Issendai (issendai) wrote,

2009: What I Learned About Stuff; or, Killing Clutter with Fire

2008 was the year of Agh I Have Hoarding Tendencies, Nuke Them From Orbit. I shoved several carloads of stuff out of my apartment, tossed even more into the garbage, and learned a ton about why I accumulate objects and how to stop doing it. It wasn't an easy year, but it was a turning point.

Then came 2009, and I rested on my laurels. And then learned, come October and a sudden move, exactly how much I hadn't learned in 2008. Some of it I relearned, some of it I learned fast, and some of it is still packed up in boxes waiting for a breakthrough. In the hopes that it will help you, here's what I did learn:
  • It will take a long, long time to undo a cluttered house.
  • But you'd be amazed at what you can do in 15 minutes.
  • No project takes as long as you think it will once you buckle down and do it.
  • It's okay to do things in spurts. If you have an hour's energy, then have to take a break for a week, do it. Don't make yourself do the "a little bit, every day" routine that all the clutter manuals suggest if that's not your style.
  • But do keep doing things.
  • Learn to LOOK at your house. You're probably used to looking at it as a series of set pieces--the place you sit to watch TV, the place you make dinner, the clean spot on your desk. Stop doing that and take it all in. Don't prioritize one thing over another--learn not to look at your desk and see your desk, your chair, and your computer, plus random other things. See it all at once. If you can't do it on your own at first, try inviting a friend over. That jolts most people into seeing their houses as they really are.
  • Making decisions is hard. It takes energy. Studies show that there's a specific area of the brain that handles decision-making, and it can make only so many decisions a day before it gets tired. If you clutter or have hoarding tendencies, there's an excellent chance that part of the problem is that that part of your brain tires unusually fast. Work with it, not against it. When you feel decisions getting harder or you start getting frustrated more easily, stop.
  • It's okay to have things you can't tackle. If you're cleaning out a section of your house and you come across, say, a box that you just can't face, don't face it. Put it aside and take care of the things you can handle. As long as there's more stuff you can handle than stuff you can't, you'll keep making progress.
  • Don't get hung up on chains of events--you know, not being able to sort your mail until you've put together the mail filer which doesn't have a place to go because the spot where you want it to be is covered with books that are supposed to go in the bookcase you haven't put together yet. It doesn't have to all work perfectly. If the mail filer sits in the wrong place for a month, that's okay. If the books pile up elsewhere, that's okay. If you put together the bookshelf but can't put it in the perfect spot because some other thing is in the way, that's okay. Stuff can move around. Nothing is permanent. Just get stuff done as you need it to be done.
  • If you're saving something for a project and you've had it for more than a month, ask yourself: Are you really going to do the project? No--really? Are you going to do the project? If yes, then do the project. If yes but, then ask yourself: Is this thing I'm saving taking up space? Is it something I could replace in the future when it's time to do the project? Am I considering doing this project only because I laid hands on this one object? Is it, to be blunt, junk I'm saving to upcycle?
  • It's okay to give up projects.
  • It's okay to give up projects.
  • Just because you had a brilliant idea for this one thing you can do with this thing and this other thing, that doesn't mean you have to do it.
  • Just because you've been planning to do a project for a long time, that doesn't mean you have to do it.
  • Just because you've gotten ahold of something really cool and unusual, that doesn't mean you have to do something with it.
  • You are not the sum of your projects. Deciding not to do a project, even one you've thought about for a long, long time, is not abandoning a part of yourself.
  • It's okay to give up projects.
  • Your stuff can't live your life for you.
  • Your stuff can't make things happen. If you're, say, keeping a desk in an inconvenient location because it will be perfect when it comes time to hook up the computer you don't have and have no immediate plans to buy, then you're not killing your dreams of having a new computer by moving your desk to a better location. You can move it back when you get the computer.
  • Incidentally, anime will give you seriously fucked-up ideas about how to relate to objects. It's full of people who build their lives around objects or daily rituals because they're symbols of some other thing; and while that's all very poetic, it has as much of a role in real life as your average low-orbit mecha battle.
  • Recycling is not worth the space it takes up in your house. Seriously. I had a trash can full of redeemable bottles that sat around the kitchen for a year before I did anything with it (because I don't drink many drinks that are redeemable), and when I took it to the recycling center, I got 45 cents for it. Screw that. If your redeemables are sitting around the house because going to the center is too much for you to handle, throw them in the regular recycling. They'll get recycled anyway, and will probably be gleaned by bottle-pickers who need the money way more than you do.
  • Saving the earth is a noble goal, but if your recycling is building up because it's a pain to remember recycling days, get the recycling out there, etc., then toss it in the garbage. This goes triple when you make the big push to clean out your house. It's more important to get trash out of your house than to perfectly curate your trash.
  • This is based on observation, not personal experience: If you live in a messy house and share space with other people, they will fall into three categories: 1. People who are [also?] responsible for the mess. 2. People who want to clean up the mess, but can't because someone else is the messmaker. 3. People who don't give a damn.
  • The people in Category 1 will not change. You can try to inspire them, you can attempt to teach them cleaning and decluttering skills, but in the end, you are almost certainly going to fail. The desire to fix your house is yours and yours alone. If you live with someone in Category 1, accept that they will be a dead weight or an active hindrance.
  • The people in Category 2 are valuable allies. You should figure out what your issues are and educate them in dealing with people with hoarding tendencies, though. People who don't have hoarding tendencies are likely to say, "You want to clean? GREAT!" and leap into action, expecting results immediately and not understanding why the person with hoarding tendencies isn't suddenly acting like a neurotypical. Then comes the screaming fight, the breakdown on the part of the person with hoarding tendencies, and the non-hoarder's abandonment of the project. Basically, people who have hoarding tendencies aren't neurotypical, and non-hoarders' means of dealing with them makes them worse. if you want to keep a non-hoarder as an ally, be prepared to do the groundwork first.
  • The people in Category 3 are neutrals. If they don't care, they don't care. They aren't themselves hoarders, so they won't make the house worse, but you probably won't be able to enlist their help for anything but short, focused projects that benefit them. This is okay. You are not their responsibility, and neither is your mess.
  • Just because you own something now, that doesn't mean you have to own it forever.
  • The universe did not put things in your possession to make certain they were loved and cared for and curated to the best of your ability for all eternity. It's okay for things to become trash in your possession.
  • It's okay to waste.
  • It's okay to send something to a home that might not be absolutely perfect for it.
  • Take all those gifts and cards you've been collecting for everyone and give them to the people you bought them for. Doesn't matter if you have the right wrapping. Doesn't matter if it's not the right holiday. No one doesn't like a surprise gift. Just get the stuff out of your house right now.
  • When you get a little load of stuff together for charity, take it to the drop box right away. Don't wait to pull together an even bigger load. The charity is not going to turn you away because your bag is too small. Just get it out, get it out, get it out.
  • If you hoard food, go through your pantry and decide what you're going to eat this week. Take everything else that's neither a) expired nor b) in need of refrigeration, and put it in a bag. Take the bag to your local food pantry, soup kitchen, etc.
  • And then don't buy anything to fill up the empty shelves.
  • No, really. It's okay for shelves to be empty. You don't need to use all your storage to its limit. Storage exists so you have somewhere to put things IF you have things to store, not SO you have things to store.
  • This includes books. There's a lot of snobbery about books--belief that you have to be out of bookshelf space or you're boring, belief that you have to be constantly buying books, belief that books are so valuable that they don't count as clutter. Unconscious belief that if you own a book, you own the knowledge contained within; and conversely, if you don't own a book, you don't own the knowledge. This is all bullshit. If you have too many books, you have too many books. Books are objects, just like any other; and you know what? They print lots of them. If you haven't read your copy of Herald's Price in 15 years and don't plan to read it again any time soon, get rid of it. When you want to read it again, there will be another copy. By all means keep books that are hard to find or expensive to replace, that have sentimental value, or that you plan to reread. But if you have a book because you read it once and now it's yours, pass it along.
And some cleaning advice:
  • Every time you go from one room to the next, take something from the first room and put it back in the second, where it belongs. Getting into the habit of never going from one room to the other with empty hands makes an amazing difference.
  • Learn what your favorite chores are, and then go outside them. For instance, I like doing dishes, and when the kitchen is clear of dirty dishes, it feels clean to me. But that doesn't do a thing for the countertops or the crusty stove. When I want to start cleaning, I always do the dishes first, then use up most of my energy and don't get much else done. This is handy, because there are always dirty dishes, so there's always a nice, nonthreatening chore to soak up my energy and keep me from tackling harder things. To get real work done, I have to forego the dishes.
And some stuff it would be useful to learn, but I haven't personally developed the knack yet:*
  •  It's better to have nothing than to have a broken thing. If you have nothing, you're faced with the fact that you need something, and you're motivated to go out and get what you need. If you have a broken thing, you'll keep using it... or trying to... or doing without, but always looking at the broken thing you do have and thinking about how you really ought to fix it. Meanwhile, the broken thing takes up space and becomes a black hole, draining away your energy. Toss it out.
  • Objects are like relationships, really. It's worse to be with the wrong one than to be with no one at all.
  • Do what you need to do. If you need to put something in a box for two years to break your emotional attachment to it, do it. If you need to avoid one part of the mess in order to get the rest of the mess cleaned up, do it.
  • But don't let it become an excuse to do nothing. If you're so busy processing that sweet fuck-all is getting done, stop processing.
  • In the end, it's nothing but a temporary arrangement of objects in a temporary room. It's not permanent, it's not your life, and regardless of what decorating shows tell you, it's not a unique expression of your selfhood. It's just a bunch of stuff. Fix it, change it, toss it out, replace it, turn it all upside-down, eat it, drink it, kick it in the shins. It doesn't matter, because it's nothing but stuff.

* This section should contain some of the advice above. Hush up. It's my blog and I'll bloviate if I want to.
Tags: cluttering, hoarding
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