Tag: clutter

Adopting the living organism as a metaphor for a balanced lifestyle leads us to seek a natural harmony or equilibrium, so that a balanced environment becomes a space in which we can safely and comfortably dwell.

Dwelling in Balance

The various metaphors we might choose to represent balance and imbalance offer different perspectives on how we might achieve that illusive balance in life. The balance of the tightrope walker captures the experience of navigating our way forward through through time on a tight schedule. However the equilibrium of the living organism offers a richer perspective in relation to balancing objects within a space, or our lives within a living environment. This allows us to look beyond the physical stability of a single object and consider the balance of all of the interrelated components within a living system in the same way that you might think of a living cell, or the human body.

This broader view of balance offers a more complex scenario where the organism attempts to maintain equilibrium or homeostasis in the face of constantly changing conditions. Balance in this context is an attempt to maintain the overall stability of a wide range of factors in the face of constant change for the purpose of supporting life. Balance takes place across the whole system of interrelated parts, and while different aspects can be viewed independently, they dont exist in isolation. Unlike a single pointed balance, the balance of a complex system has an inbuilt ability to adapt and adjust, which means a wider range of conditions can be accommodated.

Quote form Dwelling in Balance Blog PostThis model of balance drawn from the natural world includes the concept of boundaries or membranes. The organism has a defined boundary or wall, like the cell wall or the outline of the human body, but it is permeable, allowing flows inwards and outwards. It also has internal structures and flows within the main boundary, like the organs and blood vessels within the body. These living systems depend on a healthy flow in, around and out, to survive. Some inflowing substances are life giving, others are toxic. Depending on what you take in, a little bit might cure you, but a lot might kill you. In the meantime the system strives to maintain balance across numerous variables.

There is enormous diversity in the natural world, and a wide variety of ways in which the challenges of life – such as finding food, shelter, successful reproduction and child rearing – are satisfied. What each organism has in common is the need to satisfy these challenges in a way that retains the basic integrity of their particular way of functioning.

We can extend this metaphor to how we organise our lives within our own homes. We can think of the walls of the home as the membrane or boundary that protects us from the outside. Within the home different functions are performed, just as the different structures of the body have different roles. The house provides shelter and within that framework there are objects that support our needs for eating, sleeping, clothing ourselves, reproducing, raising children and so on. The health of this system depends on objects entering, leaving, and being internally organised in a way that one element does not overwhelm other aspects and compromise the smooth operation of the whole. An excess of objects that is traditionally described as “clutter” can be viewed as a signal of imbalance where the volume entering the space is out of proportion to the volume leaving. Or there may be a lack of definition of roles and boundaries within the different spaces of the home.

In our homes too, there is a wide diversity of solutions to the challenges of living. The issue is not how much you own, but whether the whole system is working in such a way that it supports your needs. This allows us to think of creating harmony by constructing a congruent environment that works as a whole, rather than limiting us to any particular lifestyle or ideology about what to own an how to organise it.

If the balance we are seeking has the qualities of a natural harmony or equilibrium, a balanced environment becomes a space in which we can safely and comfortably dwell. Rather than adopting the do-or-die model of balance of the elite athlete or performer, there is the possibility of creating a harmonious way of living which is spacious and accommodating. This model of balance has within it the capacity to adapt and respond to changing circumstances. There is a sense of peace, calm and generosity in having room to move and the capacity to gently shift direction or graciously accommodate change. Perhaps this image brings us closer to the essence of the balanced lifestyle that so many of us are seeking.

Presence-based Organising

Where are you when you organise things. Are you in the room, or are you in your head? Are you starting with what you see before you, or an idea or belief about how things should be?

If you are asking “Where should I start?” and “What should I keep?” it may be that these “shoulds” are separating you from the task and from yourself. Organising has become a mental exercise, and you are relating to imagined ideas about what an organised person would do, rather than tuning in to the reality of your own needs.

Organising from the head, without reference to the present moment, creates a gap between yourself as you truly are and the situation as it really is right now. While you are relating to the imaginary judge who knows better, you have become cut off from the ability to find your own solutions.

Presence based organising begins not with action, but with stillness. It draws your attention away from the whirl of thoughts in your mind into your own body, and into the room you are standing in. If you feel confused about where to start, take a moment to seek out that still space inside. If you can accept the situation as it is, without judgement or expectation, you create the possibility that a genuine impulse to act will arise.

Perhaps in this quiet moment you will know the first step to take. Perhaps you will understand that you need some help, and that it’s OK to ask. You may not have all the answers, but in a moment of clarity, free of the clutter of unnecessary expectations, you may understand what to do next.


Niagara River Downstream

The Balance of Structure and Flow

When we think about organising in terms of natural systems, there are two factors that contribute to how things unfold. One is structure, and the other is flow. Structure is about the level of containment, and flow is about the level of movement. Managing our living environment effectively requires a healthy balance of each of these factors.


Structure is like the banks of a river. It defines the space and provides containment and separation. The walls of our homes create a boundary from the outside world and rooms further separate areas by function. Inside our living spaces is a sense of safety and containment which can lead to the possibility of intimacy. In managing our belongings, furniture and storage options help us contain our things within a defined space so we know where to look for them. This could be in the form of of a bookshelf, a wardrobe, or a jewellery box. These containers can also act as limits to the volume to be kept of a particular category of item.


Flow is like a water moving in a river. It is about movement and energy. The river has its own momentum and finds its way from source to its destination.  Although it is fluid, a stream has a lot of power and can travel a long way quickly. In organising we can think about how objects flow into, around and out of our homes. Objects cannot move themselves, but contain stored energy from their manufacture, and once in the system their presence and movement needs to be managed.


Structure and flow are not good or bad in themselves, but work together. In order to flow, the river requires the containment of the river bank. If there is too much water, the river bursts its banks and floods. This illustrates how difficulties arise when the levels of structure and flow are out of proportion. Too much structure, and the situation feels rigid, restrictive and inflexible. Too much flow becomes chaotic and out of control.

What we call “clutter” or “mess” may reflect an imbalance of structure and flow in relation to our belongings. Perhaps the flow of objects into the space is greater than the flow out, so things are piling up. Or there maybe there is a lack of structure, so things are not contained and become difficult to find.


The art in organising is to find the level of structure and flow that suits your specific needs. Thats not necessarily in the middle. Some situations benefit from a high degree of structure, and at other times a more fluid arrangement is helpful. A healthy balance offers enough containment to provide clarity, and enough flow to allow for flexibility and comfort.

Where Do I Start?

Traditional approaches to decluttering have limitations when it comes to an extremely cluttered environment. Working room by room is a slow process if there is a large bulk of items in every room, and choosing a category such as books or clothes to work with is difficult if belongings are jumbled together or inaccessible. The slow decluttering approach which involves removing unwanted things wherever they are found lacks the focus required to make headway in a large project. This post discusses a harm minimisation approach to decluttering which focusses on problem issues first.

Addressing clutter is important because of the negative impact on health, safety and wellbeing that can result from excessive clutter in the home. These negative effects can act as powerful motivators for change, and can also be a starting point for defining decluttering projects. Rather than focussing on tidiness or organisation as goals, projects can be developed which address specific problems or risks associated with too much stuff. The objective is to minimise the harmfull consequences of clutter by addressing the most serious risks and dealing with them first.

Harm minimisation projects could include:

1. The Safety First Project
Identifying and addressing hazards caused by clutter or hoarding such as limited access to important exits, removal of obstructions in walkways, removal of trip hazards, reducing the height of piles at risk of falling, and clearing areas around stoves, heaters and other potential fire hazards.

2. The Healthy Home Project
Cleaning up food and drink scraps, taking out the garbage, clearing out the fridge, establishing a routine for cleaning up and removing food waste, washing up crockery and utensils, general cleaning, addressing pest infestations, reducing dust exposure, removing items affected by mould and mildew, addressing damp and its effects, removing old medicines and toxic chemicals, and putting poisons out of reach of children and pets. In a heavily cluttered environment this project may need to be repeated as additional areas become accessible. However attacking the obvious health risk early in the process creates a safer and more pleasant living and working environment while the larger project goes on.

3. The Financial Survival Project
This project involves identifying any immediate financial risks from a cluttered and disorganised lifestyle such as unpaid rent or bills, or excessive debt. If mail has been unopened or ignored, it can be useful to run through the regular expenses that need to be dealt with and develop a realistic financial picture. If excessive debt has become a problem, stemming spending and working out a financial strategy could be important considerations. Being proactive about financial problems may prevent a crisis such as power cuts or evictions.

4. The Family Friendly Project
If one person in the family tends to collect and acquire a lot of stuff, this can impinge on the space and comfort of other family members. The family friendly projects involves finding out the needs of individuals in the family and making it a priority to create some space and sense of order in the areas of the house that affect them most. This might mean making decluttering the kids rooms a priority so that they have space to study and play. It might mean having an agreement with a spouse about areas that are to be clutter free. The Family Friendly Project aims to acknowledge the needs and preferences of everyone in the home, so that clutter doesn’t rule the roost.

5. The Reaching Out Project
Feelings of hopelessness and isolation can be debilitating consequences of a cluttered situation. Changing long term patterns of thinking and behaviour can be difficult and stressful, and may require the support of counsellors and doctors. Reaching out can also involve enlisting the help of sympathetic family and friends. Professional organisers are available to assist with the practicalities of sorting and organising. Reaching out brings hope for real and lasting change by drawing on the knowledge, experience and goodwill of other people.

These projects are an example of an approach to a major decluttering effort which aims to address the most serious consequences of the cluttered environment first. Which you choose will depend on which issues are causing the most risk or distress. Of all the harm minimisation projects, reaching out is probably the most crucial, as it will change the dynamics of the situation and give the other projects a better chance of success.

A specific harm minimisation approach is outlined in the book Digging Out  by Michael A Tompkins and Tamara L Hartl.

The links to the book are affiliate links with Australian online store Booktopia.  A small percentage of the purchase price is paid to Live Light if you buy the book through this link

When Clutter Matters

Recently I read an article about people who collect things from the roadside to recycle and sell. The collection process was ahead of the recycling process and they were accumulating a large volume of stuff. They were happy and in tune with each other. The work was obviously meaningful to them. Yet there was some speculation as to whether these people were in the recycling business, or “hoarders”.

It might surprise you, but I don’t mind if you have a garage full of stuff, a storage shed full of this and that, or an attic full of treasures. After all, this is what these storage spaces are for. Up to a certain point, whether you choose to live with a lot of belongings or very few is a matter of personal preference. Collecting and recycling are a lifestyle choice that many people find rewarding and its important to respect that. A cluttered storage space is not sufficient information to label a person as a hoarder.

There is a point however, where collecting, acquiring and hoarding go to far, and at that point clutter matters. Clutter matters when it puts your safety at risk. Clutter matters when your living environment has become so contaminated that it poses a health threat. It matters when you can’t perform the normal tasks of living such as sleeping in a bed, showering in the shower stall, or cooking in the kitchen.

Clutter matters a lot when the people you live with feel overwhelmed and despairing because of the lack of space, and having no control over their living environment. Clutter matters when you feel like it is controlling you, and you are powerless to do anything about it. When collecting and keeping stuff has become a compulsion, then its no longer a lifestyle choice.

Sometimes it can seem like people who don’t have an issue with managing their stuff are judging those who tend to collect or hoard. It can feel like non-hoarders want to tidy up the world so that its neat and organised and manageable. But thats missing the point. The point is not whether you are neat enough, or organised enough to meet other peoples expectations. The point is whether you and everyone who lives in your home are safe and healthy and happy in their living environment. If excessive clutter is compromising your safety and quality of life, that’s when clutter matters.

It can be difficult to change habits of a lifetime, however your safety, health and happiness are good reasons to get motivated. Help is available through counselling programs that address the reasons for compulsive hoarding and acquiring. Professional Organisers can help restore the home to a safer and more comfortable condition. If you are feeling shy about asking for help, you could take a look at a wonderful book called Buried in Treasures, which tackles the reasons for compulsive hoarding and acquiring and how to start restoring the balance.

The links to the book are affiliate links with Australian online store Booktopia.  A small percentage of the purchase price is paid to Live Light if you buy the book through this link.