The Dance of Decluttering

Ironically, as I preach simplicity, I find myself increasingly overwhelmed with clutter. It started off benignly at first: books and articles that accumulated over the years while researching sustainability; board games as I moved to Connecticut and actually had some place to put them (I admit to letting the pendulum swing just a bit too far on that front); and an aspirational stack of Economists dating to before COVID.1

And perhaps worse, I see this disorganization and hoarding being mimicked in my son, whose room sometimes looks like the teenager’s room in the Zits comic.

Reading Zits reminds me that it could always be worse…. (6/3/2022 comic by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman)

So I’ve made it a goal to purge, purge, purge. Of course, moving always helps—because you really think twice when you have to lift a heavy box (and it’s suddenly time sensitive)—but watching Marie Kondo tidying up other people’s junk, with my son, certainly helped too. And we’ve easily purged clothing and some of his books (mine are harder because I tell myself I may need these again, even if it’s probably not true—made worse by the rare time that it is true). Games, we’re working to thin out. But it’s the three boxes of papers that have accumulated in the corner of my office/dining room that is the Sisyphusian task ahead of me.2 I take them out, go through them, throw some papers away and then they become a forgotten/avoided stack again.

Perhaps, as with my sugar fast, I need an accountability mechanism. Say a focused “month-long purge” (rather than seeing this as an ongoing obligation/looming specter). And while I certainly don’t think you, the reader, want a line on every day’s progress, maybe tracking the results each day could keep me committed. I do think focusing the cross-quarter day in February on simplifying, sharing, regifting could be a good fit. And maybe that’s a Lent-like period, when people spend an entire moon-cycle (28 days rather than 40) going through their stuff (by room? by category?) and saying what can go, what can be shared, and what should be saved.3

The Urge to Purge

This urge to purge has mainly been sparked by the fact that our “dining room”—which since COVID started serves 99 percent of the time as my office—has a corner oozing with boxes and papers. It’s not pretty, and it’s a constant visual reminder of my messy nature! But this has been egged on both by my son’s own messiness and by a regular drum beat of decluttering articles in the New York Times:

This last article, and perhaps all of them, makes it sound joyful to be organized—or an extreme form neuroticism. Tip 1 of 7 was to install a Lazy Susan in your fridge for your condiments and “use a whiteboard to note what’s in your fridge and where it’s stored.” Really? That sounds like a lot of work—and a bit creepy. Instead, I imagine you should just hold each condiment up and see if it sparks joy. How many of us have a bunch of stuff in the fridge that we’ll never use again and should have been let go long ago?4

I wonder if the milk is still good…. (Image by Sébastien Barré via flickr)

According to experts like organizational behaviorist Tal Ben-Shahar, it’s the joy of decluttering more than the decluttered home that drives this process (hence the great decluttering Americans went through during the pandemic). But that’s certainly not the case for me. I get no joy from decluttering. In fact, looking through papers sparks something closer to anxiety—feelings that I still need this paper or I need to spend time typing this note into my computer, but into which document? Easier to just avoid the pile (ideally hidden in a box). But in those rare times when a pile of papers has been destroyed (e.g. a toddler spilling water) or I’ve lost all my old texts when my phone broke, this sudden decluttering brings relief.

As psychologist Joseph Ferrari explains, “Clutter is an overabundance of possessions that collectively create chaotic and disorderly living spaces,” and that can cause stress. On the other hand, one psychological study suggested that while “being around tidiness would elicit a desire for convention,” “being around messiness would lead people away from convention, in favor of new directions” (supported by several creative experiments). So perhaps I have my messy corner to thank for Gaianism?

Vu Le, not a psychologist but an astute writer on nonprofit life (so perhaps an honorary organizational psychologist), points out that maybe messiness is simply a trait, and that the messy, or “Chaotic Creatives” as he calls them should embrace their “chaotic brilliance.” Not sure I can do that, but it’s a good reminder. And I’m sure there’s a middle ground—where I can get rid of at least some of the mess and better organize the rest and feel a bit less stressed, and perhaps even more creative (as I spend less time dwelling on this, less time searching for misplaced papers, and less time telling my son to pick up his room—ideally because he sees me practicing what I preach). That’s the hope anyway—as long as it doesn’t lead me to start promoting growth, consumerism, and other conventional thinking!

Fortunately I haven’t hit this level of mess! (Image by Pixabay via Pexels)

The Mechanics of a [Month]

When I told my son about my idea of a month-long purge—say 30 minutes a day for 28 days5—he laughed at me, thinking that wouldn’t amount to anything. I admit this was disheartening, and perhaps he’s right: will 14 hours of decluttering even make a dent in my paper stack? Perhaps not, but some papers will be recycled or filed and at the end of the month the boulder in the corner of my room should at least be a bit smaller and easier to push the next time I’m motivated to declutter (or at least won’t grow as big as quickly, because the papers never stop). And beyond the corner, there are some low-hanging fruit that might also get tackled (probably while avoiding the corner): a dozen games, a few musical instruments, some books that get no love and could be passed along.

In truth, as there is a lag between writing and posting essays, some time has passed since having the inspiration to start decluttering. I decided to create a little month-long calendar that I could cross days off each time I successfully committed a half hour to the process (as many days it’s not happening). So this month of purging may take two or three. But I can say I have already gotten rid of a small stack of 20-year old articles from when I first started studying advertising, consumerism, and corporate responsibility and there will be more to come. It just may take a while!


1) The worst part is that the science sections of these 1-3 year old Economists are still fascinating and hence resist a simple purge, which I’m sure most hoarders say to themselves as well.

2) Literally. I stare at it every day as I work. And it’s definitely not sparking joy.

3) Perhaps that even includes food. Eating foods that are getting near expiration or giving away food that you know you’re never going to eat but feel guilty discarding. Crazy idea: A neighborhood “Stone Soup” potluck of ingredients you don’t want. That could be a fun tradition—maybe the final bit of the February Cross-Quarter Day….

4) I simplified by putting unruly things in jars (labelled and dated) and getting rid of a jam gifted to us before the pandemic that all of us avoided but I kept thinking I’d eventually eat. One observation: dealing with all clutter but my corner is easy and a form of positive procrastination!

5) The fine print: some days I’ll be away, or other things will get in the way, so I’ve made a simple calendar with 28 days on it (also visible from my seat). Each day I invest 30 minutes, I’ll cross a day off and that’ll be my month. Let’s see how long it takes.

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  1. Bart Everson

    Spring cleaning is a traditional concept, but for those of us locked into the academic cycle, summer may be the time to declutter. There’s also the idea of the “digital declutter” as promulgated by Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism, which I recommend, but that feels like a whole different animal.

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