A Little Mess: Making Peace With Our Stuff

updated Jul 16, 2020
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

The crusade against clutter is one of the most frequently waged battles in the modern household. It’s true that nothing feels quite like a good clutter-purge, and somehow it seems that no matter how little I buy or how often I prune my belongings, there are always plenty of items that I could part ways with. But is this constant crusade actually a healthier way of approaching one’s home? And to what extent is it okay to make peace with a little bit of mess?

Jackie has written several thoughtful posts lately that have been inspired, at least in part, by Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Out of curiosity, I picked the book up last week, and lo and behold, there was a section about clutter that particularly caught my attention:

I’d been relentlessly purging everything superfluous from our apartment when a friend said to me, “Remember to leave a little mess.”

“Really?” I asked, surprised. “Why?”

“Every house needs a few junk drawers where you can find unexpected things. It’s good to have a bit of chaos someplace, with some things that don’t really belong anywhere but that you want to keep. You never know when stuff like that will come in handy, plus it’s just nice to know it’s there.”

I’ve generally been an adherent of the belief that keeping my space clear of clutter is one of the main ways to create a healthy home. When my office is clutter-free, the difference in my attitude and productivity is palpable, and I when my home feels light, bright, and open, it seems that my mood follows suit. But there’s something to be said for all that extraneous stuff. I have more pieces of artwork than I could ever “need,” and I get real joy out of occasionally using the fancy teacups that my grandmother gave me. If I were truly following my “get-rid-of-everything-unnecessary” impulse, these things would have left my home long ago. So is clutter really so bad?

After some consideration, I’m still going to respond with a resounding “yes,” but I think that a caveat needs to be made: clutter is different for each person, and each individual needs to carefully consider his or her metric for evaluation. It’s more than okay to have some playful, sentimental, or artistic items that have no use. In fact, these are the things that make our homes homes instead of catalogs. But clutter never starts out as clutter (or else we wouldn’t bring it into our homes!), and when objects become so numerous that their beauty is obscured or when we keep things that no longer give us true happiness, they become distracting.

So how do we keep the “little bit of mess” that actually makes our lives richer distinct from clutter? While the amount of acceptable mess differs from person to person, I’ve come up with several solutions that work for me:

Re-evaluate your collections. Collections have the ability to make us happy, but if they start feeling like a mass of unenumerated objects, then it’s time to look them over. The point of a collection is that you think each piece is special, so don’t squelch that uniqueness by crowding items. Just as an art gallery wouldn’t shove four paintings into a tight corner, don’t try to shove four delicate vases onto one shelf.

Curate sentimental items. Think of your personal history as a collection of memories. Don’t keep every birthday card that you’ve ever been given. Instead, keep only the ones that include some sort of sentiment that you’d like to hang on to. I keep a single file box with separate folders for cards, letters, and memorabilia, and I don’t let the box get overstuffed. When it gets too full, I go back through it and pare. It gives me a chance to revisit some memories while also making sure that I’m not keeping things that have lost their sentimental luster.

Check your stock. Excess is the cousin of clutter, even if that excess is hyperorganized. Here’s a list of items that you may have too many of.

Leave some space empty. As part of the Eight-Step Home Cure, Maxwell recommends leaving 10% of each bookshelf empty, and sometimes even suggests up to 25%. I try to stick to this rule in all the shelves in my home, and when it’s possible, I try to leave an entire shelf empty. It makes you feel like you’re swimming in space, and perhaps strangely, it helps you feel like your home is full of possibility.

Tackle the junk drawer. You truly might need some clear fishing line or twist ties or floral wire one day. But that doesn’t also give you license to keep every non-working pen, ancient rubberband, or mostly-used tube of glue. Consider reorienting your mindset to think of these drawers as “necessity drawers” instead of “junk drawers.”

What are some “little messes” that you have, and how do you keep them from becoming clutter?