Posted tagged ‘clutter’

Some great advice on decluttering

January 11, 2017

If one of your goals for 2017 is to declutter your home and/or conquer your hoarding tendencies, you might find it helpful to read the clutter-themed blogposts by by LiveJournal’s Issendai. I particularly liked a post from January 2010 entitled 2009: What I Learned About Stuff; or, Killing Clutter with Fire. The practical tips in More Cluttering Advice (also from January 2010) are useful too.

There’s a lot of internet advice about decluttering, but it seems to fall into two unhelpful categories. There’s lifestyle-y advice aimed at averagely tidy non-hoarders who want a minimalist living space (or who want to dream over pictures of other people’s minimalist living spaces) and there are resources on what to do if someone in your family is a hoarder. The assumption is usually that the hoarder themselves won’t seek help. (I sense a linked assumption that hoarders don’t have any self-awareness.)

It’s so refreshing to read something written by someone who admits they’re a hoarder and understands the psychological stuff behind it. When I had my revelation about the link between decluttering, microdecisions and the draining of cognitive resource, I thought I was maybe the first person to get it; but in 2010 Issendai wrote:

Making decisions is hard. It takes energy. Studies show that there’s a specific area of the brain that handles decision-making, and it can make only so many decisions a day before it gets tired. If you clutter or have hoarding tendencies, there’s an excellent chance that part of the problem is that that part of your brain tires unusually fast. Work with it, not against it. When you feel decisions getting harder or you start getting frustrated more easily, stop.

The opposite of hoarding

July 27, 2016

This week I stumbled across an Atlantic article and learned that the opposite of hoarding can be a problem too. It seems to be called “compulsive decluttering” or “purging”. People with this problem aren’t paring their stuff down to the essentials so they can lead a carefree, meaningful life. They’re throwing out stuff they actually need because seeing it in their living space makes them anxious. Then they’re re-buying the same stuff because, y’know, they need it.

I don’t think this is really the “opposite” of hoarding. I think this behaviour has a lot in common with hoarding, and the contributing factors are the same: OCD,  perfectionism, anxiety manifesting as a disordered relationship with “stuff”, a need for control over your surroundings. I completely understand the anonymous commenter (on a different blog post, not the Atlantic article) who says: “I am uncomfortable using a lock box or storage areas because I cannot personally watch over these items.” They describe themselves as having “obsessive-compulsive spartanism”, but I think the reluctance to trust anyone else with your possessions is totally a hoarder thing too. (It’s the reason why I’ve never used a storage unit.)

Unfortunately, this problem is often masked by the current trend for competitive minimalism. There’s a narrative that says “stuff” is antithetical to “experiences”. If you have more than ten plates you can’t possibly brush a rose against your cheek, cradle a laughing child, or interfere with a woman sexually.  So the person who’s just binned their blender gets cultural approval because everybody assumes they will now go white-water rafting while writing the Great American Novel and being the best parent ever. Whereas, in reality, they’re trapped in a cycle of discarding and re-buying the same necessary items over and over again.

I can’t work out if there’s a bright line between the competitive minimalist and the compulsive declutterer, or if it’s more of a spectrum.

We all know at least one person who’s addicted to shopping but wants to keep their house super-tidy, so they’re constantly eBaying and Freegling unused past purchases. And maybe we focus on the shopping as the “real” problem because they’re in debt, but in reality the two behaviours are linked. Is that person on this spectrum?

We all know the person who can’t have anything visibly lying around in their home. Those shoes you kicked off in their hallway will be moved out of sight before you’ve taken your first sip of tea. It’s anxiety-inducing for visitors to realise that the usual not-leaving-things-behind method of doing a quick visual scan for stuff lying around simply won’t work – anything you’ve forgotten will be hidden from view. But hey, presumably it’s anxiety-inducing for the host to see a pair of shoes just CLUTTERING UP THE PLACE by VISIBLY BEING SHOES. Are they on this spectrum?

What about the person who gets anxious about receiving gifts and tries to pass them on as soon as possible, or even refuses to accept them in the first place? Again, pretty common. Are they on this spectrum?

I honestly don’t know. I’m guessing that if there is a bright line between “into minimalism” and “mentally ill”, you’d draw it by asking if the person is happy, fulfilled, relaxed in their home. But I’m inclined to think that “happy, fulfilled, relaxed” is a continuum too.

More on competitive minimalism

June 29, 2016

I’m happy to see that others have joined the backlash against competitive minimalism. An article in the New Republic (brilliantly titled Bros before Homes) points out the hidden sexism in the concept of “choosing experiences over stuff”. In brief: you still use stuff, you still live somewhere, you still need security, but you outsource all those boring details to a woman in your life, whether that’s your mother or a female partner. And then you get to judge women for being materialistic, for craving security, for worrying about the boring stuff instead of living life to the full. Brilliant.

If you liked the New Republic article, you might want to read some of my greatest hits on this topic:

Critiquing clutter On how the concept of clutter as a moral failing privileges the already privileged. (June 2015)

Stuff versus systems: the tension in the USA  On the oddness of not-owning-things as a competitive sport. (July 2015)

Travelling shite  On the hidden baggage of people-who-are-always travelling, often borne by other people. (March 2013)

Obligatory New Year decluttering blogpost: 2016 edition

January 4, 2016

“I rarely look at the photos unless they are on the wall.”

“Since college, I’ve hauled from flat to flat an increasing number of boxes containing concert tickets, postcards, press passes and more. And I’m not entirely sure why.”

Does this sound like you? It definitely sounds like me. I keep old letters, old photographs, old birthday cards, essays from university and even one or two from school. And now, of course, there’s the digital memorabilia too.

I’ve just quoted a woman who’s taken a squillion photos of her young daughter but rarely bothers to look through them, except the ones she’s had printed and put on the wall. She’s doing better than me, then, because I have squillions of photos and but I don’t think I’ve ever framed a single one. I’ve been given photo frames as gifts many times; photo frames were the scented candle equivalent of the 1980s and 1990s, gifts you gave to people when you didn’t know what else to get them. But I don’t use them. Then I feel guilty about not using them and they go in a box.

Sometimes people even give me photographs ready-framed, but I don’t put them on display in my home because I don’t really want to look at them. I would like to have some photos of loved ones around the house, and maybe a photo or two of myself to remind me of moments when I was really happy (and looking great, obviously). But the framed photos I’ve been given as gifts are all of myself, sometimes with my partner or the photo-giver themselves, taken at times which would never have occured to me as a photo-worthy moment.

When I first moved in with my partner, I asked my parents to give me a group photo of the extended family as a housewarming gift. Instead, they gave me a picture they’d insisted on taking of my partner and me standing outside our new house. As she handed it over, my mum looked at it and said: “Why do you always do that silly thing with your mouth?” Needless to say, it joined all the other photos in the Bottomless Box of Stuff That I Don’t Want But Can’t Throw Out and I never got the photo of the family that I actually wanted.

What’s odd is that I’ve willingly posed for so many photographs because the occasion is happy and memorable, or I’m with people I won’t see for a while, or because I feel great about how I look that day, or because it goes with the territory – e.g. I’m giving a talk at an event where pictures of the speakers are A Thing. And those photos disappear into the ether – I never see them. And I’ve asked many times for copies of photos I like – cute photos of people’s new babies, funny group photos, etc, etc – and never got them. But the times where I’m bored or tired or tense or sad and someone says my name so I turn my head and then realise they’re taking a photo and think something between “Oh, fuck” and “Oh…whatever” – those seem to be the magic moments captured for the framing-and-gift treatment.

I’ve tried. I’ve fucking tried. For my partner’s birthday last year I decided that I would for once be the person who does the printing and framing. I bought a three-picture frame and got three pictures printed for it that I actually loved. For various reasons that I mostly understood, my partner wasn’t happy with the gift. The frame sat around unused for months and then (presumably) went into my partner’s Bottomless Box Of Unwanted But Unjettisonable Stuff, while the photos I printed went into mine. At least now I’ve proved that the photo-as-gift concept doesn’t work for me when I’m the giver any more than when I’m the recipient.

So that woman who says she doesn’t look at the photos of her daughter because it’s more fun spending time with her actual daughter? Honey, you have your priorities much straighter than mine. At least if you did look through your photos you would enjoy it.  I don’t look at my photos because just opening the boxes I keep them in makes me feel somewhere between mildly annoyed and physically sick. Ditto the boxes I keep my memorabilia in – and yes, I’ve moved house with this crap many times.

I’m trying very, very hard to internalise the idea that I’m “allowed” to not keep things I don’t want in my living space. I’ve found Marie Kondo’s way of thinking quite shocking – the idea that your home should contain only things that spark joy. If someone goes to the trouble of buying something specially for me, or getting a photo printed and framed for me, shouldn’t I keep it, even though I don’t want it or even like it? If someone is trying really hard to declutter and they give me a bottle of non-alcoholic liqueur and a cotton tote bag branded with the logo of a festival I didn’t go to, shouldn’t I help them declutter by taking it off them and using it? Don’t I need to keep evidence of the kind of person I used to be 10 or 20 years ago in case the High Court of Personhood challenges my claim that I was once skinny, once fluent in French, once pink-haired, once queer? I guess the answers to the last three questions are no, no and no, but dammit, it’s hard.

Mr Soylent illustrates my point

August 21, 2015

I blogged a while back about competitive minimalists and the privilege behind the concept of “living light”. My point was that to live with few possessions you need to engage with and benefit from existing systems, and the competitive minimalists who boast about living light don’t always seem to fully understand that.

Less than a month after I published my post came an example so perfect I initially thought it was a parody. The software engineer Rob Rhinehart, best-known for peddling the meal replacement product Soylent, wrote about how he’s given up electricity. (Spoiler: he has not in fact given up electricity.)

In the storm of internet mockery that followed, someone unearthed an old blog post in which he explains how he described undergoing a challenge to reduce his water consumption. (Top tip: when your clothes get dirty, give them away instead of washing them! Then get new clothes shipped to you from China. This saves both electricity and water!)

It’s tempting to dissect both posts line by line explaining why he’s wrong about nearly everything. But others have already done that. I just wanted to share the links, because this person’s thinking is the perfect example of how you can think you’re “living light” and maybe see yourself as some kind of lean frontiersy hero while in fact you’re:

  • dependent on many things that weren’t invented 100 years ago;
  • dependent on things that most of the world’s population does not have access to;
  • dependent on things that won’t exist or won’t work in the future if everybody carries on like you;
  • generating a carbon footprint the size of a small country;
  • generating a huge amount of non-recyclable and/or harmful waste;
  • consuming a wildly disproportionate share of the earth’s resources.

Stuff versus systems: the tension in the USA

July 7, 2015

Who knew it was possible to get competitive about minimalism? There’s the challenge where you try to go three months with only 33 things to wear. There’s the woman who tried living with only 72 things. The man with only 72 things. The man who really ups the ante and only has 15 things.

It’s not-owning-things as a competitive sport. But when you look a little closer, these extravagant claims mostly rest on stretchy definitions of not-owning things.

I count my things as resellable items I would be pissed if someone took. Coffee cup? No. Jacket? Yes. iPhone and headphones? One thing.

I suppose it’s nice that he’s so relaxed about people wandering off with his coffee cups, but that’s not really a definition of owning stuff that I’ve ever heard outside the world of competitive minimalism.

I have over 30 jars of spices in my kitchen. They’re arranged on two spice racks. In other words, a small part of my kitchen contains nearly 35 things, which is nearly half of the total possessions of the two people who claim only to own 72 things. Compared to them I am a hoarder, a compulsive accumulator of things, a stuff-glutton.

But the thing is, all those spices have been used in the past year. Most of them have been used in the past six months. Should I jettison them in the cause of minimalism and then cook bland food for the rest of my life? Or should I cleverly declare that 30+ spices plus two spice racks actually counts as “one thing”, just like an iPhone and headphones? Or maybe I should claim I don’t really own the spices, because they’re not resellable. But the thing is…what would I actually gain from any of this? Real question: what do the people who do this gain from it?

Obviously, minimalists will talk about simplicity and about rejecting consumerism and about streamlining their lives to focus on what’s truly important. But minimalism is aspirational not just because it represents these choices, but because it correlates with privilege.

Tupperwolf said it better than I ever could:

When rich people present the idea that they’ve learned to live lightly as a paradoxical insight, they have the idea of wealth backwards. You can only have that kind of lightness through wealth.

It’s really worth reading the whole thing. I linked to it in my post about the hidden baggage of people who are always travelling, and I’ll make the same point again that I made there: we need to stop using visuals to assess what impact someone’s life is having. If your living space is constantly immaculate and empty-looking, are you being responsible in how you get rid of things? Do you go the extra mile to work out what the council will recycle? Do you try to repair broken things? Do you ever store items for friends? Do you allow those friends to crash on your sofa?

See, I suspect not. I suspect the life of the competitive minimalist is environmentally destructive and emotionally cold, involving a lot of hopping on planes, eating restaurant and takeaway food, generating rubbish, never settling for long enough to become part of any community. Sorry, I mean “pursuing your world-traveling ambitions while still young enough to make a lot of mistakes and bounce back from them more or less intact’”.

But that’s not even my actual point here. My point here is that that kind of “lightness” and “independence” is heavily dependent on existing structures and networks. It’s dependent on civilisation. Your passport, your Oyster card, your credit card: all light objects that depend on strong invisible networks to be of any use whatsoever. It’s great that something fitting in your jeans pocket can (literally) open doors for you. Just don’t forget that when you blip a turnstile open with your Oyster card, you are benefiting from the ideas and hard work and goodwill of thousands of other people.

When we talk about complex supply chains, it’s often in the context of terrible hidden costs for things like iPhones. But making use of things that wouldn’t exist without complex systems isn’t necessarily bad. It can be morally neutral or morally the better choice. It’s just part of signing up for human civilisation. And the more you strive for possession-free simplicity in your own life, the more dependent you become on that civilisation.

The decision to have no permanent address depends on the existence of hotels, other people’s homes, B&Bs. It depends on you having money. It depends on people’s willingness to accept that money in exchange for accommodation. Likewise the decision to have no cooking utensils, or whatever.

I rummaged through the debris scattered around the cabin floor and the surrounding land, finding remnants of life in the cabin before the siege. I picked things up – cardboard boxes containing some empty spice bottles her mother used to keep, Elisheba’s baby chair.

“What are you doing?” said Rachel. “It’s just a bunch of junk.” She laughed. “All the things that used to be important to us were junk to other people,” she said. “The books and stuff. Now it’s junk to me and important to you.”

Jon Ronson’s book THEM sets up a tension between two American ways of living. Maybe it’s reasonable, educated people versus paranoid, racist gun nuts. Maybe it’s a secretive global elite versus courageous ordinary people. You could see the division as being about class, religion, level of education, politics. But maybe it’s also about stuff.

The backstory to that quote above: when Rachel was a child, her family lived in a mountain cabin, which ended up being the location of a siege in which her mother, brother and dog were killed.

There were US marshals and FBI snipers in gas masks and face paint and camouflage, local police, state police, the BATF, the Internal Revenue Service, the US Border Patrol, Highway Patrol from four states, City Police and the Forestry Service. They had tanks and armoured personnel carriers.

If all those supposedly separate authorities ganged up to collude in the senseless murder of your family members, how much would you believe in the power of networks, communication, goodwill, civilisation generally, to keep you safe? If you’d spent eight days trapped inside your home, would you be relaxed about relying on takeaways and meals out, or would you stock up on food? If the authorities had tricked your father into committing a crime and then tried to kill him, would you rely on the police for help in emergencies or would you buy a gun?

If you don’t believe you can rely on the things that many of us take for granted, you will stock up on food and water. You’ll ramp up the security of your home, maybe with cameras and alarms, maybe with a guard dog or weapons. You’ll drive a car instead of using public transport, and probably choose the kind of car that can be driven off-road. And you won’t throw out useful things just because they’re not useful to you right now – you’ll keep them just in case.

There’s a deep tension in American culture, and it’s being expressed through stuff. And the government knows it. Having over seven days’ worth of food in your home could make you a terrorist suspect. Buying flashlights could make you a terrorist suspect. So could owning guns and owning too much gold and silver.

In other words, being prepared for the worst makes you the threat. Opting for stuff over systems makes you the threat. Why? My only guess right now is that this civilisation we all depend on is a fragile thing, and it depends on the majority of people buying in to it. The same with respect for the authorities. So the US government wants to discourage people from behaving as if they can’t trust the state or their neighbours, in case it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Safety is an anti-gift.

But of course, in reality, only certain people will ever be prosecuted under the “too many groceries” law or the “well, flashlights are always useful in a power cut, let’s get some” law. We’re back to privilege again.

Critiquing clutter

June 25, 2015

I’ve written before about decluttering in the sense of evaluating your possessions and getting rid of what you no longer need (in a responsible way). More recently, I’ve written about decluttering in the sense of removing personal items from view to make it easier for people to imagine your home as their home.

So, the word “decluttering” has two wildly different meanings:

  • making your home more livable by removing things that are not necessary for your life as you’re currently living it
  • removing necessary things from view to create the illusion that your home is not occupied by a person with human needs.

Who benefits from the conflation of these two very different meanings? A good cold-reading answer to any question beginning “Who benefits…?” is “People who already have privilege,” but let’s step back a bit.

The UK has the smallest houses in Western Europe. Unlike most other countries, the UK focuses on number of rooms rather than actual size when houses are bought and sold. (The type of house is also taken into account, so we talk about a “three-bedroom semi” rather than an “88-square-metre house”.) A report from the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) entitled The Case for Space: The Size of England’s New Homes (PDF download link) has some eye-opening info about this.

Humans are generally pretty rubbish at judging space in absolute terms; we tend to use visual cues. That’s why narrow cycle lanes can be more dangerous than no cycle lane at all; because motorists use lane markings as a guide for how much space to give cyclists rather than making their own assessment of how much space there is. So, when buying a house, we ask “How many bedrooms? Is it detached?” and treat that info as a guide to the space available.

Professional house-stagers exploit this human tendency to use visual cues to judge space. Someone once told me about viewing an expensive flat as a potential buyer. She and her mother both flopped down on the two-seater sofa and were very surprised to find that they could barely fit on it. That’s when they realised it was a piece of “staging” furniture designed to deceive the eye into thinking there was space for a two-seater. I wonder how many other people would also find that their bottom is a better judge of space than their eyes and brains.

I’m new to all this, but I’ve seen plenty of tricks already. Like the “double bedroom” with a double bed in it but literally no other furniture – and when I looked properly, I realised there was no room for a wardrobe or bedside table or anything else. The bathroom where it was clear you had to be below a certain body size to sit on the toilet (like some really boring fairground ride?). The kitchen with a dining table and four chairs pushed against the wall to make it a “kitchen/diner”, except that there wasn’t room for anybody to actually sit at the table.

If you downloaded that RIBA report, you’ll see that the space-shaving tricks start before the house is even built. A house-builder won’t reduce the number of bedrooms, because that’s so key to how we judge houses. But they might remove a cupboard here, some hallway space there. As a result, British houses are distinctly lacking in built-in storage.

So why do we talk about “clutter” as if it’s a moral failing, rather than a structural problem?

Yes, some people are capable of keeping a house free of “clutter” (visible evidence of occupation) all the time. Who are those people?

  • property developers who don’t actually live there
  • buy-to-let investors who don’t actually live there
  • second home owners who keep the place as a pied-a-terre but don’t really live there
  • people with access to more space-per-person than average, plus enough control over that space to fit it with the storage they need.

Are you sensing a theme here?

At the other end of the spectrum you’ve got people who can’t keep a place free of clutter (for long). And there you have people with mobility problems, people with kids, people with difficult family members who keep crashing on the couch because they have nowhere else to go, people with depression, people whose landlords won’t provide any storage despite having advertised the house as “fully furnished”, people with chronic fatigue, people with too many damn housemates.

So when you talk about clutter as something to be overcome, like a moral failing or an illness, you’re ignoring the privilege that makes it very easy for some people to have zero clutter. And you’re ignoring the vulnerability and powerlessness of people who can’t get on top of clutter.

I would like to find some different words to talk about this, because I still believe in the power of getting rid of things you truly don’t need or want. But I don’t want to contribute to the shaming of people who have their books stacked up in piles because the landlord won’t let them put up a set of shelves, or boxes in the corner because there’s no space to unpack. I’m sure other people have gone further in thinking about this issue than I have. Suggestions for further reading welcome!