This post is the space where I’m going to discuss a certain consistent, prominent factor in my life. It is my relationship with clutter, and you guys, this is a doozy.
Some people have unhealthy relationships with food, which factor into all kinds of decisions they make. Some people have very strong fears or stressors, and have to dramatically alter their lifestyle and plans to avoid stress-triggers. Some people love Nickelback and nobody can understand why. These qualities can be prominent to others, but are not always so prominent to the people directly affected.
This is the phenomenon that occurs when I give my coworker a ride and she says with true, sincere admiration, “I think it’s amazing that you can just have your car like this. I would be so anxious.”
What’s the Problem?
I have a very specific style of messiness. It’s hard to describe.
My car has papers from everywhere – oil changes, doctor receipts, planners, an actual package of colored paper to copy on for work, sheet music. A full-size keyboard that belongs at one of my schools. Three scarves. A can of soup I brought for lunch once and then couldn’t find so I’d assumed I forgot it at home. Random shit people give me that has no home.
My desk has all kinds of craft supplies, pens from conferences, music books, teaching books, hobby books, hobby stuff, stamps.
My dresser has a basket with random hair stuff, maybe some old jewelry I never wear, a box for jewelry I do wear, two boxes with random scarves or specialty clothes like scarves and an Ugly Christmas Sweater.
My kitchen counter has all kinds of papers and all kinds of stuff. Even when it’s “clean,” it’s messy.
The problem is, when I get into someone else’s car and they apologize for it being “so messy” when there’s only a few things in the back seat and virtually nothing else, it seems my standards for messiness are askew from the norm.
Why am I like this?
Two reasons: Projects and Habits.
I was always a crafty kid. I loved making beaded jewelry. I loved drawing with all kinds of media. I loved sitting on the floor of my room, with all kinds of supplies, and making something pretty.
The problem was, those projects were often time-consuming and involved lots of little components. It didn’t make sense for me to put supplies away if the project wasn’t finished yet. So the stuff would sit out, sometimes for weeks, until the project was done. During this time I would usually have developed another, shorter project, that I could do when I got stuck on the first project. It was not uncommon for me to trip over a project in progress as these things typically took place on the floor.
Why put things away when you can keep them out? That was my mindset. Unfortunately that type of habit setup doesn’t transfer smoothly to anything besides running a personal art studio, and even then it’s questionable. Why do the dishes when you could wait for there to be more dishes? Why sweep the floor when you can wait for there to be more stuff on it?
Of course I was never consciously thinking those things, I just never made the space in my mind to make tidiness a habit.
Breaking It Down
It was everywhere growing up, too. My house was never clean. My dad had all kinds of projects going on in the den and the garage, always. There was constantly mail, books, catalogs, and unfinished business on the coffee table, dining room table, and kitchen counter. Clothes, shoes and school supplies were all over the place.
(Please note, growing up was pretty great. My parents and sisters are GREAT. My dad worked all the time and usually didn’t come home until late. My mom was usually taking night classes when I was in middle school. It would be unfair to expect my parents to keep the house clean in the situation we had.)
I hated messes but somehow never saw my own messes. When I got my own room, I was so excited that I would finally be able to have a clean room. Nope.
For a long time I felt shame about this. People did not want to be my roommate because of how messy I was. Then I decided to stop feeling stressed about that. I coped by deciding that I am just a messy person, and that’s how I will always be.
Then I went on temporary disability. To keep myself productive, I made a daily chart-format to-do list.
I put “Dining Room Table,” “Dishes,” and “Cat Box” on my list. And just last Wednesday, like a ton of bricks, it dawned on me as I was doing dishes (no pun intended).
I don’t have to be a messy person. I just don’t currently have strong cleaning habits.
I can clean up my messy mindset. I can take control of my environment.
The Zero Waste Factor
Deciding to follow a zero waste lifestyle has made it much easier to address this part of my life. How?
First, I’ve started to take an extra critical look at the things that occupy space in my house. There are some things I can sell, but I honestly am privileged enough to say I don’t need $5 for that bottle of face wash I used for a week that makes me break out. If someone wants something I have and don’t need, I want them to have it. I will be systematically purging things that make clutter from my house, but working to throw away as little as I can.
Second, I’m aligning myself to the idea of using what I have. I have a lot of stuff. I have clothes, shoes, and five sets of shampoo/conditioner. That means I don’t need to get more for a long while. I don’t need more pens, either. I thought I might need a new cup mute for my trumpet, but a quick brush on the corks with sandpaper will give my current mute a much stronger grip.
Third, I’m disconnecting myself from acquiring more. Purchase-wise, that means I’m only going to be buying food and basic essentials. I’ve been receiving a lot of mail lately. I signed up for online billing. I subscribed to Catalog Choice and every time I get mail that I don’t need, I add it to my account. Accumulation of stuff makes the clutter come back.
Making a Change
So I have laid out my plans for reducing clutter in my house. That is great, but it’s not the only component of this problem.
The way to sustain a pattern of stopping big messes before they start, is to make it a habit.
“Duh,” says every person I’ve ever interacted with, who is by default a tidier person than me.
I don’t know why it took me 30 years for it to finally click that I don’t need to be messy. But if there’s one thing I am good at, it’s building habits. That’s how I got so decent at the clarinet in college – I habitually went to school at 10pm when parking was free, and practiced until midnight when the buildings closed.
Making a to-do list is a really simple way for me to keep up. If I get “most” things on the to-do list done in a day, I feel like a productive human.
But what really got me building habits was the chart. Because “Dishes” is on the chart every day. I can’t have one day that omits “Dishes” from my to-do list.
I hope this has reached someone who struggles with a problem like this. You are not alone. We can all build better habits and become better, happier people. Someday I will give someone a ride and there will be no comments on the cleanliness of the car. Someday I will have a dresser with only a few things on it that I use frequently. Someday my desk will be organized and functional.
This will be the week I plan on fixing those things. Who’s with me?