Talking Trash: Is Your Messy Mind the Cause of Your Messy House?

Photo: orijinal

I’ve been messy since birth. One of the constants in my life has been arguing with my mother over how to clean the house, any house, properly. My neatnik mother is one of those naturally tidy people. You know the type. She’s so put-together that she looks like a flight attendant.

“A cluttered desk equals a cluttered mind,” she’d say, passing me the feather duster. “If that’s the case, “ I’d shoot back, quoting Einstein, “Then what does an empty desk signify?” (See also: Clutter-Free: The Zero-Accumulation Household)

I mean, really. Does it even matter that I have a messy mind?

I asked my friend Dr. Regina Lark, who chairs the Education Committee of the National Association of Professional Organizers, if there’s any connection between a messy desk and a messy mind.

“Of course,” she said.


I hate losing arguments to my mom.

To quote Regina, “There are people who are genetically messy because their brain is hardwired for non-linear thinking. They are very right brained and artistic. They are out there in the world. They are social. They’d rather do anything other than file. So when these people come home, they get an idea for a project, and everything else just goes on the floor.”

Uh oh. As of this moment I count seven, SEVEN unfinished projects in my living room alone. On the floor. Of course.

So, how do non-linear thinkers clear their internal and external space? For me, this means less about relieving the footprint of clutter and more about maintaining a level of organization that allows me to spend the maximum amount of time pursuing creative projects.

I asked Regina how she would handle a client like me. “We’d develop a workaround for you. We’d find a fix that would solve the mess but not make you feel like you are losing your creative edge. For example, I have clients who have piles of clothes cluttering their bedrooms because they hate hanging up their clothes. They argue that, ‘the clothes are just going to come off the hangers anyway so why put them on the hangers to begin with?’  Since I’m never going to convince the clients that hanging up their clothes isn’t a total waste of their time, my attitude is, ‘If you just can’t stand putting your clothes on hangers, let’s go get you some really awesome looking hooks.’ Take the sticking point — the hangers — out of the equation.”

 Could clearing clutter really be this easy?

The answer is yes. Unfortunately, clearing a messy desk is easier than clearing a messy mind, because of what Regina calls “Head Trash.”

Head Trash is made of the negative messages that loop in our heads that make us feel bad about ourselves. “My college degree is worthless.” “I have a bad marriage.” “Why can’t I go to the gym?” Head Trash is insidious because it gets fed all the time.

In her new book "Psychic Debris, Crowded Closets: The Relationship between the Stuff in Your Head and What’s Under Your Bed," Regina gives her readers some strategies on how to dump Head Trash and clean up the house at the same time. 

Write Down Your Head Trash

To quote Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” To combat Head Trash, first you have to know what you’re up against. Write down all the mean things you say to yourself. Every time you start trash talking yourself, start the conversation again with nicer dialogue. 

Even Regina falls victim to Head Trash. “The other night I got out of the shower and caught myself worrying over some new line in my skin. Why is negativity the first thing? Why is the default position to put yourself down? Instead of continuing to stare at my new wrinkle, I told myself, ‘Regina, nice shoulders!’ And then I walked away from the mirror."

"Your life is a book. Repeating the narrative keeps you from getting out of that bad chapter in your life,” counsels Regina. “The storyline must move forward. When you find yourself listening to Head Trash say THE END out loud and start a new chapter. Turn the page.” 

Look at Your Clutter. How Does That Make You Feel?

After making a list of all your Head Trash, look at your space and look at how you talk about yourself in that regard. For example, after living with bed sheets tacked up over my windows for the last five years, I finally went out and bought drapes. These drapes have yet to be installed for a variety of reasons, all relating to my Head Trash. “These might be too long. I don’t want to have to hem them.” “I can’t put them up until I install the window molding.” “I hope I like how these hang because returning them is going to be such a drag.” After five years of searching for the perfect drapes, I still don’t have confidence in my choice. I asked Regina how I should approach this kind of issue.

“You can make your space what you want to be,” explains Regina. “But decluttering your space can’t be successful if you don’t have clarity of what your space will look like when you are done. Create a vision board of your perfect space by either by cutting photos out of magazines or on Pinterist. My vision has great art. My vision does not have two crock pots."

"Once you’ve created your vision for your space, enlist some help in the decision making process and to declutter. If this were pleasurable, you would do it in one second. Ask a friend whose taste you admire, to help you pare down your closet to only the clothes that make you look and feel great about yourself."

"Ironically, many people avoid decluttering because they are afraid that they are decluttering incorrectly. To make the experience go faster have a declutter party with wine and snacks. Explain that you can accept criticism from friends at the party if it’s made with kindness. Take turns clearing each person’s home.” 

Practice Living in the Present

Regina counsels her clients to bury their Costco cards. “You don’t live in the Adirondacks circa 1804. Yes, you may use the 12 cans of Ajax you bought in bulk to clean your house in the future, but in the present, they are just making your house messy.” 

"American consumer culture has done a great job brainwashing us into believing we need all this stuff. When I help people organize their stuff, I’m really helping them ditch a lot of broken promises and shattered dreams. Exercise equipment, lotions, everything is really dusty. They buy it, they don’t use it, and then the Head Trash kicks in. Then they go back out and buy more stuff that promises to make them feel better about themselves. It’s a vicious cycle.“

Make Connections With People, Not Things 

I asked Regina if she thinks that clutter is a specifically American problem.

“Yes. America is the only nation where the pursuit of happiness is a right. The rhetoric of this country is hardwired into us, and is the foundation of the American Dream. While there are over one hundred international members of the National Organization of Organizers, and research shows that bad clutter is everywhere, in the United States we’ve taken the language of democracy and we’ve monetized it. Americans have 3.2% of the kids in the world, but buy 40% of the toys. Over the last fifty years, over the top spending has become so culturally acceptable, that the American Dream is no longer within grasp of many people. Adult children living with their parents was totally normal behavior up until this last generation. Now, people who must live with their parents for budgetary reasons feel like failures." 

"Is it surprising that prisons and storage facilities are both booming industries in the United States? We Americans, we’re the best at putting stuff away…in the wrong place.”

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Guest's picture

Thanks for your very helpful piece. I am a messy creative type. For me, sentimentality and a manic frugal streak have a lot to do with it. I hate to throw out things that still have life in them even though they're not good enough to freecycle. Did Regina address those issues? Maybe another article?

Max Wong's picture

Hi Olivia!

I highly recommend checking out Regina's book (get the kindle version if you have trouble with book clutter). She addresses those issues and so many other things.

Also, check out her website. She posts different decluttering projects every month that focus on different parts of your life and home.

With regard to things that still have life in them--have you tried just putting those things out on the curb in a box marked FREE? Curbing stuff really helps me keep my house clean and I'm not stuck waiting around for people to show up to pick stuff up!

Max Wong's picture

Hi Olivia--

I forgot to mention that my favorite book on messiness is BURIED IN TREASURES by Tolin, Frost and Steketee. It's a great book for people who want to find better ways of dealing with clutter. Check it out from your local library.

Guest's picture

I will often ignore the dishes, laundry tidying up to work on a creative project. They key is to get to the dull stuff later in the day.

Great article!