Ask Unclutterer: The connection between surroundings and perspective

Reader Tom submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

I don’t buy it. I read “Clutter can kill creativity and innovation” and don’t believe a word of it. I can work if my desk is a mess. The “scientific research” is preposterous. I don’t need a minimalist workspace to be creative or innovative. Explain that.

Tom, you don’t need scientific research to prove what you already know to be true: Your surroundings influence the way you work and live, regardless of if you are aware of it or not.

Whenever my office or home are a mess I think about the drive from the Kansas City airport to my hometown to remind myself of how important my environment influences my work, life. It takes a little more than an hour to get from the airport to my mom’s house in Kansas, but the trek is more about transforming one’s perspective than ticking off minutes on a clock. The hectic, metropolitan energy carried through the airport gives way to a raw, rural world as the car travels west along Interstate-70.

Out there, trees are pruned by years of savage winds and spirited rains instead of manufactured gardening tools. Tall grasses wave from their chalky dirt, as if to welcome you to this barren, yet beautiful, golden landscape.

Evidence of man’s presence and dominance of the land appears on the rolling hills with water towers and grain silos every 15 or 20 miles. The smooth highways, road signage, and farm houses are less jarring reminders that people call this place home.

Life in my hometown feels heavier and more exposed than it does in the DC suburbs. You can feel callouses when you shake a person’s hand. People speak honestly and candidly, even to strangers. You can’t be anonymous, rather you have an obligation to carry your burdens and the burdens of your family and neighbors. Life isn’t better or worse or backward or calmer in Kansas — it’s simply different, unprotected. I’m different, less guarded, when I’m there.

When I talk to my Kansas family on the phone from my east coast suburban house with my suburban manicured lawn, I’m not instantly transformed into the person I am when I am there in person. My mind and body know I’m only a few blocks from a Starbucks and a Metro ride away from Congress. My perspective is heavily influenced by the concrete, steel, glass, and seemingly endless river of shopping centers, office buildings, and neighborhoods with their developments’ names carved into stone. To make the anticipated quip, it’s obvious I’m not in Kansas anymore.

If you think your environment doesn’t influence your perspective, imagine the experience of attending a game in a sports stadium. Being at the venue is vastly different than watching the game on your television at home. You’re immersed in the smell of the popcorn from the concession stand, experience the same temperature as the players on the field, and feel the cheers from the crowd.

There are other scientific studies different than the one referenced in “Clutter can kill creativity and innovation” supporting these same conclusions, but you don’t need to read them. You already know that you feel differently walking along a beach on a warm spring day looking out over the ocean than you do waiting in a crowded line at the DMV. An organized, comfortable room easily instills in you a sense of calm and clarity that takes longer to achieve (if at all) in a chaotic space. Without clutter, there are fewer things to distract you from focusing on what is important to you. It might not be impossible to be creative or innovative in a cluttered office — but, it certainly is more difficult. Why make things more difficult than they need to be?

Thank you, Tom, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I hope I was able to provide you with a sufficient response. Be sure to check the comments for even more insight into this issue from our readers.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

44 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: The connection between surroundings and perspective”

  1. posted by Melanie on

    This responses is a little “out there” for me.

    What happened to the practical advice of the early days of this website? Instead of pontificating about the grass and trees in Kansas being different than the shopping malls and concrete in DC, teach us how to to finally clear that pile of stuff off my desk (so we can be creative and innovative.

    Decluttering is like someone getting sober. They have to want to do it before it actually will be done. All the essays about “why” they should be sober (or decluttered) won’t help. Your goal should not be convincing us that a decluttered life is better (or that a remarkable life is a worthwhile goal), but instead be providing concrete advice for those of us who are already convinced of the “why”, but can’t figure out the “how”.

    You have lost your way, my friend.

  2. posted by Rachel on

    If Tom isn’t bothered or hindered by the clutter, why is he even reading your blog? Sounds to me like he’s either trying to yank your chain (goal achieved?) or he’s in denial. People do what they want to do. I do remember reading once that people liked it when they stayed in hotels because there wasn’t any clutter there. I know I didn’t relate that very well but you get the idea.

  3. posted by Christy on

    @Melanie , I believe this website provides a lot of the “how” and she was simply using the examples of different surroundings to convey her point. Since Tom had already dismissed the “scientific research,” she was just giving him a less scientific approach. I am not sure how telling her that she has lost her way will help. Instead, check out her two books which provide a lot of “how” and practical advice. Unless you just like complaining and leaving little quips at the end of your comments. If that is the case, then continue on your way, my friend.

  4. posted by Laurel on

    Huh. Unlike Melanie, I really enjoyed the more emotional tone of this post. I haven’t kept up with Unclutterer recently and this was a nice welcome back. IMO, Erin was trying to explain the very emotional, intangible effects of environment on mental state and behavior.

    (Ironically, I think these same arguments are the main ones in favor of giving physical objects a little more emotional importance than Unclutterer often does. I strongly believe that physical objects often have very intangible or spiritual importance. The difficulty is separating out which stuff really matters, and not letting your attachment to stuff get out of hand.)

    Actually, one thing that’s recently re-convinced me of the negative impact of clutter is playing hidden object games. I had never really heard of them until recently, and I’m not much of a game-player, but I have enjoyed them a lot since discovering them. In a picture of a scene (usually a room) cluttered with items, the player tries to find certain objects. ( It takes a lot of work to visually sort through everything and find the needed item–that’s why it’s a game. To me this game-playing experience is an excellent (though admittedly exaggerated) demonstration of how much visual and mental effort clutter can add to our lives. And when you’re distracted by that clutter, it makes sense that you have less energy to put into other things.

    Now, to me, sometimes a clutter of objects, especially if they’re ones I like, can feel inspiring or emotionally exciting. But all too often clutter consists of more mundane stuff that gets in the way of the more important items and thinking.

  5. posted by Karen (Scotland) on

    I totally get Unclutterer’s point in this post (even if it’s not as concise as she usually is!)
    I get the point and, for me, personally, I agree with it.

    However, the original questioner (Tom) clearly has a different temperament from Erin (and me).
    I can NOT do anything creative until my desk is clear. My arty pal in college could do anything – paint, create, daydream in the biggest, craziest, maddest messes – so I’m guessing Tom is that sort of person. It honestly didn’t affect my friend in the slightest. At least, not her creativity.

    Sure, it affected her punctuality, assignment deadlines, time wasted re-finding things she needed etc.
    BUT, it didn’t affect her creativity (Directly. She lost a lot of potential creating-time looking for stuff…)

    My (glib) suggestion would be that truly creative people wouldn’t be involved in any research as they are too busy creating and forgot they had an appointment at the research centre. The only people that turned up were the slightly more organised semi-creatives who need a calm environment to reach that compromise of creativity and organisation…

    Karen (Scotland)

  6. posted by Ago on

    It’s weird: I pretty much agree with everything you just said, but I can’t help feeling that, if I were on the receiving end, that would be a bit harsh. When I read Tom’s comment, I felt that his issue with the research hinged on:”I can work if my desk is a mess.” The funny thing is, the research never said a person couldn’t work, just that they’d be better in an environment that promoted creativity. You’re point that environment influences us constantly is so true, but I think that the delivery was a bit in-your-face. Lol. Tough love I guess. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. posted by HiredRose on

    Wow. I hadn’t realized this was such a polarizing issue..

    Clearly, scientific research can’t tell you who you are. Just like that drive out Kansas way would probably not be so soothing to someone born and raised in Manhattan, some people enjoy a cluttered desk – it feels ‘lived in’ or homey. Others require an immaculate workspace. The key is what works for you.

    I urge the readers and writers here not to go too ‘gospel’ with any one side if this. I, like many I think, come here for advice on how to get to /my/ preferred level of (un)clutteredness. Some of the spaces featured are actually a little spartan for my personal taste, but much of the advice is sound and some of the things I’ve read here have become downright mantra.

    However, the level of zealotry I see burgeoning here would be a huge turn-off – it would be cluttering our lives with unnecessary drama. Comparing someone who lives with what we might call clutter to an alcoholic is clearly over the top.

  8. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Melanie — I learned a long time ago that I cannot please 100 percent of Unclutterer readers 100 percent of the time. When I write two practical posts in a row, someone complains that I don’t write enough about the big picture. When I write two big picture posts in a row, someone inevitably complains that I don’t provide enough practical advice. In this case, however, I’m a little confused by your comment since on our homepage there are practical articles on how to create an “In case of …” file, how to organize and store hats, how to change bad habits, how to clean and store a bbq grill, how to unclutter old computer files and transfer necessary ones between machines, how to be more productive, and how to organize and store sweaters. All of these posts seem extremely practical to me, but then again, I wrote them so it would be weird if I didn’t believe them to be helpful …

  9. posted by Laurel on

    Karen, Ago, and HiredRose, I do agree with you too. Different people work differently and some, especially creatives, find clutter comforting and inspiring, and a clean surface sterile and depressing. Executive function may be impaired but that doesn’t necessarily impact on other functions; though I think it does for many of us.

  10. posted by Sean on

    This response seems much too oblique. It don’t think Tom is suggesting that people aren’t affected by their surroundings. His question is more specific. Why is uncluttered necessarily better than cluttered? On this site it’s regarded as an axiom, but isn’t there room for debate? I, for one, cannot work at a cluttered desk. I don’t even have icons on my computer desktop. On the other hand, unlike Erin, I do not feel liberated or more at ease in the country. Quite the opposite. I feel confined and exposed. I much prefer the hustle and bustle, the clutter, of the city.

    I’d also like to point out that the article Tom refers to, posted by Jonathan Fields, does not specifically mention clutter. Rather, he promotes the value of a logically organized space that works for you.

    “And itโ€™s also not about cleanliness, or complying with someone elseโ€™s idea of order. Itโ€™s really about having some level of logic to the state of my physical space that works for me, even if nobody else can see it.”

    In other words, one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. This, I believe, is what Tom is alluding to. Clutter works for him.

  11. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Sean — I do not prefer the country. I like to visit and am glad I grew up where I did. But, I am a city girl who adores being able to walk to Starbucks.

  12. posted by madilla on

    I honestly don’t know whether I enjoyed your post or the comments more!

  13. posted by STL Mom on

    I feel a little bit like Tom. Once clutter sits around for a day or two, I don’t even notice it. On the other hand, my husband is very aware of his physical surroundings and becomes noticeably uncomfortable in a messy, cluttered environment. I tidy things up more for his sake than for mine. I like the way a neat house looks, but I don’t think I feel any better.
    On the other hand, put me in a noisy environment and I react right away, so I guess different people are affected by different things.

  14. posted by Martin on

    Yeah, this one rambles. You may have just said, “imagine walking from your bedroom to the washroom when the floor is clear, vs. when it has toy cars strewn about it. Imagine the extra mental effort it takes to get from a to b when there’s clutter–particularly if your brain’s already not 100% like in the middle of the night. The mind must deal with everything in an environment. It’s reasonable to surmise that a clean desk offers a less painful way to get things done.” That’s my $0.02 anyway.

  15. posted by Wrennerd on

    I found the post to be incredibly rude and dismissive, especially when it told Tom what he “knows to be true,” despite the fact that his quote indicated otherwise. Stating what you have experienced or research has shown is fine, but telling someone what they “know” ensures they will never listen to you again.

  16. posted by Anne on

    Melanie, I don’t agree with you at all, and your final sentence was a little patronizing (there’s plenty of simple, practical information here too). I think Erin’s answer reflected nicely the fact that when you truly unclutter your life, it truly is life changing. You feel so much freer and less stressed knowing that you can always find any object or piece of information you need. For me, traveling in particular became much more pleasurable when I knew that I wasn’t leaving behind a thousand things on my to-do list or didn’t have to spend hours packing because I couldn’t find half my travel supplies, foreign currency or clothes. Ironically, being uncluttered means I enjoy shopping far more than I ever did, since I know I won’t have to literally stuff my new purchase in my overflowing closet when I get home and I know that what I’ve bought is really useful and good quality. In short, uncluttering goes far beyond dry, practical advice.

  17. posted by Becky on

    I think this is heavily affected by one’s personality. Similar to Karen (Scotand)’s post, my sister is a painter. Her studio, and those of some of her friends, are ridiculously cluttered. She loves it that way. Her house is not quite cluttered, but it’s definitely busy. She mentioned recently that a big white empty wall makes her feel like she’s in prison.

    Whereas I *love* big white empty walls and rooms with little in them. Maybe what I percieve in her studio as “clutter,” she percieves as “material.”

    I haven’t read the study, but people do vary.

  18. posted by tba on

    I second HiredRose’s post. This is a site for unclutterers, but not everybody needs to be an uncluttered person. I am guessing that when it comes to working environments, some people just need a clear space while others are inspired by objects. Just like some people get up easily in the morning and others like to sleep long.

    If you think about it, all of you might probably be able to name someone who seems to be truly creative in an environment that might appear cluttered to the readers of this blog. Sigmund Freud is an example that quickly came to my mind. I’ve recently been to the Sigmund Freud museum in Vienna. It exhibited a number of pictures of his working and therapy room, and guess what? They were both full of stuff. Lots of books on shelves, a mirror hanging from the window, and he was also a keen collector of old egyptian rocks and statues and stuff, which he displayed on shelves and tables. Basically, his working room was packed. Now, who would go so far as to say Freud definitely did not achieve much and could have written soo much more books if his desk had been neat and tidy?

    Or think Victorian times, when the vision of an ideal intellectual was someone like an inventor who collected and created all sorts of objects and had massive blackboards in his house on which formulas and ideas were written in a seemingly confuse manner.

    I know the idea of keeping only the necessicities of life appeals to a lot of readers, but where would our society be without all those people who collected books, papers, obscure objects?

    Tom, maybe you are just one of those people, and uncluttering doesn’t work for you. I think it’s great that you are still interested in the notion of uncluttering and want to know how it works, even if you discover it is not for you. I think your question is highly justified, but so is Erin’s reply. Take it easy, folks, and dont become dogmatic about it.

  19. posted by camellia tree on

    Tom’s letter was rude. What kind of arrogant jerk ends a message by demanding that someone explain their behavior? If Tom wants to live like a pig, he should feel free and will have much company.

  20. posted by Melanie on

    Erin – I do appreciate that you cannot please everyone.

    I am not being a troll. I am a big fan who reads the site and forums every day. I don’t mean to patronize or critize. I just think you missed the mark on this one (and I am not the only one, it appears); and have been missing it for a few months now on many topics. I am truly sad that this website has lost its earlier charm of providing quick, digestible, immediately applicable tidbits of advice on how to declutter. Instead now we get complex, multiple item checklists or philosophical pondering.

  21. posted by Jodi on

    I want to throw out a middle-of-the road idea.

    Erin says in the Work Space of the Week post:

    “Likely, when the space is in use, there are also project materials strewn about the desks.”

    I can’t speak for Tom, but personally I can’t work if I start in a cluttered environment; I need organization and space to spread out.

    Likewise, I can’t work with an organized project. My husband “cleans as he goes” all the time, because he likes order. Sometimes this gets in my way, especially when I am cooking and I set the spoon down to check the oven/butter the bread and no sooner do I turn around and he has washed my spoon and put it away.

    He has also put the eggs back in the fridge because I was cracking eggs and not using them at the moment (patience man!)

    Or clears my plate into the dishwasher (before I finish eating) because I got up to change the baby and just left my plate sitting there.

    (He isn’t OCD, but he was single for 20 years when we met and sometimes cleans before thinking LOL! He knows he does it, and we joke about it when one of us catches him doing it again.)

    My point is that sometimes, in the midst of a project, the paint cans will be open, there will be tape on the floor, papers everywhere, or you are covered from head to toe in flour. Constantly organizing in the midst of the ACTUAL project can hinder creativity.

    I am working on a project currently and have a dozen reference books strewn around me. I am refering back to them randomly as needed, but I am NOT getting up to put each one back on the shelf in-between uses because getting up/down all the time would be distracting and stifle my creativity.

    I think the key is that a project should START and FINISH in an organized space, but accept that there is an element of disorder that will accompany any active project.

  22. posted by Gemmond on

    Has anyone ever heard of the term “agree to disagree”? Not being sarcastic.

    I attempt to be an unclutterer in many areas. I don’t always succeed. I read Erin’s blogs and some bits resonate and some do not.

    I may not personally agree with Erin, or some of those who comment, but, hey, that is life.

    It never occurs to me that Erin or other bloggers are trying to impose their POV on me. They couldn’t if they tried. So I take what interests me, ignore the rest and occasionally comment with some point of disagreement, trying to be tactful.

    It’s not Erin’s job to write posts that “please” or “satisfy” or whatever some of you seem to expect them to do.

    All I want of any blog is someone’s authentic (and unpaid for) opinions. Hopefully put forth with grace and respect, as I feel Erin does.

    given some of the rude questions and comments, I’m actually surprised at how tactful and polite and professional Erin is in her responses. I would be far less polite given what some have questioned and written.

    Nowhere, as long as I have been reading this blog, have I felt that Erin was saying that “her” way was THE way for anyone else. To me, it’s about her bringing up a topic, throwing out her thoughts and stirring up our minds so we can THINK for ourselves and CHOOSE for ourselves.

    You don’t have to agree with any premise or idea that is expressed. By the same token, you don’t have to call scientific research “preposterous.” You can say you doubt is validity, methodology, results. When you start by somewhat attacking, you should not be upset that someone feels the need to explain (or defend) themselves.

    Erin, I have no issue with your post other than I don’t think you owe Tom any sort of response at all. I think perhaps you’re feeling vulnerable (which given what is going on with your life at present, is to be expected).

    Personally, I liked the way you discussed our different “selves” as influenced by our environment. (Witness sane, professional adults who return home for family gatherings only to act like five-year-olds reliving past fights and such. You want to know someone? Go home with them to a family event and watch how they act with their family members. It will tell you EVERYTHING!)

    One last thing, as someone whose work requires them to question everything, especially scientific research, I don’t have a problem with anyone saying they don’t hold to it. Because here’s the thing: For every person who can say “Yes” to research results, there are also folks who can legitimately say: No, that doesn’t apply to me or that hasn’t happened in my experience.

    The drug that saved 100 people can also kill 5 others.

    Respectfully, I suggest that those who come to this or another blog come without expectations. Someone offers up their thoughts. You are free to accept or reject them, believe or not. Just be respectful. No need to be mean-spirited or demand “proof” for everything.

    Some of us don’t have to agree with everything that is written in a blog to enjoy it and learn from it. It’s like our personal relationships: They are not perfect but we choose them and how we engage in them.

    Dropping expectations is perhaps the most important aspect of personal decluttering, IMHO.

  23. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Melanie — I didn’t think you were being a troll, but I do think it’s funny (not ha-ha funny, but interesting funny) that you expect me to meet your specific standards every single day. I don’t even meet my OWN standards most days. How could I possibly meet yours when I don’t even know what your standards for me are?

    I am an incredibly flawed person, and I am physically, mentally, and socially incapable of being perfect. I will never, ever, ever claim to be perfect or even desire it. Being flawed is essential to who I am — I am a great big ball of imperfection with a hefty dose of awkwardness thrown into the mix. It would be a safe bet for you to assume I will continue to fail to live up to the standards you have set for me and be off “the mark” on into the future.

    That being said, I’m going to continue to write authentically, based on my experiences and acquired knowledge, and do it to the best of my abilities. I’m going to continue to wake up every day and share the advice that I think will be helpful and beneficial to people struggling with clutter and disorganization. Sometimes, I will fail and provide advice that is wrong or wrong-ish or downright awful. But, most days, I hope to help at least one person who is looking to solve a problem. Today, that person wasn’t you. Maybe next Tuesday or Thursday will be different?

  24. posted by Linda on

    I try to unclutter, am making slow progess. BUT when it comes to my hobbies (needlework of all kinds and some quilting) I find some clutter can actually *help* my creativity – as I look for one thread, I might find another that is better, or see something that inspires me. Just another view.

  25. posted by mili on

    I see what Jodi means because I’m rather like that too: I clean up when I require a change of pace or one of perspective. That could be because I’m starting a new project, or to switch between two actives, or because the one I’m into is stalled and I’m spinning my wheels. Or sometimes because I need to shift from ‘work mode’ to ‘get some sleep already’ mode (actually I wish I didn’t need that, but as my working space and my sleeping area are like two feet from each other lol, I have to. I would really love a wall between them :P)

    I also understand what she said about not being able to work on an organized project, because with truly creative work, you’re doing a form of trailblazing (even if it’s just new-to-you) so you don’t know where you’re going, therefore you don’t know where you are in the process, so no organizing can really take place. In fact, having to clean up at every small step is a guarantee I’ll quit or not even start ๐Ÿ™‚

    I do agree with Melanie and others who said that they wish there was more practical info and/or less ‘philosophizing’ as somebody called it ๐Ÿ˜› I think those dilute the message, really. I think it’s also remarkable that there are now hardly any reviews of uncluttering-related products or services, and no specific step-by-step posts – the only products we can rely on seeing are actually the unitaskers! I also think the international perspective has shrunk, as has most of the concern with diversity. I do still stick around because there’s no other site that has that particular focus (there are some organizing websites, but usually they’re more about fitting as many things as possible into as small a space as possible, and even if they’re not, they usually include lots of other housekeeping concerns). But as soon as someone pops out with a website on decluttering ONLY that goes back to the roots, no judgement or grand talk, I’ll probably move on I’m afraid ๐Ÿ˜›

    I also think Reader Tom was a bit set up really. After all, we didn’t get his whole message, so we lack context – who knows what he said and how? It seems unfair to call him rude or aggressive, or really to pass judgment on his opinion. Whereas Erin had all the room she wanted to reply. I don’t think that was necessary TBH.

    Also, I don’t know, but I suspect that perhaps by the comment on preposterous scientific research, he meant not that he doesn’t trust scientific research in general, just that he does not find that particular study credible. Which, you know, could certainly be true – a lot of the research discussed with great seriousness in the mainstream media and in much of self-help literature is pure trash (think fifteen people, no control groups, no peer review, etc). Dunno if this one is, but honestly I’ve been disappointed so many times now I tend to take a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ stance ๐Ÿ˜›

  26. posted by Tammy on

    Just some random thoughts popping into my mind…

    If Tom is ok with clutter, why does he visit this blog?

    I hate watching baseball on tv, but enjoy going the game.

    I’ve lived in So Cal my entire life and I yearn for a place like Kansas. The description sounded so peaceful and uncluttered to me.

    And I like the variety of posts on this site… all the how-to’s in the world will never work if you don’t get to the root once in a while. There’s room for a little of everything. The philosophical and the practical. I actually enjoyed this post better than the one about organizing hats because I don’t own a single hat. ๐Ÿ™‚ So there you go. Just take what’s useful to you and move on.

  27. posted by Allie on

    I appreciate your blog. I appreciate that you give freely of your time to help others streamline their lives in order to live more fully. There seem to be a couple of people who thinks it’s acceptable to criticize you and demand a different style and content for your website. I appreciate that your point of view is different from mine, which often leads me to think about things differently than I might have previously. If I pay someone to paint my dining room white and they paint it black, I think I would be justified in registering a complaint- this is your blog, you are an excellent author, and clearly these detractors are a very very small minority of your readers. Please keep up the great work on YOUR terms, Unclutterer is wonderful just as it is.

  28. posted by Jeanne on

    I usually don’t read comments, but I was so impressed by what Erin wrote today that I was curious – my goodness,what a storm! Often I’m looking for a quick tip, or something to kick start me into getting more organized (a lifelong quest), but today I just really enjoyed Erin’s creativity and the word-pictures she created. I have unsubscribed from blogs that sounded too much the same every day, and I for one applaud Erin’s authenticity and variety.

  29. posted by lola on

    Thank you Erin for all your great advice. I used to be one of those people that pawed through the piles on my desk looking for that certain file or the stapler….15-2o minutes later I would find it after making more mess and stress. Now, things are in their place, I can access them in seconds, and there’s no stress. I can hardly believe how much I can accomplish so quickly–it’s an amazing change!

  30. posted by Pat Collins on

    Thank you, Erin for all your insights. We cannot improve on our lives and learn to unclutter if we do not know why we do what we do. I love your sight. Keep up the good work and don’t let naysayers get you down.

  31. posted by Ms. Lizzie on

    Wow–what an interesting post, and what a varied group of responses! The first thing it made me realize is that clutter is truly in the eye of the beholder. If you have room for the things in your life, you know where everything is and you don’t find it hard to keep it all clean then you are probably not cluttered. (I have a friend whose house looks like a gift shop exploded in it, but while it’s not for me, she keeps it up beautifully.)

    Still…I find it impossible not to go all judgmental about things. Like making a bed–does never making a bed REALLY make some people happy? (People like my stepdaughter–who is 28.) And I have my own areas–starting with the basement–that would definitely make some people think “how can she live like that!” We all bring our own stuff to the table and this blog entry really brought it out.

    I loved Erin’s thoughts on surroundings and perspective. I, too, spent much of my life living in a city (New York) and flying back to Kansas City. (I grew up 90 minutes away in north central Missouri.) Leaving New York was a compromise when I had my daughter–I didn’t want to live in the suburbs and my partner didn’t want to live in the city but we were both happy to move to the country! (Although less than two hours from the city.) And ironically, since Michael Ruhlman has been coming up in your recent columns, we live in the town where he lived while going to the Culinary Institute.

    Just a bunch of random thoughts inspired by Erin!

  32. posted by whit on

    Just my perspective, but I think it’s rude to criticize someone on their own blog. If you have a question or need a clarification or want to make a specific comment, that’s one thing, but if you just plain disagree, I don’t think there’s much point in commenting. And if you’re disappointed with one type of post and prefer another, well, you catch more flies with honey than vinegar (is that actually true about flies?), so comment positively on the ones you like and maybe you’ll see more of them. And the nice thing about this blog is that it’s been going on a while so you can always go back to old posts that address your needs better.

  33. posted by DawnW on

    She was simply answering the question. He didn’t ask how to unclutter,he asked why.She told him. Geez.I think Tom was very nasty with his comments/question.

  34. posted by mili on

    wow, whit & co – have you ever heard about this fascinating thing called ‘dialog’? the free exchange of ideas?

    Honestly, if you put out public content, then ask people to talk about their perspective, you ARE asking for criticism (among a host of other reactions). Saying other people should shut up if they disagree is both nonsensical and just autocratic. Put simplistically, you are saying, ‘here’s my way. what’s yours?’ then when people come in and say ‘mine’s different than yours’ you reply with ‘actually, scratch that – it’s my way or the highway’ (not saying Erin Doland did that here – just saying that this is what people are advocating when they say you should not offer criticism).

    Honestly, you’re allowed to demand basic civility (ie no all-out swearing/shouty caps, no arbitrary personal attacks along the lines of X or Y is a stupid, rude b!tch who eats kittens for breakfast’) and law-abiding behavior (eg no distribution of controlled materials) but that’s it – especially if you DID ask for contributions. It’s not like this is a ‘personal journal’ type blog.

    And come to think of it, the only one here who’s had personal attacks of that kind aimed at them, is actually Reader Tom himself! No one’s attacking ED – even those of us who are not completely admiring every single post.

    Honestly, what you are suggesting is an absurdity that would make ANY lively online community impossible. Thank god most people disagree with you!

  35. posted by Merry on

    In response to the question from Tom: that was a very intelligent answer to his question. I didn’t know where you were going with it during the story, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading your answer and got your point. I’m very distracted by clutter and prefer to have my stuff stored in closed drawers and behind doors. When needed, if I haven’t forgotten where it is, I can easily access it. Thanks for your blog

  36. posted by Carolyn on

    I, for one, definitely cannot work with clutter. To me clutter and disorganization are like static on the radio: incredibly irritating and I can’t really function until I turn it down. I need to clean/organize my workspace to be creative or productive, be it my desk or my kitchen.

    I enjoy your blog, Erin. You do a great job — some days more practical, some days more philosophical. Hey that’s great — I enjoy the variety!

  37. posted by Jodi on

    If Erin was offended by the question or thought it was rude/uncalled for, she would have deleted it and moved on, not posted something she found offensive on her website. If Erin wasn’t offended, why should we be?

    Personally, it really helped me understand some of the posts when Erin explained their demographic data of their readership, because I can analyze what differences there are between myself and her target audience, then see if there are ways to modify her suggestions to fit my situation.

    A perfect example was the idea of a mail processing station near the front door. I loved the idea, but knew that it would never work for me, because with a baby, carseat, diaper bag, groceries, purse etc. my hands are full until I get through my hallway. My “station” is set up on the opposite side of the house where babyseats and diaper bags are kept because that is where my comings and goings take place. Just because its not by the front door, and I have a diaper bag instead of a briefcase, and, and, and, I take what works and tweek it for me.

  38. posted by MizLoo on

    @ Sean, I think he nailed it. For all of my worklife, I inhabited an office so cluttered that it kept others out, reducing socializing and increasing snide comment. But, although i could not deal with file cabinets (invisible is gone), I could find just about anything in my clutter, reaching into a pile 2 feet high to pull out the paper the “neat-freak” commenters could not find in their orderly file cabinets. Flash ahead 30 years to a brain injury: now I cannot find anything that is not well-ordered. I have labels on every shelf so things go back to the right space and I can find them tomorrow. An actual re-arrangement of my brain tissue changed my perception of whether clutter is an impediment or an asset to working.

  39. posted by Rally on

    Not sure how Tom made the leap in the article from using devices to keep track of details so your mind can be more creative to having a decluttered desk but I think the point he was trying to make is that since he doesn’t think the research applies to him, it must be bogus. To me, that is faulty logic. One of the problems researchers have is that they have to be careful about generalizing research from the study group to the general population. There are always going to be exceptions, and maybe Tom is one of them. If he doesn’t need a clean desk to be creative, that’s fine. So…don’t read a blog that talks about decluttering, I guess, if you don’t feel it applies to you?

    BTW Erin, I thought your post was beautifully written!

  40. posted by creativeme on

    I agree that surroundings influence a person’s sense of comfort and wellbeing.
    What astonishes me most is how that can change (sometimes dramatically) in a relatively short amount of time. I used to feel extreme anxiety in a sparse room…. I couldn’t relax, I felt exposed and vunerable. Now the opposite is true, excessive clutter feels heavy like it will squash me and robs me of my freedom.
    What changed?

  41. posted by Missy P on

    Hi Erin,
    As a person who is considering starting her own blog in the coming months, I can say that something like this is honestly my biggest hesitation and fear. It takes a lot of courage to put yourself, your ideas, and your work out into an anonymous online world where anyone can attack it, criticize it, or say it doesn’t meet their needs. I thoroughly enjoy your blog, your book, and your perspective. As a writer, I appreciate the effort, time, and thought that goes into your posts. Keep up the good work.

  42. posted by JJ on

    To those who way they don’t understand why Tom reads Unclutterer, I offer my own reason. I am one of those people who can’t stand to cook in a cluttered kitchen, I can’t work on accounting on a messy desk. Anything that requires precision, for me, requires uncluttered.

    However, when it’s time to get into my art – I can’t stand a clean, white space. I work better and am *more* creative when everything is chaotic on my workspace. I can’t explain it, but it’s the truth, for me.

  43. posted by Katherine Garnett on

    There is much much counter-evidence to the position that a minimalist environment is most productive, creative, or even desirable. Clearly, balance and being ABLE to unclutter dynamic life helps. For an incredible treatise on how CLUTTER has made so much possible in our human society… The PERFECT MESS. Lots and lots of historical examples and clear support for mess (in moderation). The freedom from minimalist, or “cleanup” tyranny is just as important for the peace of our souls, as is a good straightening up.

  44. posted by whit on

    I guess I didn’t explain myself very well when I said that I think it’s rude to criticize. What I meant is that if you have something to contribute that creates a dialogue, such as a question/comment/disagreement that addresses a point that was made, then go for it. But if you simply don’t like the content of a post, why bother saying so? In my mind, it’s like the difference between going to a jazz concert and criticizing the phrasing, and going to a jazz concert when you hate jazz and then saying you hated it to the performer afterwards. Really, what do you gain and what do they gain?
    mili, I hope this makes my point of view more clear. I’m sorry to have made you so upset – I certainly did not say that anyone had to “shut up” if they didn’t want to and I’m sad that you think I’m against the free exchange of ideas.

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