#174 How to Tell if You’re Addicted to Clutter

How to Tell if You’re Addicted to Clutter

Are you addicted to clutter?

A while back, I came upon a blog by an economist named Joshua Gans who had been trying to introduce basic math to his three-year-old daughter — starting, as we almost all do, with addition.

“Now, the way to do this is to make liberal use of fingers,” he wrote. “This is all very well when the numbers you are adding are less than 10 but is a problem after that.”

But what if, Gans thought, we start with subtraction first?

“The idea there was that you could take any number up to ten and subtract any smaller number and still not exhaust your finger options. That dramatically opened up the possibilities,” he wrote.

Almost everyone I know says “addition and subtraction,” but since reading Gans’ blog, I’ve often wondered what effect it might have on our collective psyche if we thought about “subtraction and addition.” Would we always feel so compelled to add things to our lives in a never-ending effort to satisfy a desire for more?

Can you have it all?

But I digress. Because here’s what I know for certain: No one in the history of humanity has ever been able to “have it all” — and those who try are some of the most miserable human beings in the world.

You might not think you’re on the path to being Citizen Kane, but if you regularly engage in shopping just for the sake of shopping (what some deviously clever marketer has convinced many of us to think of as “retail therapy,”) then you’re living an addition-centric life. And while that might feel satisfying in the short term, it’s absolutely not helping you develop happiness in the long term, because there is no upward limit to “more.”

Does consumption impact your health?

OK, so consumption isn’t always pretty, but is it really impacting your health? Absolutely — and especially if you’re taking on debt to do it.

It probably wouldn’t be surprising to most people to learn that debt, even short-term debt in relatively small amounts, can be psychologically draining. What many people don’t realize is that research has shown there are also significant physiological consequences, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

And even if you’re not taking on debt when you add to your ever-growing collection of “stuff,” you are almost certainly adding to your clutter, which has also been demonstrated to have profound health consequences. Researchers in Los Angeles, for instance, have demonstrated that cluttered homes are linked to elevated levels of cortisol — a steroid hormone released in our bodies in response to stress — and too much cortisol over a long period of time can be devastating to our metabolism, brain activity and immune systems.

Tip: Cut the clutter, one thing at a time

Maybe we can’t completely reverse the polarity of thought processes that have always told us that addition is positive and subtraction is negative. Most of my patients, though, have been quite able to adopt a more balanced perspective, one that lends itself to a one-for-one policy for stuff. The key is simply to ask, any time you consider the purchase of something that is not a perishable product, what you’re willing to donate to someone less fortunate to make room in your house and life for something new.

That question alone, I’ve found, often stops people from making purchases that they really don’t need — a particularly good step when it comes to reducing debt. If it is something that I really need then I am also blessing the life of someone else. What it doesn’t do, of course, is subtract clutter. Once you’ve gotten used to the one-for-one tradeoff, though, it gets a lot easier to take the next step, which is a one-for-two tradeoff – and you’d be amazed how quickly this practice can simplify your life.

How to Tell if You’re Addicted to Clutter

The following step after that is a true reckoning — one guided by one  question: “Does this add value to my life?” If the answer is “no,” then it goes.

To easily tell if you’re addicted to clutter, can you part with those things that don’t bring value to your life?

Just because something is important doesn’t mean it needs to be physically present in our life. If it can be scanned and sent to the cloud, it should be. But just because we can save things in digital form doesn’t mean we should. If it’s something we never use and no longer need, it’s time to click-drag-and-drop it into the digital recycling bin.

Of course, you can’t live a subtraction-centric life forever, or eventually you’d run out of stuff altogether — including the stuff you do actually need to live. Over time, though, if you get back to a one-for-one personal policy for stuff, a clutter-free life will be your status quo.

How do you decide what to eliminate from your life?  Please leave your thoughts and questions below.

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  1. You are so right… its an I’ve GOT to have that thing…. so, in truth , what are you going to do with it when you have it… your kids won’t want it, unless its family related…. I’m delighted that our area is having a swap share…Terry is taking my stuff over and not bringing any thing back…. i know these useful things will find a home, and they’re outta here! My plus size clothes are among these items! Yay! Thank you Dr Day…

  2. This one is hard for me, not because I’m addicted to clutter or shopping, but because our entire economy relies on it. What would the impact to the economy be, if everyone followed this advice? It might seem like a silly thing to think about, but it really would have drastic implications. I’d love to see that same money spent, by each of us, on non-physical “things” that could benefit society…things like education, healthier food, exercise, vacations, etc. Would just need a way to make sure people still had jobs as a result.

  3. That’s all well and good, but what if it’s a spouse who is the packrat?! For every one thing I throw out, he buys two. And nothing goes…even dead dad’s clothes (he died 15 years ago). I find the sheer volume of stuff quite overwhelming, physically AND emotionally, but don’t know where to begin (I’ve already trimmed back my own junk considerably).

    • Hi Maureen,

      Yes, that can be a challenge. If open communication doesn’t work, perhaps you could try having parts of your house that are clutter free zones…