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Clutter: The Mess of the Last 10 Percent

Well begun may be half done, but clutter is the final 10 percent we never finish

I hate clutter.

I hate piles of open envelopes sitting on my coffee table. I can't stand walking across the floor and having to walk around a pair of dirty socks. And oh my god I hate entering my furnace room and bumping into three plastic penguins that just came in from the porch (more on this later).

I am not a neat freak. I am not a particularly great housekeeper. But I am a very busy person. I have a job, a chronically ill son, a tech startup I'm doing as a side gig, a bunch of hobbies, and a husband I like to see once in a while. My mind is too full of important things I need to do to deal with clutter.

Clutter, as I've written before, can result from difficulties in decision-making. The example I wrote about then was the ugly coffee cup. An ugly coffee cup has nothing wrong with it but just isn't that nice and isn't really needed. It seems too good to throw away, and throwing it away seems wasteful. So I stick it somewhere—the back of my cupboard maybe. Note that the reason it wasn't thrown away isn't that I LIKE it, it's that I can't decide what to do with it. It's a decision-making problem. People who hoard tend to think in very complex ways about objects and thus have a hard time making decisions about what to do with them. I believe many people find Marie Kondo's decluttering methods helpful because they allow you to acknowledge your inability to make a decision, ritualize the process, and make a clean cut.

Another reason for clutter, however, is what our family calls 'model railroader syndrome'. In Why Do Daydreamers Fail? I wrote about how creative people often get a huge amount of pleasure out of imagining a solution to a problem. In fact, daydreamers can get so much pleasure out of their imagined solution, that they feel little need to actually do the hard work of making it happen. 'Model railroader syndrome' is what husband calls the tendency of people building model railroads to lay out the track for a model railroad and all the switches so they get to play with their model trains. Then they lay up the chicken wire and rough out the buildings for the hills and tunnels and towns the train will go through. But they can see what they have planned to do so well, there is little need to actually do the work. It's all there in their mind. People suffering from 'model railroader syndrome' can go for years looking at that chicken wire and half-plastered mountain kind of covered with artificial grass and see a landscape.

A second reason for clutter is that people get most of the way through doing a chore, imagine that it's finished, and never finish. For example, they open that pile of bills on the table and feel the great satisfaction of sorting the magazines and catalogs to keep from the ones they don't want. They move the 'keep' pile onto the side table. The drop the bills on the desk. But they never actually throw the open envelopes away. In their head, the job is done. I cannot tell you how many times I have asked my kids to clear the table, they cheerfully set to work, and I come back an hour later and there's ONE LOUSY FORK left on the table. Model railroader syndrome.

Well begun is half done, but clutter is the final 10 percent we never finish

My house is full of daydreamers who can't quite make up their minds about ugly coffee cups. I decided this morning that all my clutter is that last 10 percent no one ever finished. Hence the penguins blocking the door to my furnace room.

I asked my youngest to bring the plastic penguins in the from their winter home on the front porch. In fact, I specifically asked him to take them down to the furnace room and put them against the back wall.

NOT in the doorway.

So what happened? He willingly brought them downstairs (two trips). He got to the door of a basement room with no clear order and couldn't make up his mind where they went. So he put them down, turned his back, and was done. After I bumped into the penguins this morning and asked if they were properly put away, he said 'yes'. The perfect combination of model railroader syndrome and inability to make that final decision.

Small changes: A place for everything and everything in its place.

It is harder to be neat without a system in place because it makes decision making harder. We've all experienced that. If you walk into a neat storage room with something in your hand, your problem is where exactly it should go—in other words, it's a problem of discerning the underlying logic of an existing system and conforming to it.

On the other hand, if you walk into a cluttered storage area where there is no system, you just dump it somewhere: there is NO good decision. In fact, to identify the right decision, you would have to create order in chaos. That is often time-consuming.

It seems to me that people struggling with clutter tend to vacillate between these two different problems: spending time creating a system (rather than using it) and making decisions about how to use an existing (and maybe overly-complex) system.

The good enough system

Before I became a psychologist, I studied to be an artist. The artistic process has provided a very powerful metaphor for many things in my life. When you're painting a portrait, you don't draw a perfect eye and complete it in all detail before you move on to the nose and the chin. Instead, you start with an overall sketch that captures the essence of what the painting will be. You slowly bring all sections of the painting up to final form together.

I find this useful in thinking about organization. In areas of my life that need to be tightly organized (my research), I have a fairly structured organizational system that I use conscientiously. In areas of my life that need to be organized but I don't need to use frequently, I have a looser organization that balances the time it takes to design the system and the time it takes to use it. My finances are like that. Financial paperwork is something that I need to find when taxes are due and bills must be paid. But they are not something I need to be able to put my hands on instantly. They are also the type of thing that drib and drab in over the year in small batches, so need to be organized consistently.

My system for working with them, therefore, is to have places to put things that need to be paid (folder one), need to be kept for taxes (folder two), or need to be stored with regular categories (insurance, mortgage, etc.). It is detailed enough that I know exactly where to put something when it comes in, but not so organized that it takes me more time to put it away than it would to find it if I didn't sort it perfectly. My bills are not alphabetized—I don't have that many of them. I even have a folder for things that I don't know where to file but know I'll need. That way I know where to look for it.

Note how this minimizes decision making and cognitive load. It also complements another effective de-cluttering system: Allen's system for Getting Things Done.

Because clutter around us makes our already complex lives even harder.


Cutting Clutter: The Problem Of the Ugly Coffee Cup

Cutting Clutter 2: Survival By Bluff

Incomplete Acts, Everyday Anxiety, and Getting Things Done

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