Uncluttering isn’t for everyone

On Friday night, my dear friend Clark and I were discussing how easy it is to want rules to guide our behavior. As humans, we want a series of checkboxes to tell us that if we mark off X, Y, and Z, we will be happy or good or whatever it is we’re trying to achieve. Although human nature makes us crave this kind of simplicity, we all know that life isn’t a series of standardized checkboxes.

My conversation with Clark reminded me of the article “Buy Local, Act Evil” that reported a University of Toronto study that found test “subjects who made simulated eco-friendly purchases ended up less likely to exhibit altruism in a laboratory game and more likely to cheat and steal.”

The article explains that the green shoppers felt as if they had done their good deed (purchasing an Earth-friendly product), so they were entitled to let other areas of their lives slip (donate less money to charity, cheat, steal). I have certainly had a similar mindset when driving — I’ll let someone merge in front of me in traffic (Look how nice I am!) and then I’ll get as close to their back bumper as possible to prevent anyone else from doing the same thing (Now I deserve to go!). I also notice I do this with chores around the house — I’ll do the dishes (Check!) and then get irritated when my husband asks me to help him finish folding a load of laundry (Folding the laundry was not on my checklist!). I have to remind myself that life isn’t a standardized series of checkboxes and that one deed doesn’t preclude more.

The same is true for uncluttering. Just because we choose to keep our homes and offices free of distractions doesn’t mean we are entitled to judge those who don’t. In the Friday chapter of Unclutter Your Life in One Week, I touch on this subject in the section “Living with Clutterers.”

Now that most of the clutter and distractions are gone from your life, you may be noticing other people’s stuff. If you live with someone or share an office space, that stuff might be physically close to you, or it could be a disorganized client, boss or parent whom you are starting to notice and wish would change his ways. When this happens — and it will — you have to remember three things:

  1. You cannot force someone else to become an unclutterer.
  2. What matters most to you is different from what matters most to other people.
  3. Being an unclutterer is not the only way to live.

As much as your new strategies and techniques have made a positive change in your life, don’t think about your new way of living as being better than how other people choose to live their lives. Think of an uncluttered life as being easier for you.

20 Comments for “Uncluttering isn’t for everyone”

  1. posted by Plain Good Sense on

    I have experienced this with my marriage. When I first moved in with my husband, I had to fight to get him to throw out clothing that was years old and he never wore, and to get rid of trashed furniture from his childhood that he no longer used.

    But now (and it’s been 2+ years), he appreciates the extra room we have in the basement and in the closet because of my uncluttering tendencies. He sees how quickly I can retrieve things of my own because my storage spaces are not filled to the max. He may not be an unclutterer quite yet, but he is learning to appreciate the benefits of living an uncluttered life. And the other day, I found him going through his (overflowing) sock drawer and throwing out the ones he no longer wears!!

    It’s a process, and I’ve learned that nagging does not work, and damages the relationship more than it helps. So all you can do is live your own uncluttered lifestyle and I am willing to bet that at least some of that will rub off on those around you.

  2. posted by zchristy on

    Well said. I think some minimalism sites tend to come across as very judgemental. It’s good to remember that the choices we make enrich our lives, but everyone has to come to their own decisions in their own time.

    Uncluttering is a lot of ongoing work, and not everyone is ready to take that on.

  3. posted by Loren on

    While I don’t live with her I have to remind myself of this every time I walk into my best friend’s home. I don’t live the strictest ‘Uncluttered’ life. But I’ve been purging, cleaning, organizing and trying to ‘make due’ without buying lots of new things. I live comfortably with my boyfriend, cat, and dog in a space about 500sqft.
    But my friend and her husband are collectors. Of EVERYTHING comics, books, movies, games, stuffed animals, action figures… They are cramped in a 1600sqft house. Every time I walk into her house I want to drag one of her massive overflowing bookshelves down to street corner.
    There are 4 closets and 2 chests worth of (just her) clothing, and she still frequently ‘doesn’t have anything to wear’.
    But I love her, I try to accept her ways. And it also makes me feel significantly less guilty about the drawer full of cloth that I’m holding onto because they are pretty and I MIGHT use them.

  4. posted by Christine on

    My husband was never an unclutterer. Within the past year, when I started becoming really serious about unlcluttering, he started to as well. My habits definitely rubbed off on him and he is happy with our lifestyle choice – and it’s great, because I didn’t have to force him into it.

    Loren, I know where you’re coming from. A good friend of mine shops non-stop and just keeps adding clutter into her home. Clothes with tags sit in drawers, never to be worn. CDs bought with no intention of being played. Books bought with no intention of being read. She says she wants to change and I’ve tried to show her the unclutterer way of life, but she isn’t there yet. I just have to keep my mouth shut and it’s hard sometimes when I want to help her out!

  5. posted by *Pol on

    oh the pain.

    I am one of the clutterbugs in my house. (and terribly My kids are getting there too). BUT the good news is I CAN see it now, whereas before I saw my possessions as comforting and I saw decluttered homes as cold.
    This new perspective has made my own house the oppressive space and change is not an easy thing. I keep wanting to escape from my stuff instead of dealing with it. Of course that doesn’t help at all. Letting go of these things that I am attached to is sometimes borderline traumatic, and though I love the thought of clear space and clear surfaces, the reality is so much more difficult than such a simple wish. That’s why I come to this blog every single day, to inspire and remind me what I am aiming for!

  6. posted by Lady Dorothy on

    This is a great post! From both sides of the aisle. That last sentence sums it up quite nicely. Thank you.

  7. posted by chacha1 on

    My DH, who has packrat tendencies, is confined to one room (the home office/guest room). I wish I could get in there and napalm it. If we are expecting overnight guests, he is in charge of getting that room livable. And the rest of our home is company-ready at a moment’s notice; so for now, it’s working. Sometimes he shows signs of overflowing into the public space, and that’s when I deploy strategic references to his dad (terminal clutterer).

  8. posted by Chris Edgar on

    Hi Erin — I appreciated this, and what I think it points to is that effective uncluttering is really about a state of consciousness, not just the rearrangement of stuff in our home or office. If we make it about letting go of our compulsive need to acquire and keep stuff, as opposed to proving we’re better than someone else or keeping up appearances, we can stay motivated to do it over the long term.

  9. posted by Leonie on

    I am very glad and pleased to read this. You’ve summed it up very well. Some productivity,de/un cluttering,personal motivation etc sites I’ve read come across with a “better than thou” vibe.

    It’s really great to know that Unclutter has a different perspective.

  10. posted by Paula on

    I dream about having a home that is company-ready on a moment’s notice. The truth is that parts of my house more resemble a nightmare than a dream. But I’m trying, and reading your blog daily helps. There is a person in my family (not living in this house)who wants to “help” me, but her idea of helping is to belittle and embarrass me. I’m embarrassed enough already. On the flip side of that, I don’t understand how I can be so accustomed to my own clutter that I don’t even see it any more, at least not in the way that others do; and yet I still notice the smallest things that are out of order in someone else’s place. (And by the way, I think you meant “our behavior” rather than “out behavior” in the first sentence.)

  11. posted by Red on

    Unfortunately, I’m the same way. I usually don’t tell people that they need to de-clutter, but I definitely notice it. Then I start thinking about how I could help them organize and de-clutter their space. I’ve actually tried to convince my grandmother to let me come into her home and help her de-clutter. I feel like I’m breaking out in hives when I see a home stuffed with *stuff* just for the sake of it. I try to steer clear of bugging D about his clutter… That is, until he starts complaining because of the amount of stuff I’ve gotten rid of. Then I point out all the things he holds on to! 🙂

  12. posted by denise on

    if a person loves to live uncluttered, i think it is almost natural to feel, although you may not express it, better than people who live with clutter. i think it is that way because you feel more disciplined and intelligent by choosing an uncluttered environment.

  13. posted by Wendy on

    While I tend to declutter my office over a long time period, my husband waits and does his office all in one fell swoop. Different styles. We design offices and find most people make great progress in decluttering once they have designated storage space for what they do want to keep. And they can find things more easily.

  14. posted by EngineerMom on

    My husband, 18-month-old son, and I are currently living with my parents while we finalize buying our first house. Neither of my parents fall into the “unclutterer” group, but they’ve moved about every 5 years of their 30+ year marriage… except this house, which they’ve been in for 12 years now. And it shows.

    Since marrying my husband (who has natural minimalist tendancies), I have worked really hard to declutter and organize. That effort really picked up with the impending birth of our son 1.5 years ago, as we were living in a 700-sq ft 1-bedroom apartment and not able to move.

    My question is, when you’re sharing living space with your parents, and they’re the clutterers, how do you deal? I get incredibly frustrated because the whole process of something like paring down my mom’s rather large collection of kitchen utensils paralyzes her, yet I’m doing most of the cooking now (both parents work) and find working in her kitchen on a daily basis to be frustrating and soul-sucking (I normally enjoy cooking). My dad won’t spring for the necessary storage space in the living room because he has the skills to build all of said space (mostly bookshelves with doors), but not the time.

    It’s paralyzing, hard to keep things clean because of the disorganization and clutter, and my poor husband is going slowly crazy. Fortunately, we’re closing on our house at the end of December, but for others in similar situations, what on earth is one supposed to do? I live here, too, but it’s not technically “my” space, so I can’t get rid of stuff, and I don’t have the money to just go out and buy the storage units they need.

  15. posted by Lose That Girl on

    Thanks for the reminder. My sister is not an unclutterer and I have to remember that when I visit her place. I just hope she clears a place on the sofa so I can sit.

  16. posted by Suzy on

    Have you tried sorting out the utensils into a ‘Things I do use to cook’ pile and a ‘Other things’ pile?

    I’d suggest you do that and then put all the things of the ‘Other things pile’ into cardboard boxes
    Don’t throw these boxes out, but put them in a storage room.
    That way the clutter is still in the house, so your mother doesn’t have to miss it and she can grab it whenever she wants to (though I doubt she will as she doesn’t use it – you do the cooking), but it’s no longer in your way.
    You could even put little sticker dots on them to see if some things that originally were percieved as ‘clutter’ do started to get used after a while.
    Maybe your mother will even start to realise you can get the same and even better results with less stuff in the kitchen.

  17. posted by Eadie on

    What a helpful and open-minded post. Thank-you.

  18. posted by Annie on

    But from a cluttered person…(who’s trying!)…

    How do you deal with the unclutterers who obsess over your space? The boss, the friends…who all want to help…who flip out when something is out of place? Or worse, when it’s functional, but it’s not the way they would do it? How can you be diplomatic to these people when you really just want to say, “Mind your own f*ing business! My stuff works!”

    Is this addressed in your book, Erin? I’m planning to read it soon.

  19. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Annie — I don’t believe that there is one “right” way to do something. A good portion of my book is dedicated to finding the system that actually works for you and that you can maintain. I think that once you find the way that works best for you, it’s easier to ignore the people who want to fix you and your systems. You have confidence because you know that what you’re doing actually works.

  20. posted by joss on

    I will have to remember this. Uncluttering is so personally satisfying that it is the closest I’ve ever come to wanting to proselytize to people.

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