A Fine Mess: Why We Need to Ditch the Clutter

When information, not to mention the choices available to us, increase exponentially, where's the space to process? To reflect?
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Sometimes what we need to do is clean house. I'm not necessarily talking about making your bed or doing the laundry -- although either one is a good start -- but channeling your inner minimalist and ditching the clutter, literally and figuratively.

I've been thinking about this lately as I watched a friend make some changes in her life, both big and small. As she has gone about this process of reclaiming herself, one of her tasks has been to reinvent her physical space. Out with the stuff that doesn't matter. In with the stuff that does. There's a metaphor here.

According to a piece by Jack Feuer in the July issue of UCLA Magazine, we have become a clutter culture. As Feuer writes:

Walk into any dual-income, middle-class home in the U.S. and you will come face to face with an awesome array of stuff -- toys, trinkets, family photos, furniture, games, DVDs, TVs, digital devices of all kinds, souvenirs, flags, food and more. We put our stuff anywhere in the house, everywhere there's room, or even if there's no room. Park the car on the street so we can store our stuff in the garage. Pile the dirty laundry in the shower because there's nowhere else to store it and no time to wash it.

She then quotes the famous observation of George Carlin: "a house is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it." Freuer's piece centers on a new book, Life at Home in the 21st Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors, due out this week, part of a long-running UCLA research project on working families run by UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives of Families (CELF). In tracking the material culture of these families, the researchers found that when we say we have it all, what we have all of is stuff. And lots of it.

And often, they found, this hyper-abundance leads to a world of grief, especially for women, whose stress-hormones spiked when smacked with the family clutter and who often referred to their homes with words like "not fun" and "very chaotic."

"Cortisol data show a link between unhappy verbal characterizations of arrays of household possessions [chronically messy, cluttered rooms or unfinished remodeling projects] and higher stress level as measured by the hormone cortisol in the MOTHERS in the study," UCLA professor of anthropology Jeanne Arnold, one of the founding faculty of the CELF project, wrote in an email. She continued:

Women who characterize their homes as restful, restorative, or tidy had lower stress levels. Fathers often omitted any mention of the same messy and unfinished spaces and were unaffected physiologically. Why? Likely because mothers still take on the lion's share of responsibility for housework and because we still place value on tidiness. Our spreading possessions take oh so much time to organize and clean.

No kidding. But there's more to this mess than just cleaning out the junk drawers. Research shows that physical clutter can lead not only to stress, but also depression, especially in women. It's not too much of a stretch to assume that it can also screw with our ability to focus. I don't know about you, but I get more than a little bit frazzled when the surface of my desk is hidden under a jumble of books, papers, files and to-do lists and my computer is slamming me with some 200 unread emails. (True confession: I even have a hard time holding down a thought when the breakfast dishes are still stacked up at dinner time. Well, maybe that's writer's block. Whatever.)

All of this has an obvious solution: Clean off the desk, read the emails and do the dishes. Done. But it all gets more dicey when you extrapolate the effects of all this chaos to the clutter that clogs our brain when we deal with issues more profound than simply meeting a deadline or sorting through the clothes in your closet. And where you can end up is in one hell of a pickle: Undecided. Lusting after the greener grass. Longing for the road not traveled.

Just plain stuck.

Is it the curse of the information age? We carry so much baggage, so many shoulds, from society, the workplace, our families, our friends, Facebook -- all blasted at us at lightening speed, thanks to the interwebs -- that it's sometimes hard to find our authentic selves within the mental clutter. And when the information, not to mention choices, increases exponentially, where's the space to process? To reflect?

Amid all that chaos, it's hard to isolate what it is that we really want to do with our lives, what it is that makes us happy. The trigger for our book, in fact, was a conversation with a smart, accomplished woman we called Jane who nonetheless was so overwhelmed with trying to figure out what to do with her life that she once confessed she wished she had been born into a culture in which everything -- where she lived, what she did, who she married -- was chosen for her.

But back to my friend, the one who is redoing her house along with her life. She emailed me a link to a blog by a woman who has embarked on what she dubbed The William Morris Project. To wit: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."

As in houses, so in life? Good advice when we start to cut the clutter. No matter where we find it.

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