Who should be an unclutterer?

A common question reporters ask during interviews is, “Why do you think everyone should be organized?”

My response usually takes them by surprise when I answer, “I don’t think everyone should be organized.”

I’m not trying to avoid confrontation with reporters when I say this. I sincerely don’t believe that an uncluttered and organized life is for everyone. It’s only when clutter and disorganization become dangerous to a person or others that I would even consider using the word should. And, as is the case with hoarders, I think getting licensed medical treatment for the disorder is what is most important — clearing the clutter is a secondary priority and is only effective once progress is occurring with mental health treatment.

My belief is that clutter and disorganization aren’t distracting to some people. I don’t know how these things aren’t distracting, but they truly aren’t to some people. There are people who can pursue the life they desire without thinking twice about their stuff or without a need to adopt organizing systems.

The only people who should be unclutterers are people who want to be unclutterers.

Personally, I find clutter and disorganization very distracting. I cannot achieve the life I want when I’m tripping over my son’s toys or stressing out about all of the things I need to do. Being an unclutterer is what is best for me.

If you’re reading this post, clutter and disorganization are probably distractions to you, too. (Why would someone read a website called Unclutterer if he has no interest in being an unclutterer?) We need to remember, though, clutter and disorganization aren’t distractions for everyone. Our desire to pursue an uncluttered life is our choice, but it’s not the best or a necessary choice for everyone to achieve a remarkable life.

In fact, thinking everyone should be an unclutterer is an easy way to clutter up your time and mental energy.

32 Comments for “Who should be an unclutterer?”

  1. posted by gypsy packer on

    Clutter and disorganization can be security behaviors. The burglar who can’t find the jewelry or money in a mess, or the competitor who is unable to discover files in a disorganized system or a cluttered desk, have been foiled effectively by this system of last resort.

  2. posted by Jen on

    I’ve found that when you adopt a lifestyle or habit that strays from the norm, many who are still adhering to the norm become defensive. I encounter this a lot when people find out that I’m a vegetarian. They see my decision to not eat meat to be inherently critical of their decision to remain omnivorous. It doesn’t bother me as much anymore, because I understand what drives the reaction, and because it’s not entirely unjustified (there are a lot of self righteous vegetarians / vegans out there).
    I also think there’s a misconception of what leading an “uncluttered” life entails. For me, it’s not necessarily about being a neat freak and having everything crossed off my to do lists ; it’s about being more effective and efficient than I’m otherwise able to be.

  3. posted by Erin on

    I don’t do well with clutter, but my husband seems to find things better when they are not organized.

  4. posted by Carol on

    I wish everyone else was an unclutterer because I really believe it’s a great way to live but I realize that’s an unrealistic expectation. However it does bother me that my family members live cluttered, almost hoarding, lifestyles. I know it doesn’t bother them but I start feeling anxious and stressed out when I visit. Also in my parents case, I dread the day they either pass away or need to go into assisted living. I don’t feel I should be responsible for going through their clutter.

  5. posted by Karen on

    People can also be uncluttered in some areas and cluttered in others. It doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing choice. I’m usually very organized but there are some areas where I’m OK with having some clutter. I think people are under the impression that you are only “uncluttered” if you live in a strictly minimalist way.

  6. posted by Sue on

    I think an exception to this may (and I stress the “may”) be in a professional setting.

    I can handle a much bigger workload than most of my coworkers because I am organized. This reflects well on me, but not so well on the people who fall behind because they don’t have an effective system for organizing their projects. Several loudly complain about not being able to get their work done, but their offices look like a tornado came through.

    I believe studies show that people are judged negatively by their bosses and peers if they are cluttered and disorganized, even if they are able to be productive under those circumstances.

    I think everyone can benefit from being organized and clutter-free at work.

  7. posted by Monique on

    The aesthetic of strict minimalism puts many of my clients off. Striving for the perfectly organized environment is actually one of the biggest impediments to being organized. Perfectionist tendencies lead to procrastination and avoidance, and the process of organization never gets underway. Living under a pile of unwanted and unneeded things is equally impossible. Everyone needs to find their own tolerance level.

  8. posted by Tracy on

    I think the difficult part is finding a level of clutter / organization that works for everyone in the home.. My husband and I are have a pretty similar comfort level. Friends of ours constantly get into fights because the wife wants to have things put away in their places, and the husband is the sort who can only find stuff if it’s right there on the table.. or floors, stairs, or bed.. everywhere!

  9. posted by Ari on

    I like order and I am very organized at work but my desk is a mess when I am working on a big project mostly because I have a zillion notes on different parts of the project that I keep to help complete cost estimates and such. Then when I am done I pack it up all neat and tidy but 6 months later when someone has a questions (or even 2 yrs) I can easily go back and know why I made a certain decision and trace it to a conversation on a certain day with contact info – most others can’t and are amazed.

    Best not to judge but I am aware that people do so I try to make my piles neat as possible.

  10. posted by Vanessa H. on

    Excellent post! It is easy to forget that some people do not find clutter and disorganization to be distracting. I cannot imagine that – maybe it’s nice! – but it’s a good reminder to be respectful of others’ needs.

  11. posted by Dawn on

    It is so very hard for me to get this theory into my head – that some people are fine with their uncluttered, disorganized lives. I know it’s true, but it’s hard for me to come to terms with.

    I see my in-laws cluttered home/garage and their RENTED storage units (2 of them!) full of things that must mean nothing to them deep down (or else why would they put their precious possessions in an un-climate-controlled place jammed in boxes crushed onto top of other boxes) and I just don’t get it. I don’t get how they choose to live like that.

    My offerings of help, guidance, muscle-power, money, time, etc. don’t seem to phase them. The countless gentle conversations, crying pleads and firm discussions have resulted in not a single result. Maybe they’re not “ready yet” or maybe they never will be…

    It’s hard to come to terms with it because I want the people I love to enjoy a happy, carefree, healthy, fulfilling life. I want that for them SO BADLY. But, their choices show me that they don’t want that life. It’s hard to understand, but I know I need to.

  12. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Sue — I’m of the belief that if being uncluttered and organized is a requirement for a job, the person in the job needs to want the job. If he/she wants the job, then he/she will want to (have to) be uncluttered and organized.

    If he/she doesn’t want the job, then he/she won’t want to be uncluttered and organized and will very likely lose the job.

    There are many jobs out there, however, that don’t require being uncluttered and organized.

  13. posted by *pol on

    I can honestly say my “clutter-vision” goes on and off. When I am alone, I genuinely don’t see it that often and therefore it only annoys me when I step on something or lose something. HOWEVER it comes sharply into focus about 10 seconds before my husband comes home! He is a neat-freak cursed to live out his life with a “pile maker”. And I want him to be able to relax when he gets home! So I suddenly see my messes through his eyes!

    The good news is that I seem to be getting the hang of it, and I really do want to be an unclutterer not just for him, but for me too. The clutter is like an electric hum, it is agrivating whether you are aware of it or not. The more free surfaces I have suceeded in making, the less tense I am — it can’t ba a coincidence.

  14. posted by Tan @ Tan/Green on

    Alluded to in some of the comments…what suggestions do you have for unclutteres living with clutterers? (and as you guess – I am here because I am an unclutterer and enjoy having a community!)

  15. posted by Lose That Girl on

    Like Jen, I too have encountered people who take offense at my neatness – especially at my home. One relation – who shall remain nameless! – often makes comments to me about how empty my place looks and that I should mess it up a bit. I think she needs to neaten up her place, but I don’t dare tell her that!

  16. posted by Lose That Girl on

    Whoops… meant to write “Like Jen, who has people question her choices (to be vegetarian)”….

  17. posted by Living the Balanced Life on

    I think a person should unclutter if the clutter causes stress to themselves and to the people they live with. Or if it is completely unsanitary, but I think THAT is another story altogether!
    There have periods in my life where things look cluttered, but I could find whatever was needed, so I didn’t bother with decluttering. Now, at this point in my life, that is too stressful. I would rather things be organized so I can find them without having to store the info in my overloaded brain, plus I want others in the household to be able to find and handle things without necessarily having to ask me where everything is!

  18. posted by Ann on

    My DH is well known here as a collector of things, a piler and a son of a hoarder…but he has embraced my need for a lack of what I like to call “visual chaos”. He also appreciates that I can find things when he needs them and that there are certain of “his” areas that I do not try to manage (ie unclutter) for him.

  19. posted by Laura on

    I’m a clutterer trying to become (somewhat) uncluttered and a mild hoarder trying to get rid of some stuff, which is why I started following this blog.

    Of course, I couldn’t pass up commenting on this post!

    I think it’s important to remember that some people are happy with some clutter and unhappy when they are clutter free. In fact, sometimes after I do a major clean/declutter in my bedroom, I can’t sleep because it’s just too clean!

    I definitely understand that some people want to live a clutter-free life, but I think sometimes people don’t understand that having clutter does not mean that someone is disorganized and doesn’t have their shit together. I know that in the work world this is often very important – I lost a job once partly because I was cluttered – but I do get resentful when people try to push their clutter free ways on me, when it really doesn’t matter!

    I do want to qualify this by saying that I don’t ever take offense at someone’s lifestyle as a comment on mine. That’s silly and takes self-centeredness to a whole new level. I’m referring to actually getting comments on how I must be a bad employee/homekeeper/etc because I’m cluttered.

  20. posted by Another Deb on

    My good friend who teaches the same subject in a room identical to mine has lots of paper in piles strewn across lab bench, desk, podium and bookshelves. She as much brick-a-brac, lots of loose papers stuck in layers on her whiteboard and photos of her “personal children” everywhere. Her room makes me a little anxious.

    I have a clear desktop and podium, empty counters and blank whiteboard each morning.

    Guess who is weeks ahead in her plans, can always find the piece of paper she needs and has well-prepared handouts and all papers graded within a few days of being turned in? I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t me!

  21. posted by Gil on

    I think “uncluttered” goes hand in hand with being “organized” and it’s not a “one size fits all” type of minimalism or even system. Everyone has a point at which they move from uncluttered, organized and able to handle things “efficiently” to cluttered, disorganized and completely out of control. I’m not a super neat person, but I am super organized. Yet others would find my system (that works great for me and is efficient, maybe too much for others) not uncluttered, organized or “neat” enough for them. To each their own (within the ability to get things done timely, efficiently and well)… on the sliding scale of unclutteredness. I think this is especially why it’s important to have people who can help others determine an organizational system that works for them, not a cookie cutter solution for all (shameless plug for Professional Organizers, as I am aspiring to be one).

  22. posted by [email protected] on

    For me, it comes down to Carol’s point.

    Your clutter may work for you, but who are you burdening when you are no longer around to nurture it? How long will it take a grieving loved one to handle the clutter you didn’t?

  23. posted by Marrena on

    I wrote a rather popular book for women on how to increase libido through nutritional means. I was often asked a similar question. I would point out to reporters that in my book I even gave tips to women on how to decrease desire through nutrition, if that is what they chose.

    It really depends on the person and their own chosen path.

    For me, uncluttering is for two reasons. I am perfectly comfortable living in pretty major clutter. But following your advice and the advice from other sources, I have been able to get rid of many things I didn’t need, which has allowed me to live more comfortably in the small apartment I can afford–in other words it is saving me money. The second reason is that recently I have become an enthusiastic convert to feng shui, so I unclutter for religious reasons, as silly as that sounds.

  24. posted by terriok on

    I tend to think that clutter and organizational skills are two separate characteristics which tend to overlap.

    I taught for years. At work I was super-organized and one year I had 42 third graders- 29 boys! But they were terrific kids!

    I knew where most everything was and if not that kids did. The kids had access to everything including my purse. Talk about taboo.

    Very few teachers would allow that but I never had a problem. I trusted them and no one wound up with lipstick smeared all over their toothless grins.

    I had one desk drawer off limits- for record keeping. And my good crayons were off limits! ;o)

    If they needed something, they’d go and find it. I hardly had time to track down crayons.

    One of the best things I did was teach these children how to be independent. If you do not know an answer go look it up, ask a friend… ask three people and if you cannot find out, sure, I’d love to help you. But first you try.

    One year a parent wrote a student’s name on every crayon in a box of 64! Even the first grader knew how off-the-wall that was.

    “Honey, if you cannot find your crayon, look on the floor. There is every color imaginable down there!”

    Parents expected one box of crayons to last an entire year!

    I also insisted the kids pick up after themselves. If they did not care for the materials then they did not get to use them (for a while until the point was made).

    When a sub came in my classroom, the kids ran the class. And they knew better than to act up with someone with such a difficult job- I’d rip their lips off.

    Humor is a must!

    The biggest challenge was the trash can. I worked in the inner city and the kids found all sorts of interesting items I had just gotten through throwing away. Then they’d forget and I’d wind up throwing the same item away 5 times.

    But while my class was relatively structured, highly organized, there was plenty of clutter. I ran the three ring circus.

    If you walk into an obsessively neat classroom, in my experience, those kids unfortunately are not getting full access to the materials. Little kids need a lot of concrete items in order to best facilitate learning.

    If the leisure books are too perfectly stacked, the kids probably are not reading them. You learn you have to let some things go. Sometimes it is easier to do it yourself.

    And the kids were honest. But every year the temptation was just too much and a hole punch would turn up missing. Never failed.

    My apartment was a whole different manner. I am a visual learner so I have to see things or I forget about them. I am also sentimental. A camera sure comes in handy for that.

    My suitcase travelled all over Mexico with me but it had rusted in the inside so I took a few photos and tossed it. I was sad but it was gone but not forgotten.

    I have gotten much better but I was a Junior Hoarder. Nothing grotesque but stacks and stacks of books.

    I have learned to apply organizational skills at home that I used at work. It has helped. I love being organized and tend to slack off if I cannot do something perfectly.

    But the truth be told is that I love clutter. I am totally at home with it. My apt looks like a toy/book store full of nostalgia. But that is just me. I enjoy it but at times it can be overwhelming.

    What I do want to do here is hone in on those organizational methods a lot of you excel at. Thank you!

    And I never never want to be like my sister-in-law who tosses the kids toys in the garbage as soon as she gets them! Don’t even get me started.

  25. posted by aspires2b on

    One of my friends insists that clutter (physical and time) aren’t distractions for her. But her clutter is infringing on me. She constantly asks to borrow my stuff because she can’t find hers, and if I do loan it to her, she doesn’t return it because it gets lost. And she is constantly asking me to pick up one or more of her children from activities at the last minute because she has double- or triple-booked her time and can’t make it back to fetch her kids. How can I get her to see that her clutter is really an issue?

  26. posted by Sue on

    @Erin, I work for a gov’t agency. No one loses their job, no matter how unproductive/disorganized/cluttered they are. Sad, but true. And I have never met anyone who is truly productive and extremely disorganized or cluttered.

    I am not perfect. My cube has slowly gotten more cluttered as my workload has increased (because I’m picking up the slack for others who will never be reprimanded or fired even if some show up late & leave early and spend their days doing everything except actually working).

    But I’m organized. You can find my projects easily, and quickly determine exactly what’s been done and what still needs to be done.

    @Ari, having a messy desk during actual work is one thing. Sounds like when you’re done, you can pack it up, clean up, and figure out exactly what you did later. I work with many people who have had the same piles and boxes on their desks for the 10 years I’ve been at my job. Seriously. It’s no longer the projects in progress that are taking up their prime office space. It’s stuff they don’t know what to do with, or stuff they need to finish but never dedicate the time to do so. The difference between the kind of mess you describe on your desk, and the mess that’s true clutter and not work-in-progress, is obvious to just about everyone.

  27. posted by Michelle on

    In regards to the hoarders, they definitely need the medical treatment first as you mentioned. On the show broadcast on TLC, they mention getting help but it’s only after the clean up process if they even get the help. I’d like to know how many of those people are back to their hoarding ways after getting their house uncluttered.

  28. posted by Ms. D on

    I have an extremely hard time finding motivation to organize things, especially at work, because I have an extremely photographic memory. My desk and cube are cluttered with my current projects because I actually know where everything is. Today, someone came to my cube an asked me for a document that I was given in October, but never had to look at. I closed my eyes for about 10 seconds, pictured myself putting it down, and got it out and gave it to them, despite the fact that my desk is several inches deep with current paperwork.

    There are two reasons why I come here. My boss, despite having seen this routine over and over again, being messier than I am, and witnessing the fact that I am more efficient than anyone else in my office, thinks that I’m too disorganized. What he doesn’t realize is it takes me forever to organize thing because the perfectionist gene requires me to do it juuuuuuust right. He also doesn’t seem to get that I’m not going to work 12 hours instead of 10 in a typical day, while getting paid for 8 and never being able to take a vacation or sick day, just to organize stuff on top of my extraordinarily heavy workload. Finally, people leave our office all the time and leave their messes behind, and so I would have to spend a day cleaning up stuff from people who left years ago just to have room to organize my stuff.

    My family is also full of hoarders. My siblings and I resent the hoarding and are pretty much so anti-hoarders, but I feel like a little bit of a hoarder because stuff doesn’t get processed in and out as quickly as it should at home. I work too hard, too long at work to come home and make sure all my mail is processed, stat. I used to have extremely efficient systems for handling paper at home, but I just don’t have time for them anymore. I was hoping to find some faster systems, but haven’t. I’ve mostly resorted to email statements and cancelling catalogs and junk mail to contol the paper. At least I can delete emails on my commute, instead of reading in bed, while standing in line, etc.

  29. posted by Natalie in West Oz on

    @ Tan: there is a book called “So you live with a messie”. A friend bought it for me years ago here in Oz. I guess its available overseas too. It does give strategies and understanding of how hard it is living with someone who doesnt get your need to be clean but ultimately, if you try every trick and the other person still wont clean up, its up to you. The book is more about cleanliness than clutter but to me, they are one and the same.

    @ Terriok: I work in a class too. I’m an Education Assistant for disabled children. I’m also a mum. And I labelled each and every one of my son’s 32 plastic counters, the stems AND lids of all his textas and pens and the base and top of his sharpener, as well as every single pencil, both coloured and plain. The teacher thanked me. That son will never have to get into a fight with some kid who insists the texta lids are his because he’s too disorganised/messy to know where his really are.

    I did the same for my older son who is ADHD because HE is the disorganised kid and he STILL never has to fight with anyone coz he knows exactly what is his (and what isnt), even if he’s left it on someone else’s desk or its under a book.

  30. posted by Laura m. on

    What should motivate people to declutter is lack of space for extra unneeded items, incl clothes. Also, the needs in the community, many charities, etc. Closets and kitchen cabinets seem to build up stuff over time, so I purge regular several times a year. Linens are another problem, so extra towels and sheets are donated to group homes.

  31. posted by Sara on

    Good post. I love the site, but had been feeling a strange pressure about my books. There have been so many conversations about getting rid of books, just using library books & e-readers, etc.
    Then I realized that my husband and I are comfortable with more books than most people. (I’m working on my PhD in English Lit, so that might have something to do with it!) In fact, we feel more at home when we have books around us. It’s OK if other people don’t, and it’s ok if I do. I can declutter in other areas. It was when I realized that books aren’t clutter to me, for the most part (I do winnow out and take a bag or two to the used book store each year!). It’s about being comfortable with your level of “clutter” and realizing what is and what isn’t clutter to you.

  32. posted by L on

    I don’t get why the comments classify people as either minimalist uncluttered people or all-out hoarders. I am very happy medium (between those two extremes). If a house is “too organized” I tend not to touch anything because I assume that the homeowner is inflexible and rigid. If a house is too messy (think hoarder) my senses would be so overwhelmed that I would probably never return to that house.

    I do not have scads of stuff, but people have stuff. The question is how much stuff do you need and how should that stuff be organized?

    I have a junk drawer at home, only it has important papers such as car maintenance records, receipts and user guides for any electronics I own, certain PC application CDs along with the product key needed to install the software.

    I also have a tendency to put things on the dining room table and I address where to put those things at a later time. It is not piled to the ceiling, you can see a lot of wood of the table, but that is my main cluttered space. It works for me.

    At work, my mind and my email are incredibly organized. I can find any email that anyone has sent to me that I found important enough to keep. My desk?, Not so organized. If I am busy, my desk gets messier and messier. Then when I have free time I clean my desk. I write in notebooks and keep those notebooks until I no longer need the information inside. I may rip out certain pages and keep the rest if some of the information becomes obsolete.

    So I guess the bane of my existence is really paper. Tackling paper is always the most difficult thing.

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