Clearing the Clutter

Reader Contribution by Staff

Given the choice between a root canal and clearing the clutter from my life, I’d choose the surgery. The dental procedure is finite…and comes with anesthesia. This process of ridding myself of stuff, on the other hand, seems endless, and when I try to sort through boxes, the process stirs up all kinds of emotions about what I thought my life would be (very different–and not necessarily anywhere near as fabulous as what I have).

The host of memories embedded in my stuff might explain why I’ve moved the same boxes from New York to Singapore…then back to New York and on to Kansas. But it does not explain why I have 2,268 emails in my in-box, or enough shoes and bags to rival Imelda Marcos.

People don’t expect this of me, this messiness. On the surface, I have it all together. I look organized because my mess is stealth–hidden in closets and tucked into filing cabinets and virtual folders. Yet, to me, my mess is omnipresent. It makes me feel like no matter how hard I try, the work is never done.

The move to my first house was an initial impetus to take giant leaps forward and shed a lot of stuff, but I’ve now returned to a state of busyness and complacency and haven’t made the time or had the energy to tackle the remaining boxes.

After getting over a good deal of frustration and a big dose of shame, I decided it was time to get help. I’m being supported through this process by professional organizer Amy Thomas, a spitfire of a woman who set a steady but gentle pace for moving through piles of papers and decades of memories.

I once thought hiring a professional organizer was an indulgence, not a necessity. Now I view it differently. This physical baggage has weighed me down emotionally. Getting support to help me achieve greater alignment feels like an investment in myself–and it makes sense.

Amy, owner of A Home for Everything, comes to this work with a graduate degree in project management and a penchant for solving puzzles. She approaches each situation with a compassionate curiosity. Rather than imposing a set of design systems upon me, she remains committed to understanding what works within the context of my life. I won’t give up my shoes or bags, and I’m not the kind of person who will file and label each bill. Amy’s cool with that and has other ways to keep those items organized. That flexibility gives me the permission to be cool with it too and–in some magical way–helps me let go.

Amy helped me understand that part of my shame around this came from a one-size-fits-all mentality. “You think you’re disorganized because you can’t fit your life into a set of neat containers,” she says. “It’s not true.”

We trudge slowly: Going through a small box of paper takes the same amount of time–and requires the same number of decisions–as a big box of stuff. Amy’s willingness to bear witness to sweet little moments in my life helps me process them and move on. Every time I start to apologize for a dusty box or weird collection of stuff (two sets of dental molds, rocks from the Maremma Coast), she candidly reminds me that getting organized is a process that she’s working on too.

The stuff is stubborn. I uncover things I haven’t thought of in years and, all of a sudden, a desire to hang on to them takes hold. This reignited relationship is detailed in the work of researchers James Wolf, Hal Arkes and Waleed Muhanna. In their study “The Power of Touch: An Examination of the Effect of Duration of Physical Contact on the Valuation of Objects,” they explain that touching an item increases our desire to have it. When it comes to items we already own, the amount of time we’ve had with them makes them more valuable to us. This explains why, even though I haven’t even seen or touched some of my stuff in over a decade, holding it makes me want it all over again.

There are moments when I’m tempted to leave the house and beg someone to do a clean sweep of everything, or just pitch boxes without even opening them. But that won’t help me understand why I held on to that stuff in the first place–or what I can do to change these patterns. I am still in the process, but my sense is that a lot of this will come down to a small, daily practice of staying organized rather than the accumulation of a critical mass of things that then feels insurmountable.

I encourage you to take steps to insert a little control in your chaos. As Amy says, “Give yourself grace.”


P.S. Please join me on Twitter @simransethi and share how you approach organization in your life.

Top photo by Simran Sethi; lower photo by Jessica Sain-Bard.