Losing the clutter bug
TEN YEARS AGO, I left England carrying just one rucksack. Apart from a few items left in the care of family and friends, this rucksack contained all my worldly goods, pared to the minimum in the months before my departure. It was a liberating feeling to be heading into the unknown, without baggage, without job, without commitments and plans. I felt as light as a feather.
Fast forward to 2006, and I have a house full of baggage and belongings. I have cupboards full of VCDs, shelves heaving with books, files, old magazines and newspapers, a desk full of unfiled documents I'm not sure I'll ever need, drawers I dare not open, and suitcases packed with clothes I haven't worn in years. And to top it all, four children and all the clutter that goes with them.
Some things I wouldn't change for the world - the children for one - but I would be lying if I said I was happy living with all my clutter. I'd love to have the kind of clean home you see in magazines, or be someone who could sweep things under the carpet. But I know it would never be 'out of sight out of mind'. It would all still be there waiting for me, making me feel as though I could never relax.
I'm not alone, according to Sue Kay, a Britain-based so-called declutterer and author of No More Clutter: How to Clear Your Space and Free Your Life (Hodder Mobius). Clutter is a modern phenomena, brought about by a consumer society in which people have more money to buy more stuff.
'Affluence has had the biggest effect on clutter in people's lives,' Kay says. 'You used to buy a washing machine that would last your life. Now, you can expect to replace it within two years. I read recently that children now receive something like 70 presents a year. That's more than one a week.'
Kay, who set up her decluttering business in 2002 after organising her own belongings and finding it life-changing, defines clutter as things you no longer love or use. She says everyone has clutter and no one is perfect.
'It creeps up on you over the years,' she says. 'It doesn't have to be old or broken to be clutter. It could be something absolutely fantastic, but something you don't need or use any more. 'People hold on to all sorts of things - old pans in the kitchen, chipped mugs, shoes. Paper in all forms, old newspapers, old magazines. Kid's toys are a big problem.'
Most of us hang on to these things because of frugality - something instilled in us by parents who, for numerous reasons, kept hold of things much longer. So we keep things - like those old mobile phones, just in case our latest one breaks down or we lose it. 'But the truth is, if you do lose it, you'd be straight down to the shop buying another one,' Kay says.
Guilt and sentimentality also play their part in clutter. 'Feelings get in the way,' she says. 'People hang on to things because they were gifts or because they were expensive and they feel they haven't got their money's worth.
'They hang on to every birthday and Christmas card they receive or every scribble their child has done. People think by throwing something away like that they are throwing away love. But they're not throwing away love. You have to let go. If you have three kids you can't hang on to everything they ever do.'
Professional organiser Kristin Lowe agrees. Lowe set up Organising Solutions in 2004. Her clients include single people, mothers running busy households, middle managers and senior executives - everyone and anyone who has something in their lives they wish could be better organised.
'Clutter tends to build up in people's lives if they struggle with making decisions,' Lowe says. 'Knowing whether we should keep something, what we should do with a brochure, some memorabilia or the information contained in an e-mail can be tricky. One common response is just to keep everything.
'Where space is relatively unlimited - for example in countries where homes have basements, attics, garages, spare bedrooms - this can go on indefinitely.'
Not so in Hong Kong, where smaller offices and living spaces make clutter a problem much sooner.
But so what? What if I do save things? Is it really a problem? Yes, say Lowe and Kay. Clutter takes up time and space. According to one recent study, the average person wastes 150 hours a year looking for lost papers. And it's not just space and time that's lost to clutter. It also adds to the stress in our lives and can have a psychological affect on our well-being.
'People with clutter may have a sense that something isn't right about their approach and often feel guilty or embarrassed by their disorganisation,' says Lowe. 'They wonder if something is wrong with their wiring. They, or others around them, may believe it represents a personality flaw.
'Clutter overwhelms us and puts a strain on relationships. The physical and financial consequences are staggering. Studies show that 80 per cent of medical claims are now stress-related, and that the average American executive loses one hour a day to disorganisation.'
Clinging on to clutter can stop you making the most of today, says Kay. It weighs heavily on your shoulders, taking up mental as well as real space. 'Everything you own demands something of you. It demands space in your home, it demands to be looked after.
'There's also a critical time when it becomes a health and safety issue, when you can't move through the hall because of the 15 boxes piled up. It collects dirt and dust. I've seen some pretty nasty stuff in boxes left unopened for a couple of years. Bedrooms are particularly interesting. People have stuff all over the floor, under the beds and on top of wardrobes.
'A lot of people struggle with it for years. They compare their homes with people who have tidy homes. It can get to the point where they don't want to invite people around.'
The good news is that most people can overcome clutter, and when they do they feel a weight lifting from their shoulders. 'Barring a physical or psychological impairment, anybody can learn to create systems and develop routines that will free them from the visual and emotional oppression of their clutter,' says Lowe.
The rewards are many. 'In additional to the tangible benefits of time and money saved, improved relationships and a more balanced schedule, many of my clients report a sense of great relief, empowerment and optimism,' she says.
Kay says her clients often talk of feeling lighter, euphoric and 'like a weight has been lifted' after decluttering.
'Your life will be less stressful,' she says. 'You'll feel better because you'll be surrounded with things you like. You'll be living with the things relevant to your life now, not the life you were leading several years ago or thought you'd be living one day.'