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July 21, 2008

Cats are not Clutter

My new favorite place in the house is my desk. The home office has long been the lone repository of clutter left in my entire house and it's just taken forever and a day to get it sorted out. But oh man it is so worth it! Here is a better view of the desk area:

Again, I can't recommend the company where I got this furniture - dreadful awful customer service so bad that I will never ever shop there again, ever, As God Is My Witness, etc. etc. The end.

A few weeks ago I watched a TV program called "The Messiest Home In America." I felt so bad for those folks, their house was not just a messy and cluttered house but it was REALLY dirty. Filthy dirty. Clutter drags you down in so many ways, and I guess some people give up altogether. I'm not someone who can live in a dirty house, so even after I moved into this house my piles of clutter had to be dusted and vacuumed around and placed in tidy piles. It was exhausting to constantly clean around all my clutter! All that clutter turned even a basic cleaning job into a time-consuming and difficult task and no matter how hard I tried to keep it all clean it never felt as clean as I like my house to be.

My clutter consumption problem probably would have gone unnoticed for a good long while if I had continued on the path we were on when I was married: systematically moving "up" every few years, moving into larger and larger spaces so the stuff got spread out over a wider square footage. And then shopping to fill up the new larger space!

But in 2004 I got dumped and all the sudden had to move 2,500 square feet of belongings into 800 square feet of space. In a matter of hours my life went from organized and "decorated" and spacious to tiny and scary and cluttered. Seeing all my stuff piled up into my new little house was simply overwhelming.

My problem has never been that I needed the right system to bring harmony to my home -- I did not need a Flylady or an acronym or a personal organizer or yet another plastic bin from Target. Of course, I thought I needed those things, especially when it was all so overwhelming and I was an emotional mess and life in general was chaotic. When I moved and saw all my mountains of crap I fell into immediate paralysis -- I just felt anxiety and fear and had no idea where to begin. It was all just too much.

So I can fully understand why some people get into such a mess that theirs becomes The Messiest House In America. I'm not judging, I know we all have messes. Some of us more than others. And maybe you do need a system or some outside help or maybe you just need time, every person is different, but you really can get it under control -- my home office is living proof of that. You just decide you cannot live this way and you start where you are. You declutter one little pile of stuff at a time. It has taken me YEARS to do it but it's one of my happiest accomplishments.

For a long time I thought the answer to my problem was space. I believed I needed to pay down my debt so I could move to a bigger place to better house all my things. That is how skewed my perspective had become -- I didn't immediately think of how to live smaller and smaller, I just hoped one day I could live bigger and bigger! But as I worked hard to stop spending and squirreled away every dime to pay off my massive debt, I began to see how much unhappiness I had tried to shop away. As time passed I started seeing the connection between my insecurities and my need to buy something to fill up a void. And it was pretty clear my shopping-therapy strategy had not worked.

So finally it dawned on me that I didn't need to buy more stuff to hold my clutter or spend more money to live in a larger house. I didn't need systems and schedules and a complex zone strategy to cleaning and arranging crap. The solution wasn't nearly as complicated as I tried to make it. The solution was I needed to get rid of some stuff! And furthermore, I needed to stop purchasing more stuff. The end. That was and still is the solution for me and it's working.

It's not as easy as it sounds, of course. It takes time to let go of things, time to understand your buying habits, time to realize that you used shopping like a drug, used it as a way to feel better. It takes time to figure out what is essential. How much do you really need to live? How much do you want? It takes time to make yourself feel happy and secure and comfortable without signing a receipt. It's taken me three-almost-four years and I'm still not all the way there.

Making the decision to stop buying crap for a few months has been really good for me. I've had a few blips -- I bought two magazines last month on autopilot (!!) and on my birthday I picked up three things at a yarn shop -- but it's been a great way to re-evaluate my shopping habits. All I want is a tidy, clean and well-appointed little house. I don't want to be some Zen Buddhist monk living in a white room and sleeping on a straw mat. But I do want to be able to reach and enjoy (and clean) the few things I need and love.

I used to be so overwhelmed with clutter that my way of dealing with the anxiety was to go out and buy more organizational crap at Target and Ikea. Buying even more stuff to hold my stuff -- now if that is not insanity, what is? It took a long time for me to see the solution to having too much crap wasn't to go out and buy more crap!

The biggest step forward I've made in this period of nonconsuming is to re-evaluate my most hardwired shopping instincts. I've also noticed I hang onto things that I wish would have worked out -- but that didn't work out -- just because I spent money on them. So I've said good-bye this month to organizational items I bought back in the day, trying to deal with my clutter by adding more clutter. I bought a white cube organizer shelf unit over two years ago and all it has done is clutter up my house. The squares are too small for my books and too open to hold my bits and bobs (especially no Bobs!) The shelf was the wrong height to fit beneath my windows so it took up a whole swath of wall space and I couldn't really use it effectively no matter what I tried. So of course to solve this problem I spent even MORE money and bought little bins to fit in the cubbies. But then I didn't really have any stuff that fit well in the bins.

However, since I had spent all this money on it (throwing good money after bad with new bins and baskets and buying doors for the cubes, etc.) I just assumed it was staying. It did not occur to me to STOP BUYING STUFF to make a bad purchase more palatable. That is crazytalk. Last month I looked at my useless shelf unit with new eyes. I finally decided it was ridiculous to hold on to something just because I wished it would have worked out and because I already paid for it. I dragged the whole unit out to the garage to be donated or sold another day, and later made a wild sweep through the clutter of the home office and got rid of all the organizational purchases that had become clutter. The stuff I didn't want went in the recycle bin so the stuff I do want is now easier to reach. Novel concept, huh?

This is the last remaining pile of unsorted clutter I have in the entire house:


That's monumental. The tip of my clutter iceberg used to look like this:


So a few bins of clutter is a massive improvement. Not perfect, but it's progress. I still have some organizational shelves and bins I bought back in the day that don't work all that great but I'm going to keep purging stuff slowly over the next few months and then really figure out what my bookcase and storage needs are come January. If I keep going at this pace I'll have my possessions pared down to the right level for me by winter. And then, instead of buying cheapy "just for now" stuff, I'm going to really figure out what I need and want and measure my walls and think it through and buy the right shelving, not the available or cheap one.

You can see in this picture what I mean about having a bunch of particleboard shelving crammed in a corner:


It's working for now because my office stuff is finally organized and I know what's in every shelf and I can get to it without moving boxes. But it's not a part of the room I just love -- I see it and know I bought a lot of that white particleboard shelving when I had no idea what to do with all my clutter. And eventually my goal is to have less stuff requiring a shelf anyway.

So, there's progress in some places and still more work to do. The rest of the house is working well and the office is finally a real, functional room instead of a storage locker. It's taken me almost four years to liberate my life of sentimental doodads, boxes of old papers, cassette tapes that have no way to be played, computer equipment that is obsolete, stuff holding more stuff. But I am living proof that it can be done, box by box, little bit by little bit.

The biggest changes happen so slowly, I'm almost surprised to see how far I've come from where I was. It's makes me excited to think of what changes are to come, where I might be going from here.

This cat is not clutter.

Posted by laurie at July 21, 2008 9:54 AM