Jettison the Junk: Why Clutter Clouds Your Mind and Saps Your Energy


There's a man who lives down the street from me who's a big fan of dumpster diving. And by "fan", I mean, that's all he does. His backyard is a sea of garbage. He has 30 broken refrigerators on his giant back porch. His truck, which is parked in front of my house, is overflowing with discarded junk like broken baby strollers, cardboard boxes, paving stones, and dried out cans of paint. (See also: Clutter-Free: The Zero-Accumulation Household)

To my knowledge, Dumpster Dan is not employed, and probably not eating well. He's impoverished. Yet he has all this crap lying around. Which is partly why I was so delighted to read the first sentence of Paul Graham's July 2007 essay about stuff:

I have too much stuff. Most people in America do. In fact, the poorer people are, the more stuff they seem to have. Hardly anyone is so poor that they can't afford a front yard full of old cars.

Oooh! Snap!

And also an interesting point — in the same way that the poorest Americans are also the fattest Americans, the poorest Americans still accumulate a whole lot of junk. As Graham says, "Stuff has gotten a lot cheaper, but our attitudes toward it haven't changed correspondingly. We overvalue stuff."

When Less Is More

I've only recently become enamored over the joys of having less. Buying less, owning less, and wanting less. I'm not a zen master of simple living, not by a long shot. And I came by the joy almost on accident.

A friend of mine was planning a visit to my house and was bringing her one-year-old daughter along. In a slight panic, I ran around my home, attempting to 'baby-proof' the entire thing. Papers were shredded, junk discarded, floors mopped and swept, heavy vases hidden away in tall, locked cabinets.

After looking around, I suddenly realized how WONDERFUL my house looked. It was downright beautiful. Looking around a spic-and-span room relaxed me. Coming home, opening the door and being greeted by the sight of an organized kitchen made me feel truly at home.

That's why I'm loving Paul Graham's essay about having too much stuff (via Unclutterer). In between Fight Club-esque moments of "your stuff owns you", he says:

And unless you're extremely organized, a house full of stuff can be very depressing. A cluttered room saps one's spirits. One reason, obviously, is that there's less room for people in a room full of stuff. But there's more going on than that. I think humans constantly scan their environment to build a mental model of what's around them. And the harder a scene is to parse, the less energy you have left for conscious thoughts. A cluttered room is literally exhausting.

So, so true. Frustrations are multiplied when you don't have a clean, empty space to rest your eyes upon. Not only are piles of junk mentally jarring, but they remind you of how much work you still have left to do — sorting, organizing, and storing the stuff.

A sink full of dirty dishes from three days ago isn't just unpleasant to look at — it reminds you that you have to do the dishes. And that you haven't had time to do the dishes for three days. THAT'S exhausting.

"Bargain" is Not French for "Free"

I'm delighted that Graham touches on one of the insane aspects of our culture, which is accumulating more stuff when we don't need it just because it's free, and having more stuff makes us feel richer:

That was a big problem for me when I had no money. I felt poor, and stuff seemed valuable, so almost instinctively I accumulated it. Friends would leave something behind when they moved, or I'd see something as I was walking down the street on trash night (beware of anything you find yourself describing as "perfectly good"), or I'd find something in almost new condition for a tenth its retail price at a garage sale. And pow, more stuff. In fact these free or nearly free things weren't bargains, because they were worth even less than they cost. Most of the stuff I accumulated was worthless, because I didn't need it.

I'm frequently tempted to buy things that can be resold with a little fixing. You know, lovely old dressers that need a new coat of paint. Clothing that can be made "hip" again with a few tucks here and there. But the truth is, I don't have the time or the space to handle projects like these. If I had my own workshop and a flexible job, I'd jump at the chance to restore antiques or resell clothing.

But I have to accept the fact that my time and my living space are very limited. Remember, free or almost free stuff is only a great deal if you (a) use it, or (b) have the time, space, and energy to restore it and sell it for profit.

How to Stop? Don't Start

Simply getting rid of stuff isn't going to keep your life junk-free. Part of the trick in eliminating junk in your life is to refrain from accumulating more stuff you don't need and can't afford. As Graham writes,

The really painful thing to recall is not just that I accumulated all this useless stuff, but that I often spent money I desperately needed on stuff that I didn't. Why would I do that? Because the people whose job is to sell you stuff are really, really good at it. The average 25-year-old is no match for companies that have spent years figuring out how to get you to spend money on stuff. They make the experience of buying stuff so pleasant that "shopping" becomes a leisure activity.

Anyone who has ever spent $67 on a bottle of shampoo and some organic fruit at Whole Foods understands this sentiment. Shopping is a way to spend a Sunday afternoon, right? It's so pleasant, so breezy, so self-affirming.

Shopping centers know this. All of the malls in my area are undergoing major renovations, making them more attractive places to hang out in. The University Village, which is near the University of Washington but packed with stores that students are too poor to shop in, has been wildly successful in turning an ugly, rundown strip mall into a lovely and appealing shopping destination. Replete with playgrounds, fountains, lovely landscaping, outdoor seating — you could spend an entire day in the Village and not be lacking in any services or products.

That's a dangerous situation for me. The longer I linger, the more I want to spend. So I've learned to avoid langurous afternoons in the Village.


In his essay, Graham discusses some of the tactics that he uses to keep himself from buying stuff that he doesn't need:

[A]sk yourself, before buying something, "is this going to make my life noticeably better? [W]ill this be something I use constantly? Or is it just something nice? Or worse still, a mere bargain?

Here's what I ask myself before buying something that I don't really NEED:

  1. Is this going to help me achieve any of my goals? (Running shoes, yes; lip plumper, no.)
  2. Which of my friends will be impressed by, or envious of, this item? If all of those friends would be disinterested in this item, would I still want it?

Those questions help me mentally suss out the motivations behind my desire for an object. Peer pressure can be a powerful thing, and I try to use it for the forces of good rather than evil. If I imagine that all of my friends disapprove of a shiny new iPhone, I can offer myself a more unbiased opinion about my own feelings regarding my desire for one. If I bought this, and everyone hated it, would I still think it was a great purchase?

That's how I avoided purchasing: a fast motorcycle, lip injections, and a tattoo on my forearm.

As I slowly work towards a less cluttered life, I'm constantly realizing how empowering it is to have less. Of course, this is the opposite of what we are told by advertisers; we are led to believe that only owning things will give us a feeling of power. It's almost jolting to discover what a lie that is, even if I've proclaimed all my life that I understood the falsehoods behind the marketing.

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Guest's picture

My S.O. is horribly caught up in stuff. He is not a hoarder but he has those tendencies and can't let things go, even when he can't justify it's purpose. He also had a terrible time with purchases. He got very emotionally caught up in buying things and not being able to buy something was some huge blow and loss, like he was being denied something vital. It took me years to figure out why he was so fixated on all of this. He grew up with very limited finances and some pretty hard times in his family. It was like this was some sort of compensation for not having things when he was young and some sort of feeling that he was now owed all this "stuff" as an adult.
My desire to change my need for stuff and a desire for more simplicity has helped him work through much of that. He still sees things that are cool, but he gets much less wrapped up personally in the item and he is starting to see some merit in shunning all the marketing.

I think many people who are really struggling with tons of junk or big issues with buying things have some deeper issue at play.

Guest's picture

I totally get that same thing. It's interesting to think that stuff is worth less now than it was 100 years ago. It's not just a product of inflation, is it?

I used to read the Little House on the Prairie books. In one really depressing volume, the author described a long and agonizing winter on the prairie in which her family barely pulled through. At the end, her father bought her an embriodery kit, complete with new silk thread. Laura runs her fingers over the threads and the roughness of her skin catches on the silk. She puts the kit away to prevent herself from ruining it.

I remember thinking at the time, "What's the big damn deal? It's just a sewing kit."

While I'd never want to live like a pioneer, I almost wish that smal gifts like that could carry the same WEIGHT that they used to, you know? Back then, it was something to treasure and something to use. Now, it seems so insignificant.

Guest's picture

Jettisoning the clutter and "stuff" is something I strive towards but never quite... accomplish.

Jessica Okon's picture

Andrea, were you looking in my windows? Great post and one that I personally needed to read. The guest who commented on "Little House on the Prarie" reminded me of an ex-boyfriend who came from a country that was very poor into a life that was much better. He bought a Swatch watch. I have had many a Swatch in my life,hell I wore them in my hair like a jackass in 10th grade. As I write, the ones I still have are all curled up in my jewlery box. But he, every night when he took off his watch he put it right back in the box it came from. Initially I thought he was just anal retentive, but then I realized along the way that he valued his stuff way more than anyone I had ever encountered.

Guest's picture

Interesting article, but I beg to differ on several accounts.

Garbage picking is not an inherent evil. We do it as a family. We are not teaching our kids to scavenge thru others refuse to eke out a miserable existence- we are teaching them to rethink how stuff is used or wasted.

We live in a college neighborhood- and college students are the biggest wasters imaginable. Every spring, we can gather enough furniture, housewares, office supplies- you name it- to fill several homes. We garbage pick this and save it in our garage over the summer. When the end of summer comes around and the kids come back to school, we hold the biggest garage sale and basically sell the garbage. One year, we made $2000. Would anyone turn up their nose at $2000 in the garbage? Thought not.

As for clutter, we are a family of six in a 3 bedroom ranch home. Our living spaces need to be kept as such- for the living. "Collections" of any kind need to be well thought out and routinely culled. We encourage our kids to weed out their toys or pass them on if they don't feel the need anymore. That being said, we do have a big storage system for kids clothing. We circulate or rotate clothes around with several friends and family members to clothe our kids at a very low cost. Back to school shopping usually just means a new pair of sneaks and a new pair of shoes for each kid- and maybe one or two other clothing items.

Since I'm fat- you'd probably see me as some sort of poor American- but I am not. I am the only working parent and we make do on my one income. Our home might be considered "messy" or cluttered by your standards, but we are by no means poor. We are rich in what we bring to each other and how we are a family together.

Guest's picture

The work to dig up all that stuff, clean it, store it, handle it, sell it, ect, ect, is not worth your time. You are teaching your kids your addiction of (getting your values-worth). Food, objects, it’s all the same difference. This is why most poor people have weight issues. When you eat out at the local buffet you eat all you can? This is the same addiction (saving everything, ration all, get the best value) most of us grew up with because our parents and their parents came from hard times. It’s nobody’s fault until somebody helps you see the light. Spend more time seeing, touching, smelling and sharing the real things in life with family and friends.

Guest's picture

I read on some de-cluttering blog once that the secret to packing light was to take only what you knew you would need, and buy anything that you might need there, rather than bringing it 'in case'.

It's something of an extreme example of simplicity being hard to afford, and I don't think that packing sunglasses and umbrellas is the same level of clutter as saving piles of semi-functional furniture, but I see where the impulse is similar. I'm not surprised that poor have more clutter.


Andrea Karim's picture

That's why I said the following:

Remember, free or almost free stuff is only a great deal if you (a) use it, or (b) have the time, space, and energy to restore it and sell it for profit.

As to the fat comment, please take what I'm saying into context. I didn't say that all fat people are poor. What I said, and what is well supported by evidence, is that poor people are disproportionately overweight. The article that I linked to in that comment explains why. Please don't put words in my mouth.

Myscha Theriault's picture

We are getting so addicted to getting rid of stuff, we are having to start watching ourselves so we don't throw out a needed item.

I think you are right on about not having enough money factoring in to how much we value stuff. I seem to remember commenting on a similar post recently, but I'm not sure where. . . basically though, I think having an opportunity to live life a bit more extravagently for a while gave me a viewpoint that it was worth giving up other things temporarily while I got my financial act together. And while I used to like the look of "lots", I now am looking forward to walls of nearly 100 percent glass on the outside to enjoy the artful look of nature, and some sliding wall options on the interior to rotate the remaining pieces of art we find of value to us. The more space I have empty in my home, the happier I seem to be now. Maybe because I spent years lugging and shipping all kinds of crap back and forth across the globe . . .

I still have things that are important to me, don't get me wrong. But that list is getting smaller and smaller.

Isn't it relaxing to have less in the house? I get a much stronger creative flow that way.

Good post, girl!

Guest's picture

The house I live in is all full of junk and extremely overcrowded, because my dads a hoarder. Even the bathrooms so overcrowded you cant hardly move around in there! I completely agree with Tyler Durdan's quote, "the stuff you own end up owing you" but try telling my dad to get rid of everything let along try to move it, he's a loud obnoxious, force to be reckended with.

And yes, it does drain you. Being trapped by the stuff around you, zaps your energy as it does mine. When I move out into my own house, I am going to owe it to myself to have minimal stuff and everything will have its place. I would prefer a spacey room where theres room to be free and room for people, it also feels more invigorating and fresh being in a spacious room. Being in a small crowded room cluttered in junk is restricting and horrible. A double garage and, an especially built shed, and a car port especially built extension to the garage, all have the purpose of keeping JUNK. Even under the house is filled with junk. His only attempt was to have an auction where he got rid of a few things, but theres still too much stuff. And it's so much worse when your house is smaller. Narrow hallways with a bookshelf, often matress/s stacked against the wall, etc, really is senseless. It really does make you feel like a prisoner in your own home. I don't get hoarders, it's unfair on the rest of the other family members. Does all the extra stuff make you them feel 'safe' or something?

Guest's picture

I do understand that there is a study that states poor people are dispropotionately overweight.
I can tell you why this is the case for many. Just one example: I went to the store the other day and grapes were 5.00 per pound. A large package of donuts was on sale for 1.00 There are tons of specials on junk food but not heatlhy food. I am single so even though it's not easy I can buy the healthy food. If I had a few kids to feed , I could not. That is a shame.

Guest's picture

I grew up in a struggling family with 8 kids (one income). What is interesting is the different effects the same upbringing had on us kids.
I am quite frugal, not interested in brands/labels, and very into minimalisation - if its not going to achieve my goals, then it just isnt worth me giving up my hard earned money.
One brother is obsessively frugal (despite 2 incomes no kids) to the point if he spills tomato sauce on a bench, he wipes it into a container to be reused in the cooking.
One sister however is quite the opposite. She constantly seeks out heavily branded (highly visable) clothing, attends the trendy concerts etc, despite not being on a great income. When I gently discussed our spending habits one day, she confided that she never had it as a kid and feels she deserves it, is good enough for it.

I understand the desire to hoard - my parents did it somewhat - it comes from the feeling that if you dont grab something now (for free), you'll need it later when you cant afford to buy it.

Freedom from hoarding comes from security in knowing you can get it later if you actually need it.

Guest's picture

Get rid of everything.
Now you are free to do anything!

Guest's picture

Freebird, I have to disagree with you on the point of it's not worth your time. I don't think $2000 is a small amount of change and is half a month's salary for me. Facts are facts, though other ones are the more overweight you are the less educated you tend to be, the more conservative you tend to vote and the more you prefer Coke over Pepsi, which if you take just on it's own all sound weird, but it all boils down to the same idea of education and poverty being tied together (though now I am sure that I am going to be attacked for calling conservatives less intelligent, but remember that liberals are called elitists and it will make sense). Bad food is just cheaper to buy because the costs to the producer are lower due to subsidies, same thing with meat, the only reason Americans can afford their fascination with meat is due to the subsidies given to the farmers to keep costs down, which in most cases leads to a diet higher in fat, because as we all know, lean meats cost more.

There are people who go so far as to dumpster dive for every meal, freegans I believe they call themselves, essentially urban hunter gatherers.

Personally I cam from a hoarding household and it was a hard habit to break, that I may not have been able to break were it not for my wife who is a clean freak, though not a bad one. We tended to balance each other out, now I only keep things in a small area that I work in and don't start more than 2 or 3 projects at a time.

Guest's picture

Collect items for your house only where it is useful. Don't even let it in your front door till it passes this test. If you really want to eliminate clutter from your life, you will need to have some discipline.