Stopping Clutter Before It Starts

Clutter doesn’t just magically appear.  Each object that combined with others to create a feeling of clutter came from somewhere, sometime, for some purpose.  This is why decluttering is only half the battle.  In order to maintain an organized environment, you have to be able to control the inflow of stuff as well as get rid of it when the time comes.

Image courtesy of (Carl Richards)

Image courtesy of (Carl Richards)

But we live in a culture that reveres consumption (although the tides may be gradually, slowly, infinitesimally shifting on that point) and shopping habits are hard to change.  This is why I loved Carl Richards’ opinion piece for the New York Times last summer: New Rule: All Purchases Subject to a 7-Day Mental Quarantine. He has come up with a creative intermediate step between his family’s current shopping habits and the eventual goal of acquiring less.

It seems like such a simple idea, but there’s a lot going on here.  First, he recognizes that his shopping decisions aren’t always well thought out.  Admitting you have a behavior you want to change is always the first step, and it’s a hard thing to do!  I have clients who I’ve worked with for months before they can start to see that their consumption habits are directly tied to their continued disorganization.

Second, he’s putting his household on the same team.  His wife, instead of being the policeman who tells him what not to do, is his “fellow customs officer.” I would say a majority of my clients are women who long for an organized home and have a spouse who either doesn’t see a problem or likes the idea of an organized home but doesn’t want to participate in the process.  I can do good work for these clients, but I can tell you definitively that I do my best work when both halves of a couple (and ideally their kids, if they have them) are involved every step of the way.

Third, he’s not giving himself harsh rules he can’t live by.  There’s nothing about the mental quarantine that says he can’t buy things – it just sets up a framework that buys him more time to think about it and encourages him to consume less.  When people feel deprived, they want to act out, whether it’s from a diet or from strict rules.

In a sense, the lighthearted metaphor of mental quarantine is standing in for the overall concept of mindfulness in consumption.  By slowing down and extending the process, Richards is allowing himself to be mindful about each and every purchase decision without getting caught up in the quick dopamine rush of acquiring something new.

Imagine a world in which you give yourself the time and space to carefully consider purchases.  They might be fewer and farther between, but they’ll likely be more useful and meaningful to you!