10 Ways to Thrive in Clutter: What To Do When You’re Ready To Stop Wasting Time and Money on the Battle Against Clutter


I am awed by those perfectly neat houses I see in magazines. I appreciate their aesthetics, and I have even been tempted a few times to go out and buy the organizing tools recommended for creating such a space-efficient closet or refrigerator. But then I think, “None of those compartments would hold our supersized jar of pickles!”

Of course I could always buy smaller jars of pickles, but my point is that maintaining a perfectly neat house is nearly impossible; the houses in magazines never look like someone actually lives there. Where are the dog-eared books by the beds, the dishes in the sink, and the damp hand towels in the bathroom?

I know that I can never keep a house looking perfect and still feel comfortable enough to live in it (or have time to do anything else). I am a born clutterbug; trying to make myself neat is like trying to turn a ladybug’s spots into stripes.

Despite media and peer pressure to be neater than I am (not unlike the pressure on teen girls to be thinner than they are), I know myself and recognize that I work better amid clutter. I have learned how to survive – even thrive – in my clutter. If you, too, are an incurable clutterbug, test out some of these ten ways to thrive among clutter before you spend any more time or money trying to declutter your life.

1. Develop and maintain a system of organization that works for you. You don’t have to be neat to be organized. Nor do you have to set aside a week to sort your home’s contents into keep, move, and give-away boxes. I tend to organize in piles. I have piles of books and magazines to read, a pile of things to be fixed, a pile of things I need to take care of when I’m online, a pile of things I need to talk to my husband about, and piles of things I need to give to specific people when I see them. Having some form of organization (even one that no one else understands) makes it much easier for me to find what I need.

2. Be aware of what you have. You can’t use something you don’t know you have. Even if your home or workspace is crowded, keep control of your clutter by knowing what you have and a general idea of where it is. If you have trouble keeping track in your mind, make a list of new acquisitions and where you put them.

3. Use lists as guides. I have a grocery list, a to-do list, a list of books I want to read, and several other lists. If I knew the rest of my family would help me maintain them, I’d have more lists – lists of where I can find things I rarely use or of what consumable items we have in storage, for example. Put your lists somewhere you won’t lose them – on a bulletin board or in your email program. (Once again, clutter and disorganization are not the same thing.)

4. Let your things trigger memories. Put some of the things that remind you of the times you most enjoyed in conspicuous places so that they can help lift your mood when you need it. When something is in sight, it’s harder to forget; the placement of the object becomes a visual reminder. I also use this method for reminding me of things I need to do; for example, in the evening, I put the things I need to take downstairs the next morning somewhere along the path I will follow when I leave the bedroom so that I don’t forget them when I wake up.

5. Keep tools for your current task in arm’s reach. My cluttering habits started when I was in middle school, maybe earlier. Even living in my parents’ house, I found that I could do schoolwork better if I spread out everything I needed on the floor and laid down in the middle of it to work. It took up a lot of space, but I got the work done more quickly because I didn’t have to keep getting up to get what I needed. I still like to surround myself with the things I need to get each job done.

6. Allow yourself time to get sidetracked. In several of the writing classes I took, the instructor had us do freewriting, starting on one topic and just writing whatever came to mind, rather than trying to focus too intensely on one subject. Once we’d gotten our thoughts on paper, we looked over our writing to find topics to develop for our papers. When I start looking through my piles for something I need to complete a task, I inevitably find more things I need to do. If I see part of my day as a “freeworking” exercise, letting my piles of stuff guide me from one task to another, I often find that I get more done than if I had forced myself to focus on the original job I had set out to do.

7. Be willing to make concessions to family members’ neat habits. Keep the family peace by curbing your clutter as much as is necessary. Ask your housemates what parts of your clutter most bother them and try to straighten up those things or designate certain rooms of the house as neat space or clutter space. If you, like me, feel uncomfortable in a house that is too neat, ask your neat housemates to tolerate some clutter, too.

8. Don’t force everything to match your décor. In college, a friend of mine described my dorm room’s décor as “eclectic.” I liked the description; unless you have a very narrow range of taste, it’s unlikely that everything you choose for your surroundings will fit in. Rather than paying to change your whole decorating scheme to fit something new you’d like to add, use the contrasts created by the variety of your things to boost your creativity. Seeing unrelated things next to each other can help you think of them in conjunction with each other, which in turn can help you think of new uses for objects.

9. Keep a balanced attitude about possessions. No matter how much or how little you have, remember that material things aren’t the most important things in life. Take care of what you have, but don’t obsess over the maintenance of your possessions and don’t get too upset if something gets lost or breaks. It’s just stuff!

10. Don’t judge people based on their clutter or lack thereof. Sometimes people assume that because I am a clutterbug I am also dirty, lazy, and stingy. In contrast, neat people can be seen as hyper-organized, controlling, and obsessive. These stereotypes are usually inaccurate. I have an aunt whose house is so full of stuff there’s only a small walkway to get through each room; I never see a speck of dust in her house. I’ve also had a boss whose office was neat and clutter-free; she spent a lot of time maintaining her space and was disorganized in her work. Take the time to get to know people; don’t assume more than you should from your perceptions of their surroundings.

I don’t hold any grudges against neatness or clutter-free spaces; I still spend some time fighting off clutter when it starts to take over too much of my life or my home. However, I realize that if I tried to live up to the ideal of a perfectly clutter-free home, I would spend a majority of my time battling clutter. Why spend a lot of time keeping surroundings clear when I could be doing something more productive? From past experience, I know that any space I clear will soon fill up again (often with gifts from family members who are trying to clear out their own clutter) and create more work. Rather than fight to keep that space empty, I prefer to work within the clutter, spend more time with my family, and feel comfortable enough to put my feet up on the coffee table, where they will blend in with piles of books, toys, and photo albums.

Image courtesy of glynnish

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5 Responses to 10 Ways to Thrive in Clutter: What To Do When You’re Ready To Stop Wasting Time and Money on the Battle Against Clutter

  1. A Marino says:

    I have many projects and some are so large that there isn’t a real incentive to get them started. I did however, manage to get photos put into photo albums from years 1984 until present. It was a huge project, but one that gave me a lot of pleasure in finishing.

    As for clutter, it can also be a problem in your refrigerator and freezer. I have been keeping a list on a legal size paper for years now. I divide it into thirds. The upper part has a list of dinner menu’s for about 2 weeks. On the 2nd half of the bottom, I have a list of all of the frozen meats that I have. I have them divided into Beef, Chicken, Fish, etc. For instance, I would list how many lbs. of ground beef I have in prewrapped. I could have (5) 1 lbs of beef. Sometimes, I half my chickens, so they are listed 1/2 chicken but is for 1 serving. When I do this I don’t have to wonder what meat I need. I only have to look on the list to see what is needed and I can buy it on sale. Also, doesn’t let you keep frozen food too long.

    I, like you have many lists and think that we probably need a list for the list and know where it is when needed.

  2. A Marino says:

    I need to add that the list that I keep about the food is taped to my cupboard door in the kitchen so it is easy to get to.

  3. C. Speight says:

    I am a second or third generation clutterer. Having said that, I took an outstanding class about being a clutterer that wasn’t about condemnation but informational and great tips to help minimize, manage and eliminate the clutter. According to the psychologist that spoke, a vast majority of us have above average intelligence, are extremely creative in many different areas of expression and are care-givers, either in our homes and/or through volunteering. Organizing yourself will ultimately save you time (no hunting endlessly for the one item you need) and money (you can’t find the item so you go out and buy it again). When I organized my bathroom and corresponding boxes, I found 10 dental floss containers!! I learned many things but these were the most helpful: break down each job into 15 minute increments to be done daily (over the course of one year this adds up to 2 weeks), I can keep anything as long as it has a home, storage containers must have a top to keep the contents dust free, when I make a purchase I must let go of 2 items therefore reducing the clutter. I will never be a completely clutter free person. Life is too short to spend that much time organizing. But your list idea is being added to my bag of tricks. I can see where that will help with the saving time and money. My refrigerator, freezer and work bench are the first lists. Oh, and the first thing I got rid of was the guilt of being a clutterer. That helped the most. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. Philip Parsons says:

    I think most of those houses have probably been air brushd once or twice anyway

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