Keep It (Maybe)!
Apply environmental psychology to consciously de-clutter.
Posted Jan 03, 2019
If you’re like many people, on Dec. 31 you resolved to cut the clutter in your home in the year ahead. If you made a clutter-related New Year’s resolution, since 2019 began you have no doubt been looking around, trying to decide which items have made the cut and will remain in place to collect household dust for another year.
Deciding what stays and what goes is an important decision, for more reasons than you may realize. We need things in our lives for more than practical reasons. The objects we choose to surround ourselves with send important messages to us and to others about who we are and what we value. Collections of china teacups and skis and classical music scores and the oodles of other things that can fill our homes—and in most cases also our offices—remind us what we like about ourselves and also help those who encounter our “spaces” understand us better. We’re fit sportspeople, or tight with our family, or an enthusiastic musician, or something else entirely, and we let everyone know what we want them to think about us by leaving them clues. We’re experts at decoding the messages that people who grew up in the same culture as us are delivering with the things that they choose to surround themselves with. Personalizing a space with our things makes it more likely we’ll be comfortable and relaxed in it.
Sure, some of us have too much, but there are grave consequences if tabletops, bookshelves, countertops, walls—surfaces generally—are bare of things that signal who we are and what’s important to us. Nothing makes a space an unpleasant place to live, work, and visit faster than nothing.
When we see objects in a space, we converse more freely with whomever “owns” that spot. We know what to talk about. We also have a better idea of how to act around them. Is the person we’re visiting more formal than casual? More formality means slightly larger distances between us during conversations, for starters. Knowing more about the person we’re talking with helps keep stress in check.
Before a single item sees the inside of your wastebasket or trashcan, think through what individual items mean to you, what they really represent to you and the others that view them. If an item sends you some sort of positive message—it reminds you of a lovely spring afternoon when you found out you were going to be a mom or a grandma, or that you’re a top-notch addition to any sailing team or an expert marksman—keep it. The messages that our stuff sends to us can help us stay positive about ourselves and our world.
Keeping something doesn’t necessarily mean keeping it in view, however.
We live our best lives in places with moderate visual complexity. Visual complexity is determined by the number of colors, patterns, etc., you can see as you look around your world. A residential interior design by Frank Lloyd Wright has moderate visual complexity, so, in your own home, aim for a space that reminds you of something Wright may have put together in terms of the number of colors, patterns, vases, paintings, etc. present. It’s a lot easier to create a space that reminds you of another than it may at first seem to you. Give it a shot and you’ll see.
Storing items with meaning to you in cabinets or other containers with opaque sides that you can’t see through, not even a tiny bit, can keep the number of items in view in your home in check. You can rotate items into and out of storage as the mood strikes you.
Ask yourself if keeping a photo of an item is enough to retain the memories you associate with it—the photo may very well suffice. You may be able to live without your lacrosse stick from high school if you can view it online whenever you want, for example.
If you keep the visual complexity of your home at a comfortable level, all sorts of good things are likely to happen. Your mood will likely be better and your stress levels lower. Also, in spaces with moderate visual complexity, you’re apt to have more self-control, and that can help you resist the chocolates you received as holiday gifts.
Be fair; everyone who lives or works in a space needs to be able to tell their own story. Psychology’s message about stuff is nuanced. Curate your world so you feel good being in it. Don’t bow to peer pressure to “get rid of it all.” Sometimes less really is less.
Please note: This article does not, in any way, support hoarding. Hoarding is a serious psychological issue that needs to be treated by trained professionals.