Strategies for seeing clutter

When you’re entrenched in your daily routines and activities, your home and workplace can become generic scenery. This might be a good thing if it means you’re focused on your responsibilities and what matters most to you. However, if you’re no longer seeing your spaces because you’re numb to their presence, it might be time to pause and take a look at the backdrops to your life.

Even though you might not focus on the things in your home and office, they still might be affecting you. An easy way to test this is to really “see” a room, clear all the clutter from it, organize the things that remain in the room, and then gauge how you feel in the clutter-free room compared with how you feel in other spaces. Do you want to spend more time in the clutter-free space than you did before? Do you feel calmer, less stressed when you’re in this space?

It seems counterintuitive, but it can be difficult to “see” the clutter in our spaces. We sense clutter, but as we move through our regular lives we lose sight of it. The following are ideas for how you can spot the clutter in your spaces:

  • Invite friends over for a party. Knowing that people will be coming into your home helps you to imagine your place the way they see it.
  • Invite your boss into your office for a meeting. It’s like a party in your home, but at work (and, sadly, likely less fun).
  • Snap photographs or take video. Reader Susie describes this process in the paragraphs below.
  • Hire a home stager to come in and explain how he/she would clear your space to put it up on the market for sale. You might not follow all of the advice, but it will help you to see what others see.
  • Have a friend with a toddler visit. Let the child roam through your home. Trust me, he’ll find every piece of clutter below waist level and touch it, pick it up, or try to eat it. (Obviously, monitor carefully.)
  • Similar to the previous suggestion, have a friend with a labrador puppy spend some time in your space.

Reader Susie recently wrote in to tell us about the experience she had “seeing” the clutter in her home. I believe it summarizes the discovery process nicely:

I needed to videotape some rooms in my house for insurance purposes. Having just cleaned cleaned cleaned (knowing I was taping), I shot the tape and then watched it quickly before I needed to take it to the safety deposit box.

But when I watched the tape, I was astonished at the amount of clutter and crap on surfaces throughout the house. I realized that the camera’s eye was picking up clutter my eyes were simply moving past! So I scrutinized the tape, marched back to those rooms and really went through the stuff, making firm decisions and tossing several items.

I can’t tell you how much it helped to see these rooms through the video. Everyone: get out your video camera and give it a shot. You’ll be amazed at what you’ve never really seen….

21 Comments for “Strategies for seeing clutter”

  1. posted by John Galt on

    Tape? What is this – 1980?

  2. posted by Michele Connolly, Get Organized Wizard on

    So true – live too long with clutter and you stop seeing it.

    I wrote a post a while back to help people re-see their clutter:

    Organize Your Living Room for Holiday Entertaining: 15 Targets for Clutter Blindness

    PS Here’s the medical definition…
    CLUTTER BLINDNESS: Affliction where eyes exposed to long-term clutter lose all will to focus and commit visual hara kiri.
    ► Diagnosis: If people entering your home or office scream ‘my eyes, my eyes’ you’re probably a sufferer.
    ► Cure: Take two large trash bags – and fill them with the clutter. Aren’t your eyes worth it?

  3. posted by Ruth Hansell on

    You can also get down on your hands and knees and crawl around your home or office, if you don’t have a toddler for hire available. Getting up on a ladder provides the same sort of different perspective, as does taking a piece of poster board and cutting a hole in the middle, 3×3 inches or a bit larger, and looking through the hole at your home, bit by bit. Seeing only through the hole lets you really zoom in on all the junk that’s accumulated.

    Doing any of the above exercises with a friend or a tape recorder is helpful, too. Record what you see in some fashion, so that you can plan your recovery from clutter blindness.


  4. posted by Rue on

    I’d find it easier to simply call a friend or family member over (who isn’t there often – else she might be blind to the clutter to!) and see what she thinks is cluttery. The thing about it is that we can easily lose sight of our own clutter, but that clutter is something that many other people can’t easily gloss over (especially if it’s obvious).

  5. posted by Karmanujam on

    YES to the idea of taking pictures of a room!!! We took some pictures of our baby with grandparents at Halloween, relaxing at our kitchen table, and all we could focus on looking at the photos later were the cluttered open shelves in the background! In daily 3D life it never seemed to look “that bad”. Went to Ikea first chance we got to order cabinets with lots of doors. (:o)

    I’m currently trying the same approach with the redecoration of our front room. Taking pictures just really brings out all the things that shouldn’t be part of a space (decorative elements as well as things just dumped somewhere and left for months because one just looks past them).

  6. posted by Jeannette on

    In “The I Hate to Housekeep Book”, which I read years and years ago, Peg Bracken says you have to remove the sock from the mantel the first time you see it, otherwise it becomes part of the mantel.
    I’m not uncluttered yet. I’m still working on it, bit by bit, but that piece of advice echoing in my mind has helped to keep more clutter from burgeoning as I clean up what’s been there for far too long.

  7. posted by Little Q on

    I am going to try the suggestion of taking pictures of all the rooms in my apartment to get a fresh take on the clutter situation. Great post!

  8. posted by Jim on

    I seem to have the opposite problem. I see everything that’s wrong with my house, and all the dirt and dust, and when people come over, they tell me how nice my house looks. I just get stressed out seeing every little thing that’s out of place, and all the projects I have not completed. I guess this post wasn’t for me lol

  9. posted by L. on

    I also like periodically removing EVERYTHING from a small space including rugs and furniture. The exercise gives a tremendous sense of perspective about how lovely the space is and how much stuff was in its place. You can selectively return what you want to the space or repurpose/rehome it. (Sort of like the original show Cleaning House or whatever it used to be called on TLC.)

  10. posted by Kari on

    For me, I know that things have become cluttered when I start feeling stressed as I walk in my home. It is a very specific feeling, and when I feel it, it means I need to take a bit of time, and go through and tidy things. My husband is the same way–the other day, he came home and said, “We need to clear up.” Two of us took 15 minutes and the place was good as new. Having regular cleaning schedules really helps with the day to day upkeep.

  11. posted by Dawn F on

    I feel the same way, Kari!

    It can take such a small amount of time and energy to tidy up to turn my attitude around and make me feel relaxed and recharged again!

    It’s ALWAYS worth the time and effort it takes to tidy/organize a space – it’s such a positive boost to the mind and spirit!

  12. posted by Vanessa H. on

    This could work with clothes too! Try out outfits, take pictures, see what your face is really saying about your clothes…might be easier to get rid of stuff that really doesn’t look so great on us as it does on the hanger! Hmm…weekend project?

  13. posted by infmom on

    My husband is very good at noticing clutter and picky-pickying away at it, EXCEPT when he’s the source of the clutter. Every time he starts obsessing about straightening stuff up in the kitchen I shoo him out with a suggestion to use up that decluttering energy on the heap of unread magazines around his chair and the pile of trash on his desk.

  14. posted by Maggie Rose on

    This happens to me a LOT when I’m taking pictures of our home for my interior design blog. I’ll be trying to get a shot of my pretty tablesetting and notice in the pictures that the coffeetable is in the background and has magazines and notebooks heaped on it (and there is usually a measuring tape wandering around – super noticeable because it’s yellow). I can totally see how this could work as a tool for identifying clutter. And same as Dawn and Kari, I definitely feel that stressful overwhelmed rush if I walk into the house and it’s reached a certain point of cluttery. Then it’s time for immediate action!

  15. posted by Another Deb on

    We just returned from a summer spent traveling and visiting relatives. Helping my parents prepare for a downsizing home has motivated my husband to get rid of soime of the items he has been hanging on to for many years.

    When we returned, we had been gone so long that he noticed a large watercolor painting on a hallway wall and asked “Has this always been here?”

  16. posted by Barb @ 1SentenceDiary on

    I find uncluttering, and even simple cleaning, to be an iterative process. On the first round through my closet, I got rid of two huge garbage bags of clothes. I loved the feeling of freedom it afforded me. A few months later, I can now see at least half a bag more of things that I really don’t need. And I think it’s the same for all the other areas of the house — you have to keep going through it again and again.

    As for me, I’m justuncluttering, very slowly.

  17. posted by jantzie on

    I’ve found if I look at my space through the reflection of a mirror, the reversed view helps me see my home in a completely new perspective, almost as if I’m in a different home. Very Alice in the looking glass, but that’s sometimes all you need to get some clarity. 🙂

  18. posted by hippolyta on

    Having a toddler visit is a great idea! Your description of their built-in Clutter-Notification System is right on target. 🙂

  19. posted by Natalie in West Oz on

    @Karmanujam and fro anyone else with mess in the background of a treasured photo I have two wonderful words: gaussian blur. Its what I use whenever I’ve taken a spontaneous shot and all I can see is mess in the background. Its in photo impact and probably other programs but you just lasso tool around the bits of the photo you dont want, choose your level of blur and hit the button. Presto – background all fuzzy : ) If the photo isnt digital, just scan it, do the same thing and reprint the pic.

  20. posted by Glenda on

    Noticing the clutter behind people’s heads when they used Skype motivated me to clean my office bookshelves! The same can be true for watching TV news; it makes such a huge difference what’s behind the speaker. It can be very distracting — and the person never realizes what the viewer is seeing.

  21. posted by Nonnahs Driskill on

    This reminds me of the diet where you take a picture of everything you eat. It helps your brain think about things a little differently.
    I can see how this would really work for some people. Thanks!

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