My business, Simplicity Services, thrives on helping our clients to manage and organise their space and their things.  Decluttering is generally the first step in our home or office organising projects.  But what exactly do we mean by ‘clutter’? And what are the key issues that result in clutter becoming a big enough problem that our clients contact us for help?

Defining clutter

Clutter is defined in the Cambridge dictionary as ‘a lot of objects in a state of being untidy’ (noun), or ‘to fill something in a badly organised or untidy way’ (verb).  I consider clutter to be more than just untidiness or poor organisation.  It is also about the volume of stuff.  Clutter often results when there are too many things in a space (a room, a cupboard, a drawer), to the point that it becomes difficult to manage and to find what you need and use on a regular basis.

So why do we hold onto more stuff than we can manage?

Here are my top 10 reasons for clutter piling up:

Life is busy

The demands of work and family life can mean that we don’t have the time to keep up with managing our things. This is especially true for working mothers, and people working long hours, such as health workers.  Often there is little time to rest and refresh, let alone to manage our homes and our stuff.

For parents, keeping on top of the large volumes of artwork and projects generated by the children, as well as their sports and extramural paraphernalia, can be a job in itself.  When they are young, the constant growing out of baby gear, clothing and toys requires attention on a regular basis.

Our consumer culture

We are encouraged at every turn to acquire much more than we need.  Social media, advertising or societal pressure to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ influence us much more than we like to admit.  For some, shopping is a pastime that can fuel excessive buying, resulting in unnecessary debt.  Sometimes we shop to meet emotional needs that aren’t being met in other areas of our lives.  The downside of excessive consumption is that managing and maintaining all this stuff becomes overwhelming.

Identity

Our stuff represents who we are – our passions, tastes, interests, even our sense of self. Letting go certain items can feel like we are losing a part of ourselves. Some of the things we keep reflect the positive image of ourselves in the past, such as our professional self or a younger/slimmer version of ourselves.   A stay-at-home mom may find it difficult to let go her work clothes from her career prior to having children.  Or a retiree may hold onto work documents that are no longer needed but remind himself of the meaningful career he once had.

Memories, sentimentality and guilt

Some of our things connect us to the people we love and to happy memories.  They can include gifts from loved ones, our children’s artwork and toys, photographs, and furniture handed down to us. These are an important part of who we are as humans.  For some of us, though, we struggle to let go anything sentimental, even if it results in our home being jampacked with items that we don’t need or love.  Guilt can sometimes be a problem, not allowing us to pass on anything given to us by a family member or friend, even if some items have ‘outgrown their usefulness’.  This can be a danger signal that we are investing too much of our sense of self in others, rather than creating a home with items that we love and that serve us in the here and now.

Frugality

Some of us, especially those growing up in the war years, hold onto practical and useful items, just in case they ‘might need them one day’. The garages and workshops of many older guys are full of a huge assortment of items that are the leftovers of one or other DIY project in the past.  If they aren’t properly organised though, keeping all this surplus stuff is wasted, because they cannot be found when needed. Reducing waste is a good thing, but this needs to be balanced with being able to store and access easily what we use on a regular basis.

Creatives

Artists and creatives tend to generate a wide range of materials and supplies, which can be costly to replace.  These tend towards clutter if they aren’t properly organised and stored.  Doing several projects at a time, or not putting things away when a project is completed can also compound the clutter.

Mental health issues

The state of our mental health has a huge influence on how we manage our stuff and our space.

Depression and anxiety disorders can limit our ability to manage our home space, leading to clutter building up.  A cluttered environment can in turn exacerbate the depression or anxiety, causing a vicious cycle that is hard to stop.  Excessive hoarding of things can be a sign of hoarding disorder, an anxiety disorder often linked to trauma or loss.   In these cases, it is important to get professional help to address the underlying reasons for the mental health issue and for appropriate treatment.

The loss of a loved one and the process of sorting through their home and belongings can be emotionally overwhelming. Letting go is part of the grieving process, but it can be delayed too long if we are struggling to come to terms with the loss.

Physical health challenges

We all experience minor health challenges from time to time and generally bounce back into our routines.  However, long term health problems, such as undergoing cancer treatment, long Covid or auto-immune diseases, can limit our ability to manage our things.  Likewise, if we are the carer for a sick relative or elderly parent, we may find the time we can devote to our homes and ourselves being severely stretched.

Lack of boundaries

Family dynamics can lead to clutter building up in one’s home, when one individual plays the role of rescuer, looking after friends’ or family’s stuff when their lives are in flux.  While there are times when a family member may need to store their things with you for a while, boundaries are important to ensure there is an end date.  A situation can develop where your home becomes a storage unit for other people’s stuff (including your adult children), rather than a comfortable home that you can enjoy and move about in freely.

Poor organising skills

Some of us are not naturally organised, so clutter can pile up quite quickly on every available surface instead of being put away.  We may also keep things out to remind us to do something, or so we don’t forget where it is.  But often this leads to the clutter piling up and then we ‘can’t see the wood for the trees’.  A simple storage system that is easy to manage can really help to stay on top of things.   People with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often struggle in this area and can benefit from help with setting up simple systems and routines to control the clutter.

Be honest with yourself

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the clutter in your home or office space, take some time to step back and reflect.  What are the key reasons why the clutter has built up?  It’s likely that there are several factors at play in the different rooms in your home.  Understanding ‘the why’ will help you to take the next steps in reducing what you have to a level that you can manage.  And along the way you may realise that you need to develop a different way of thinking about and managing your things in the future.

Feel free to contact me if you need some help in decluttering your space and/or introducing systems and routines to manage your stuff going forward.

I will also provide some pointers on starting the process in my next blog post.

Vicky Sim is a professional organiser based in Durban, South Africa with a passion for helping her clients to transform their space and simplify their lives.

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