War on clutter: let’s get physical

Posted by in Productivity

War on clutter: let's get physical

The second part in a series on how to fight back against the clutter that’s infiltrating and affecting the quality of our everyday lives is here: learn why and how physical clutter impacts your brain, and how to get to grips with it.

Physical clutter


Clutter is often equated only with its physical variety. A messy desk, toys strewn across a floor, a chock-full garage, or the attic where you would be less than surprised to find the remains of a long lost family pet. What’s particular about physical clutter is that, unlike virtual and mental clutter, it’s external, which renders it comparably easy to grasp in extent: we can rapidly visualize not only how much there is of it, but also estimate with some accuracy how long tidying it up will take.


Granted, some people dislike physical clutter more than others, but this is beside the point: for every piece of clutter, there’s an inventory listing. For every inventory listing, brainpower is spent. Whether this is for tracking the item’s location, deciding its fate or being annoyed at its enduring status as an unresolved item that one should do… something about, there’s expenditure.


Ambulatory items, such as a pair of household scissors that grown-ups and children alike use and leave in various locations consume even more brainpower, prompting us to learn at least two or more likely places of finding them when needed. This happens at work, too, and particularly in office landscapes: just recall the last time you needed a stapler and either couldn’t find yours or ended up “borrowing” one permanently.


Fiendishly clever as it is, however, our brain has us somehow convinced that it can handle all of this without so much as lifting a finger. In fact, it even claims to offer the unparallelled convenience of instant and total storage and recall – which anyone with half a brain and a mobile phone/car keys/wristwatch/pair of glasses not permanently superglued to their person will know just isn’t true.


Still, the allure of such convenience makes us default to using our brains as storage facilities, and as such we revert to spending our brainpower unwisely – and we’re spending far more than you would think. Alas, conveying the difference between before and after is equal in difficulty to explaining why one beverage tastes better than another: it’s easier if you just taste it.


Big bang or patience is virtue?


There are two ways to approach the elimination of clutter: all in or piecemeal. For instant, major results, go all in and set aside an entire weekend. Alternatively, set aside a little time every weekday (except on Fridays – you need the time off) and commit to making this a priority that doesn’t get rescheduled.


Regardless of which approach you choose, the next item on our agenda is to create an ordered list of the areas you plan to tackle first, for the simple reason of not becoming distracted and end up with a little less clutter in a lot of places rather than a lot less clutter in one place. Also, there are some general rules to observed:


  • Discard what you can, sell/barter/donate what you may, and keep only what you must. If you haven’t needed something for a long while, chances are you won’t… period.


  • Declutter your primary storage location first. Most everyone has an attic, basement, a garage or a closet where infrequently used items are stored; start there to make space for archive items from elsewhere. Clutter here will generate resistance, and subsequently procrastination, jeopardizing the entire process.


  • Tackle big items first. They consume more space than small things, which means it’s easier to get an overview if you get them out of the way first.


  • Don’t shuffle, pile. Rather than trying to shuffle items around in, say, a shelving system, extract everything into a big pile and sort the items as you please before you put them back in in. This saves time and makes it easier to dispose of items that belong to the “neatly archived, yet utterly unnecessary” category.


  • If you haven’t used an item in the last 12 months but still feel attached to it, place it somewhere labelled “limbo” and revisit it in 6 months. If you still haven’t used it… you know what to do.


  • Infrequently used items are bottom-back storage. More frequently used ones are top-front – and yes, it may seem like an obvious thing, but in the heat of things it’s easy to forget.


  • Buy lots of boxes. Invest in a solid set of cardboard (or plastic see-through ones, if you’re splurging) boxes from a vendor that will keep the exact type in stock for a long time, and use them to organize smaller items for simplified management. One big box handles easier than 30 small items.


  • Label religiously. Get a large permanent marker and some non-stick painter’s tape (yet unlike a Post-it doesn’t fall off easily), and start labeling boxes with their contents. Kid’s clothes 2-4 years will do nicely; a complete inventory is a wee bit OCD.


  • If your tour reveals large amounts of disposable clutter, consider renting a container for batch removal rather than a piecemeal approach which often leads to procrastination. Easy breezy.


Finally, a vital distinction: organizing is not decluttering. By merely organizing your current posessions, progress is indeed made – but for nine out of ten people, reducing the inventory is where the true benefit lies.


Next time around, we’ll be delving into the murder of virtual clutter. It’s akin to brain surgery on steroids, but thankfully, not only the quantity but also the quality of tools for handling this particular kind of clutter are progressing at a rate which makes me hopeful they will soon overtake the rate at which virtual clutter is growing.


And last, but not least: if you want to know how clutter ruined your life while you weren’t even looking, you’ll find the origo for this article series right here.