By Charles Moran

To Be or Not to Be... Organised

There was a time, I recollect, a few years back, when I had everything sorted. By "everything", I mean everything I owned, and by "sorted", that I knew exactly where it was, that it stayed there until I needed it and went back there after I'd finished with it. The system worked.

Being organised meant that I also knew whether or not I already had something, be it a bottle of turpentine, a toenail-clipper or a tin of corned beef. There was none of this buying new stuff, only to find, months later, three more of the same at the back of a bottom drawer. Whatever happened to my carefully organised existence? Ah yes, I remember. I got married and we had a daughter.

Now, three people may each have a perfectly practical system of organising their possessions singly. Even our six-year-old. She just picks up what she wants wherever she happens to find it, puts it down wherever she happens to be when she loses interest, and simply forgets anything which happens to drop out of sight-by, for example, being buried under everything else. That's her system and it works for her.

Put those three people and systems together, however, and you have a right mess. But even that is a matter of viewpoint. At 57 I am, to put it charitably, in late middle age (uncharitably, "old"; or, with childish cruelty, "ancient"). These days I don't have a high tolerance for disorder, particularly having experienced a degree of orderliness.

In earlier years, though, I've been known to keep rented rooms in such chaos that I had to wade through a quagmire of stuff just to reach the kitchen sink or bed, and did so without the slightest urge to tidy up. Putting myself in order was a long process of step-by-step advances. You could argue that, gradually, I either improved my self-discipline, or became less tolerant of messiness-or both.

In any case, before marriage, I had got to the point of being able to organise myself, and did so. The problem of getting organised as a family, however, had left me stumped-until recently. Now, I think I may have come upon a solution which would work not just for me but perhaps also for anyone else similarly cursed with clutter. First, though, let's get our terminology straight. Or rather I should since, like mess and clutter themselves, my use of the terms has, up until now, been a bit muddled.

What is Clutter?

After much thinking and several changes of mind, I realised that mess is not always clutter, and vice versa-although they may overlap. There is a distinction. Simply put, mess in the home consists of dissimilar stuff deposited in the same place, and/or similar items scattered between different locations. With that in mind, it's easy to work out that organising a home must consist of gathering similar stuff together, while keeping dissimilar stuff apart.

By contrast, clutter consists of any possessions, messy or otherwise, that have changed from being an asset to a liability. The key word to remember is obstruction. Clutter only happens when household stuff is seen as obstructing something: freedom of movement; productivity; the everyday functions of life; in short, any kind of necessary or desirable change.


No, I don't mean "the final frontier," but domestic space. There are two main varieties: storage space and living space. They should be clearly distinguished from one another. Although both can exist in the same rooms, the best long-term storage space is established where no human would normally spend much time: the loft, the garage, under the stairs, etc.

Each type of space can have different attributes. It can be absorbed, which means physically occupied volume for volume. Living space is absorbed mostly by people, furniture, gadgets and décor, storage space by stuff stored in it, naturally. Or it can be vacant. And, just to complicate things further, vacant space itself can be either reserved or free.

Some space is needed in a vacant state and should never be filled, which is why it's called reserved. In living areas, it is vital that a high percentage of the total space-over 60% at a guess-is reserved for the routine of everyday living: moving yourself around, moving things around, accommodating visitors and so on. In storage locations, a lesser percentage, maybe 20%, should be reserved for items which are displaced when you have to rearrange the area.

Reserved space shouldn't be confused with genuine free space, which is only empty as long as it isn't needed, and can be used for any purpose. In general, though, any unoccupied space in the home represents the potential to move, to function, to make those necessary or desirable changes which I spoke of earlier. For anyone prone to anxieties, however, the very emptiness of vacant space can be unnerving. It holds too many possibilities, too much uncertainty, too few safe handholds.

Luckily, the security such as householder craves can be provided by possessions: they have a "comfort factor" similar to that of fish and chips or sticky toffee pudding for a nostalgic northerner. Consequently, any unused space in their home tends to fill up with stuff, and this would apply equally to the coziest of cottages or the most palatial of mansions.

There is a serious downside to this behaviour. Possessions used primarily as "space-fillers" tend to be durable and slow to deteriorate-ornaments, souvenirs, mementos and so on-since these give the best illusion of permanence. The space is "solidified"; it loses its flexibility and versatility. The result is a status quo which appears disproportionately difficult to reverse or even modify.

Why must anyone have to change? you may ask, but the real question is: how do we respond to the inevitable changes that life imposes upon us? We are, after all, sometimes given little choice but to adapt, even if adapting eventually puts us more in control. When the necessity for change impinges on the home, and the home is "solid" with stored stuff, all that stuff may suddenly qualify to be viewed as clutter.

Two Forms of Clutter

Space-filling possessions may well be scrupulously, even obsessively, well organised. Organised or not, they don't become clutter short of a major lifestyle change. For that reason, I've named them Passive Clutter. As an illustration of this: a fanatical collector of Star Wars merchandise has boxes and shelves of it in every corner and on every wall of his house. Until his death, there is just enough space for him and his wife, plus his collection. Now, his widow wants to downsize. She could justifiably treat the whole lot as clutter and dump it in a skip!

The second type I'm calling Aggressive Clutter-that's when the accumulation and distribution of stuff gets in the way of the daily routine of living. No big upheaval in lifestyle required for this to be a problem. It comes about through habit or carelessness: habitual acquisition of possessions for idiosyncratic reasons, including emotional security, or taking stuff out of long-term storage to use, but not returning it when it's no longer needed.

An Aside on Acquisition

On the subject of "idiosyncratic reasons" for getting stuff, this happens to tie in closely with what I wrote about budgeting, under the heading "shopping with prior purpose" (see my article "Budgeting For All"). The gist of the argument is that anyone considering an acquisition should base their decision on how closely the intrinsic purpose of the item in question matches a predetermined purpose of their own.

For the individual, having a pre-existing, but unfulfilled, personal purpose generates their need. The purpose of the merchandise is derived from the specific need that it was designed to satisfy. It's easy to find examples of this. When hungry, our purpose is to eat: the food we buy has the purpose to nourish us. A newly hired employee has the goal of being on time in the mornings: he or she buys a device with the purpose of aiding punctuality. (Three guesses.)

Idiosyncratic Reasons for Acquisition

These include (in case I've missed any):

  1. Space-filling for emotional security. A socially isolated person may also try to substitute material possessions for friendship-always, ultimately, a losing proposition.
  2. To justify shopping purely as a pastime, distraction or entertainment, usually as a solution to boredom, loneliness or depression.
  3. On the off-chance of later evolving a personal purpose to match the purpose of the item acquired. I.e. it "may come in handy one day". Of course, this one doesn't include contingency purchases such as first aid kits and fire extinguishers. Also excluded are the rare occasions when something spotted in a store genuinely inspires a change of direction, new hobby, interest, occupation.
  4. To be identified with a particular class of people-who may be real or a figment of advertising-who seem to gain some social advantage by owning a certain item or brand.

Naturally, no merchandise is ever sold with the stated purpose of "comforting bulk" or "space-filler" or "reason to shop". Consequently, with type 1, 2 and 3 purchases, there is never a match between shopper's purpose and item's purpose. Back home, such acquisitions will most likely never be used at all (let alone for their true purpose), or used briefly then discarded. Eventually, all of them become, in effect, space-fillers.

As for type 4: brands, especially in clothing, are often sold openly as the entry ticket to a supposedly superior social set. However, even this is far removed from the basic purpose of clothing: to protect or decorate the body-or camouflage body parts we don't wish to be seen! It is the essence of fashion to change constantly, thus changing the membership requirements of this so-called elite club. Because redundant styles, colours and brands are usually valueless to their owners for anything else, they too normally end up just absorbing space.

By nature, acquisition on these terms tends to be habitual, even obsessive. It is therefore not limited to filling space alone, but easily results in overspill affecting everyday living areas, i.e. producing aggressive clutter. It's ironic really, that this type of clutter can wreak such devastation on people's lives, even though it mainly consists of the items of personal stuff which they make least use of.

A Creeping Menace

Since aggressive clutter, unlike the passive kind, doesn't require a major change in lifestyle to blight our homes, it is a more common occurrence and quite insidious. No advanced warning. One moment you're enjoying an untidy but cozy Bohemian lifestyle, the next struggling to stay afloat under a deluge of timesaving gadgets, Franklin Mint collectables and must-have fashion accessories.

The precise explanation is that there is a sliding scale between simple mess and aggressive clutter, but with a tipping-point somewhere along the way. Rather like crawling out along the slender branch of a tree: it flexes gradually, breaks suddenly. Where exactly that point is, and how rapid the downward slide becomes, depend on several factors.

Seven Clutter Factors

The first four are relatively obvious.

1) Household Discipline

What is common practice in the household, concerning acquisition and purchasing (as discussed earlier) and the storage of possessions?

2) Total Mass

Attempts to organise or even just to move stuff around will always absorb more time and energy, or more manpower, as the sheer quantity and total weight of it increases.

3) Total Available Space

That includes free space, reserved space, living space, space on shelves, in cupboards and drawers, on tables and chairs. In short, anywhere stuff could accumulate.

4) Mass to Space Ratio

Earlier, I touched on this factor when discussing "reserved space". The ratio of the volume of solid matter to that of available space is far more significant than either Factor 2 or 3 by itself. To have any area completely jammed with stuff (ratio of 1:1) is this factor at its worst. None of the contents can be easily shifted around, either to reorganise or to unearth something buried beneath. It may also be virtually impossible to move through that space in order to reach something on the other side.

The three remaining, less obvious, factors in the formation of aggressive clutter revolve around the diversity of possessions accumulated in any one place. Here, "diversity" is a dirty word, the ally of clutter and enemy of change. Actually, it refers to the range of differences amongst your jumbles of stuff.

5) Mixed Sizes and Weights

In other words, how large is the biggest item, how little is the smallest? The main effect of this factor is that a single very large item can hide a multitude of small ones. Heavier items are also, of course, harder to shift out of the way when searching for something smaller.

6) Mixed Usage Frequency

This is about placing stuff in daily use together with stuff used weekly, monthly, yearly, etc. This is the primary factor in the transformation of plain messiness into aggressive clutter. Possessions in constant use can quite comfortably and informally share, with a house's occupants, rooms such as the kitchen and lounge, which are at the heart of household activity. The result can look messy, but there is no obstruction of any item by another-until the introduction of less used, less useful possessions.

It works this way: the less often something is taken from wherever it lies, the more often it is likely to block items needed more frequently. Taking the logic further, in an already mixed-frequency case of clutter, the percentage of useless material-i.e. not used now or no longer used, and not included in any future plans-is significant. Such stuff is a 100% liability. It does nothing except obstruct. There's nothing to be done with it other than move it aside. It makes existing clutter proportionately worse. But more on that topic later.

7) Mixed Function

Speaking of the purposes to which products can be put, how wide a variety of them can be found in one place? How many different areas of functionality are represented in the mix? This can generate clutter in two ways, best understood by comparing what happens when we have to search for something through household items organised by function, compared with randomly distributed stuff.

Firstly, if everything with a similar purpose to that which meets our requirements can be found in one place, we know immediately where to look. By contrast, undedicated-that is, mixed function-areas must all be searched on each occasion of need, with failure guaranteed in all but one area!

Secondly, searching a dedicated (single function storage) space, we are more likely to come across additional items which could contribute to the task we're working on. In undedicated spaces, most things will be unsuited for a particular need, and have to be unstacked or moved aside. For example, the space under the kitchen sink might easily take an assortment of cleaning stuff, but would tend towards clutter if you added decorating paints and brushes. This is because, to get out the cleaning materials you'd probably have to move the paint, and vice versa.

To Have and To Hold?

There are specific hows and whys for the amount of useless stuff which so many of us seem to accumulate around us. As mentioned already, some of it-though not all-is liable to fall rapidly into disuse on account of the faulty reasoning on which it was acquired. Other items simply cease to be useful as our circumstances change.

Arguably there is, for some people, another reason: they feel that they gain a warped kind of prestige from buying stuff on the sole grounds that it is, in their estimation, nearly or totally useless. However, given that the majority of us seem to agree that burdening our homes with useless stuff is a bad thing, how come so many of us persist in hanging onto so much of it?

Several causes:

1) Disinterest, avoidance, neglect, oblivion

Perhaps this is the simplest and commonest cause. Having been acquired then fallen into disuse for whatever reason, things can end up as lackluster ingredients in a general jumble of stuff. Since much of it is there due to loss of interest, making the effort to sort it out is, unsurprisingly, an even less attractive thought. Perhaps becoming tatty, grimy, dusty over time, it may offend the eye of the beholder, eroding his or her self-image. Which is an especially hypocritical attitude if the beholder is also the owner and the person who placed the stuff where it is.

2) Altered purpose

Looking back to reasons for acquisition, stuff obtained to fulfil a purpose at odds with its basic function would, of course, take on that highly personal purpose as a kind of mask, but only for as long as the personality-mood, even-of its owner allowed. For instance, possessions bought solely as comforting space-fillers or substitutes for human company would continue to fulfil that need, provided their keeper continued to see them in that light. However, if he or she didn't have a change of heart of their own accord, they would probably not be open to persuasion.

3) Justification

Perhaps items acquired purely to justify shopping as an experience are retained solely to justify their acquisition? Maybe the reason why outdated fashion goods are hoarded is to justify the habit of spending, usually too much, on such volatile pleasures? Most inveterate fashionistas seem to understand that the long-term effect of their addiction is a net loss. Their only gain, once the piece has lost its novelty or currency, is the object itself, which may now be worth only a fraction of its purchase price. Scarcely surprising, then, that they would be reluctant to let it go.

4) Nostalgia

Sentimental attachment can also drive our decision to keep things. These can be possessions which were once so useful to us that we continue to get a buzz from having them around long after they've ceased to serve any practical purpose. Or they may be items that we owned at the best times of our lives, when we felt in our prime, those from which we get our happiest memories.

5) Hope

We hope that something-usually some kind of tool-might suddenly come in useful, again or for the first time, if kept long enough. If only circumstances were more forgiving of our sluggish pace of personal development, we might master this tool and unlock its-and our own-full potential for wealth creation. Or, our lifestyle would change so radically that a formerly pointless possession would suddenly slot into place in our lives.

A full, boxed set of woodcarving chisels. A lapidary polisher. A Turkish Linguaphone course on vinyl records. A fondue set (for cozy apres-ski Swiss-chalet log-fire fantasy evenings). Classic-cut clothes that fit us ten years ago and might again one day. And so on.

6) Doubt

This one is theoretical: that we can't always decide what is and what isn't useful, or at what point the utility of a things ends. Consequently we take no action. Perhaps there's a question-mark in our minds on the whole issue of value, increase or decrease of. More on this later.

7) The Cult of Useless

Even more theoretical (or perhaps esoteric): in some quarters of society, it seems there is a perverse glory in everything about an individual-what they are, do or own-being useless. I touched on this subject earlier while discussing reasons for acquisition, but it deserves to be looked at in more detail.

There are certain stereotypes ingrained in popular culture which can affect our attitudes even if, consciously, we would reject them as irrational or outmoded. The intellectual dilettante, the hereditary aristocrat, the "idle rich", the "gentleman thief", the "career" benefit claimant; they all have in common that they're shown or perceived to have achieved success or happiness with minimum effort or constructive purpose. The fallout from this angle on things is that work, and related concepts such as dedication and purpose, productivity and service, are seen as both the burden and the signs of social inferiority. Persistence is misrepresented as intransigence, usefulness to others is branded a delusion of slavery.

There is a possible explanation for this in our social history. I refer to the gaping disparity in the quality of life between commoners and the hereditary royal dynasties of Europe who, at the height of their powers, amassed vast fortunes, apparently without having to lift a finger. This was true at different times in different countries: in Britain the monarchy continues to the present day, but with only ceremonial powers; in Austria it ended in the early 20th century; the royal Bourbon line of French kings was cut short in the 19th. How many commoners across Europe, over how many centuries, resented and envied the lavish indolence of their masters?

Down the ages, as a general trend, the distribution of wealth in the more affluent nations of Europe has shifted from being concentrated within a tiny elite to a much broader spectrum of society. Now, between extremes of vast riches and desperate poverty, the mid-range of European populations are financially comfortable, with the basics paid for and the luxury of choice over how to spend the remainder. Yet-my theory is-the old envy and resentment of the leisured nobility lingers even in this sector of society. They find expression as an ambition to be useless, to behave purposelessly and to have (acquire and keep) useless stuff, as if that were still a badge of superiority, personal independence or self-sufficiency.

Is It a Keeper?

However, to give humankind the benefit of the doubt, let's assume there are even more of us who only allow their possessions to amass and develop into clutter because of uncertainty about their usefulness. Since doubt always paralyses the capacity for action, this subject also deserves to be examined more closely. Is it possible to establish a rule of thumb to help us decide what to keep and what to get rid of? Value, utility, are never objectively absolute. A good candidate for the status of absolutely useless, we might say, would be a spanner for a size of nut no longer made. Yet, given an ancient but functioning machine with a nut of that size, needing maintenance, the tool still has purpose.

I can give a very real example of how something that was deemed totally valueless suddenly acquired a new use. Around Christmas 2009, I replaced a magnetic rubber seal on the household fridge-freezer, which was leaving a gap at the top of the fridge door and barely held it shut. To my disappointment, the new seal behaved no better, and I realised that the problem was due to the weight of laden shelves in the door having warped it a little.

After several attempted fixes, with the looming prospect of having to replace the entire appliance, the solution came to me in a flash. Luckily, there had been no waste collections over the holiday season; I fished the old seal out of the bin and cut and glued pieces of it to corresponding sections of the new one, plugging the gaps and restoring the magnetic seal perfectly.

Admittedly, this was no Earth-shattering victory over hopeless odds. Even so, there was pride to be had in the outcome. By simply reviewing my assumption that the old seal was only fit for the dump, I avoided consigning the new seal, cost 18, and a working fridge-freezer, replacement cost between 200 and 400, to the same fate. Actually, though, I failed in one respect: I was too hasty in trashing the old seal in the first place. Recognising likely candidates for recycling is a lesson I thought I'd learned long ago-though, in mitigation, it is often the least obvious stuff, put into storage on pure intuition, that is eventually revived with a new purpose.

Value exists only within a context of human need and varies accordingly. Circumstances, tasks to be accomplished and problems to be solved differ between different times or locations. Something surplus to requirements here and now may, at another time or place, be rediscovered by you yourself or someone else as an indispensable tool or solution.

This ties in with the principle of acquisition by prior personal purpose. The distinction here, of course, being that personal purpose is the variable factor, dependant on changing needs-although sometimes the discarded item is rehabilitated only by adapting it to a specialised application. For instance, although our old fridge-door seal was re-used for its basic purpose, making the equipment airtight, it only did so when cut up and glued in place. A more general example is the range of uses to which worn car tyres are put, from buffering the walls of jetties, sides of boats and boundaries of racetracks against collisions, to exercising the inmates of the ape-house at the local zoo.

At this point, clearly, we're touching upon a much broader subject. Recycling is, in many cases, both a product of and testament to human ingenuity. It has long been a way of life, through necessity, in Third-World countries too poor to replace old with new. Consider the municipal tip scavengers of Mumbai. With Death forever on their doorstep, nothing that could possibly be made useful again escapes them; in that respect almost everything is valuable to them. Perhaps the most famous example of a country with grass-roots expertise in recycling is Cuba. Not having what they would ideally prefer (it is a false notion that Third-World peoples, given the choice, would not opt for the best technology and equipment), they make the most of what there is.

Affluent western nations have generally tended to distance themselves from recycling through its association with poverty. This remains true on a knee-jerk level, even in the altered global economics of today. You may have gathered, however, that my default position on the matter is that "Recycling is basically good"-with the proviso that having the stuff you hope one day to recycle spread across the lounge carpet is basically not good. If you're in broad agreement with this, perhaps you feel entitled to expect from me some hard and fast rules about what to hold onto and what to sell, give away or scrap?

Unsatisfactory as this answer may be, if something is very clearly of no use to ourselves here and now, deciding whether it may become useful to us or someone else (other than as scrap) sometime in the future is probably down to imagination and intuition after all. The decision does have five distinct steps to it, though. I call it:

The Five-Point Keep-Sell-Donate-Scrap Formula

Faced with any item of stuff that requires your judgement, ask yourself:

  1. At a stretch of the imagination, can I visualise using it again, in its current or modified form, sometime in the future? If no, skip to question 4.
  2. Does its potential future value seem greater than that of the space required to store it in the meantime? On this question and the next, try to stay practical. Don't forget that a genuine lack of space will curtail your ability to organise. It may even prevent you from finding the item again if it's eventually needed. Sometimes the esoteric potential of a solid thing must be sacrificed for the versatility of vacant space. Anyway, if your answer's no, skip to question 4.
  3. Is it actually possible to find or create the physical space in which to keep the thing? If yes, then it's a keeper!
  4. Can I imagine anyone else, familiar to me or not, finding a use for the object, in its current or modified form (but not as scrap), sometime in the future? If no, then stop here and scrap it.
  5. Would that hypothetical person be likely willing and able to pay a price for it, high enough to justify the effort of selling it? If no, then give it to a suitable candidate in person or through a charity. If yes, then put it up for sale-or you could still give it away.

The Need for Resources

By now, the only excuse you should have for allowing aggressive clutter into your home (the passive sort being okay-ish, so long as it remains passive), is that you don't know how, or you don't have the confidence, to apply the above information to dealing with your own personal situation. Well, now may not be the best moment to say this-especially if you've been patient enough to read this far-but it's possible you may not be able to do, to handle your clutter, what I did to handle ours. If so, looking on the bright side, if you were looking for excuses to avoid it, at least you'd have another.

You see, not only is some people's clutter worse than others', they may also have fewer resources to deal with it. Although you might imagine handling your clutter with pure elbow-grease alone, realistically you may need at least the potential, where you live, to create more space, and money for tools and equipment to do the work. In our case, the amount of clutter was noticeable, but mild by comparison to some households. We were also fortunate in having the necessary resources. We had sufficient living space, but not enough storage space. We did however have attic space capable of being converted. Perhaps you don't-but maybe you've got a disused garage or outhouse, which we didn't.

We were lucky in the type of attic that came with the house. In some, a system of roof-supports slices up the space into unusable portions. Ours, on the other hand, is mostly open-plan: the few strengthening beams, that the design demands, merely divide the attic floor into three long, narrow sections, one directly under the roof-ridge, the other two extending to the eaves on either side.

The attic floor consists of bare joists supporting the first-floor ceiling, originally hidden under a thick layer of insulation. Simply by boarding over the joists, a substantial area of useful space could be generated. From that fact alone, you see that money was also needed to complete the project but, through a little luck and much careful budgeting, we were able to afford it.

Unless you're going to pay professionals to do the work, free time also is, naturally, a resource crucial to the project. So it was that when, in 2009, a window of opportunity opened-a few weeks in which my wife and daughter were holidaying abroad-I took the plunge with an ambitious plan to deal with our clutter once and for all. At the end of the day, though, was the result worth the overall investment of time, effort and money? I can only say that, from my experience, it was.

Focus on Clutter Factors

Knowledge is pointless if not used. Rather than simply describe my plan and the actions I took in chronological sequence, they can be better understood in the light of what I've already said about clutter. To be exact, all the changes I made were targeted at specific Clutter Factors. I only realised this later-in fact, only after I'd begun to name the seven factors themselves-but it's now quite obvious. So here is a summary of my de-clutter program, accompanied by which factor was affected at each step.

The broad plan I came up with was to have a set of stacked boxes or drawers for any stuff small enough to fit in them, labelled according to the purpose or function of their contents. Anything too large for the drawers would be consigned to a separate "Big Stuff" storage area, where it also would undergo further sorting. Now, here's how I put the plan into action:

1) The attic space

I first turned my attention to creating Big Stuff storage space. In our house, the most obvious place was the attic. Several years earlier, I had laid roof-boards over the middle third of the floor but, by 2009, this area was filled with passive clutter, so I set about the task of boarding over the remaining two-thirds. As it turns out, we needed the extra space, yet we probably have less stuff in total than most households. The likelihood is, then, if you decide to embark on a similar project of your own, you'll need more Big Stuff space too. If not an attic, then a garage, outhouse, cellar, rented lockup-whatever you can find!

The Clutter Factors affected by this step are numbers 3 and 4: Total Available Space and Mass to Space Ratio. My actions increased the area of usable space for the same mass of stuff, thus improving the proportion between them.

2) The "Clutterboxes"

This is a vital step and should be possible, without structural modification, in any home larger than a rented single room. "Clutterboxes" (my name for it; you could call it "Clutterbins" or anything else, but preferably something catchy) are my solution to the "Small Stuff" problem. In our house, the Clutterboxes consist of six plastic three-drawer units arranged in three stacks of two, that's 18 drawers in all. Each unit cost about 10 from a local DIY superstore-a total of around 60. They are permanently arranged against a wall in our littlest bedroom, currently serving as an office.

Again, it is Clutter Factors 3 and 4 that are targeted by this action. Each drawer represents added space, therefore an improvement in Mass to Space Ratio. The stacks do of course have their own footprint and the potential to become clutter themselves, which is why they are ideally located in a quiet part of the home: study, office, utility-room, bedroom. In any case, the value of the organising power that they contribute to the household should far outweigh that of the space they absorb.

3) Culling the clutter

The next stage of the process involves gathering stuff from every nook and cranny of the building together in one place: in our case, the upstairs landing, office and master-bedroom. Actually, "every nook and cranny" isn't strictly true. My cull focused on certain areas and left others untouched, for reasons particular to me and to our domestic circumstances. Chief amongst them was that there were limits on my time and stamina. I could have included anything in the house lighter and less bulky than a dining-room chair, but no way could I have kept up the pace or finished the project in the time I had.

For instance, apart from removing a few disused and displaced items, I did nothing with kitchen stuff at this point. This was because:

  1. most of it was in the right place, i.e. the kitchen;
  2. a comparatively high proportion of it was in constant or very frequent use; and
  3. there was plenty of storage space already in that area.

I avoided disturbing the bathroom contents for similar reasons, i.e. most were in the place they were supposed to be. Finally, I left well alone the wardrobes and drawers full of clothes, bed-linen, towelling and other fabrics in both the first and second bedrooms. Different reasons why:

  1. such things tend to be unwieldy to sort through and bulky to relocate;
  2. my wife being absent, there was no-one to consult with about what to keep and what not.
  3. Besides which, I would never presume to sort through either her things or our daughter's...

So, there's another future project right there in the bedrooms!

Despite leaving those areas largely unprocessed, the cupboards, drawers, surfaces and corners of the rooms that were included yielded a small mountain of jumble. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has ever undergone the upheaval of moving house. The quantity of stuff is deceptive when amalgamated to create the familiar character and cocooning effect of a home. Only when taken apart does the sheer, naked volume of its components become clear!

Factor 6, Mixed Usage Frequency, is tackled, but not entirely handled, by step 3. This is because the cull of clutter naturally excludes those items in constant use. Once the hampering effect of rarely-used stuff has been eliminated from an area, that space should be relatively simple to reorganise. My upstairs jumble therefore consisted almost entirely of medium- to low-usage things.

The Just Enough Rule

The idea that, even if some areas were left out of the de-clutter project, it could, when completed, still be considered successful is entirely true to the philosophy I'm following here. The fact that an endeavour may conclude with things yet to be done, does not justify never starting it. On this Earth, it is a rare achievement that ties up all loose ends, clears the decks one hundred percent. Often we can consider ourselves fortunate to improve the situation at all. To make inroads is always worthwhile, as it lessens the work left to do and (if we don't delay too long) unlocks the door to future efforts.

For future reference, I've invented a law which covers this situation, which I call the Just Enough Rule. Anytime you set out to solve a problem which affects a broad spectrum of life, you need only do just enough to make a difference which is recognisable by others apart from yourself, one which ignites a self-sustaining process of change. You can do much more if you wish, but it may not have much more of an effect. It's like setting a fire. Once you've struck just enough matches to light just enough tinder to ignite a flame in the firewood which is just hot enough to spread, you can stop with the matches already.

Note: The Rule doesn't apply to everything we do, by the way. Sterilising surgical instruments or testing the welds in an aeroplane wing, for instance. In such cases, better to do more than enough...

4) KSDS formula sort-out

But now back to the project. My next action was to sort through the collection of stuff using the five-point formula described earlier: Keep, Sell, Donate or Scrap. (Actually, I didn't apply it by name because I hadn't worked it out at the time, but I used roughly those criteria.) As a general rule, after this has been done, any stuff to be sold, donated or scrapped should be processed out of the building as soon as possible. Such items tend to be forgettable-that's one reason they hung around as long as they did. If left, they could drop out of focus again, take up residence in some backwater of the house and stay another ten years!

This process, like steps 1 and 2, also improves Clutter Factor number 4, but in this instance by adjusting Factor 2-i.e. by reducing the total volume of your stuff without changing the amount of space available.

5) Diversity sorting

To recap. Organising is a process of bringing similar things, which had been widely scattered, closer to one another, while moving dissimilar things, that were previously thrown together, further apart. Sorting by sizes and weights, function and usage frequency are actions that attack Clutter Factor numbers 5 to 7, featuring the different types of mixed diversity. The end product of completing all three is groups of items which are uniform enough to be categorised under a single heading (or "label") and distinct from other groups under other headings.

Now, there are important differences in the criteria for sorting your stuff at this point, depending on which factor you're dealing with. With sizes and weights, it's an easy decision to make, because the difference is palpable. With usage frequency, however, it may not be immediately clear to you, how often you will be likely to need an item in the future. As for function, a thing may be multifunctional, or have no discernable purpose-even though you'd swear blind it was an essential component of something else utterly indispensable!

The answer to this kind of vagueness lies not with the objects concerned but with the naming of groups: category headings need not be any more precise than your average degree of certainty while sorting. You might think that any blurring of distinctions between categories would nullify the whole exercise. However, although organising by random distribution of stuff between various storage areas-how some of us do it, filling cupboards and drawers simply to hide the mess-is not organising at all, there are actual advantages to grouping things flexibly-loosely, even.

Remember the Just Enough Rule? It applies! Your eventual result does not need to be the entire household reorganised to such stellar heights of orderliness that it would be near impossible to maintain in that condition. This should be a strictly low-maintenance, easy upkeep system! Better twenty years in a half-decently ordered house, than a moment of sheer perfection never to be repeated. More later on this subject too.

6) Sort-out by sizes and weights

Sorting by sizes and weights is an action in two parts. The first consists of separating out those items which won't fit into a Clutterbox drawer ("Big Stuff") from those that will ("Small Stuff"). More precisely, those objects that would take up more than about eight percent of the inner volume of a Clutterbox drawer don't qualify. Any drawer which couldn't comfortably hold at least 20 items would be a wasted resource. What's more, items that would add so much extra weight to a drawer's contents as to damage it or destabilise the stack are also excluded.

After I'd done this, I relayed the "Big Stuff" up into the attic, with its now nearly tripled floorspace. The second part of step 6 took place here: arranging the larger items themselves by size and weight. The rule-which applies equally to all types of storage area-is: the biggest, heaviest items are stored furthest away. Furthest from what? Well, from the point of access. In our case, this was the attic trapdoor. The in-between space is filled with smaller, lighter stuff, decreasing in size the closer you get to the access-point. In that way, no items are obscured by the bulk of larger ones. It's a straightforward procedure, yet it strikes an effective blow at Clutter Factor 5: Mixed Sizes and Weights.

Ideally, when everything has been brought in and shifted around, some space should remain around the entrance. This should be designated as reserved space. In our attic, everything fitted into the most recently added two-thirds of the floorspace on the flanks of the central section, leaving it practically clear. It's worth emphasising here that reserved space is necessary for future reorganisation, and that the more storage space you have spare at the end of the project, the better.

7) Sort-out by usage frequency and function

There are two separate actions here under the same heading, which tackle Clutter Factors 6 and 7. Just to confuse things further, each step is also in two parts. Perhaps it will be clearer if I say that items have to be sorted by both usage frequency and function in both the Clutterbox and Big Stuff areas. No? Let's take this step by step. We could begin in either location but, for the sake of a flowing literary style, we'll start with the Big Stuff.

The process of sorting these bulkier objects by usage frequency is actually done on the same lines as size and weight sorting, with the more frequently used items closer to the area's access-point than those needed less often. However, this rearrangement should be balanced harmoniously, not in conflict, with the earlier arrangement by size and weight. That's to say, bulkier objects should remain to the rear of smaller ones but, within groups of similar-sized items, those most often needed should be ranked to the fore.

Organising by item purpose is done differently: the ranks of stuff are divided into sections according to function. So, to give an example, in our attic there is one section for computer-related stuff, another for luggage, another for fabrics (such as curtain material), and so on. In each section, the rankings by size, weight and usage frequency still apply. If all this sounds dauntingly complex, remember the Just Enough Rule!

As for the Clutterboxes, since anything too big or heavy for the stacks has already been filtered out, size and weight are not an issue. The primary sort-through is by function, and each drawer is eventually labelled by function. There is an ongoing development of label titles throughout this action, dictated by the range of functions found in the stuff culled, as well as by practical requirements and material limitations.

When I did it, I had a fixed number of drawers, eighteen, and was committed to working the range of functions up or down to that figure, rather than having to buy more storage or leave any unused. I was also conscious of the need to fill all the drawers more or less evenly, even if that sometimes meant overlapping their purposes. No, that's not me compromising my principles, it's me applying the principle of Just Enough!

The upshot of this was, I came to the conclusion that, with the quantity of drawers we had, it would be acceptable to search through a maximum of three drawers for a single item. My criteria for labelling drawers and sorting stuff-i.e. how precisely and carefully I did it-reflected that decision. Indeed, when I'd finished, quite a few items could have happily resided in any of several drawers!

So, for what it's worth, the Clutterbox labels I ended up with were as follows ("Ivy" refers to my wife, "Kath" to our daughter Kathryn):

1) Charlie's Grooming, Hobbies & Projects

2) Health

3) Ivy's Training, Grooming & Accessories

4) Kathryn's Education & Development

5) Celebrations & Holidays

6) Cards & Envelopes

7) Instruction Manuals

8) Desktop Materials & Accessories

9) Fabrics, Equipment & Accessories

10) Household Parts & Spares

11) General Electronic Media

12) Kathryn's Grooming & Accessories

13) Electrical

14) DIY Tools

15) General Household Repair & Maintenance

16) Power & Data Cables

17) Computing

18) Computing (2nd drawer)

I must emphasise that this list is particular to our household and possessions, so may not be relevant to yours, but it does illustrate how labelling works. From a brief study of the titles, it should be obvious that some drawers (#s 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7 and 12) are more specialised than others (especially #s 10, 13, 14 and 15). It's all part of the plan!

Sorting by usage frequency scarcely applies to Clutterboxes, since no part of a single drawer is more or less accessible than any other part. However, those drawers that are likely to be opened more frequently than others, such as "Health" and "Cards & Envelopes", are situated roughly at or above waist-height. The list order above follows the order of drawer positions from left to right, then top to floor, with "Power & Data Cables" and the two "Computing" drawers making up the bottom-most row.

Loose Ends

What about Clutter Factor 1, Household Discipline? That is perhaps the hardest one to change since, in a cluttered home, there is probably an ingrained tendency to messiness, which must be broken down and replaced with a zeal for domestic order. That's psychological, and not our subject here. The Clutterbox system is, however, designed to assist with the mental challenge of adopting new housekeeping habits by making the physical procedure as easy and uncomplicated as possible.

Once it is in place, there should ideally be only one destination for any loose stuff above a certain size or weight threshold, namely the Big Stuff area. The Clutterboxes act as a single drop-off point for anything below that limit. On seeing a household object which doesn't seem to belong anywhere, you and your family or housemates should, with minimal discipline, get into the routine of picking it up and moving it to one or other of those two locations. Should.

The need to keep the system simple also explains why I chose to use new stacking units as my Clutterboxes, while leaving empty many of the house's original cupboards and drawers, which could in theory have served the same purpose. Well, unlike the stacks, where design is dictated by the purpose of providing extra space, the storage function in furniture is usually secondary to its styling. It therefore may be pokey, badly proportioned or too near the floor.

Consequently, at step 3 of the project, most of the furniture drawers and cupboards were emptied out and their contents sorted with the rest of the stuff. The only ones I "rehabilitated" and continue to use, are those which could be set aside for items associated with the furniture itself. For example, the cupboards in the display cabinet are used only for photos, frames and albums; the shelves of the TV stand filled only with DVDs and video games.


Leaving aside the bedroom stuff, which I've already admitted is (at the time of writing) a mountain yet to be climbed, the only other area with lots of stuff yet virtually untouched by the project is the kitchen. Almost everything there is cookery- or wash-related and not much is infrequently used, so there was no advantage to be had in taking it elsewhere. However, the place was in need of some care and attention.

It was only when I'd finished reorganising it, that I realised I'd followed a similar procedure there as in the attic-i.e. our Big Stuff storeroom-based on the same principles. These are: tackle mixed diversity by keeping similar items together while separating out the dissimilar, and deal with the relevant Clutter Factors each in turn. Here are the specifics:

Factor 4: Mass to Space Ratio

Our kitchen had, and still has, plenty of storage space in proportion to the amount of stuff it needs to accommodate, so there's no problem with this factor. The chief issue was how to make most effective use of the space, which meant concentrating on Clutter Factors 5 to 7.

Factor 5: Mixed Sizes and Weights

Having said that, there was no real problem with this factor either, since the different capacities of available storage naturally filtered everything into groups of objects small enough to fit them. Plates, cups, cutlery and utensils packed themselves into drawers; bulky crockery, glassware and provisions took over the cupboards; mid-range appliances and cookware found a home on the worktop; the largest items-fridge-freezer, washing machine and oven-are of course floor-standing. As there was never any danger of, for instance, the teaspoons being hidden behind the microwave, there was no mix to fix!

Factor 7: Mixed Function

This natural filtering by size also contributed to sorting by function. For example, almost all our cooking utensils are of similar size, so fit into a single drawer. The same applies to the cutlery, and to much of the crockery. As for the rest: fresh food is of course kept in the fridge, while dry and preserved foods (tea, coffee, condiments, cereals, etc.) have two wall-cupboards to themselves. Below and beside the sink, are cleaners, polish, washing-powder. And so on-you get the picture. Once any disused kitchenalia had been banished from the scene and the remainder split up according to purpose, even a kitchen as compact as ours had storage enough for it all.

Factor 6: Mixed Usage Frequency

In a room such as the kitchen, which is designed for a specialised range of activities, sorting by frequency of use is also quite straightforward. The things most often needed there are cutlery, crockery, food, cooking vessels and utensils. And, on the cleaning side, washing-up liquid and detergent. So, I focused on finding the best location for these items in particular. As it happens there wasn't much to do, but what I did do made a noticeable difference.

For instance, in the stack of four drawers under the worktop, the cutlery was previously in the second down, with the utensil drawer above it. Since the majority of utensils are less often used than cutlery (i.e. whisks and spatulas versus knives and forks), I exchanged their respective drawers. The tinned foods had been split between a wall-cupboard and, for fear their full weight might be too much for its screws, a cramped corner-unit. To keep them together and within easy reach, I moved them all to a spacious shelf under the worktop.

Here's a summary of the method. First, categorise everything by function, then list the groups of items according to how often they're needed. Finally, try to arrange for the things at the top of the list to be stored closest to where they will be used, and able to be taken out with least strain or effort. Ideally, an object in the "most needed" category would be kept anywhere between waist- and eye-level, and could be retrieved and used without crossing the floor. The less useful the item, the higher-or lower-and less convenient its storage place.


At the time of writing this, the Clutterbox system has been in place in our household for about six months. The kitchen has remained about 95% organised and uncluttered-success! The state of the lounge and dining-room is around 70% of what I'd hoped it would be. As for the Clutterboxes themselves, they get some use-the drawers haven't been emptied out, for instance, which is a good sign. And bulkier stuff does get relayed into the loft from time to time. I've even fitted a makeshift coat-rail up there, preparatory to stashing away our least-used clothing.

Kathryn was especially excited on first finding her most treasured possessions-mostly small pieces of spangly pink moulded plastic-collected together in her own personal Clutterbox drawer. Unfortunately, she proceeded to pull stuff out, carry it wherever she went then, finding something momentarily more interesting, drop it on the spot. Well, it is her method and entirely natural. She is, after all, the Random Scatterer-in-Chief, responsible for most of the other 30% disorder!

Whether to take measures, and what to do, is debatable. My own view is that, if I do anything, the lighter my touch, the better. Whatever my opinion on how she treats her things, they're still her things. Perhaps she is comforted by recognising her own belongings on floors and furniture wherever she passes. Whatever her motivation, a strong reaction from me risks trampling on the fanciful, so-fragile projects which she constantly engages in (as delicate as any childish expression of intent, even without adult intervention). She might never bring them to fruition, or have the elemental satisfaction of turning ideas into reality.

If I were fastidious to a fault about it, I suppose I could follow in her wake at a discreet distance, picking up her jetsam once the turbulence had subsided. Hypothetically. But then, if anything even slightly amiss in the world were fixed so thoroughly that it never needed fixing again, what would be left to do? If all problems everywhere were fully and finally solved, what would life be?



Copyright (c) Charles Moran 2010

If you've found this article interesting or useful, please see my other written work:

Budgeting For Everyone. This is an piece on running a domestic budget, which may be of use to anyone having money problems.

Education, Motivation & ADHD. This piece concerns the problem of getting education to impinge on students who have disassociated themselves from it.

Peace, Politicians, PR & Promises. The relationship of promises to confidence, and of politicians to war.

This page revised on: 27th August 2010
Feedback on this page (if courteous) will be answered.