Combatting Clutter

by J.D. Roth

For years, I’ve been fighting a battle with stuff.

To me, there are two types of stuff. On a basic level, all of the things you own make up the stuff in your life. But you need some of these things. You need bedding and toiletries and dishes and cleaning supplies. The battle I’ve been fighting is with the stuff beyond the basics — all of the toys and gadgets and souvenirs and decorations and miscellaneous possessions that fill up my space and life. This is the stuff that’s been driving me crazy.

I first realized I had a problem with stuff when I began to travel about five years ago. I’m a light packer. When I travel, I take little with me. I’m able to survive with what I can lug around in a single carry-on suitcase. Living with only few things for several weeks can be liberating, and when I return home I’m often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things I own.

In recent years, I’ve slowly been shedding my stuff. I’ve purged thousands of books. I’ve donated much of my wardrobe to charity. When Kris and I divorced, I intentionally took as little as possible with me.

All the same, my recent move to a new place reinforced that I still have a lot of stuff. Maybe not as much as most people, but more than I want. I have boxes of books and comics. I have stacks of CDs and DVDs. And I still have too many wires and gadgets. So, as I’ve unpacked over the past three weeks, I’ve done my best to thin things as I go.

But I need some stuff. And there’s other stuff that I want. Kim and I have been drafting an ongoing list of stuff I ought to acquire in order to make this place more livable. Here’s the real-life, honest-to-goodness list of stuff I want right now:

Now obviously some of this stuff is useful and important. Without a mop and a bucket, my floors are going to get filthy. But a candle snuffer? Is that a needful thing? Or is it really, truly just stuff? Where do I draw the line?

I don’t yet know where to draw the line, but I’m beginning to get an idea.

Just the other day, for the first time in my adult life, every room in my house was clean and tidy. All of my stuff was put away. It felt awesome. My physical environment was free of clutter, and that made it so that my mental environment was free of clutter. It helped to reduce the underlying level of anxiety that I’ve come to realize is always present in my life.

I’ve decided that one of my goals will be to maintain this sense of inner calm by being certain that my home always has an outer calm. I want things to be neat and tidy. But in order to accomplish this, I can only have so much stuff. It can’t be pouring out of the closets and cupboards, overflowing onto desks and counters and tables and chairs.

I’ve also re-committed to pursuing quality. While sorting through the things I own, I realized that I have a lot of cheap crap (purchased in an effort to be “frugal”). Sometimes cheap crap is good. If I’m not going to use an item much, there’s no sense paying top dollar for it. However, for the things I use often, it makes sense for me to take the time to find the best solution, to pay a little more to get the best experience.

In short, I want to own fewer things, but I want the things I own to be of better quality.

I suspect I’ll be waging this war on stuff until the day I die. I don’t know of many people who ever win it. (The few I do know who seem to have won the war on stuff have done so through drastic measures. Tammy and Logan, for instance, won the war by moving into a tiny house. I applaud their victory, but that’s not something I’m willing to do for myself.)

I’m curious: How many of you feel like you’re fighting a war on stuff? How many of you are constantly wrestling with physical (and mental) clutter? What techniques have you found to help you fight the battle? What does not work? And do any of you feel like you’ve actually achieved a lasting victory?

Updated: 04 March 2013

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