When to let chaos reign

Danielle LaPorte is in the midst of finishing work on her next book and recently tweeted the following:

Danielle’s perspective is wonderful. I know her home and work spaces are usually well organized, clutter free, and inspiring. While she is in crunch time with her book, though, she has let many of her minor responsibilities go for a few days as she focuses on what matters most to her. Her book and her family are her top priorities, and nothing is distracting her from these two things. She can see the big picture, knows eventually order will return, and isn’t letting herself feel any guilt over the secondary details.

When people turn to me for advice, often their questions begin with descriptions of very serious issues in their lives — physical limitations, sick family members, personal health concerns, financial difficulties, legal matters, major deadlines, and job security. After sharing these heavy anxieties, they will ask for guidance on handling clutter and being organized. In some cases, especially with long-term issues, turning to uncluttering and organizing can provide relief and improve the quality of life (especially with on-going physical limitations and financial difficulties). In most cases, however, the decision to turn to uncluttering and organizing is a distraction from what is really important. People want to avoid the serious problem or have lost sight of what matters most and can no longer see the big picture. It’s like an amplified desire a student might have to clean her apartment when she really should be studying for an exam taking place in a few hours. Stress can quickly cause someone to lose their clarity of priorities and sight of what really matters.

Regardless of the situation, my first piece of advice is to pause, take a deep breath, and remember uncluttering and organizing are not brain surgery. Unless a hoarding situation is immediately endangering someone’s life, clutter is typically not a life-or-death affair. Too-small clothes crammed into a stuffed closet or old magazines sitting on an end table will be fine if they sit a few days longer. Your bookshelf doesn’t have to be dusted right now. Your son can load the dishwasher using his haphazard method instead of the one you prefer and the sun will still rise tomorrow. Just take a break from whatever it is you’re doing and try to relax.

Once you’ve calmed a bit and have a clearer state of mind, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Right now, in this very moment, what really matters to you?
  2. Will uncluttering and organizing help you focus on these priorities, or are these actions avoidance or procrastination measures?
  3. Do you want to unclutter for the sake of uncluttering, or do you want to unclutter to help you focus on what really matters to you?
  4. If you delay uncluttering and organizing a few days/weeks/months will there be major repercussions, or will your situation actually improve if you focus on what really matters instead?

There is a time and place for uncluttering and organizing, but it usually isn’t when more important issues deserve your full attention. Focusing on the big picture and what really matters to you will help you gain perspective to know when is the right time for uncluttering and organizing, and when isn’t. Uncluttering and organizing are simply tools to help you achieve a remarkable life — they’re not the only tools in your workshop and they’re not what matters most to you. When calmer waters return, then is the time to put more effort into uncluttering and organizing.

30 Comments for “When to let chaos reign”

  1. posted by Linda Samuels on

    Fabulous post. It’s all about perspective and priorities. Thank you for getting to the heart of the matter and reminding us of what is really important.

  2. posted by danielle on

    LOVE this!

  3. posted by [email protected] on

    That is so true my wife and i both work and go to school and we also have a 9 month old so some times the house gets a bit cluttered to say the least but it is definitely better to spend time with each other some days.
    But on the other hand it can get to the point where the clutter can be a detriment when it distracts us from focusing on things. I look forward for more great tips from your blog thanks!

  4. posted by Ann on

    I love this post. I had a Mother in Law who was married to her house…it was her highest priority. It was so sad – one time I even had to drive my sick Father in Law to the doctor alone (with a barf bucket) because MIL was worried about the chores.

  5. posted by camellia tree on

    This is my favorite unclutterer post so far.

  6. posted by Wiktor on

    I am an Academic Manager for an English school.
    I never use a to-do list.
    There are things in my work which are regulated beyond belief (British laws & rules), and there are precious few areas where my and my staff’s creativity is cherished, used and called for.
    That’s where chaos comes in handy – it’s a source of a lot of bad ideas.
    And without a lot of bad ideas, how are you going to get the good ones?
    Thanks for the post 🙂

  7. posted by Max Leibman on

    Indeed. If you’re happy and can do what you need to do in your space with joy an ease, then it’s not a problem–even if it’s a mess compared to what others might have.

    At my office job and even in the past in retail, I have always tended to make truly epic messes when in the middle of a big project under tight constraints. It was never the case that I didn’t like or know how to create order–just that sometimes the deliverable is more important (an some messes don’t create enoughdrag to be worth cleaning up or preventing). And I always found that organizing is a process and lifestyle, anyhow–if you always keep everything 100% no matter what, whatever efficiency gains you get from open spaces and knowing where everything is will be eaten by the time and attention spent keeping it that way. The key is finding both time to clean up and keep order AND time to focus 100% on mad goals.

  8. posted by Kate on

    “That’s where chaos comes in handy – it’s a source of a lot of bad ideas.” That just might be my favorite blog comment ever, Wiktor!

  9. posted by drpher on

    This post really spoke to me! I am reassured by the fact that there are others in the same boat; it’s okay to let things go once in awhile as long as I have my priorities straight. THANKS for the reminder!

  10. posted by writing all the time on

    Where’s the ‘like’ button? No, wait, I need an ULTIMATE LIKE button.

    This is it in a nutshell. We gotsta roll with the punches, surf the waves of life. All organized, all the time, isn’t all that much fun. Or helpful.

    I love Danielle!

  11. posted by L on

    Heh. heh. I find so many things to clean when I should be studying for final exams.

  12. posted by Jeannette on

    This post is exactly why I love reading your blog.

    As someone who has found themselves almost constantly “reorganizing” and “decluttering” in the past, I came to realize that while what I was doing was needed, it was not as important as some other things that I was procrastinating on.

    I used to joke, when I was on daily work deadlines, that it was amazing how much housework you could get done when you didn’t want to sit down and write. Amazing.

    When I was having trouble writing or wanted to avoid a problem with work, I would start cleaning (I could not sit and do nothing. I had to be productive in some fashion!).

    But then I remember reading about the four quadrants in Covey’s book. I printed that out (http://www.lifetrainingonline......matrix.jpg) and have been using it ever since to really keep my focus, and reinforce my intentions.

    It is soooo easy, if we don’t monitor ourselves, to get caught up in the “Not Important” and “Not Urgent” SOOO easy.

    One of the (many) reasons I read your blog is because it helps me to focus on what really matters–which is really what decluttering is about when you get to the Zen of it.

    Thanks, Erin.

  13. posted by Alice F. on

    I really appreciate this post. A personal challenge I have though is figuring out where the line lies. I have serious clutter issues — not to the point where things are stacked to the ceiling, but bad enough that I am too embarrassed to have friends (or god forbit a date) over. But then I think, if my priority is my social life, do I turn down invitations so I can focus on cleaning? It’s a first-world problem, I know, but this really stresses me out … how to decide at what point the clutter really is keeping me from living my best life, and how much I should sacrifice other things to try to fix it. Sigh. 🙂

  14. posted by creativeme on

    I love this post. From my own personal experience it is not only my sanity that I declutter for. My husband gets genuine physical anxiety when the house is too messy. It has taken 17 years of marriage for me to see his side of it. Bless his soul he has been patient with my packrat tendencies. So near the end of the day I really try to take 15 minutes to “look through his eyes” and run around the house putting away the stuff that I just don’t see on my own. He does so much for us every day that it’s the least I can do for him.

  15. posted by Annabel on

    Yep, i’m clicking the ‘ultimate like’ button on this one too. Great perspective, love it.

  16. posted by Thrift Store Mama on

    “In some cases, especially with long-term issues, turning to uncluttering and organizing can provide relief and improve the quality of life (especially with on-going physical limitations and financial difficulties)”

    Totally agree – if your pantry and fridge aren’t organized you can’t see all the food you already have.

    If stuff is crammed in cabinets, then it can be downright dangerous to try and pull something out from the back.

  17. posted by Ginger on

    Thank you, You have just given me permission to quit beating myself up. Our 20-year-old son is a special needs kid who has required almost all my energy all his life. A couple of months ago he moved to a wonderful Adult Family Home, where he is receiving great care and we are getting a reprieve. Needless to say, my clutter, especially the paperwork, all these years has threatened to swallow me up, and has caused me a great deal of distress. I really appreciate your perspective, which frees me to live with the clutter until I have rested and am ready to deal with it. Thanks again.

  18. posted by Karen Newbie on

    This post will help me boil down for my clients why we declutter when we can vs. when we must; that it’s not a mutually exclusive choice of living (and creating a mess for later) or calming the chaos (and leaving the living for later). There’s a happy medium in there for everyone, and it’s important to find it and manage to it.

    Thanks for the great post.

  19. posted by bryan on

    If you have controlled chaos, let it reign! when i was growing up, my mom setup a playroom for me, my brothers and sisters. The room was a constant mess, lol — but the living room, our bedrooms, dining room, kitchen, etc. was kept very orderly. There is always going to be chaos –just don’t let it spill over into all aspects of your life especially your head

  20. posted by Mary Denny on

    As much as I love order and have let things pile up when I needed to. But when things in my personal life and family life get overwhelming and I feel I have no control, decluttering and organizing gives that feeling of control even if it only temporary. I definitely see how that has become an avoidance of what really needs to be dealt with at the time. Thank you for the blog. It has been a light for me on dark days.

  21. posted by alison p-h on

    Great post!!!! Timely for me as we gear up for the holidays. Thanks!

  22. posted by Jason Schramm on

    This is so true. I’m a longtime email newsletter reader here and I’ve never posted a comment, but I have struggled with this all my life. I’ll often get so overwhelmed by the things that need to get done that all I see is the clutter around me when something else is more important to do. It’s a constant balancing act. Love the site by the way. 🙂

  23. posted by Brandon on

    This post is very insightful.

    I live with the inattentive sub-type of ADHD. Over the past few years I have come to know myself and understand that in order for me to function at home, at work and other aspects of my life I require an uncluttered environment.

    This discovery and my move towards uncluttering my life have not come without difficulties. There have been times that I have been so concerned about simplifying my life and creating for myself a “safe environment” that I have not paid attention to the more important pieces of my life. My beautiful wife, my incredible children, family, friends, education, my design firm….. have all suffered due to my mania with banishing clutter.

    Recently my wife read the book “Conversations with a Moonflower”. This book has helped her to understand what I am dealing with and the fact that it’s not a choice I have made, it is my reality. She has become much more supportive with all the craziness. I in turn feel more confident in my ability to relax and enjoy life.

    For me it can be extreemly difficult to recognize when to let things go for a minute, day or week without being in order. I wonder if anyone here has gone through similar trials themselves or with a loved one that could provide some insight into how to be effective in these situations.

    Thank you.

  24. posted by jenny on

    So perfect….our baby is 7 days old and we’re so happy and in love…just doing the best we can to make sure the 3 of us eat, sleep…and that’s about it and we’re still exhausted! This post is totally aligned to where we are right now. Thanks!

  25. posted by bytheway on

    What inspires me to unclutter, and keep at it (gracefully) is this quote:

    Love people, not things; use things, not people.
    ― Spencer W. Kimball

    Now, back to sorting the Xmas ornaments/decs *ahead of time*, so that my beautiful small kids can decorate the tree in 2 weeks without me stopping them & inspecting everything in their hands for damage…

  26. posted by ACL on

    Oh, the balance…. thank you for your gracious insight on how life really is; what needs to be done, what we want to be done, what’s “really” important and what can slide….

  27. posted by katrina on

    Thanks Erin for the timely reminder of what’s really important in life, especially with the December ‘silly season’ fast approaching.

    @Ann, it’s sad too that your Mother-in-law’s housecleaning obsession and putting the house first is what she’s remembered for.

    A friend on mine once told me that she hadn’t invited her parents to her house for 5 years. Why? Because her mother was such a tidier that she would inspect her daughter’s entire house, including the garage, and ‘make it tidy her way’. Then she’d spend the rest of the visit criticising her daughter’s inability to keep her house tidy. Apparently the mother completely ruined a Christmas party doing that.

    So sad!

  28. posted by Ealasaid on

    Love this post. My sweetie and I just moved in together a few months ago, and between my new job (long commute plus full-time hours), my side job, and my little collection of chronic illnesses, the apartment is kind of a mess. It bugs me, but he keeps reminding me that there are other priorities right now, and as long as things are usable and not gross, some clutter is okay.

  29. posted by Jonathan on

    I’m printing this and putting it on our fridge at home. After my wife and I had a baby in July, I have learned that what I thought was were simple, minor OCD tendencies actually affect my daily life much more than I thought. I coupled that with the understanding that a lot of “stuff” reigned over my life and sometimes crowded out my wife. Being a new father and renewed husband, I’ve learned to give those things up, and this is a great example of correctly prioritizing.

  30. posted by Sky on

    This post is at the perfect time for me. I had surgery 11-21 and DH is taking care of everything around the house. He is doing his best and doing a great job. He is cooking, taking care of me and keeping up with the laundry.

    It may take me a few days to tidy up the drawers, linen closet, etc. when I’m back on track and for now….I’ll let it all go.

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