Article links, Self-Development

Clutter, Cleaning and The Psychology of the Homefront

I’m pretty sure anyone who has been in the workforce long enough has heard the old adage, “A cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind; the empty desk is a sign of…?”

Television shows like “Hoarders” have shed an unsympathetic light on people who run the gamut from being poor housekeepers to having outright mental illnesses, and made a lot of people whose housekeeping skills slide during anxious or depressive cycles become increasingly ashamed of the state of their living spaces. I have had clients for whom the struggle to maintain a reasonable grasp on their living conditions is a repeating (sometimes constant) source of tension, so over the years I’ve collected a number of resources that help supplement the work we do in session around unravelling the internal stories these clients tell themselves about chaos and control.

Most people who deal with these kinds of issues have heard of Fly Lady, which is half environmental-management programming, half social networking and support. I used the program myself in its early incarnation, and I still adhere to the “ten minutes a day” approach to tidying and putting things away… most days, at least. I certainly got much better at managing my space when I moved the counselling office into the house; having clients walk through your living space makes it *really* imperative you don’t have a dazzling array of laundry and dishes and cat hair visible on the transit path. (Clients coming to a home office are a pretty forgiving lot, by and large, but all the same: if I want my clients to treat this as a professional space, I kind of have to lead the way in treating it that way myself.)

Not too long ago, a friend who had given up on Fly Lady when it started getting “too commercial” pointed me at a different site with a similar mandate, and much stronger language appealing to a different sense of humour, and sensibility in general: Unf*&k Your Habitat. I don’t mind the language, personally, and I find the slightly-edgier, less-hand-holdy-cutesy tone that was more pervasive on Fly Lady works for me. It’s a little more like being motivated to work by my Mom as I remember from childhood years, than my gentle and slightly-batty Auntie. It won’t be to everyone’s taste.

I’ve also been a longtime fan of Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits for suggestions on how to approach decluttering and environmental maintenance; for example, this recent Quickstart Guide to decluttering a home is a great example of a simple, low-pressure way to rethink our attachments to our Stuff. Dig through the archive; there’s plenty more where that comes from.

This morning a friend sent me this link, about how clutter in our closets may reflect our thinking styles on other fronts as well:

Many powerful emotions are lurking amid stuff we keep. Whether it’s piles of unread newspapers, clothes that don’t fit, outdated electronics, even empty margarine tubs, the things we accumulate reflect some of our deepest thoughts and feelings.

Now there’s growing recognition among professional organizers that to come to grips with their clutter, clients need to understand why they save what they save, or things will inevitably pile up again. In some cases, therapists are working along with organizers to help clients confront their psychological demons.

Another recent article that touches on the related issue of motivation provides some useful scientific (or at least, plausibly-scientific; this *is* the INternet after all, and I take all such claims with a huge grain of salt these days. It’s essentially a link-bin for the supporting articles, but it’s worth the time to sift through most of them, especially the concepts of using optimism — often explored in client sessions as finding ways to change the internal narratives, or the client’s internal perspectives on how and why things happen as they do — and progress, or new metrics for measuring change, however incremental, toward a goal.

There are a lot of resources, and a lot of research, being done into how people approach their environments in conscious and unconscious reflection of their own internal states. It’s rarely as simple as the “cluttered desk/cluttered mind” scenario, but it’s all far more interconnected than we think, and disorganized thinking affects all of us to one degree or another, at one time or another. Being able to help people both find better solutions to the household clutter issue, and find ways of challenging or adapting the internal mental processes, is a part of what psychotherapy can do.

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