on clutter

May, 2016

Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary defines the noun ‘clutter’:

A collection of things lying about in an untidy state.

Here’s the same for the verb ‘declutter’:

Remove unnecessary items from (an untidy or overcrowded place).

I can see a collection of things lying about in an untidy state on my desk. I know that if I stopped for a minute and put them away, the corner of my eye vista would be infinitely improved, I’d feel better and perhaps concentrate more on what I’m writing.

I’ve just done that – and I do feel better. But I don’t feel any better about either of the definitions above. Apart from the consistent use of the adjective ‘untidy’ (whole other discussion), I’m missing something - context.

My clutter might not be the same as yours. More importantly, my clutter of the future isn’t necessarily my clutter today. Surely it’s all about context. Here’s a photo of our kitchen table. There’s a pile of papers and books, some flowers and some playing cards. All the papers and books are current (ok, fairly current). There’s a print out of a timetable for an MSC course I’m considering, a letter announcing the time my daughter got in a recent race, a copy of Everyday Sexism, a book recently published by a dear friend, a signed document about our neighbours’ building work and a coursework book from a discussion group my husband and I currently attend.

Time is coming when I’ll make a decision about that MSC and recycle the timetable. We’ll recycle, scan or possibly file the two letters. Our current go-to reading will change; the discussion group ends in 2 weeks and we’ll want to refer back to the source materials so we’ll put it with the other books on shelves.

Everything in the pile is relevant to one or more of us at the moment. Its status is ‘current referral pile’. If people came for dinner its status would change to ‘being in the way’ and it might get moved temporarily. I don’t think it looks untidy. I’d rather it was there than it wasn’t.

If we left it for 6 months it would become clutter. It would become clutter because it would get bigger, we’d forget what was in it, there’d be less room on the table and it would be hard to find anything in it. To paraphrase a lovely APDO colleague, Juliet Landau Pope, that now bigger pile, would be ‘getting in our way and stopping us being who we are’.

Clutter is subjective. Before we work out what, for us, is clutter and what’s not, it’s important for us to take a step back, identify who we currently are, what we’re up to and where we’re aiming for in the future. These are the kind of questions I ask all my clients before I work for them. When we know the answers to those questions, it’s so much easier to declutter, and to organise.

"Dear Caroline, I just wanted to write to say a massive and heartfelt "thank you" for all your hard work in helping me sort out my flat. As you know, I had such a sense of complete overwhelm regarding all the junk I had accumulated, especially since the death of my mother, I didn't know where to start, and felt deeply ashamed of letting things, literally "get on top of me". I couldn't move for the piles of clothes, paper and general "stuff" that covered the floor entirely. It was deeply depressing and getting me down, yet I felt stuck and unable to tackle any of it on my own. "

- K, London N5

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