Can a person clutter up his time by constantly uncluttering?

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was an arrogant and deceitful man who tricked the gods. Displeased at being duped, the gods sentenced him to spend eternity pushing an enormous boulder up a hill. He pushes it most of the way up the hill, then the boulder rolls back down to the bottom of the hill, and he has to do it all over again and again and again and again. Every minute of every day, Sisyphus pushes the boulder up the hill, only to watch it roll back down.

In the study of economics, the “law of diminishing returns” similarly explains that there is a point where increased production will actually create reduced benefits. Imagine that I give you a cookie. You eat the cookie, and it tastes amazing. You love that I gave you a cookie. So, I hand you another and another and another, and you eat them all. By the time I’m handing you a tenth cookie, you don’t want to eat cookies any more. You feel nauseated. The idea of eating another cookie disgusts you. There isn’t anything different about the tenth cookie from the first, except that you passed the point of marginal benefit. Eating cookies is now creating bad responses. You were much happier having eaten just one or two cookies than you were eating ten.

Sisyphus and the economic law of diminishing returns both speak to the question asked in the headline of this post. “Can a person clutter up his time by constantly uncluttering?”

Without a doubt, the answer to that question is “yes.”

When you choose to clear the clutter and organize your home and work lives, you should be doing it so that you can focus on what really matters. Organizing and decluttering are processes that help you to reach more important goals. They are the means, not the end. Whether your goals are to have more quality time with your children or provide better services to your clients or to have a stress-free vacation, being organized helps you do those things more easily and with less anxiety.

There is a point where you can derive the greatest amount of benefit from your decluttering and organizing endeavors. That point will be different for every person, so don’t judge yourself based on others or judge others based on your returns. Find that perfect point for you, where you get the greatest returns from your decluttering and organizing efforts, and embrace and sustain it. Don’t organize for the sake of organizing — organize for the purpose of living of a remarkable life.

31 Comments for “Can a person clutter up his time by constantly uncluttering?”

  1. posted by Another Deb on

    What a wonderful insight! This seems to tie in with the habit I have seen cases where decluttering the desk is merely a delaying strategy for the real work.

    I believe for many people, uncluttering at all falls in the category of “mind over matter, if no one minds, it doesn’t matter”. Those are the folks who don’t see the point of this blog or perhaps of their spouse’s efforts to get organized. The people who write articles about how to put your ever-increasing junk into yet more and more cute baskets and bins don’t get the point, either!

    My clutter stresses me enough to keep going on the effort. Thanks for a great post!

  2. posted by Shanel Yang on

    Everything in life is a discipline, isn’t it? Or a guilty pleasure. I sometimes indulge my love of decluttering and organizing all my stuff. It’s a great reminder of exactly what I have and where — and do I really need it anymore. I do this at least once a year, my “spring cleaning” if you will. And I take my sweet time about it! : )

  3. posted by Tony on

    I had the pleasure of working at Arthur Andersen LLP which used to be the “world’s greatest place to do great work”. . . before Enron.

    It was also a veritable land mine of neatniks who failed to realize the veracity of the law of diminishing returns.

    People would honestly expect you to take a “well organized desk” and spend another 10 hours organizing it only to make it look 5% better. Then spend another 4 hours to make it look 3% than before.

    They could not understand that there were better uses of our time once the desk appeared ‘good enough’ from an organizational perspective.

    How about employee training? How about mentoring other employees? How about personal development?

    These are also attractive competing alternatives that deserve just as much attention, if not more, than the huge amount of time invested to get a workspace from “good” to “great”.

    To obtain maximum utility for our finite time in this world, we should weigh the costs spent voraciously uncluttering against the perceived benefits.

    Only then can we have a balanced perspective.

  4. posted by Lizzie on

    I’m more uncluttered than not (except the basement…but it’s a work in progress) and some invaluable advice given to me (by an uncluttered friend) when I had my daughter was to choose two times of the day to pick up toys and just deal with the light chaos the rest of the time. It’s all about priorities…

  5. posted by momofthree on

    simple minded response here: I would like to think that once the organizing has been done, it’s just a matter of upkeep. If all papers are filed, then to keep up with the filing should be easy. Once the kids toys have a spot to be put away, then the putting away process should be easy. Note, I said “should be”. Not all kids are cooperative when putting away time comes, and not everyone has a moment to file at that immediate point in time.

    But as the old saying goes something about “life is what happens when you make plans”. Seems like there is always something that comes up with the kids (school/sports/friends/extended family/church/weather) that stops us from doing what we had intended.

  6. posted by Mo on

    I worked for an amazingly organized and efficient boss. One of the things he taught me was that you have to balance how long you spend filing and organizing with how long you spend looking for things.

    If you never spend any time looking for things, you are probably overorganizing.

    The best tip I took away from him – miscellaneous “stuff” is filed chronologically, 1 folder per quarter. That way it’s a manageable task to find something, and also easy the next year out to go through it and see what really needs to be filed permanently.

  7. posted by Jasi on

    Absolutely. I could easily waste my entire life de-cluttering and would if bills would pay themselves. =)

  8. posted by Taylor at Household Management 101 on

    It is so true that there is no point to organize for organizing’s sake. It has to serve some purpose for you or it is not worth doing.

  9. posted by Dustin Boston on

    I’m like you Jasi, I love decluttering and minimizing. I wish I could do it all the time.

  10. posted by SavvyChristine on

    I think this can be appropriately summed up by saying, “everything in moderation, including moderation.”

    I had to learn to come to the saying when I first learned about making eco-friendly choices. Everything fell under scrutiny, and I was so overwhelmed with where I should start that I almost gave up and did nothing. Sheesh!

  11. posted by infmom on

    I agree with Tony about employers who expect employees to look busy by organizing and re-organizing. The last place I worked was like that. We were expected to find endless busywork to do, lest we not look busy. Ugh.

    However, when I was on leave from that job for several months I took the opportunity to really clean up and organize our storage room for the very first time. I took everything out, looked at everything, filled up the trash bin several times, collected tons of stuff to donate to the Salvation Army and put the rest into brand new boxes. It gave me a real feeling of accomplishment and helped us cut down on the sheer amount of junk we’d been keeping around for decades. It kept my mind occupied during what would otherwise have been extremely stressful times.

  12. posted by Susan on

    I am definitely my own worst enemy sometimes when it comes to organizing – my house and life are already pretty much under control but I can always find something to ‘tidy up’ or ‘improve’. I definitely struggle with knowing where the point of diminishing returns is, and can waste lots of time refining a system that is already working well. I think it’s a perfectionism thing, and a procrastination thing too. Mo’s comment above, “If you never spend any time looking for things, you are probably overorganizing.” had an impact on me – I’ll try to keep that in mind the next time I go overboard inside my filing cabinet when I could be outside in the real world!

  13. posted by Susan on

    I am not the same person as the “Susan” in the post above. But I gotta tell you I once worked with a person who made a file folder with tab for almost every single piece of paper. Talk about being difficult to find things!! And it was super difficult trying to keep the office in filing cabinets.

  14. posted by nicole 86 on

    Yesterday, I felt great ! For the fist time, I reached my dream : the whole house is organised, no more visible junk. Now I look forward to throw away a few useful things that don’t fit my sense of beauty and simplicity.
    I just feel that while I was decluttering rooms, I was decluttering my mind. The next step will be to lessen time on the Internet.
    Your blog was a great help, thank you !
    nicole from France

  15. posted by Diane on

    My house is mostly clear & decluttered. Anything that is not put away is being used, was just used or is about to be used.

    There are still some layers of clutter in the attic, shed, garage, closets & cabinets. They don’t impact my everyday life much.

    But the truth is, I love the feeling of minimizing & decluttering also! When I’m in a slump it somehow clears my mind & energizes me. So decluttering does serve a purpose for me, even if it isn’t visible to someone else.

    And every time I get on a roll with it, I find things that I kept in previous bouts, that I can now do without. I guess if I got rid of it all at once I would be DONE, but it just doesn’t work that way.

    I’ve been in a real slump for a couple of months, and last week started a new round of decluttering that brightened my mood considerably. I’m still at it…

  16. posted by jena on

    Amen about the cutie baskets and bins! Declutter first, then go from there. I will see a person pushing a cart full of bins and storage containers out of a store, and I always think that they look happy. I feel stressed about what they are going to put in those huge containers. Just a thought!

  17. posted by Catherine Cantieri, Sorted on

    Agreed, momofthree, there’s no real destination known as “done.” No matter how breathtakingly efficient the organizational system, it’s only as good as the upkeep on it. (Same thing with weeding, dangit.)

  18. posted by Frances on

    I appreciate the post but my problem is the opposite. It seems that I am always tidying, putting away and cleaning, but the house is always far from where I want it to be. Should I just change my standards and learn to be happy with a cluttered house? Learn to unclutter quicker? Or just accept the necessity to constantly unclutter without getting all the way to a perfectly clean place? A bit of a dilemma for me.

  19. posted by lizzie L on

    @Frances – same problem here! I am a wheel spinner when it comes to de-cluttering! Just when I think I’m making progress life gets in the way and by the time I get back to it, I’m right back where I ended… in a big ol mess again! I’m sick of it!!! Do I rent a back hoe and demolish the joint, do I push everything out the back door and wait for trash day… .or do I just enjoy my half clean, hald deculttered home? Its like Groundhog day everyday here .. . I’m stuck in a vicious de-cluttering cycle! Yikes.

  20. posted by Crystal Dreisbach on

    Thanks for recognizing the differences between decluttering and organizing. I just wrote an article about cleaning, tidying and organizing, emphasizing that each is a distinct activity that involves a different thought process.

    I love your post and the comparison between de-cluttering and Sisyphus.

    I’d like to argue that if you are already organized – that is, if you have established *systems* in your home so that everything has a place where it “belongs” – you will not need to spend much time de-cluttering at all.

    Think organization as *prevention* for time suck.

  21. posted by Simplified Simplification - dBlogIt | Dustin Boston on

    […] realized today that if I simplify any more I will have reached the point of diminishing returns. In other words, any more simplification in my life will have a negative net […]

  22. posted by Gwen Carden on

    I like the distinction another writer made between decluttering and organizing. However, there’s one more distinction, which might be called control organizing. I think we’ve all known people who will dust the seat of our chair before we’ve completely vacated it, people who stress out if even one small dish is left in the sink. One of my childhood friends’ mothers was so worried about anything getting out of place that once the bed was made in the morning, the kids weren’t allowed back in their bedrooms until bedtime.

    Often people like this had very chaotic childhoods where there was little they could control, other than their immediate physical environment. It’s actually frightening to them for the small things they can control to be disrupted, and this doesn’t go away just because someone is an adult.

    If organizing goes to such an extreme that it interferes with the comfort of others this compulsion has gone too far, and it’s time to get a mental health professional to help you explore what it is in your background that pushes you to such an extreme. If this sounds like you, you could try leaving just one little thing sitting out, and force yourself to leave it there. Realizing that the world won’t cave in can start giving you a little relief.

    I, on the other hand, could use some help figuring out why I’m so…well, not organized. But that’s for another post.

  23. posted by Thought of the day - Simpler Living - - Albany NY on

    […] Can a person clutter up his time by contantly decluttering? (Unclutterer) Posted in General | […]

  24. posted by Audi Byrne on

    Thanks for the great post! For me, the ideas that (1) organizing and decluttering are just means to facilitate more important priorities and (2)you are over-organizing if you find everything too quickly (i.e., past the optimum point of diminishing returns) resonate as the bits of wisdom that I was missing!

  25. posted by Karyn on

    An idea for those of us who enjoy the processes, themselves, of decluttering, sorting, and organizing: Once you’ve gotten your own space under control, consider applying your now-well-honed talents in the service of others. I don’t mean charging in and invading their space, throwing stuff about in a mad fit of Trust Me, It’s For Your Own Good; rather, my own experience has been that when friends and family see how organized I’ve become, they tend to ask me for help when they need to sort through some stuff of their own, or even ask me to help them start their own decluttering project.

    Of course, the whole point of getting our lives in order is simply to have the SPACE in which we can live those lives, so if you’ve reached a comfortably organized place, maybe now it’s time to dust off a project or two that used to be buried under the clutter. 😉

  26. posted by Karyn on

    @Mo: The idea for using dated file folders to store “miscellaneous stuff” is just what I needed to conquer the last frontier of my own uncluttering: paper clutter, specifically, the stuff that just doesn’t have a “home” (at least yet) but isn’t “junk,” either. Then there’s also the problem of papers I didn’t have time to file during a busy period; better to file right away, but next best is to at least have a labeled, “findable” place to look instead of several undifferentiated “piles.” I’m going to try monthly rather than quarterly folders and see how it goes. Thanks for a great tip!

  27. posted by Tonya on

    I only need look at my Dad’s desk or remember his parents home to understand why I struggle so with piles. I am also one who feels like I spin my wheels and this decluttering and organizing thing will never be done. I get very frustrated with the time I put into trying to get my house together when there are other things I would rather be doing. But I married a very neat and tidy man (of course) who finds a messy home environment to be very stressful and he has enough stress with his demanding job. My piles bother me but they probably would not bother me as much if I knew it was not affecting anyone else. I am making progress (slowly) and appreciate blogs like this one and others about living more simply to give me the push to keep going.

  28. posted by terriok1 on

    I had a desk in front of Bill when I worked for a Court.

    He spent most of his day organizing records so they’d look neat. Never did a lick of work!

  29. posted by The law of diminishing happiness « Becoming organized on

    […] pm Filed under: reason, tools | Tags: cookies, law of dinimishing returns, unclutterer I thought this article from Unclutterer was interesting. The title is, “Can a person clutter up his time by […]

  30. posted by Ann on

    Thanks for the post. I had just been asking myself if I am continuing decluttering/minimizing to avoid doing tasks I feel uncomfortable with. In fact, I think that is the case.

    Another incentive for d/m is that I feel so good when it is done.
    I will have to get moving on other things.

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