Have you ever wondered why some people work in a cluttered environment? I have viewed offices where the desk is filled with an array of papers, tape dispensers, paper clips, staplers, pens, pencils, sticky notes, and files while their side tables or chairs have little room to place items on or for a visitor to sit down. I have also looked at their virtual desk-top and viewed a cornucopia of files, word documents, photos, PDF files that filled the whole window. Why do people do this to themselves? Does it make them feel comfortable? Or does it lead to distraction?
For over 30 years I had helped people organize themselves, reduce their level of distractions so that they could focus better, improve self-discipline, and reduce self-induced stress. I employed a number of techniques such as spending time with them as they cleared their desk and surroundings, given them methods for prioritizing daily, weekly and monthly tasks and showed them how to draw up a personal vision and a set of goals for themselves as well as ways to achieve them. All valuable in and of themselves. Yet, I still wondered “why” do people develop ‘habits of clutter’? My reflection on this question has identified four possible answers:
1. Emotional Patterns: Some people get emotional gratification from accumulating stuff around them. Perhaps they have been brought up in an environment where they didn’t have much or have lost much and consequently have a subconscious need to have things around them. Perhaps they subconsciously want to fill a void for things they didn’t have; or they have a fear of losing the things they do have. It really doesn’t matter what those things are as the clutter becomes the stand-in for the things they didn’t have or for those things they have lost.
2. Collector Patterns: Some people just like collecting things and often they have a favorite item in their collection. That could be art, trinkets, pottery, figurines, books and the like. It could also be files that shout out, “Someday you may need me!” or articles that cry, “Someday, you will read me!” So they collect them and then discover they never need or read them. I have dealt with people whose offices are like their basements, full of stuff they will never use and work from the premise that “Someday I may need this, so I will keep it.” The problem is not that they are collectors, but that there is no organization to their collection or real rationale for their collection. Consequently when and if they need something, they can’t find it or can’t remember where they put it.
3. Keeping up Patterns: Some people have a tendency to accumulate stuff just in order to keep up with their neighbor. It’s not that they ‘need’ the item; it’s a ‘want’ prompted by a subconscious need to compare themselves with their neighbor. “Joe or Susan has all this, so I want it too,” they say. Marketing campaigns feed into this need to keep up. We are bombarded with stimulative ads which push “You must have this,” or, “You need this.” “Afterall look it all the people who have it.” Items are subliminally pushed onto our psyche – whether we need it or not and soon we think we have a need but basically, we just want it to keep up with those around us. We fear being left behind. This need must be so ingrained in our ego that we seem to naturally compare ourselves with the other.
4. Control Patterns: Some of us have a need to control. There is a certain degree of comfort in ensuring we have control especially when most things are outside of our control. Control often caters to our ego that has a fear of letting go, of being comfortable within one’s own skin or just going with the flow. So what do we do? We surround ourselves with stuff and that stuff gives us a modicum of control, except that it doesn’t. The stuff often distracts, disrupts our thinking pattern, takes us off focus, and triggers stress. As we look up, we see items that we still need to do, or fiddle with the stapler because it’s not working right or look at the file that isn’t a priority right now. The outside mess negatively impacts our inner need for control and in the end causes us to lose the control that we seek.
Getting to “why” we clutter supplements the tools we use to reduce the clutter. It’s better et to “why” first then use the tools. Here is an example, “I have a hammer but if I don’t know why I need it, for instance, to bang a nail into the wall, then it’s not much use to me.” The same is true about reducing all the stuff around me, if I don’t know why I have the clutter– the underlying motivation – then the tools may not have a lasting effect, and I dare to say will not have a lasting effect. We will tend to fall back to our old habits that provide comfort for us - those that fall into the four categories of emotionality, collecting, keeping pace and controlling.
I’m not passing judgement as to why people clutter by outlining these observable patterns. I’m pointing them out as potential ‘markers’ to ask: “Why do I have the clutter? What effect is it having on me? and What can I do about it?” And, for those who help others clear their desks and offices of clutter to ask the question: “Why do you think you have all this stuff around you?”
Thank you for reading. Richard P. Fontanie
Note: Erica Layne Nielsen in her book “The Minimalist way: Minimalism strategies to declutter your life and make room for Joy” references similar avoidance patterns as described in this article.