In Defense of Clutter

Sometime in the past year I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo. I’d read many references to it, and like quite a few people I lead a cluttered life and find it hard to unclutter.

One thing that stuck with me from the book was the idea that you should keep only those things that give you joy to wear or see or feel. I liked that idea. The problem is, I found that a whole lot of things give me joy. That’s why I got them in the first place, and that’s why I keep them. Even if I have to stuff them in a box just to get them out of the way, when I return to that box and pull the items out one by one, I am happily reminded of when and where I got them—joy in small doses. Which does nothing to solve my clutter problem.

But finally I found a book that defends the Other Side: the clutterers. I haven’t even finished reading it, but the first couple of chapters opened my eyes. It’s called A Perfect Mess, written by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman (two men!), and it was published in 2007. Actually the full title is A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder; How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place.

Our country has been obsessed about neatness, organization, cleanliness, order, call it what you will, for a long time. One result has been the proliferation of companies and consultants who charge you money for telling you or your company how to be neat and organized. But the question is, do their instructions help? Or to look at the larger question, does it really matter if we’re neat and organized? Why are we convinced that we’d be more efficient and more successful if we are? And why do we all feel so guilty because we aren’t?

Desk 3-17
My desk

One basic fact: you can spend a lot of time sorting and filing (and making sticky labels for your color-coded files), but is that the best use of your time? There are actually serious studies that show that you spend more time labeling and filing that you would if you left what you were looking for in a pile on your desk—because you know where to find it in that pile.

One section of the book I really responded to: the authors say “a messy desk can be a highly effective prioritizing and accessing system.” And that’s the way I operate. Yes, there are piles of things on my working desk—but I know what is in each pile, and where to find what I need quickly. Would it be more efficient to spend (or waste) time running around to my filing cabinets and plastic see-through file boxes carefully assigning each piece of paper to its very own slot? What I have (say the authors) is “a surprisingly sophisticated informal filing system that offers far more efficiency and flexibility than a filing cabinet could.”

Maybe it’s taking the logic a bit too far, but I tend to save articles and publications that catch my eye, and stick them in a pile. Over time the pile threatens to topple, so I put the the whole stack in a box. I will not tell you how many boxes I currently have that are labeled “Misc—TBF” (translation: Miscellaneous – To Be Filed). They are not filed. But when I recall that I read a pertinent article years before, I know where to hunt for it. And sometimes while I’m digging through those boxed piles, I come upon something I had forgotten, which inspires me all over again. I’m guessing that’s how a lot of writers work—you save ideas for when you need them later.

Files 3-17
The Files (and this is only half of them!)

Maybe humans have spent centuries trying to establish order, and all the rules that go with maintaining that, because they are trying to create a sense of control in their little corner of the world, in the face of a chaotic and unpredictable universe. That’s understandable. But if you ask me (and Abrahamson and Freedman), it’s kind of a waste of time.

We need to stop guilt-tripping ourselves because we’ve failed to meet some arbitrary standard of neatness. Tell me you haven’t heard almost every woman you know open the door to a guest and say, “I’m sorry the place is such a mess!”

Stop apologizing, and find joy in your mess!

How about you? Are you a neatnik or a clutterbug?

Please stop by my refreshed website at

and see what’s changed!


37 Thoughts

  1. Oh, Sheila, you have validated me.
    Neatness is overrated, methinks.

  2. I confess to having the clutter/packrack gene, and I’m not quite convinced I should give over to the cluttered life. For one thing, do I want my sons to have to go through all my little piles of crap someday and have to sort it? Or worse, just toss it? No! I am a highly functional clutterbug, however, like you, Sheila. I know what’s in those piles.

    I finished a first draft Saturday, and my son who has been living with us part time is moving out today. So relocating my sewing stuff into the guest room (my plan all along until he came home to occupy it) and then reorganizing and cleaning my office is top on my list this week!

  3. In self-defense, I shifted to the Neatnik end of the spectrum a few years ago when I moved to an apartment less than 600 square feet with no supplemental storage. Sure, I bought Elfa drawers like crazy and crammed them full of stuff, but I also pitched a ton of files and books. Projects from my students going back decades. Notes and drafts from grant proposals. Articles, clippings, exercise equipment I never used. To my surprise, I didn’t miss anything I tossed. What I keep now are the priceless personal items– a hand-written recipe card of my mother’s favorite holiday side dish (which I never make, but that’s not the point); a card with a note from a treasured colleague; a scarf from a special day; and just a few photographs chosen from the piles and piles.

  4. I’ve made a few exceptions. One example: I’m the keeper of the family photos, so this past year I bought archival-quality storage boxes and sorted through everything chronologically and used the handy dividers to label them. But there aren’t that many.

    Plus when I started writing I never thought about the materials that pile up as a result: a supply of print books, the final draft, all the promo stuff, and the research information you collect. If it’s part of a series, you can’t throw out all that research! But each book brings more, and more, until it does get overwhelming.

    I once heard Tess Gerritsen say at a conference that she devotes a filing cabinet to each of her books. I laughed at the time, but not any more.

  5. My goal for the past 40 years has been to get my papers organized. I’m not quite there, but I’m getting closer. I don’t want to leave a mess for my children to have to deal with. As I’ve cleared each area of papers and files, I have to admit that I feel less stress.

    1. I have to say that I really enjoy the tranquility of my Irish cottage–because there’s no “stuff” there (yet). It is soothing, and that makes me think harder about any item I bring to it. It’s kind of nice, starting over.

  6. Great post, Sheila! I’m a recovering clutter bug. I used to have a lot more stuff of all sorts. But over the years I’ve found more joy in releasing things than in acquiring them. I have spots in my home that I still struggle with but for the most part I am happiest when I have less surrounding me.

  7. I have always been a ‘keeper’.The problem is that I was insecure.I never enjoyed the things I had; I put them away.I realized t hat I had no idea what I was saving them for, and started using more and more of them.
    My husband also seemed to be a keeper, but I realized that he is actually a ‘pack rat’.Our place has gotten so bad that I can’t find what I need and go without it all too often… that drives me nuts!
    I finally got him to let me unclutter and now I am incapacitated with a back problem.Hopefully, that will pass and I can get back to being able to get to whatever things are that I need.
    Despite the meme going around: “There is no such thing as too many books, just too few bookshelves” never visited my house. We had become book hoarders. We are still collectors and have a fantastic library, but we have thinned out quite a few and there are more to go.
    But my desk has miscellaneous papers stuffed into the drawers, the shelves next to my computer are heaped and despite a four-drawer filing cabinet in our bedroom, my husband’s desk is heaped with papers,(and a couple of boxes where I stashed some of the older ones.)
    We are incurable!

    1. Who needs a cure? I love my books. When we first got married we used to collect mystery series (back in the dark ages before they invented the internet). Funny thing: a couple of decades later I found they were useful, as reference sources.

      1. Sheila, I read years ago about a man whose house collapsed from the weight of his books! I truly feared for my foundation. We’re talking in the thousands. I will still have thousands.

      2. I hear you! We live in an 1870 Victorian, and most of the books are on the second floor. I worry about the stress on 100+ year old plaster ceilings downstairs. (At least they built houses to last, back in those days.)

  8. My mystery character is a professional organizer and I am personally a bit of a piler and clumper, so I’ve had to look into this topic in way more depth than I might otherwise. Especially since I include organizing tips with each and every chapter and want to make those tips adaptable and present them with the humor and humanity that make my Maggie McDonald who she is. Among professional organizers there is much debate about Marie Kondo — from those who think she’s an obsessive, unrealistic nutcase to those who embrace her ideology heart and soul. But, in real life, professional organizers help people when they find a sudden need for more organization and want help to speed up the process. For example, when they are moving. Or if they’re going through other life changes like bringing a baby into the house, dividing things up for a divorce, or clearing out clutter for the streamlined living situation that makes life easier for someone with dementia. “Mess” doesn’t bother them unless it bothers you. (Most admitted to me that they’d never let their clients visit their own homes — they don’t get paid for organizing their own desks!) Some specialize in the out-of-control health and safety situations you see on “Hoarders,” but most just help you speed up, systemize, and complete a task when it’s hard for you to fit the time in your schedule. When requested, they can do periodic tune-ups of your system. How you organize and how much you organize is very personal — and professional organizers know that. At least most do, and are flexible. I’m not sure that Marie Kondo fits that description, but I’m sure she’s the perfect solution for some people. (But not for me! Yikes! We’d make each other crazy!!)

    1. Thanks for your detailed reply. I fall into the “obsessive” camp about Kondo. I know if my sister had tried to organize my space when we were young, she might not have survived childhood. (BTW, now she is a major neatnik.)

      What do you do when your spouse/partner/roommate has very different ideas about organization? Not even necessarily degree of mess/neatness, but about where things should go, and in what order? (Confession: my husband is the type who puts things away wherever there happens to be space at the moment, so when you need an item again, you can spend a lot of time hunting for it–and cursing.)

  9. Sheila, I have over 2000 books in my library and that doesn’t count my wife’s collection in her home office. My desk is always a disaster but I can put my finger on any paper I need at the moment I need it. Of course my wife always threatens me about the books. I have six BOXES of TBR’s. As long as your comfortable with how your office looks you just close the door when you’re not in it. It’s nobody’s business what it looks like.

  10. I used to go shopping and because I wanted to come home with something new, I would buy something, anything just to have it. Eventually it got donated. I’ve become much more selective when shopping for clothes and as far as anything for my kitchen goes, if I can’t reach it without getting down on my hands and knees and first moving a bunch of other appliances out of the way, then I don’t need it. Sticking to this has really helped me de-clutter my life and home, and has saved me a ton of money on things I don’t really need. If I feel that urge to buy something new, a decadent treat works great and it doesn’t take up much room- except to my hips!

  11. I used to be a clutter person, a collector and a keeper, but dealing constantly during her lifetime with my mother-in-law’s borderline hoarding cured me. Now that’s she gone, I’ll spend most of this year dealing with her junk. She imbued every item with story and emotion–where she got it, who she was with. I decided it was the true meaning of “materialism.” But shifting through all the boxes and boxes over years and years, I decided if you can’t respect something enough to have it out where you enjoy it and use it, you shouldn’t have it.

    I think most human history was one of scarcity, of keeping everything you could carry that you might use again. But our first world problem is a different one. No way am I leaving my kids in the same mess I’m in, so I am letting go, letting go, letting go

    1. We have only the one daughter, and she lives a gypsy existence (the complete opposite of a hoarder). There is little of our accumulated stuff that she wants or needs. I plan to give her the choice: pick what you want, and here’s the number of a reliable estate dealer who will haul away the rest (there are a few antiques that might be worth something). I promise I will not haunt you for your decisions.

  12. I once worked in an office with very old fashioned cubes against the walls mainly. One man worked with piles of all sorts and they grew consistentlylarger. One morning he came in and constructed some more shelves behind his computer, on the desk top, to hold more piles. The ironic thing is that he could find any paper that was needed in just seconds!

  13. Sheila, this may be my favorite article. I have learned to live with clutter over the years since my home is less than 900 square feet and occupied by two people, cats and over the years anywhere from one to six large Samoyed dogs. With my writing, materials for plot, course material from online classes, to say nothing of knitting, sewing, etc. projects and five gazillion books, I’ve developed the ability to work surrounded by mess. Periodically I get the urge to organize everything, but usually it just ends up with things being moved, though they do know me well at Goodwill. Neither the animals nor the other human residing here notice the chaos, so I’ve let go of my battle for neatness and I’m able to get far more done on my books, marketing and my latest project of audio books. I definitely. The best invention to help with my problem has been the Kindle. Now I only buy physical books when they are autographed by friends.


  14. I needed this today as I’m getting overwhelmed by the mess that is my condo. Yes, I do need to spend some time organizing things, and with my roommate moving out in a few months, hopefully I can use the extra room to help me do that. But maybe I can read another couple chapters before I slowly start to organize things.

    1. It’s never easy. Be brave!

      I remember when I moved into my first apartment. I bought a bed, a second-hand couch, and some wooden chairs (which I’m still using–good investment), and took an old card table from my grandmother. I had one set of ironstone dishes, and two pans.

      When we moved from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts in 2003, our possessions total nine tons. Yes, 18,000 pounds (no cars included). How does anybody acquire nine tons of stuff? (The answer may be, one piece at a time.)

  15. I fall closer to the “neatnik” end of the spectrum. I can deal with clutter up to a point, then I have to stop and clean it up a bit. If I don’t, I start to feel physically and emotionally uncomfortable. I trace this to childhood and a sister that was a complete pack-rat, so if I didn’t organize my stuff, I would have gotten crowded out.

    I say do what makes you feel comfortable. And maybe one person’s mess is just “alternative organization.” 🙂

  16. Oh, my! Those pictures make me itch a little bit. I live with two clutterers. Who I adore. But I need a little less clutter.

    I say this as a person with stacks of books everywhere but … I’m a slightly on the lower end of clutter. They’re about medium clutter-level, I’d say on par with the pictures, but only because I keep them down to a minimum. If I let them go whole hog we’d be shooting a season of Super Hoarders at this place.

    The funny thing is, I’m the one who is constantly having things turning up missing. We’ve been on the hunt for my red jersey blazer for the better part of a year now. I’m mostly sure it got accidentally donated (because The Man Cluttterer never waits and just grabs piles as they’re being sorted).

    I suppose that is the price for loving them though – a missing item I really can live without here and there since I can’t live without them. 🙂

  17. I have come to the conclusion that there are neat people and there are the rest of us. I will allow you neat people to have all your various systems if you will please allow me to have what you call clutter (but it works for me). Every time I try to use a “system” I find I can no longer locate anything.

  18. I feel so much better after reading this. My office is also my craft room and art room where I keep my art supplies, so that more or less explains my packed room.
    Creative people need more space that’s all there is to it. Thanks for the smiles I got.

    Cynthia B

  19. I seem to feel better when most things around me are orderly, but I tend toward clutter, especially in closets and on my desk. There can be a certain familiarity and security in the piles of things we hold dear and important, I believe. Sometimes I turn to look for something and still picture where it was set in my previous, well-loved dwelling. In my mind’s eye, those piles are still there, waiting for me to come back home.

  20. Standard advice for decluttering includes “throw out all the clothes you haven’t worn in a year” and a similar rule for getting rid of kitchen equipment. But if I’d thrown out all my freezing-weather clothes when I lived in Florida (and I thought about it) I’d have had to buy a whole new set up here in Durham NC. And while there are kitchen devices I don’t use much (waffle maker) I like them enough it’s worth keeping them around. I’d dump the crockpot but it’s my wife’s, and she’s attached to it.

    1. There’s no good substitute for a waffle-iron (we use ours only on Christmas Day), and I have my mother’s crockpot (I didn’t acquire it, but neither have I gotten rid of it).

      I keep wondering where sentiment fits in all these decisions. I have a number of items that belonged to my great-grandmother, who I never knew. But I do remember my mother and grandmother talking about her, and even about some of those inherited pieces, like the “good china.” How do you throw or give away pieces of family history? Luckily I don’t come from a large family.

  21. You made my day, Sheila! I like to keep things with sentimental value (which is everything), “important” papers I’m sure I’ll need to prove something someday, and clothes I bought but have never worn (fortunately I have discovered, yay!). I love to go to Staples or the Container Store and fantasize about an organized, stress-free life. I bought Kondo’s book and also watched her videos on YouTube. I read the first chapter or two of the book and stuck it in my nightstand. I feel as if she and I might never be friends. Her drive to eliminate actually terrifies me (but still I keep the book). When I toss or donate things I sometimes regret it. I’m planning a Purge for this spring, as well as a major diet. This happens every year. I am hopeless, I think. But thanks for making me feel better that I’m not alone.

    1. I’m very good about papers, simply because a couple of moves back I had to move 15 years worth of back records, tax files, etc. After shredding it all I promised never to get that bad again, and I haven’t.

      1. Oh dear. I have my grandmother’s financial records (I keep planning to write a weird sort of biography of her, based on her Manhattan department store purchases) and my mother’s (I was executor of her second-husband’s estate, and he died a mere three months after she did, so it was kind of murky. But I have the documents!). And I probably have every tax documents I’ve ever sent out, although I could dump all the instructions.

  22. I enjoyed “In Defense of Clutter”, Sheila. I am very much a “book hoarder”. I live in an apartment. So I periodically go through my books and donate the ones I realize I am never going to read to the local library.

    Thank you!

    All the best,

    Mike Saitas

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