Of Clutter

Clutter, as a concept, is fairly simple. Things accumulate.

Yet clutter is so subtle in reality. It operates unseen, slowly gathering just beneath our awareness. It plays on our slow adaptation, sneaking in when we are not looking, slowly growing on our shelves and in our rooms, slowly stuffing our folders and email labels.

Clutter is subtle — until it isn’t. Until the moment of realization. Until we reach the edge of the storage unit, the top of the closet, the 50gb limit in the dropbox.

Then, suddenly, we see it for what it is: Too much. Not meaningful. Unhealthy. Weighing us down.

And we analyze it: We look freshly, and suddenly, none of it makes sense. The jeans that never fit to begin with, jeans we have never worn once, jeans that we have yet kept for some reason.

For some reason. There, in one phrase is the subtle working of clutter. What is that some reason? We have it, but we don’t really think about it. As we think about it we realize that for each kept thing, some minor aspiration is attached. Once every week, those jeans have gotten a glance, and, almost subconsciously some mini-script played out in our mind. “I’ll lose weight and then wear them.” Or “I can’t give a brand new pair of jeans away, so let me hold onto them.” Or some other some reason.

Very often, clutter has a “someday” attached. Other clutter, a general procrastination. Still other things are about the past, kept because things have both a functional value and a symbolic value. Sometimes we are holding onto them not for the future, but for the past. Old photos in triplicate. Old printouts of emails we still have electronically.

Clutter, then, becomes an accumulation, a quantification of our unfulfilled aspirations, past, present, future, and deferred.

Yes, we like to think “out of sight, out of mind” but we must remember the subconscious sees all, and holds onto things of which we aren’t, by definition, conscious.

Yet these things add up. To have storage units and email labels, to have groups of things great and small we feel are “ours”, unused, sitting and waiting for us somewhere, things unfulfilled but mentally and emotionally stamped as our property — these have a cost. A carrying capacity, a minor tension in the background.

As adaptable as humans are, I suspect that this cost is higher than we realize. The cluttering of our world — physical and electronic — is a cluttering of our our minds.

The word clutter itself comes from the same root as the word “clot,” as in blood clot. As in little pieces of things that can also slowly start to stick to themselves, gain a momentum and obstruct the flow of the system they were supposed to be for.

I am not sure I can test for this, but I’m pretty sure that the more stuff we have backlogged, the more likely we are to backlog even more stuff. Like being tired and drinking more coffee that then keeps you up and makes you more tired, and on and on, the more stuff we accumulate with its subtle aspirational and emotional baggage, the more likely we are to add more. And then, it becomes a true habit, a reflex.

Actually, I can test for that. The past few years would seem to exemplify this. The more email, the more apps I use to label things for later, the more I wish I could get to all of it, and the more likely I will label a new message as for later.

Perhaps this is how the slip to full-on “hoarding” can come to pass.

Of course, much like the blood’s ability to clot is wonderful when you’re bleeding, our drive to gather things around us has a positive purpose in its origins. We as humans rightly take possession very seriously. It is good that we gather some things, the necessary things.

Admitting this necessity of gathering means we will not ever find the easy way out. There is no pure minimalism. There are only degrees.

And perhaps the right response to a subtle problem is subtle as well. No one I know jogs only to remove potential blood clots. Yes, the great reorganization project, the spring cleaning, the box of stuff in the basement to test what you won’t miss, the email purge — these can all be helpful to clear things out.

But the risk is that then the part of you that was accumulating sees those as empty spaces to be filled. The risk is that our minds say “hey, we feel pretty light and airy now that we’ve purged. Finally we’ve got more room to save some things for later!” Like someone whose stomach expanded as they gain weight, the system needs time to adapt as well.

So: what is perhaps even more helpful than the big effort is the smallest effort, repeated. The daily subtle habit — the regular noticing of things as they are in front of you, and what they actually mean. The effort that when you use something, also take a moment to tend to it. Like gardening, we trim back so things stay in balance.

Today, let us not download another new app, but rather glance through the ones we have and delete a couple. Let us set a date older-than which we will un-label or delete all emails. You can do this in gmail — it took me 3 minutes just now.

And when I get home tonight: those jeans.