The clutter we rarely notice

Our homes and offices can have everything in place and still be cluttered because some of those well organized things are actually things we could do without. We may not even notice the organized clutter because we’ve often lived with those things for quite some time.

Sitting on a bookshelf in my living room is a very nice music system, the components chosen with care about 15 years ago to replace a much larger system. But a few days ago, I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I had used it! I like music, but I don’t enjoy having background music on while I work, read, or do household chores. And if I did want music, I could choose some that I have in a digital format. Now I’m considering getting rid of the system because I’ve realized that, at least in my life, it’s just clutter.

Our lives change, but the things that fill our lives don’t always keep pace. I’ve had many people tell me they could never get rid of any of their books. But when we looked carefully at their bookshelves, they found plenty of books to give away because their needs and interests had evolved.

Here are some other types of clutter that can be hiding in plain sight: collections that no longer bring you joy, art that’s no longer to your taste, and pantry items you’ll never use because your style of cooking has changed. A nicely labeled bin of holiday decorations in the garage, attic, or basement is just clutter if you no longer choose to decorate for that holiday.

Similarly, you can have beautifully organized files full of papers there’s no reason to keep. My favorite example: My mother used to keep all her old utility bills, from an apartment in another state, neatly filed away.

Of course, we can have hidden digital clutter, too. We can have nicely organized computer files full of documents we’d discard in a moment if we remembered they were there. We can have useful apps organized on our smartphones alongside apps we haven’t used in years or will never use again.

Sometimes the hidden clutter is stuff we’ve purposely chosen to hide. Many people have never-used gifts hiding out in the back of closets or on shelves in the garage.

This hidden clutter doesn’t seem to be as problematic as the more obvious clutter, but it can still be worth tackling. My music system might as well be sold or donated (giving me a financial benefit) or given away to someone who will use it. And keeping our spaces uncluttered makes it easier to clean, easier to move, and easier to find storage space for the things we really do want.

If you decide to look for (and dispose of) the hidden clutter in your own spaces, I would recommend reading Erin’s post on strategies for seeing clutter. I’d be interested in hearing about what you find, so share your experiences with us in the comments.

11 Comments for “The clutter we rarely notice”

  1. posted by Leslie on

    For the past year plus, I’ve been working to rid myself of visual clutter. I’m in a headspace where I can look critically at things and determine whether they are useful and/or bring me pleasure to where I want to keep them. I still have more to go and for those things in storage in the garage, it’s easier to part with them as time goes by. And for the most part, with younger adult nieces/nephews starting out on their own, I’ve had a handy supply of grateful family members willing to put some of my stuff to good use. But there is the hidden clutter. Recently, I went through all my paper files and shredded 2 full banker’s boxes plus. I was able to digitize anything that I wanted to keep and for those paper files that I HAD to keep, it’s reduced down considerably. I also digitized all my music and passed on my CDs to someone else to go through. When he’s done, he’ll pass them on. And I recently digitized all my pictures when I discovered that so many of them were damaged/fading. I found a service that was really inexpensive and they cleaned up my damaged pics too. I still haven’t gotten rid of the hardcopies as I’ve had several requests from family for certain pics, so I need to sort through them and get them out in the mail. But I can say that since digitizing my pics, I do look at them whereas before, they were sweating away in a box covered in mouse poop. My biggest hidden clutter are my digital files. Everything from old emails to documents to bookmarks (some dating back more than 10 years). And oh boy, is there much. And because it takes up so little space, it’s so easy for me to ignore it, and yes, I still am. But it is next. Because of what I do for a living, I do maintain many older files that most would have tossed, but I find that I need to refer to them at times, and do. And my naming system for files/folders is easy enough that I can find what I’m looking for with minimal effort. But if they were all in paper format, I’d be drowning.

  2. posted by Christy King on

    This is a a good point. Although we’ve been actively decluttering for awhile now, I recently came across some items no one remembered we had, shoved away in some out-of-the-way storage areas. The upside is that it was easy to get rid of, since we obviously hadn’t missed any of the stuff.

    As for the more visible hidden clutter, I’ve made a habit of taking a few extra seconds to look at things whenever I open a drawer or cupboard to see if I notice anything we don’t need to keep anymore.

    I hadn’t thought about looking at the really obvious stuff, but since we’re repainting and moving things around, taking art off walls, etc., we’ll have to pay attention to all of that.

  3. posted by Pat Reble on

    I have recently been confined to my home with a bout of ill health. With only my 4 walls to stare at, I’ve been surprised how differently I saw things. I have got rid of so much clutter I amazed myself! Boredom found me doing the same thing with computer files. The missing element for me has obviously been time. The superficial scan where the eye glides over things is a product of rush. To be efficient, sometimes we have to take the slow route. I’m feeling better now – both physically AND mentally!

  4. posted by Andrea on

    You nailed it. The further I get into dealing with obvious clutter, the more the invisible becomes visible. thanks!

  5. posted by LindaDiane on

    What a timely post. My wants, needs and interest have changed quite a bit in the last couple of years. Just the boost I need to seriously evaluate things that just do not bring joy anymore.
    Great ideas, thanks.

  6. posted by Melanie on

    @ Leslie

    Legally, if you rip music from CDs you have to either keep the physical disc or destroy it. You are not legally able to simply pass them on to someone else – either for money or for free. If you do then you must delete your copy. You are only allowed to make a back-up copy of media for your own purposes. To pass on the CD while you are still in possession of the music is copyright infringement.

    I assume you are talking about CDs of other people’s music that you purchased or acquired somehow and not CDs of your own music. If it is music that you own the copyright to, then you are free to share that with as many people as you want.

    I don’t think unclutterer.com would advocate anyone breaking the law in order to declutter.

  7. posted by Rebecca on

    DVDs! We don’t have books or CDs why are we keeping hundreds of DVDs that we no longer watch. We stream all of the movies we watch with the exception of some kids movies that they watch on the TV in the basement that does not have internet. Now I just have to convince my hubs that they are clutter.

  8. posted by Steve C on

    Melanie: the CD thing came up on another forum I sometimes frequent. Actually, I brought it up. I was told the same thing re: not having the physical media or some proof I bought the song or movie. Okay, I understand that, but I don’t get the prohibition on giving away my CDs or DVDs. They’re mine, I paid for them, I can give them away, sell them, donate, or destroy them if I like…can’t I?

  9. posted by JC on

    My mother moved in with us in early spring. We have lost 900 feet of space for her living quarters. Thus, space has become a premium and I am now culling the “stash” and other creative things. I sew most of my clothes and will purchase enough yardage from a single bolt to make matching trouser/ jacket/ skirt and/or dress. I have learned more about style and coloring and can finally admit that alas, I really don’t look good in black, rather sickly in fact. I sorted out all the black but one piece and passed them on to others. I did keep the one piece of very expensive Italian wool/cashmere blend gifted to me from DH. I’ll figure out something, even if it’s a dress/suit for funerals. I play the organ for church and play for several funerals each year.

    I don’t do some of the things I used to do, or I do them differently. I have four bins of quilt scraps and templates going to a woman who is learning to quilt. At this point, I would rather have the space and purchase fabric as needed. Some painting and other crafting supplies are going as well. I had kept them hoping to have more time as the children got older and moved out. Some of that hoped for time has been taken up with volunteer activities, and being legal guardian for DD has taken far more time than I had anticipated.

  10. posted by RDOwens on

    I sold my stereo about four years ago. We are completely digital now. I ripped the thousands of CDs we had. They are neatly boxed away in the basement.

    We offloaded 1200 books two years ago after chronicling them all on Good Reads. Our whole family reads digitally now.

    About 14 years ago I began organizing our digital files. 115,000 photos are tagged
    and organized. Our other files are similarly tidied.

    We are in good shape although not 100% to where we need to be. The biggest step forward was when my wife realized we had too much stuff. Until then it was a battle; now it’s a partnership.

  11. posted by Minimalist Chris on

    You really hit home with me on this one. I like to keep everything neat and tidy, but for years I’ve been organizing my clutter. It doesn’t really help to have neatly folded clothes in the wardrobe or 10 years worth of paper neatly filed and organized if you don’t need it.

    The point you’re making with this article is one of the most important for anyone looking to declutter and simplify, because the clutter we don’t notice still has the ability to give us the feeling that something isn’t the way it should be, even if we think we have done what we can to clean up the mess.

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