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Focus Enemy #4: Clutter (Part 1)

"The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don't." - Marie Kondo

For the past 2 years, I’ve been on a mission to declutter my life. Why? Because clutter is one of the biggest distractions around. When you’re trying to develop a single-minded focus on your goals, clutter is the devil.

Clearing out the clutter frees up space, time, and energy – it gives your most important goals and dreams room to breathe and grow.

Now, I feel like I need to make a disclaimer – at no point did my home look like an episode from “Hoarders”, nor was it ever a threat to public health. In fact, a lot of people saw it and had no idea what I was talking about when I would agonize about my horrific clutter problem. Even people who saw inside my closets… although my stack of 70+ unread books may have raised a few eyebrows…

And that’s the thing – clutter is a very individualized experience. To someone who is super-organized, a stack of new mail on the immaculate kitchen counter could be clutter. To someone with a greater tolerance for disorder, a desk hidden by stacks of files and books and papers might be perfectly fine.

Clutter, or the perception of clutter, has more to do with the type of energy it generates. Does something energize you? Does it drain you of energy? Or is it neutral?

According to Julie Morgenstern, author of “SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life”, clutter is defined as “any obsolete object, space, commitment, or behavior that weighs you down, distracts you, or depletes your energy.”

Essentially, clutter is anything that takes up space (physical or temporal or mental/emotional), drains us of positive energy, and interferes with our ability to focus on what is truly important to us. And while we typically think of clutter as physical junk, there are a few other often-overlooked types of clutter we need to consider when we set out to streamline our lives.

3 Main Types of Clutter

Physical Clutter

This is the usual ‘stuff’ we think of when we hear the word ‘clutter’ – unfiled papers, knick-knacks and gadgets we never use, overstuffed closets full of unworn or out-of-style clothing and shoes, the junk drawer that won’t shut, the boxes of who-knows-what stacked in the garage.

And while we usually associate this kind of clutter with visual messiness, something doesn’t have to be disorderly to be clutter. It could be the artistically displayed painting you received as a gift and felt obligated to hang, but it’s not your style and you can’t stand looking at it. Or, it could be the skis you’ve stored neatly in the garage that you know you’re never going to use again, or the camera equipment from when you had a passing interest in photography, which has now passed on for good.

Morgenstern notes that even though the clutter may be essentially invisible, “it runs rampant through your subconscious. Somewhere in the background, you sense that something negative and unresolved is taking up space and weighing you down.”

Time Clutter

These are obligations and commitments that take up time and space in our daily or weekly schedules, but no longer serve a purpose aligned with our primary goals and values. They may be activities you enjoyed in the past, which fit a former version of you, but no longer do because your interests or lifestyle has changed. They may be obligations that were pushed upon you because you didn’t know how to say no, or because you were convinced they were things you ‘should’ do. Or maybe you’ve just stuffed your schedule full of activities that you enjoy individually, but because your calendar is so overcrowded, you don’t have the energy to participate in them wholeheartedly.

Our time can also become cluttered with unsupportive or unproductive habits, like procrastination (e.g., binge-watching TV or excessively checking emails), or perfectionism that leads to an endless loop of rechecking and redoing our own work, or taking on other people’s tasks to make sure they get done “correctly”.

Mental Clutter

This category includes outmoded or limiting beliefs about ourselves and/or the world, the ideas about who we are (and who we are not) that may no longer be true, if they ever were. It’s amazing how labels we took on during our childhood can stick with us for decades, if we don’t give the mental attic a good cleaning from time to time.

This category can also include worries and concerns, grudges, or even the nagging to-do’s that we haven’t had time to get to – basically, the things our brain ruminates on unproductively, keeping us from being able to stay present in the moment and give our full energy to the activities we’re engaged in.

The Transformational Power of Decluttering

Decluttering is about opening up space for something new to emerge. That something new may be a truer, more authentic version of ourselves, or maybe new (or resurrected) dreams and goals, or perhaps just the time and energy to dedicate to the priorities we’ve already identified. It frees up the energy we’ve been wasting navigating around, or managing, or trying to ignore, the pockets of clutter in our lives, and enables us to focus more effectively.

There’s something almost mystical about the act of decluttering and letting go. As Aristotle said, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” When we release the ‘stuff’ that no longer fits us, whether that be old clothing or toxic relationships or unsupportive beliefs, new opportunities have a way of finding us.

Marie Kondo, clutter-clearing expert and author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up”, writes that “A dramatic reorganization of the home causes correspondingly dramatic changes in lifestyle and perspective. It is life transforming.”

Kondo recommends decluttering everything in one fell swoop. Doing so can certainly unleash a large amount of life-transforming energy, leaving lots of empty space for something new to rush in. If you’re looking to shake your life up in big ways, clearing out your physical environment may be the jumpstart you need.

However, drastic changes can be overwhelming – purging your entire home of everything you no longer love may be kind of like setting off an atomic life bomb. This may be just what you want and need, but dramatic changes also have the potential to trigger a fear reaction, sending us scurrying for cover under our old ways. If we’re not intentional about what we allow into our newly freed-up space, we may simply repeat our old patterns and bury ourselves under a newly-acquired mountain of clutter.

In some cases, it may be more expedient to work through the decluttering process more gradually. Morgenstern says that clutter “is symbolic of your attachment to something from the past that must be released in order to make room for change.” Sometimes it takes a little time to uncover the underlying attachments, and to release them in a permanent way.

One of the reasons it’s taken me over two years to clean up and clear out my life is because I discovered I needed to let go of things in stages. It seemed like every time I cleared the clutter in one area, or sorted through one category of stuff, or stepped back from some activity I’d been involved with, I stalled out.

Over time, I realized that around the same time that my decluttering stalled, a limiting belief or an outdated way of seeing myself had popped up. As I worked through it and came to a new place of understanding, with a new vision of myself and my future, whatever was blocking me from letting go of more stuff dissolved and I was able to move forward.

It was like peeling an onion, one layer at a time. Things that I couldn’t imagine letting go of in the beginning lost their hold on me as my vision of myself changed, and I gained clarity about the life I really wanted.

Next Steps

In Part 2 of this article, I’ll discuss some very specific and practical strategies for beginning to clear the clutter from your life. For the next few days, though, just begin to notice where the pockets of clutter live in your world.

  • Physical Clutter: Spend a little time walking through your home and your work environment, noticing your mood. Are there certain objects or areas of your home that drag you down or drain you of energy? Places where you feel relaxed, or where you feel tense? Do any specific triggers jump out?
  • Time Clutter: Take a look at your calendar – which activities do you look forward to, and which ones do you dread? And what about the way you spend your unscheduled time – are you doing things to take good care of yourself, to feed your passions, and to create richer relationships with the people you care about? Or are you tuning out and escaping mindlessly just to fill the void, or to put off doing something else?
  • Mental Clutter: Start to listen to the internal chatter that goes on in your head, and notice what you say about yourself, and about the way the world works. Which thoughts or beliefs support you and help you move toward your dreams, and which ones get in your way? What do you believe you can do, and what are you telling yourself you can’t?

Just becoming aware of what form your clutter takes, and where it shows up in your life, is a big step forward. Once you see it for what it is – a distraction blocking you from creating the life you really want – you’ll have a hard time ignoring it. You’ll be motivated to begin clearing the ‘junk’ away – so stay tuned for Part 2 and I’ll share some actionable ideas to get you started on the road to a more streamlined life.

I’d love to hear what you discover about the types of clutter that give you the most trouble – let me know in the comments below!

16 thoughts on “Focus Enemy #4: Clutter (Part 1)”

  1. Great post and you’ve organized your points really well. I even recognized my own life (before I decluttered) in a few of them.

    (Now this is a private note sort of, that has nothing to do with your excellent writing: Your post showed up in my email in it’s entirety. I could have read it there instead of coming to your blog to read it, but that’s not what you want right? If you would like to send a summary only, this link from WordPress will help you change your settings so that your subscribers will have to come here. I changed my settings a few weeks ago for the same reason:

    Anyway, thanks for the good read and looking forward to your next post.

    1. You will definitely enjoy Part 2 on physical clutter, and Part 4 where we’ll start to get into the mental clutter (although that may wind up being a series of it’s own, because there are so many different things that can clutter up our brains 🙂 ).

  2. Informational post! I have yet to read Marie Kondo’s book. I heard it’s quite a read especially when you’re trying to adapt a minimalistic lifestyle. I find that clutter often stresses me out and I’m the type of person who gets stressed out when there’s a pile of mail on an empty space! I would rather have a designated area for specific things to go.

    I definitely need to think about my mental clutter, though. That’s definitely something I never thought of!

    Thank you for your insight!


    1. Thank you! Definitely check out Marie’s book, she provides a lot of good tips on getting and keeping your space organized and clutter free, and it’s a quick read. Stay tuned for Part 4 where we’ll start looking at mental clutter – it’s an area we don’t usually think about when we think about clutter, but that’s exactly what old outdated beliefs and worries and fears are, and we can clear them out much the same way we clear out a closet or a garage.

  3. Sooo inspiring! I’ve recently done reading this book from Marie Kondo and also applied it in real life. 🙂 All these clutters need to be faced one by one and be given enough time to really deal with. Thank you for sharing this Susan 🙂

  4. I really enjoyed Marie kondo’s book and the idea of thanking our things for the service that they have done for us and then letting them go and not holding onto items forever. I try to practice this but could never do the all at once that she recommends

    1. Yes, I loved the concept of thanking our things, and allowing them to move on to someone new who will be able to use and appreciate them. It really helps when letting things go.

  5. I think I need this book in my life . Nothing gives me greater pleasure than getting rid of things that no longer serve me . It is easy at least with physical stuff however some thoughts ideas seem to be stuck or creep back in in times of sadness . I think with time and constant work we can transform or mental and emotional clutter into something that can prove to be helpful and inspiring to us .

    1. Both books – Marie’s and Julie’s – are great – Marie focuses more on physical clutter, while Julie’s book covers all of the different types of clutter (physical, time, and habits). You’re right about it being an ongoing process, especially with the mental/emotional clutter, but consistent effort is life transforming 🙂

  6. I am a pretty organised person. I like to have a dedicated place for everything in my room and if something is out of order it just stresses me out. Thanks for providing an insight on clutter idea. Now I know what it is and will steps to minimize it.

  7. Evelyn Lo Foreman

    I love how you broke down the various types of clutter. Having this framework in time, one can go about organizing the way in which he or she declutters: physical, mental, and time! For me, and I have accepted that I am a work in progress and decluttering is part of the dynamic that if the flow of my life. Thanks for adding value and raising awareness Susan! ???????????????? xo, Evelyn, PathofPresence

  8. Thank you! I agree that decluttering is (or should be) an ongoing dynamic in our lives – one that powers our growth and development. As we let go of the old we have room for the new!

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