Lifestyle: Compass










Eliminating clutter can unburden the mind

Posted: Jan. 2, 2006
Out of My Mind

Philip Chard


We Americans love our stuff, but it doesn't love us back.

Instead, much of it morphs into clutter that, according to research, has become a widespread psychological irritant in the average household.

The riot of unnecessary belongings and documents that litter most homes has spawned an entire self-help industry. There are books, cable TV programs, and even personal coaches to help us de-mess our material lives, promising greater peace of mind in the process.

Predictably, chapters of "Clutterers Anonymous" (really rolls off the tongue, eh?) have sprung up in over 50 cities across 17 states, each hawking a 12-step path to redemption through "less is more."

Sometimes, excessive clutter is symptomatic of deeper ills. People who feel like a mess mentally sometimes display their inner disarray through outer anarchy.


Some hardcore clutterers suffer from depression, mania, obsessive-compulsive disorder or ADHD, and a few become "hoarders" who find it unthinkable to throw away anything.

I suspect a few of you may be wondering, "Aren't there people who are just plain slobs?" Sure, but many of us become clutterers simply because we feel overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of stuff being dumped into our lives.

Granted, it is up to individuals to manage their material affairs. However, doing so today is far more arduous and time-consuming than it was just a few decades past.

For example, the main culprit in cluttering is paper, which Americans use at six times the global average. The computer age has failed to deliver on the promise of less print, and most of us now find ourselves awash in mail, catalogs, user manuals, printed emails, magazines, etc.

Just sorting, filing and recycling this avalanche of paper overwhelms most of us, but those who leave it in disarray spend the equivalent of several days a year looking for lost documents. Dump this on top of folks who are poor organizers, procrastinators or simply have trouble unloading superfluous items, and the clutter catastrophe emerges.

Becoming largely clutter free has distinct pay-offs, both practical and psychological. It reduces cleaning time in the average home by almost 40%, saves countless hours looking for misplaced items, reinforces one's sense of being "squared away," both logistically and mentally, and creates a sense of personal control.

The easiest steps toward liberation involve:

1. Recognizing that clutter is anything you possess that does not support or enhance your life on a regular basis.

2. Attacking the mess in small increments, such as a few minutes each day to sort, donate, recycle and organize, often by tackling one drawer, box or closet at a time.

3. Keeping pace with incoming junk-to-be by acting on, filing or recycling mail and other "receivables" every day.

4. Stemming the incoming flow by distinguishing "need" from "want," resulting in fewer unnecessary or frivolous purchases.

Clutter is one kind of weight you can lose without a diet.

And if you do, you'll feel much lighter all the way around.

Philip Chard is a psychotherapist, author and trainer. Names used in this column are changed to honor client confidentiality. Call (262) 547-3986, e-mail, or visit

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From the Jan. 3, 2006 editions of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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