imagine a $1000 gift certificate to be spent in the shelving section; show them a catalogue with those gorgeous full color pictures of boxes or shelf units called Billy or Expedit or Ivar or Skubb. These items are positively addictive; they touch something very deep in us. Just assemble and stash away all those old tax records or Christmas cards. It offers a direct hit on our comfort zone: the place that lights up when we organize things and feel a little more mastery over the chaos that has rapidly overtaken our modern lives and threatened to engulf us. No wonder my friend was thrilled by the idea of a brand new closet. In neurological terms she had just won the lottery.

 Illustration by Athena Gubbe

Thanks to Kataline Trudel