Clutter and Newton’s First Law of Motion

When uncluttering your home and office, chances are you’ll come across many objects you’ve thought about getting rid of dozens (maybe hundreds) of times, but never did.

For example, I’m allergic to Neosporin, yet I found six tubes of it when we were packing up for our move. I had regularly looked at those tubes in different parts of our house over the years — the medicine chest, the emergency kit in the kitchen, the medical kit in my gym bag — yet I didn’t get rid of them whenever I saw them and thought, “I should get rid of those.” I’m also not very sure how we came to own the ointment. My best guess is that my husband brought a couple into the house, maybe one or two came with a packaged medical kit, and one could have been left here by someone else.

In the case of the Neosporin, and all clutter, I believe Newton’s First Law of Motion can explain how it lingers for years in our spaces. An object (clutter) will stay at rest until a force (motivation) of equal or greater value acts upon it. The thought, “I should get rid of that,” is not a force of equal or greater value than the clutter. As unfortunate as it is, thoughts cannot move clutter. We can’t wish away our unwanted objects. We actually have to do something about them physically.

The other case of Newton’s First Law also applies here. An object (me) will continue in motion until a force (motivation) of equal or greater value acts upon it. Usually when I would see the Neosporin, it would be because someone or myself was injured. I was on a path to take care of the injury, not stop and deal with clutter. Then later, when maybe I thought about the Neosporin again, I could have been on a path to a meeting or to make dinner or to relax and watch a movie with my family. The motivation to clear the clutter wasn’t equal or greater than whatever else it was I wanted to be doing.

The only way to deal with the clutter in our lives is to break the patterns of inertia and muster up the motivation to do something about all the stuff we don’t want or need.

Surprisingly, the best way to create force (motivation) of equal or greater value to change the course of our clutter is to simply acknowledge that we have the power (velocity) to change the situation. After we think, “I should get rid of that,” the next thought should immediately be, “and to get rid of it I have to take action, now.” Then, take the action to get rid of the object. (Unless, of course, you’re dealing with an emergency. Deal with the emergency and then come back when you’re on a path to watch television or something equally benign.) Knowing that the object will not move itself and requires a force to act upon it can go a long way in helping you to clear the clutter you encounter regularly in your life.

It can be helpful to have five boxes in your laundry room or at the base of your closet when you’re just getting started on this process. Have one box for items to be returned to other people, a second box for items you wish to sell or Freecycle, the third box for charitable donations, the fourth should be a trash can, and the fifth box a recycling bin. When you come across a piece of clutter, pick it up and carry it to the closet. Decide which of the boxes is most appropriate for the piece of clutter, and then go back to whatever you were doing. When one of the boxes is full, deal with the items in all of the boxes. Take out the trash and recycling, drop off items to charity and to friends, and list the items you wish to sell or Freecycle.

The easier your system to handle clutter, the less force (motivation) it takes to get the unwanted objects (clutter) out of your home.

23 Comments for “Clutter and Newton’s First Law of Motion”

  1. posted by June Lemen on

    And if you are looking for a place to get rid of the Neosporin, may I suggest your local homeless shelter? At the one I’ve volunteered at, things like Neosporin are something people cannot afford and can make a big difference (especially if you’re not allergic to it)!

  2. posted by Erin Doland on

    @June — ALL six tubes were expired. I was hoarding EXPIRED Neosporin. It was ridiculous! 🙂

  3. posted by Lori Paximadis on

    Expired stuff creeps up on me, too. We’re not big users of OTC stuff, so boxes and bottles tend to expire before they get used up. I put a recurring to-do item on my list to check for and get rid of expired stuff twice a year.

    I keep a basket in my closet for Goodwill. As soon as I put something on that doesn’t quite fit anymore or that I decide I don’t like anymore, into the basket it goes.

  4. posted by June Lemen on

    Oh, wow, Erin. I never would have guessed.

    I’m a big fan of this site. I find it quite inspiring, which is good, as I have such a long way to go with decluttering. It makes me feel somewhat better that you had expired Neosporin.

    Isn’t that pathetic of me????

  5. posted by Another Deb on

    Gotta love any post that promotes physics! Thanks Erin!

  6. posted by Kari on

    So true. Over the weekend, I culled my cookbooks and when I was done, took them immediately to the library (for their booksale). My husband asked why the hurry–it was because I wanted them out so that they didn’t somehow migrate back into the bookshelves.

  7. posted by Jen on

    This reminds me of when i cleaned out our bathroom closet recently and found no fewer than 14 adult toothbrushes, 6 child toothbrushes, and 6 tubes of toothpaste. There are 3 people in my family. In case you’re wondering, only maybe 3-4 of the toothbrushes in total were given to us by the dentist, the rest were actually purchased, as was all of the toothpaste. I also found a whole bunch of old tubes of antibacterial cream (prescriptions from when I had an infection related to breast-feeding my son shortly after his birth, he is now 5 years old). Talk about hoarding. I’ve since resolved to avoid the dental care aisle for the next few years!

  8. posted by Lee on

    Your Neosporin reminded me of my medications. I have many bottles of expired medication sitting around – some in my “hard to dispose of” box where things sit while I try to find proper ways to dispose of them and others just sitting with current medications or with other items we use because I’ve been too lazy to at least take them to the box.

    I’ve talked to my pharmacist and people at the local recycling center and there doesn’t seem to be a responsible method available in my area. I’ve learned that flushing them and sending the to the landfill with my other trash are both unwise, at least for the environment. Any ideas?

  9. posted by Julie on

    @Lee – If you can find a Walgreen’s, they have an inexpensive ($2.99) program for mailing in old medications:

    Related to the idea of “I should get rid of that”: whenever I have to move stuff in order to get to other stuff, i ask myself how many more times I want to move that stuff in my lifetime. The answer often is “none”. How many more times do I want to move holiday decorations? None. how many more times do I want to move this item with emotional value to get to items I actually use? None. I get rid of those things.

    This is also a handy question to ask yourself when you move. That’s the best experience for getting rid of clutter. I moved several times in recent years, and each time, I divest myself of more and more junk. It feels wonderful.

  10. posted by Dudely on

    Expired medication is almost always perfectly fine. The dates pertain to the latest the company was willing to test, not the date when it goes bad. Why test for 10 years when you’re going to come out with a new medication 5 years from now?

    I’d be perfectly comfortable using any expired medication that wasn’t a matter of life or limb.

  11. posted by Karen Newbie on

    I recently read about local (Virginia) efforts to sponsor drug collection events. I just checked the US website and found the next National Drug Drop-Off Date is scheduled for 10/29/11 from 10am-2pm. I am sure there will be police stations and other drop-off centers in local communities throughout the country collecting expired or unneeded medicines on that date. If you can bear to hold onto your items for another 3 months, it’s a good way to ensure your medications aren’t landing in the water systems, landfills, or ground water in your community.

  12. posted by smk on

    So true about the forces of motivation. I recently made a concentrated effort to do one small project each week and to maintain from day to day. After the first week I was surprised at just how much effort I put into procrastinating. Like thinking “i’ll pick that up later” or I’ll file that when I get home tonight”. If I just take the 20 seconds to do it in that moment, it’s done, off my list, off my mind & off my table, floor, counter or whatever.

  13. posted by Sinea Pies on

    I totally identify with “I should” not providing the force than “I will…and I will do it NOW”. What we say is what we get. Taking my own advice, I now will say with gusto “I WILL lose weight and I’m starting right now”

  14. posted by snosie on

    I just went through the ‘daily’ medicine tray, and found out of date meds. I didn’t even ‘ask’ to dispose them, I just took them to the pharmacy (there was an in date bottle there).

    With the box for returning stuff to people, what I did a few years ago worked well. I got a number of wooden clothes pegs, and would write ‘city’ or ‘Kate’ or whoevers name I regularly had stuff to return to. Then I put the peg on a nice paper bag (as I have too many). Then they are at my ‘launchpad’ and I grab it next time I’m headed to see the person, or in that direction. And I have a peg for a bag when there’s mending, another for handwashing. Works great, and looks good enough to be out (without being too untidy!)

  15. posted by Quilting Bibliophagist on

    I thought I was the only one in the world allergic to Neosporin! It’s a recently acquired allergy, and I was wondering if there is any OTC product you use instead of it. (I find that I’m also allergic to Polysporin.

  16. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Quilting Bibliophagist — Everyone can become allergic to Neosporin. A person’s body can only tolerate a certain amount of the antibiotic in the ointment. Once that limit has been hit, you’ll have an allergic reaction to it for the rest of your life. Most people won’t ever hit that limit. Someone like me with a genetic disorder that causes constant injuries … well, I hit my tolerance limit with Neosporin (and Polysporin) about a decade ago.

    I haven’t tried using any other OTC ointments since I developed the allergy. I use prescription stuff. So … I’m of no help to you with finding an OTC alternative. Sorry!!

  17. posted by DivaJean on

    My OTC medications like this are not attacked and weeded as often as they need to be. Big problem with it is that hubby keeps differing medications in varying areas of the house. To me, centralized makes more sense and I try to convert her to this thought. I will tell her the story of the multiple Neosporins and maybe she’ll “get it.” I have similarly shown her how several places for first aid and OTC potions just makes it more likely for them to expiring, not being found when needed, or wasted in other ways.

    This is motivating me to get to it!

  18. posted by Kay Cee on

    I totally used this this morning! I looked at my bathroom counter, thought “I should really put away that goody bag from the dentist at some point,” and then I remembered Newton’s First Law of Clutter and put it away, and a few other things on the counter for good measure.

  19. posted by Deb on

    Most chemists (pharmacists) allow you to return unused portions of drugs for appropriate disposal – but the homeless shelter might have appreciated them more, even if they were out of date!

  20. posted by Bryan on

    Keyword – Inertia. It has been holding people back since the beginning of time. And is the principal reason why you had 6 bottles of neosporin in your house! I think you should do a post specially on Inertia and how to combat it!

  21. posted by Melissa on

    Our pediatrician said that most of the time (as long as it’s not too long after the expiration date, like a decade or something) the only harm in most OTC expired medications (especially topical and not ingested ones) is that it’s just not as potent as it was when new. So probably still safe to use or pass along to someone who could use it. Of course, I’m not a doctor myself 🙂 but our pediatrician’s advice hasn’t killed any of us yet.

  22. posted by Medic4102 on

    Quilting Bibliophagist – I’ve worked as a health director at a childrens camp. We go thru lots of antibiotic ointment.

    I will NOT get a neosporin or polysporin type ointement (triple antibiotic ointments) because there’s always someone at camp that’s allergic to one of the ingredients. I’ve had doctors agree with this too.

    I tend to prefer Bactracin. Haven’t had any problems with that in the 11 yrs I worked at camp. However, I would recommend asking the pharmacist if there is a good alternative – they are a plethra of information, as well as asking your physician. Good luck.

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