The Little Matter of Clutter


I had a small fire in my oven this morning. Nothing drastic, and it was out within a few minutes … but it totally freaked my daughter out. (Ok, maybe me too.)

Oven fires happen. Certain things make oven fires more likely to happen … like, say… maybe having forgotten to clean the oven for many months.

Martha Stewart I certainly am not, but this house-chore-left-undone was a fun little wake-up call. It was a brilliant reminder that things like crap hidden inside the bottom of an oven can be only be forgotten about for so long … until the consequences of doing so literally blow up in your face.


Oven crud aside, I’ve been hyper-focused on the other clutter that’s around and within me for the past several weeks …. piles and thoughts and dusty ceiling fans and paper stacks and fears.

It’s not just stuff - it’s clutter.

There’s stuff - the physical stuff around you, the thoughts you are having, the clothes in your closet, the political beliefs you hold. (Stuff isn’t just physical. It’s mental and digital and energetic and relational and all of that.)

And then there’s clutter.

Clutter is collected stuff that is unattended to that hinders your ability to live the life you want to live.

Clutter is what creates stress, endless to-do lists, and oven fires. And it grows with unbelievable speed.

Stuff includes the papers you look through each evening and file away or recycle. Clutter is the stack of papers on the counter that you’ve ignored for at least a week now. Stuff is the set of clothes in your closet that you wear. Clutter is the set of clothes in your closet that you don’t wear.

One person’s stuff might be another person’s clutter, and vice versa. An artist with a desk full of paints and used paper towels and brushes may attend to those things regularly. It’s her stuff. A dreamer who has shelves of crafty goods that haven’t even been opened since purchased two years ago is surrounded by clutter.

Make sense?

Stuff is what you pay attention to. Clutter is the collected stuff you overlook or ignore (intentionally or not) that keeps you from being your best self (consciously or not).

The key is that our attention is limited, and we have a whole BUNCH of stuff making claims for that attention.

We have far too many things that we’ve collected (physical stuff, beliefs, judgments). It’s impossible to give our attention to all of it, even on a rotating basis. So we ignore some stuff. That stuff collects, grows, and becomes clutter.

And we become overwhelmed and tired and buried under the weight of it all.


I’m learning more and more people have the same fantasy I’ve had. Your house burns down (with every living thing getting out safely, of course). You’ve saved the really important stuff - the photos, the old journals, great-granny’s hand-knit blanket. And instead of feeling distraught, you actually feel relieved. All of that stuff - gone. No decisions to make. Fresh start.

If you think I’m psychotic, just know that I’m not alone. If you haven’t thought about this, the next 2 people with whom you interact probably have.

We are SO overwhelmed by STUFF that sometimes it seems like it would be easier to sacrifice even the good stuff in order to just release the weight of it all.

And I’m not just talking about physical stuff, though that is a huge part of it.

We are so overwhelmed with shoulds - the stuff we think we should be doing but doesn’t really feel fulfilling.

We are so overwhelmed with requests - pulls into others’ needs and wants and beliefs through emails and social media (hey, can you do this one thing by this afternoon so I don’t think you’re a total failure? Don’t miss out on this sale or you’ll regret it forever! Wear this - NOT that if you don’t want to be made fun of. Read the number one parenting thing that you’ve been doing wrong and is totally screwing up your kids … ).

We’re overwhelmed with our own mental crap (I know I shouldn’t have said that 5 years ago but why does it still bother me? I’m faking this whole adult thing and I hope no one finds out. Everything looks great on the outside so why does it feel so barren on the inside? Damn it - I’m late for picking up the kids!)

There are uplifting beliefs and thoughts, of course, but those don’t bear the same weight and make us want to burn it all down. (Side note - I know I keep mentioning it, but I swear I’m not going to burn my house down nor would I really want it to. Got that, universe? I’m just creating a storyline here.)


So here we all are. (Super duper bonus points to anyone who gets this: I envision us all sitting in the room where the old muppet lady had the hoards and piles of junk in the movie, “Labrynth”.)

What now? Well, it is important to not get overwhelmed by the overwhelm. What to do instead? Make your bed.

How you do one thing is how you do all things.

Face what appears in front of you. Do what needs to be done. Make peace with the world you inhabit. Take one minute—this minute right now—to enfold your day in dignity. Tuck in the sheets, straighten the covers and fluff the pillows.
— Karen Maezen Miller

One decision deferred of what to do with a paper leads to a convenient paper on the counter onto which to place another paper, and then another because why not, which leads to a full paper stack. Every time you pass it, your unconscious mind registers it and freaks out at all of the decisions that need to be made, sending a small bit of stress throughout your body.

One snide quip about, “there is SO much fat in that” leads to an unquestioned belief that “Dietary fat is unhealthy”, which leads to a diet of lettuce (nonfat dressing) and Snackwells cookies and Twizzlers and nonfat everything, which leads to gaining weight and being too lethargic to do anything about it.

One sock left on the floor leads to a frustration with the partner who left it there, which leads to an entire novel running through your mind about how that partner just doesn’t care about the house and probably you and this relationship is just ruined.

You get the idea.

The little things matter.

Physical clutter clogs up your mental space and makes it harder to concentrate. Mental clutter spills over into how you deal with your physical environment and relationships, and makes it hard to function at your best.

How you deal with this moment - this thought, this thing right in front of you - is how you will deal with each moment after.

So make your bed.

And for god’s sake, go clean your oven. Trust me.

Lisa WilsonComment