Clutter, it seems, is a universal issue in 21st-century society. What are its sources, and how does it affect us? Even more important, how can decluttering create space in our lives and minds for better things? Please join me for a conversation with Julie Sheranosher of Israel and Priscille Livenais of France as we explore these questions. (And don't miss the link near the end of this post to download a free printable with questions to guide you through your own decluttering process!)
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Thoughts on decluttering, from an international perspective
You may remember my guests, Priscille Livenais of France and Julie Sheranosher of Israel, from Episode 66 – An International Conversation about Productivity. When we reconvened this time, it was to discuss clutter and, more important, what we can do to get rid of it.
Clutter is having too much stuff, a distinctly modern problem, according to Daniel J. Levitin in his excellent book, The Organized Mind.
“The number of possessions the average person has now is far greater than we had for most of our evolutionary history, easily by a factor of 1,000, and so organizing them is a distinctly modern problem. One American household studied had more than 2,260 visible objects in just the living room and two bedrooms. . . . Many families amass more objects than their houses can hold. The result is garages given over to old furniture and unused sports equipment, home offices cluttered with boxes of stuff that haven’t yet been taken to the garage. Three out of four Americans report their garages are too full to put a car into them.” ~ Daniel J. Levitin
It’s the same in France and probably in all the parts of the world where consumption takes place.
“It’s always advertised to buy, buy buy, but we do not need all these things.”
Julie says in Israel, people like to visit IKEA the most because of the smart storage solutions. “How can I fit more of my stuff in this closet?” is a common question she receives. People bring in things to decorate their space with, but they don’t have room for their actual possessions.
“I think the awareness of how clutter affects us is starting to grow.”
There’s something in our psyche that defines our identity to find worth at looking at the stuff we have.
“The solution isn’t to buy more containers.”
Effects of having too much stuff
For Julie, having clutter is a distraction, such as dishes in the sink she can’t stop thinking about. Even though she can still force herself to get her work done, as soon as she finishes, she has to wash the dishes.
She also says the clutter will distract her from doing her best work: “I cannot concentrate if the space I’m in is cluttered, even if it doesn’t seem like it to others. . . . My eyes just wander, and the older I get, the more of a problem.”
Priscille agrees and says she can’t concentrate when her eyes wander from one place to another. French novelist Marguerite Duras said she has to make her bed first thing in the morning in order to work.
“When we come into a place that’s too busy, we become overwhelmed by what we see and it’s tiring.”
As a lawyer, Laura will find she has no choice but to pile papers on her desk if she’s having a busy week, “but if I’m going to get anything done … I have to clear that off my desk and put everything where I can’t see it, because I simply cannot get my brain to calm down to focus on serious work I need to do.”
Fact: The Average American spends 55 minutes per day looking for things they know they own but cannot find, according to a Boston marketing firm.
Women’s cortisol levels (the stress hormone) spike when confronted with such clutter (men’s not so much). Elevated cortisol levels can lead to chronic cognitive impairment, fatigue, and suppression of the body’s immune system.” ~ Daniel Levitin, The Organized Mind
Methods for Decluttering
Studies in Europe show some people like clutter, some people hate it. When some people accumulate clutter, they produce endorphins — a peaceful, calm hormone. If cortisol causes stress, endorphins bring a calmness to our minds.
Julie says her clients may not see clutter as a problem related to productivity. One exercise she finds helpful for them is to take a picture of their working station and analyze it. If there are 3 or 5 items, she can’t say if it’s cluttered, but if it’s 25 things, she can start them on a plan to help declutter that space, which is something she does with her work area. A simple way to do this is to put everything into a box and put the box out of sight. Get things as you need them, but everything left in the box at the end of the day, or after a certain amount of time is either gotten rid of or stored.
Kitchens are notorious for clutter. The same exercise Julie talks about above can be done in the kitchen:
- If you feel like you don’t have enough storage space in your kitchen, go through everything and put it in a box out in your garage or in another room.
- Only get what is needed, use it, wash it and put it back in your kitchen in the most reasonable, efficient location.
- At the end of a certain amount of time, get rid of or donate the excess.
Another method is to act like you’re moving far away, packing everything away, then unpacking one-by-one everything you need and putting it away. More information about this can be found at theminimalists.com on their blog post, Packing party.
Containing the Clutter vs. Decluttering
There’s a fear of “What if I need this later and I don’t have it?”
When our space is cluttered, we may think we need more containers, but that’s not the first step.
The first step is to declutter, then see if we need additional containers.
It becomes a daily routine of getting more and more stuff — your life revolves around accumulating things, then buying more storage for those things.
The KonMari Method
Created by Marie Kondo, this method can be a bit strict, but it is effective, and the popularity of this method is growing worldwide.
- One thing she suggests is taking similar objects (clothes, books, etc.) into one room and when seeing just how much you have.
- One by one, decide whether there’s a joy associated with each object. If there is, keep it; but if there isn’t, either give it away or sell it.
- Assign a place for everything, and put something away as soon as it’s used.
Although not as big in Israel, she has heard of it. It’s very strict, and if you want a fundamental approach, this is it — you don’t have to do any other decluttering afterward.
That is part of the value of a radical approach like that — we end up becoming more aware of just how much we have. Do something like that forces you to really think about what you need. It’s not the only method out there — some people may not be able to part with objects, even if they don’t love them — but realize that things do not replace people, memories, or emotions.
Why should we spend a lot of time and energy and thought taking care of and organizing and sorting stuff that doesn’t make our heart sing?”
We console ourselves with a new “something” to make up for the fact that we’re lonely, even though we’re so connected in this digital age.
“I think that stuff is a substitute — and not a very good one — for relationships, for time with people.”
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus from The Minimalists wrote, “You use things and you love people, not the other way around.”
What’s Really Important
Priscille mentions “The Other Letter” from IKEA Spain, a video that circulates annually around Christmas in which kids write two letters about what they want for Christmas. They write one letter to the Three Kings (the Spanish equivalent of Santa Claus) about a toy they want, and the other letter is written to their parents about what they want from them. All of the children’s letters to their parents asked to spend more time with them, and the parents read these letters. The children are then asked which letter they want to send, and they all choose the letter written to their parents.
“You have time to think about what really matters and what’s really important. When we spend our time shopping, buying — you push away the important things and make time for irrelevant things.”
Many people are searching for that perfect “whatever” they feel will complete their lives, or they may justify their goals by saying, “I will be happy when …”
It ends up becoming a way of putting things and milestones in charge of our lives.
A different way of thinking is saying, “I will be happy as I am today. I am going to be the same person, I won’t be a different person.”
It’s been a part of culture and religion, linked to purification — around this time of year, different religions and cultures celebrate the spring holidays by cleaning and decluttering, starting a new season or year in a clean space.
Stopping Clutter Before It Starts
In our modern society, we also don’t like to delay gratification, which is why we have services like Amazon Prime or even Amazon Prime Now. As soon as we think of something we want or need, we can go online and get it, sometimes even within a few hours.
One technique to stop this accumulation of clutter is by using the “One In/One Out” method, in which you challenge yourself to toss or give away one thing you don’t use or want anymore each time you bring something in.
There’s always a “good” reason for sales. People buy things because it’s cheaper, and they end up buying in bulk, and they buy faster than they use it. We think of detox for drugs or alcohol, but the need to get more stuff can be like a drug. The only way to break that addiction is to stop buying stuff, cold turkey.
Julie also took part in a Pantry Challenge for a month, in which she was challenged to use everything she has in her pantry.
“If you can’t find something to do with something in your pantry, then why do you have it?”
Priscille’s Final Thoughts
“Une chambre, un appartement, un bureau “net, rangé et propre est la voie vers la paix de l'esprit, le repos, l'entrain, l'enthousiasme.” ~ Dominique Loreau
(“A room a flat or an office clean tidy and organized is a path to peace of mind, rest and enthusiasm.”)
“Pick your bins and go!” ~ Priscille
Julie’s Final Thoughts
Julie takes 15 minutes in the morning and in the evening to go around the house and tidy up.
“For those who are not sure they want the commitment of decluttering an entire house or room, start with small steps to focus more.” ~ Julie
Laura’s Final Thoughts
We should be more mindful about what we’ve collected and what we consider adding to the collection.
“Let's spend our time, energy, and money on things that really bring us joy.” ~ Laura
Want some more decluttering ideas and tips? Here are some books, blogs, and websites to help you get started:The Organized Mind: a book by Daniel J. Levitin Organized Simplicity: The Clutter-Free Approach to Intentional Living: a book by Tsh Oxenreider — Laura’s review of the book
Smead – a source for tools you can use to organize the things you love and need to keep!
The Minimalists – a podcast about living well with less
I’m an Organized Junkie – a blog with great tips about living a better, more organized life
Connect with Julie
Connect with Priscille
**Note: Most of what Priscille posts on her website is in French, but she does include English versions of many elements of her website and blog. As you hear on this episode, she speaks English very well and would love to hear from both French-speaking and English-speaking listeners!Click here to discover my favorite apps!
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