Clutter and a Clean Space Theory

In December I visited a friend in Washington, D.C..  She and I have been friends for 6 years and in every place she has lived I have seen a living space that is cluttered with newspapers, magazines, printouts, and the debris of a busy life.  Her living space had grown so cluttered that in recent years no one was allowed to visit except close family and select friends.

I had offered my help before but her insistence to keep the piles of newspapers and magazines, left the apartment undone.  This December she admitted that the situation had grown out of control and she was ready for help.

Now my friend is not a hoarder, but de-cluttering her space was about more than recycling the months of papers, it was about asking questions and confronting why she kept things.

The piles of papers began to represent the undone tasks and the ever lengthening list of to-do’s.  As the piles grew larger the feeling of control began to slip away.

A 2008 article in the NY Times highlights the health effects of clutter on the brain and the well being of people living in chronic clutter.

While hoarders are a minority, many psychologists and organization experts say the rest of us can learn from them. The spectrum from cleanliness to messiness includes large numbers of people who are chronically disorganized and suffering either emotionally, physically or socially.

Dr. Pamela Peeke, assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and the author of “Fit to Live,” finds that for many of her patients its more than just about the need to clean out their garage.  “It was about uncluttering at multiple levels of [their] life.”

At the time of my visit, my friend was also in the process of finding a new, less hectic job, and making new space for her life.  She was ready to actually live in her apartment using it not just to sleep and change clothes.  Clutter and the inability to address the growing pile of papers was likely the symptom of a cluttered life and the need to create space, for a new life.

The article points out that clutter is often blamed on insufficient space, when it is more frequently caused by an inability to use the space effectively and an inability to decide whether things should stay or go.

When I think about space and a cluttered life I think about how I use my life effectively.  I can’t move into a bigger life, I only have this one. So, how can I use the space of my life better.

It took probing questions about why my friend was keeping the years of receipts, newspapers and magazines. It took humor about the 6 black umbrellas we found, it took patience and it took compassion.  Compassion not just from me for her, but from her for her own life.  We must give ourselves some love when we finally decide to reorganize our space because it’s no small job.  Whether it be our homes or our lives, its going to take some work.