About Practical Matters: Clutter


Q: “I read your last ‘Ask the Psychologist’ column — the one in which you gave some advice to the woman who kept forgetting to turn off the air conditioning, forgetting her keys, and stuff. You said that sometimes psychologists can help in practical ways. I wonder if you can give some advice to help me. I clutter things up. Every place I can possibly clutter up, I do. My desk is a mess. The trunk of my car is a mess. My closet is a mess. Everything. It’s not that I like clutter. I don’t! But every time I decide to straighten out one of these places, I get scared off because it looks like too big a job. I’d like to get some of these places straightened up and keep them straight. Can you help?” -Joe

A: Joe, your situation is not unusual. Clutter is an inevitable part of our culture, with all our mail, newspapers, magazines, packaging, gadgets, et cetera. The key is to manage the situation so that the clutter in your life space is not so much that you are uncomfortable or inconvenienced. Apparently, Joe, you are uncomfortable with the amount of clutter in a number of your life spaces.

Giving you enough advice for you to keep things straightened up would take more space than I have in this column, so you’ll have to come in for a few sessions if you want to discuss it. But I can describe for you a technique which may help you to straighten up some cluttered places to begin with.
First of all, Joe, you’ve put your finger on one of the biggest reasons that people cannot control clutter. You said “I get scared off because it looks like too big a job.” The more a space becomes cluttered, the more formidable a task it seems to be to straighten it up. So, the key to cleaning up a cluttered space is to take away the formidable appearance of the task. The method I prescribe is “Do 10 things.” It works for desks, closets, car trunks, work benches, living rooms, et cetera.

Let me illustrate it with an example. Suppose your living room is cluttered up. There’s a glass on the coffee table, so you put it in the sink and say “one.” You pick up your jacket and hat and hang them in the closet and say “two.” You put yesterday’s newspaper in the pile to be re-cycled, and say “three.” You put a few CDs back into their covers and put them away and say “four.” You put your running shoes into the closet and say “five.” You continue like this until you reach “ten,” and then you stop. Yes, you stop.

It takes only about two-to-three minutes to “do 10 things.” You can do it before leaving for class, before going to bed, while waiting for water to boil, while waiting for a ballgame to start, et cetera. And, doing 10 things is not a formidable enough task to avoid. Straightening out the whole place may be formidable; doing 10 things is not. Within a day or two, you can get your apartment, desk, or the trunk of your car all straightened up — 10 things at a time.

You may try it and say “Hey. I’ve done 10 things and I’m on a roll. Why not just keep going and do the whole job?” And that’s okay — some of the time. But, most of the time, you’ve really got to stop after 10 things. Why? Because you can’t fool yourself. If you know that doing 10 things is just a way to try to kid yourself into doing the whole job, you’ll end up avoiding doing 10 things the same way you avoid the whole formidable job. So, give yourself permission to just do 10 things and stop. Joe, you may find that you can keep your life spaces neat without ever making a major project out of it.
Michael R. Slavit, Ph.D., ABPP, is Board Certified in Cognitive Behavioral Psychology. This column is not intended to be a substitute for help from a qualified professional.



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