When Life is Cluttered, So is Your House

Our townhouse dining room

When I feel overwhelmed in other areas of my life, my house reflects it. One of my friends says her closet mirrors her life. If her closet is clean and tidy, her life is, too. If your house looks like a tornado hit, it’s a safe bet there may be turmoil in relationships or intensity at work. When we’re exhausted by circumstances, we usually can’t muster the necessary energy for chores. If keeping things clean and organized at home is an ongoing challenge because of a fast-paced life, you can conquer!

Sloppy vs. neat, what’s really going on? I have changed over the years – when I was in my 20’s my mother actually offered to come be my housekeeper (for pay, mind you) because I was traveling for work all the time and my apartment was a pit. I declined, but things were so out of control I actually went out and bought new underwear instead of laundering what I had! When I was divorcing and returning to work with two young children, I was fortunate to have caring housekeepers who did our laundry and made yummy freezer meals on the day they came to clean. I was happy to pay them and they worked hard to get me into shape. We still laugh about the Spanish-accented admonishments and wagging fingers from these tiny, heaven-sent dervishes. “Betsida! You buy espunges! Doity, doity, no good!!!!”

Old knitting magazines - "someday" I might knit something from one?! Out they go!

While we all know plenty of people who have lots of stuff around, not everyone in that number actually has the resources – physical, financial and emotional – to deal with what they have. The more stuff you have to keep track of and take care of, the more complicated your life. Plus, all this stuff costs money to purchase, store and maintain! This can quickly escalate out of control: the TV show “Hoarders” is a horrifying example. Retailers like Organized Living are capitalizing on the tendency to accumulate things (but putting stuff in pretty, stackable bins doesn’t really solve the problem, does it?) I watched Candy Spelling‘s reality show about downsizing like I would a train wreck. Who downsizes into 16,500 square feet, much less pays $47 million for it? Obviously, this is a first world kind of issue.

Our guest room closet

So, more normal people like us? We must prioritize. What do we really want to be doing? Pete and I want to travel. Managing the big house, gardens, yard, and all the toys were at odds with that. We downsized specifically so we could literally lock the door and go away for as long as we want. Systems within our townhouse are pretty uncomplicated. It helps that our laundry room is upstairs where most of the dirty items originate. We’re still getting rid of stuff – every time we come back from a long trip, we realize we don’t need this or that. This time it was Pete’s giant tool chest with drawers filled with woodworking and repair tools. Sold to a young tradesman who was ecstatic to get it and everything inside it!

Pets – When our beloved Little Daisy passed last year we decided we would wait to get another dog. Instead, we play grandparents to doggy visitors when they need babysitting. Ongoing, there is nothing so wonderful as a pet, but there is also a chain reaction in terms of care, expense, and yes, the darlings, be they little or large, can make all kinds of mess we have to continually address.

Plants – One friend has come to terms with the negative aspects associated with her many indoor plants. She loves them, but realized after a recent emergency trip that preparing them for someone to take care of them was a process that was over the top! She has decided to replace live plants with high quality silks. This wouldn’t work for me, because I’d still be concerned about having to dust them. Instead, Pete and I have just a few plants and it’s not a big deal to keep them healthy and looking good. Nothing looks worse than uncared-for plants! Seeing them feels like a signal that other unseen things are neglected, too. And neglect doesn’t honor living things.

For me, thinking about what needs to be done is often more overwhelming than just getting in there and doing it. I can fret about a project to the point where I’ve magnified it into the stratosphere. Ongoing basis, several habits we’ve incorporated have really helped:

1. Clean as you go. Martha Stewart recommends this, and my brother the chef does it. I do it, and my husband does not. It can be challenging when your partner and/or others in the household are at odds with your “stuff style.” Seriously! My epitaph is going to be “Who will clean the sink now?” But the clean as you go habit works for creative spaces, offices, and living spaces. If you’re walking out of the room, take the empty drink glass, straighten the magazines and pillows, fold the lap blanket, etc. At the end of the workday, straighten the desk. Before you leave the bedroom in the morning, make the bed. Try not to leave unwashed dishes over night all the time. If you live with a “Gretel” as I laughingly call those who absent-mindedly leave a trail of items behind them, this tip can be a relationship-saver. Bless their hearts.

2. Don’t drape or drop. Clothes (or other items) can wind up hanging off exercise equipment, adorning chairs or piling up onother surfaces. 😀 Instead, install hooks in the closet that you can overload, or hang clothes, leashes, reusable shopping bags or purses on the backside of the door on the knob. Then you can at least close the door until you get things better organized.

Found a new home!

3. How long has it been unused? When we returned from our last trip, I realized there were many clothing items in my closet I hadn’t worn within a two year period. While preparing them for charity pickup, I snapped a few photos with my iPhone and sent them to my daughter to see if there was anything she wanted. It will be nice to see her wearing one of my expensive sweaters. I’ve given other sweaters to a friend whose sister makes them into wonderful mittens. I wear a favorite sweater on my hands now!

4. Look for something quick you can do right now that will contribute to the whole. When I come downstairs from the home office upstairs to refill coffee or something, I do a quick kitchen cleanup while it’s brewing, or I wander into the living room and scan for anything that needs attention before I go back upstairs. Keeping things straight on an ongoing basis works for me.

Travel Ephemera - Organized by Destination

5. Hidden away and stored is not always best. Recently, I read that if you’re keeping things in cardboard boxes stored away in the attic or garage for sentimental reasons, you are not honoring their meaning or the things themselves. If these are truly treasured by you, they would be on display or you would be using them frequently. This got me thinking of what needs to be tackled next: the bins we have that are labeled “History” and “Mom’s Stuff,” my mother’s that is, and “Taxes – Non-current.” At least this stuff is all in plastic containers instead of dirty old cardboard, but do I really need to be keeping old photos of sepia-tinted people that we can’t identify?

If the house is really out of control, then you must tackle things in manageable bits. If you are mindful about bringing fewer things home and into the house – less retail therapy altogether, get rid of a pair of shoes before you buy another, establish firm usage rules (hasn’t been used or worn in a year, out it goes), etc. – you can really help yourself establish a new, uncluttered normal.

Seriously? Why did I wind up with two of these?

Do you have so much stuff that you don’t know what you have? This should be a clue. Recently, I reorganized my office bookcase. Yellowing newspapers in destination-based  binders weren’t relevant for future reference. Recycled! I discovered duplicates of magazines, and had years of knitting magazines in particular from which I hoped I would knit projects. Are you kidding? Wishful thinking! Out! For years, I kept two copies of, get this, the LP version of “Saturday Night Fever” with John Travolta on the cover. What?!! For investment purposes? LOL

Candy Spelling’s accumulation may be over the top, but to her credit, she is obsessively organized. On the show, she could find anything because she labeled and mapped her enormous storage area and catalogued each item. If you’re determined to keep a lot of stuff, you should commit to similar meticulous management strategies.

Stuff and activity is fun to have. In western society, the stuff we choose to keep, use and display, and the ways we choose to spend our time are all integral to our personal identity and how others perceive us. But when life gets cluttered, the physical clutter and chores mount up. Keeping things functioning efficiently in one arena allows for changing circumstances in another to be addressed without derailing your life altogether. For an analogous discussion, see our April, 2012 newsletter: Spring Cleaning: Clearing Inner Space.

Please! Share your thoughts in the comments.

P.S. Before I hit “Publish” on this post, I went downstairs to the kitchen to refill my coffee. While I was there, I added dishes to the dishwasher, stored breakfast leftovers in the refrigerator, emptied a vase of tulips past their prime, folded my favorite throw and straightened the pillows on the sectional, gathered cloth napkins off the counter, tossed a soda can into the recycling, started the dishwasher and headed back upstairs with items to be laundered. Total time elapsed: 6 minutes. Just enough for the coffee to cool down too much. Hahaha!

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  1. says

    Thanks! I really appreciate you posting a link to my article. I love your idea about taking a digital photo of the item and letting the person receiving decide whether they want it or not. I’ve had untold amounts of toys and clothes handed down to my kids without ever having approved it. By the time I tell them I’d rather not keep that stuff, they’re attatched and it’s a struggle. What a great way to think of the other person’s needs!

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Tabitha – Welcome to PassingThru! You’re right that transferring things to others without their permission can create problems. It’s kind of a cop-out, isn’t it? Or telling yourself something like, “well, we’ll just put that item in the attic” can be a similar way of not really dealing with things. Thank you for your comment.

  2. Lori Hoeck says

    Yep. It does seem when the mind is clear, the house is clear, too. Mine is cluttered more than ever.
    Thanks for the motivation to tackle it all anew!

  3. Cathy Gunderson says

    Betsy – this is so me right now, though i used to be more like what you are doing – clean as you go, multi-task walking through rooms, etc. Thanks for the nudge, somehow i need to part with stored items . . .

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Cathy! Welcome to PassingThru! It is so wonderful to see your name and comment! I think we lapse in and out of efficiency mode when it comes to this stuff. Life certainly isn’t static and you’re right, sometimes we need a nudge. I know I’ve been there. And yes, stored items, I am viewing the concept of storage with a new perspective. Thank you for piping up! 🙂

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Marianne – Welcome to PassingThru! I think we all have cycles in this ongoing process. During certain periods of life – first starting out, younger family with children’s needs, etc. – we are in an accumulative phase. At other times, we’re simplifying. I believe as long as there is intention and awareness, it’s all good. Thank you for commenting. 🙂

  4. says

    Hi Betsy .. I’m sorting through books right now – had a clear out when I brought Mum’s up here .. now having another binge – off to charity. I’ll do quite a lot in the next few weeks – tidying up more ‘stuff’ .. and clearing the excess papers.

    Life changes – and I do hate mess … soon it will be tidy and less papery!

    I watched the last of a series on the Mississippi .. and saw round Minneapolis .. it was fascinating .. lucky you – sounds a gorgeous place to live ..

    I’m running to catch my tail right now …. Cheers Hilary
    Hilary has an awesome blog post here: V is for Venlaw Castle, Peebles, in the Borders of ScotlandMy Profile

  5. Betsy Wuebker says

    Hi Hilary – It can be more difficult when it’s someone else’s stuff, can’t it? After my mother (who advised that she would not deal with things and was intentionally leaving all her stuff for us to deal with after she was gone – well, at least she was honest about it) passed, it was an emotional task. And if there are conflicting opinions about what to do with all the things, the stress factor mounts. And you’re right, too, about paperwork, which can tend to get out of control quickly as well. So glad you got a glimpse of our part of the world. 🙂

  6. Maria says

    I agree, it took some time until I realize that the clutter in my room is one of the causes of my life being disorganized. If we want to start being organized, we start by organizing our home.
    Maria has an awesome blog post here: DTS HomeMy Profile

    • Betsy Wuebker says

      Hi Maria – Welcome to PassingThru! You’re right, it can be a cycle of disorganization. You can’t find things, you waste time looking for them, you’re late to where you need to be because you couldn’t find something you needed to bring with you or an item you wanted to wear, and on and on. Conversely, that satisfied feeling when things are humming along smoothly is wonderful. Thank you.