It seems to me that keeping a home environment nice and tidy comes down to a fundamental conflict between space and stuff.

What is clutter?

We talk about clutter as a noun, but I think that actually, it’s more a condition – a way of being.

Clutter is the state of having too much stuff to fit in the space it needs to go into.

As human beings, we naturally gravitate toward finding a balance between stuff and space. An empty room feels soulless and unsettling. One packed to the brim feels overstuffed and anxiety-inducing.

Where that golden spot is is different for each person – it’s a matter personal preference.

Most of the dialogue around this right now seems to present clutter as being a kind of moral failing, and minimalism as inherently virtuous.

Clutter is not necessarily a bad thing, if you are happy in that space.

In my grandfather’s old shed, he had all kinds of treasures – half built inventions, coffee cans filled with screws, fishing poles, bits of wood, seeds to plant… I can’t even begin to recall the volume and variety of strange and half-broken things in there. But it was magical the way he could rummage around and find just the thing that was needed for any situation.

Was it cluttered? Undoubtedly – the amount of stuff he had packed into that small space was much more than it was designed to hold. But it worked for him, and it made him happy to be in his workshop.

Clutter only becomes a problem when it makes your space less usable.

Clutter needs boundaries

Here’s the thing – my grandfather’s mess was contained to that shed.

The home had one junk drawer – everything else was lean and clean. My Granny ran a tight ship, and was ruthless about removing any clutter or unnecessary items in the house.

Granny was a brilliantly pragmatic housekeeper – not someone who delighted in the domestic, but who got it done without a fuss. (My mom always liked to point out how her furniture was perfectly spaced so the vacuum would fit without having to move anything.)

Are you a space person? Or a stuff person?

The first step to building a happier relationship to your environment is working out if you are happy in your space.

The next thing you need to know is – are you a space person or a stuff person?

Which one of these things is the priority that drives your decision making?

For space people, the main priority is how the space is working as a whole, and how the objects fit together – for example, the person who would give away a book that doesn’t fit on their bookshelf without thinking twice.

For stuff people, the perspective is different. I naturally fall more in this camp. Every object has a story: a past, or an as-yet-unrealised future potential. I tend to be more attached to the individual things than I am to the overall environment.

Here’s an example in action, drawing on that image of books…

I have spent hours meticulous researching bookcases to try to find things that are exactly the right size to house my writing papers. The goal is making a home for the stuff. This is a stuff first approach.

Whereas my sister is the type of person who would see a bookshelf that works with her decor and buy it, then figure out what fits on it and get rid of the rest. This is a space first approach.

Both personality tendencies have benefits and drawbacks.

If you’re a space person, you run the risk of missing out on the details (and you have probably thrown away things that you shouldn’t). But you almost certainly have a space that is working pretty well for you.

If you are a things-first person, there is very likely a disconnect between the number of possessions you feel attached to and your available space. Meaning – you have a clutter problem.

To create a nice environment, space has to win

I hate to admit it, but I’ve come to believe that the space people are right. When these two approaches are in conflict, space has to win.

This requires an evolutionary shift in our thinking. Human beings have been programmed to stockpile with good reason – hanging on to things and building resources is historically an important way to be prepared for lean times, particularly unexpected ones. (i.e. You may not like your old shirt, but it’s better than naked. Or you may hate canned peas, but it’s better than hungry.) This is the heritage that has been passed down over centuries.

But for most of us today, the dangers of living in a space with too much stuff are far greater than the dangers of scarcity.

Untidy or overstuffed spaces make it harder to keep healthy habits – no one wants to exercise on a floor they can’t see or cook in a cluttered kitchen.

Clutter exists on a continuum, but you don’t have to be at a hoarder level for the baggage of extra stuff to make your life difficult. And it’s surprisingly easy for this to become hazardous. (After a difficult move our house was in total disarray, and I was really thrilled to meet the personal goal of not having to trip over piles, or worry about things falling on my head when I open my cabinets.)

When the accumulation of objects starts to veer into true hoarding behaviour, that’s when the danger gets really extreme. These spaces are unhygienic, they can be firetraps, and the risk of excess stuff causing injuries grows exponentially. And the problem only gets worse, because the fact that you can’t find what you need leads to buying even more stuff.

I can’t change the fact that I’m a stuff person, that I probably will always hold onto things a bit longer than I need to, or take a stuff-first approach.

But I have to recognise that if I want a space that feels good, then I have to make the big picture the priority.

You know the saying ‘can’t see the forest for the trees?’ That is exactly what happens for those of us who prioritise stuff.

So, how do stuff people learn to manage the clutter?

I am still very much a work in progress on this. But I’ve come to believe there are strategies that can really improve things for us stuff people. We don’t have to ignore our natural inclinations, we have to learn to work with them.

That is exactly the issue I will be tackling next in this project.

Photo by Luca Laurence on Unsplash