Seeking Serenity: A life less cluttered
June 16th, 2011
10:59 AM ET

Seeking Serenity: A life less cluttered

Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of Seeking Serenity: The quest for well-being and life balance in stressful time.

I vowed that I would not sit down to write this piece until I cleared some of the clutter around my house. Alas, two weeks passed and the piles remained. With a deadline and the wrath of my editor looming, I swallowed the angst of potential hypocrisy and began writing.

I’m no hoarder, mind you, just your average run-of-the-mill pack rat. And it is quite likely that to a lesser or greater degree, you are one too.

As a society we are endlessly obsessed with buying and collecting stuff, and then trying to conquer the resulting morass. Clutter - and its pathological first cousin, hoarding - are big business: the subjects of countless products, stores, reality shows, websites and articles. Should you decide to Google “clutter,” you would have to sift through almost 29 million results.

“How are you so organized?” I once asked my friend Maya, one of the most ordered people I have ever known.

“That’s just what you can see,” she said. “If you were to look in my closets and dresser drawers, they are a nightmare.”

“Hmm,” I said, feeling slightly deflated, “like clutter as a metaphor for our lives: The appearance of order on the outside. Chaos on the inside.”

“I don’t know,” she shrugged, noncommittal. “I’ll have to ask my shrink about that.”

It may be true that all the decluttering tips in the world will not help us until we understand the compulsion to accumulate things we don’t need in the first place.

“Look at any clutter in your home and I would bet that you are resistant to getting rid of it for one of two reasons: You either fear the future or are attached to the past.” So observed Leo Babauta, author of “The Power of Less.” “Maybe you’re holding on to the stuff because you’re uncertain whether you might need it later and you won’t have it. On the other hand, maybe they are mementos, trophies of all the great things you’ve done in the past - things that make you feel loved or good about yourself.”

The idea of attachment to the past makes sense to me. I like to blame my own clutter on the Ayatollah.

Because some part of me suspects that the perpetual disarray in my surroundings is somehow related to the chaos that has lingered within - like a low-grade infection - ever since I fled the Iranian Revolution as a child refugee 30 years ago. I have, for instance, squirreled away scores of photographs and random mementos of my two children’s baby years. Probably because all of mine were left behind in the urgency of flight.

But any good feelings I may have derived from the material things I have collected over the years has been replaced by the dread of their growing presence in my life. Where I once cohabitated with clutter quite nicely, my body and mind now seem less able and willing to tolerate their leaden weight. The tokens of the past have begun to feel like anchors, whether they sit in a corner, atop a desk, or even hustled out of sight in a closet or drawer. The thought of what may be lurking in a particular glut of miscellany is downright stressful.

Ryan Rigoli, a San Francisco-based life and leadership coach, explains the sometimes-pernicious cycle of acquisition: The human tendency is to run toward positive emotions - security, pleasure, happiness, joy and bliss - and to do our best to avoid negative ones. Our consumerist culture, echoed throughout the media, tell us from the time we are very young that the things we acquire can make us feel good.

But the pleasure derived from material things is fleeting. The desire to maintain the high of feeling good can fuel recurring episodes of purchase when that initial pleasure wears off. At some point, you’re left with a mountain of things (and most likely debt), and no pleasure anywhere in sight.

Does this sound like the behavior of an addict? It is. Except the addiction is not so much to buying stuff, but to trying to feel certain emotions, like joy and pleasure.
The cycle is also unsustainable from both a personal and global perspective.

True joy, says Rigoli, can only come from an inner state of being. Not being attached to the past. Not being fearful of the future. But remaining firmly rooted in the present moment.

So how does one begin to clear the clutter - both mental and physical?

Tackle one flat surface at a time

If you’re feeling moved to undertake a frenzy of purging, don’t. Start with small, even minuscule steps. Babauta suggests: “Focus on one surface, one shelf, the floor of one closet.”

Find a place for each thing you want to keep in your life

These are things that you need to use or love to death. Everything else should go.

Become conscious of bringing things in to begin with

If you’re in a hole, stop digging. If you are drowning in piles, stop adding to them. Be conscious of your spending.

Figure out your “triggers”

Both Babauta and Rigoli recommend journaling as a way of becoming aware of what’s happening - habits and patterns in thought and behavior that trigger unwanted emotions and actions.

Get another perspective

“We have a lot of blind spots and shadow spots,” Rigoli says. “Get the counsel of someone you trust, someone who can look at you objectively, not someone who’s going to project their own issues. And then listen and be open to feedback.”

Begin practicing

“Our whole life is practice,” Rigoli notes. “Anything you do over and over again is practice. You practice smoking. An athlete practices his or her sport. In our lives we become habituated to certain patterns.

Consciously or unconsciously, we are practicing things - both good and bad. It is important to look at current behavior and, if necessary, find ways to create new practices.” On his website, Zen Habits, Babauta echoes this principle with a quote by Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”

The clutter in your life may be the physical manifestation of habits that have been built up over years. “But you cannot change your life overnight,” Babauta observes as we close our conversation. “And don’t think there’s any quick fix. Looking back on it, my list of things I transformed about my life sounds remarkable. But I changed slowly, one tiny thing at a time.”

soundoff (60 Responses)
  1. KurtH

    So what this whole article boils down to is "How you live is wrong, how these guys who wrote books live is right". Sorry no.

    June 16, 2011 at 11:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • chev

      how could you possibly ascertain that from this article... did you even read it? It's giving tips to working towards de-cluttering your life.

      June 16, 2011 at 11:51 | Report abuse |
    • SoundGuy

      I think the best way to reach serenity is through meditation. This practice is much more than just a trend in the West. When you learn to quiet your mind you allow not just serenity to penetrate, but you also open room for new creativity, expanded viewpoints and even empathy. There are sites that offer help for those who want to learn this technique, such as TranscendentalTones. They offer mp3s with guided meditations, full-length relaxing sounds, etc, much of it free of cost.

      June 16, 2011 at 12:34 | Report abuse |
    • boka

      LOL @ SoundGuy

      June 16, 2011 at 14:24 | Report abuse |
  2. Antonio Velasquez Jr.

    "I AM a product of CREATOR ingenuity-nothing more,nothing less-from whom logical reason is accomplished.Onto and uponto those and their own who LOVE me, or hate me;is a quantum portion of their own cup."

    June 16, 2011 at 12:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Jas

    Clutter is the clear by-product of our insane materialism. Address one and you'll fix the other.

    June 16, 2011 at 12:13 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Lauren

      I disagree. I'm trying to get rid of my clutter now, and most of what I'm throwing out (or donating) are old school notes, books, and clothes that no longer fit properly or have worn out. My problem is that I can't convince myself that I won't need something in the future, not that I feel an overwhelming need to buy more stuff.

      June 16, 2011 at 12:17 | Report abuse |
    • D

      Oversimplify much? Some of us had Depression-era parents where NOTHING was thrown out. Not even a scrap of paper. So, the problem is not only on the incoming side but much more on the outgoing side.

      June 16, 2011 at 13:51 | Report abuse |
    • Married to disorganization

      I am married to a lovely woman for 25 years who has struggled to organize her desk, her van, and her life. The disorganization is the fabric of the person she is and she does often try to take charge but she is simply disorganized. My wife's disorganization drives me nuts, but I have grown to understand her anxiety around it. She runs from one thing to another, promises things that she cannot deliver, spends money that she does not have (frequently borrowing from one person to pay another), and she tries to please everyone. She hardly plans, and everything is last minute. I do not believe this is a social dilemma, but a personal one. What my wife doesn't understand is that her disorganization does impact others around her, and all the meditation in the world is not going to fix this lack of self-discipline (IMO). She's a GREAT woman and I love her deeply, and quite honestly she doesn't have many faults so this one can be overlooked until it becomes the highest priority.

      June 16, 2011 at 15:04 | Report abuse |
  4. MOJarry

    Murphy's law: if you throw it away, give it away, or sell it, within 3 weeks you will need it. If you don't, you will never need it again. That's just the way it is.

    June 16, 2011 at 12:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Antonio Velasquez Jr.

    ... "and the vastness of darkness is reserved for you,the evil and the wicked.Because you have failed to live and let live,calamity is your only reward;demise your only friend."

    June 16, 2011 at 12:20 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jas

      You clearly need to declutter something.

      June 16, 2011 at 12:23 | Report abuse |
  6. Antonio Velasquez Jr.

    "It is compoundedly done to you,as you have attempted to do to me."

    June 16, 2011 at 12:31 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Yvonne

    This is one of the best things I've ever read on this subject. Comprehensive, thoughtful, practical. Excellent at distilling the psychological, socio and plain ole practical aspects.Some splendid basic tips- having read so many. One of the best things that has worked for me is, when I see something I want to add to my ever-bulging closet- I try to get in touch with what I love about it and DRAW or paint it instead, or create something inspired by what I love about the item.

    June 16, 2011 at 12:58 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Yikes

    Stop being lazy, people. Clean up your house, your car, your finances and your life. It's honestly not that difficult. Use all of the countless, bizillions of ideas in the world to create a Plan of Action and then get off of your lazy butt and move forward with the Plan. Stop making excuses.

    Be thoughtful of what you purchase and bring into your home, make sure everything has a place within the home and remove unwanted/unnecessary things (donate/sell/trash). Plus, you'll be a good example for your children – to not live like disorganized, inefficient, chaotic slobs.

    June 16, 2011 at 13:24 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ana

      Good idea, how about anytime I throw away and make some space in my house, my husband rushes to buy more junk to fill up the new space.

      June 16, 2011 at 14:09 | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      Way to state the obvious. Of course the problem comes when actually trying to implement the plan, and the issues that caused the problem in the first place have to be faced and overcome.

      June 16, 2011 at 19:50 | Report abuse |
  9. The3rdSeal

    Great adivce Yikes.

    June 16, 2011 at 13:46 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Ceci COH

    I really liked the comment Amanda made:

    “Hmm,” I said, feeling slightly deflated, “like clutter as a metaphor for our lives: The appearance of order on the outside. Chaos on the inside.”

    As an adult who grew up in squalor with a hoarding parent, but who has the opposite issue–no attachment to things–I see the issue of my home as being a cover for what's really going on in my head and heart. For years, I was so tangled and in denial about how my childhood affected me. Now that I'm working on recovery, I don't feel so chaotic inside, and I'm beginning to live with less obsession/compulsion about order and cleanliness in my home. But I have often seen my home as being very symbolic of my actual life.

    You can read more about my journey overcoming growing up in squalor and learning broken habits at my blog:One Wee Spark

    June 16, 2011 at 13:46 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ceci COH


      June 16, 2011 at 13:47 | Report abuse |
  11. D

    Time management is related to clutter management. This week, I started doing 25 minute work-on-organizing sessions. The timer is set and a break is *mandatory* after 25 minutes. I have done several a day for the last 5 days and I am starting to see a difference. The breaks help you learn to endure a less-than-perfect situation. Before, I used to let things go until I couldn't stand them anymore and then have to do everything perfectly. It is better to get into good habits and do a little as you go along every day. It is not quite a habit for me yet but after 3 weeks or so, it probably will be.

    June 16, 2011 at 13:58 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ron

      Excellent idea. Keep it up.

      June 16, 2011 at 19:52 | Report abuse |
    • Laila

      Cograts, D! Sounds like big progress. Hearing your experience and tips is also helpful. I may give that a try.

      June 18, 2011 at 20:26 | Report abuse |

    I thought this article was excellent. I plan to save it and read it again when I get discourage about cleaning out our extra bedroom. My husband said the room looked like something from the show hoarders. I took a week off work and spent the time cleaning the room out. I had at least 40 bags of clothes for goodwill and 15 bags of trash. When I wanted to keep an item I would ask myself do I want this item or the clear space it takes up, and how offen have I used the item. Plan to have a yard sale next. I realize this will be an on going project. I feel alot better every time I open the door to the "box" room.

    June 16, 2011 at 16:23 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Feeling it

    Wow. This is deep – way beyond the notion of simply practicing the Getting Things Done model of organization (something I've vowed to start doing...someday). The implication here is that you have to work inside-out to stop your clutter-causing tendencies - physical clutter is an outcome/byproduct of mental clutter. But what if you turn that notion on its head? To clear up your mental clutter, you should first clear up the physical, outside clutter around you?

    June 16, 2011 at 20:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • J

      Feeling it: You blew my mind there. I think you're on to something.

      June 16, 2011 at 20:47 | Report abuse |
  14. Julie Naylon

    You can always hire a professional organizing to help you sort through the clutter. Get organized and go green! http://www.nowirehangersbiz.com

    June 16, 2011 at 20:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • J

      My friend did that. It costs like a bajillion dollars ... actually close to 20k, but who's got that kind of money? I don't.

      June 16, 2011 at 20:46 | Report abuse |
  15. Andrea Thompson

    I have my problems but clutter and hoarding are not one of them. I thought this article was very wierd with the author sort of assuming (and clearly projecting) that everyone else has the problem including her friend who "seems" to be so organized on the outside. My outside is organized and if you open my drawers and cupboards, they are, too. Some people take drugs, some people drink too much, some people talk too much and some people are very unorganized and cluttered. It's not everyone or even most people....it's just one of the problems that certain people have. I hate that kind of presumption at the beginning of an article because it seems unintelligent.

    June 16, 2011 at 23:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Viv

      where to even start with how clueless you sound. lucky you that you don't have a clutter problem but clearly large numbers of people do. and this is for THEM or rather US. also it's "weird" not "wierd".

      June 16, 2011 at 23:48 | Report abuse |
    • Nina

      You do know what quite likely means right? It means not for sure.

      June 17, 2011 at 01:04 | Report abuse |
  16. Kate

    I'm in the process of decluttering my house but it's been difficult because my husband is a "collector" and my Mother-in-law is a "hoarder". Everytime she sees either one of us for any reason she gives us something that she can't throw away herself like old newspapers, etc. Asking her or down right telling to STOP doesn't do any good. She just can't. I know she's using me to get rid of things that she can't throw away herself. Once after stopping by her house she gave me a bag of junk and I found a dumpster on my way home to drop it in! She voluteers at a thrift store just so she can get freebies, discards and stuff that she prices really cheap and then buys for herself. Her house is a nightmare! My advice to those who want to declutter: Get garbage bags or old shopping bags and place them around your house in different rooms. Everytime you see something you know you don't need or want anymore just place it in one of the bags. When the bags start to get full, place them in your car and take a trip to the Good Will. It works for me and I actually feel really good about donating and helping those in need. As a bonus, it helps to reduce what you owe in income tax since you can claim your donations on your return.

    June 17, 2011 at 00:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  17. livia

    I like this article, but some is missing: people who do not put things in place cause a lot of mess, clutter too. Like my husband...he drops his socks, clothes anywhere, I have to put it in place, otherwise we would have 7 pairs of socks on floor, his things everywhere...as he pleases. My father had good saying: it takes the same time to put things in place as to make mess. To me making mess, clutter is worse, it takes too long to clean up, de-mess!
    I think chaos in our mind is reflected in chaos around us. I used to be organized, than too much happened, I got depressed and sad...and it reflected on mess around me, my desk, office. I am back, and de-cluttering, cleaning up. It is not easy, but necessary to do. Clear the mess in mind, in surroundings, relationships, finances. All.

    June 17, 2011 at 11:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. leftintexas

    Until I got married, I was a person who lived a cluttered life. My husband changed me. His military style upbringing as well as his military career made him organized, orderly and neat. It's how I am now. I think we're doing a good thing instilling our household habits on our 3 teenage daughters. Our uncluttered home gives me a sense of peace.

    June 17, 2011 at 16:34 | Report abuse | Reply
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