How to Unclutter Your Life

Posted on October 30th, 2015

How to Unclutter Your LifeTake a look around the room where you are: What’s the first thing you notice? Teetering piles of newspapers and books? Clothing spilling out of half-opened drawers? A dirty, dish-filled sink? An unmade bed? A floor filled with toys? Perhaps you see a clear surface that’s newly cleaned, colorful pillows plumped up on a cozy couch and sunlight streaming in through shiny window panes, where lush green plants soak up the rays. What emotions do each of these scenarios evoke?

Chances are, the first conjures a sense of tension, anxiety and overwhelm, while the second makes you sigh in serenity. For those in recovery, the initial image could be particularly distressing because it reflects the chaos that often accompanies addiction.

Does Your Outside Environment Reflect Your Mind’s Inner Workings?

“The environment with which we surround ourselves is very often a direct expression of where we are emotionally and psycho-spiritually — our global state of mind,” Michael J. Formica MS, MA, EdM, wrote in the magazine Psychology Today. “If we are distracted, we tend to lose things. If we are disorganized, the piles begin to collect. If we are feeling disconnected, the emails pile up, and the voicemails remain unreturned.”

Taking inventory of your comfort level with regard to clutter or cleanliness is an initial step to creating a manageable environment. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • On a 1-to-10 scale, how at ease are you with the contents and accessibility of each room in your home, the closets and car?
  • When you think about cleaning, what feelings or thoughts arise?
  • Have you always lived this way, or have circumstances such as illness or injury changed your ability to maintain an organized environment?
  • Do you live alone or with someone else?
  • If you share your living space, do you and the person or people you live with have the same cleanliness standards?
  • If you have children, do you offer age-appropriate guidelines and expectations for tidying up?
  • How often do you clean and organize?
  • Do you maintain a neat environment for a short while that eventually falls into disorganization?
  • Do you notice that mood shifts affect the condition of your surroundings?

Some people live under the simple principle of having a place for everything and everything in its place. This method helps them find items when they’re needed. Other people might equate possessions with security, a measure of success or precious memories. Eventually, the things people own begin to own them.

Such is the case for those who experience a hoarding disorder. The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes the condition this way: “Hoarding disorder is characterized by the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions. … They accumulate a large number of possessions that often fill up or clutter active living areas of the home or workplace to the extent that their intended use is no longer possible.”

Are You a Clutterer?

Clutterers Anonymous is a 12-step program to address the signs of the addiction of collecting clutter. It encourages attendees to consider whether clutter is making their lives unmanageable. This fellowship offers guidelines that help people assess the level of dysfunction. These include:

  • Do you have more possessions than you can comfortably handle?
  • Are you embarrassed to invite family, friends, health care providers, or maintenance workers into your home because it isn’t presentable?
  • Do you find it easier to drop something instead of putting it away or to wedge it into an overcrowded drawer or closet rather than finding space for it?
  • Is your home, or any part of it, unusable for its intended purpose, with a bed you can’t sleep in, a garage you can’t park in, a kitchen you can’t cook in or a table you can’t use for dining?
  • Is clutter causing problems at home, at work or in your relationships?
  • Do you hesitate sharing about this problem because you feel embarrassment, guilt or shame about it?
  • Do you have a weakness for discarded objects, bargain items, freebies, reading materials or yard sales?
  • Do you use avoidance, distraction, or procrastination to escape dealing with your clutter?
  • Does your clutter create a risk of falling, fire, infestation or eviction?
  • Do you avoid starting assignments, miss deadlines or abandon projects because you can’t find the paperwork or material you need?

The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo addresses ways to clear clutter and create an environment that supports physical and emotional wellbeing. Kondo, a professional organizer, teaches her clients what she calls the KonMari Method. She asks them to assess which items bring them joy and which ones are unnecessary. She directs them to go through each room of their home and rid themselves of those that meet that second criterion. If you haven’t worn something in a while, out it goes. If you keep it, it needs to have a specific place to be stored or displayed.

Kondo describes the process she moves through each time she comes into her home. It includes thanking the items for serving her as she puts them away. Although it seems extremely time consuming, the mindfulness-based practice promotes an awareness of the value of the objects in our lives. In light of the time we regularly invest in cleaning, her ideas seem to save time in the long run.

Of course, Kondo’s method for organization is one of many available. A simple series of guidelines that a therapist teaches her clients include:

  • If you open it, close it.
  • If you take it out, put it back where you found it.
  • If you drop it, pick it up.
  • If you make a mess, clean it up.
  • If you break it, fix or replace it.
  • If you use it, fill it back up.

This same clinician’s mentor taught her many years ago that discipline is freedom and that by creating structure, she could experience the flexibility that comes along with creativity. Imagine not having to look for your glasses when they are on top of your head, or seek out your keys when you’re heading out the door.

By Edie Weinstein, LSW
Follow Edie on Twitter at @EdieWeinstein1

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