Saturday, 9 April 2011

Clutter: a relative term

Our new apdo-uk Facebook page is already proving a valuable source of information. One of our members has today used it to point me towards an article in today's Guardian by Oliver Burkeman.

On the face of it, it would appear to be a somewhat cynical attack on what he describes as "Britain's burgeoning anti-clutter industry". However, a complete read of the article reveals that what he's actually saying makes a great deal of sense: he's urging a rational balance, an appreciation of what constitutes clutter and what is simply a part of the life you lead.

I'm delighted by the rationale in this paragraph: "..."clutter" is inherently subjective, denoting a certain kind of problematic relationship between you and your things, rather than things themselves... Clutter exists only when those things exert a mental drag, or get in the way of living, in line with the old Afrikaans proverb, "Alles wat jy besit vat van jou tyd" — "Everything you own snatches at your time.""

I couldn't agree more. I have worked with many clients over the years, and there's no doubt that one client will start where another left off: in other words, problems with clutter are those of the perception of the individual, and an acceptable state of 'approximate order' to one person might be unacceptably chaotic to the next. [I blogged about exactly this distinction in this entry last year.]

I've walked into houses where my first thought has been "what on earth do you need my help for?", only to find that the cause of the problem is, by my own personal standards (which of course are not relevant in this context), a cupboard in a very mild state of disarray; but if that's causing confusion, inefficiency or distress to the owner, then it must be addressed, and that's when I'll do my best to come up with working solutions for them. Conversely, I have brought clients from a state of complete helplessness - no clues about the location of a single thing in the house - to an improved, more efficient, but certainly far-from-minimialistic state - and that state would probably appear, to the impartial observer, 'worse' than the starting point of the previous scenario.

"Compulsive hoarding is a favoured topic of reality shows and human-interest magazines, but it's easy to imagine the opposite psychological disorder: the compulsive expunging of stuff." Quite. Just as a popular TV show, Supersize vs Superskinny, demonstrates that it's not just the obese that are at danger from ill health but also those whose dysfunctional attitude to food expresses itself in the opposite way, the same can be said of decluttering.

If we are, naturally, of the mindset that allows us to live like Henry David Thoreau, then fine; but most of us, in real life, have 'stuff' that both serves us and, to a certain extent, defines us. To remove the real clutter - the detritus that "snatches at our time" (I love that phrase) - will be liberating, will allow us to concentrate on things that really matter; but to "compulsively expunge" is as likely to leave us bereft and without structure or definition. The key is to find the balance between the two; and this is the sort of assistance that should be provided by the best decluttering consultant. Not judgement, nor imposition, but a set of ideas and possibilities, a toolkit of suggestions and challenges, and the personality to motivate, guide and encourage our clients to reach a state of comfort with their surroundings, allowing them to live, work and play without distress.


  1. Hi Cassie,
    Great to read your comments. I was talking to someone at a business event the other day, and they presumed incorrectly that my idea was or should be to help people become minimalistic in helping them declutter. They were obviously of that persuasion, and thankfully I was able to say that being minimalistic was a choice, but not necessary as part of a declutter. I like to be tidy, and am always tidying, but in no way could I be minimalistic in our home. If I did, I would drive my hubby out! I like some ornaments around me, and have lots of pictures of friends and family in both our bedroom and our lounge, and would feel totally bereft without these. I like to help people see what they want to enhance their home, what they need, and what is causing them a hinderance. Then and only then can we work together to achieve their goals for their home environment.

  2. Hi Cassie and Maggie,

    So many people think that I have nothing in my house and everything is labelled and boxed just because I am a professional organiser. On the contrary and I so agree with what Maggie says. I'm also tidy and am always tidying, but I have a lovely warm home with ornaments, photographs and 2 young kids with all their toys. It's just that I can find everything I need within seconds and don't have to waste time searching for things.
    I think I just want to share my ideas, systems and routines with other people and hopefully improve their lives.

  3. This is great reading, we need to get the message across to everyone.