We humans

There are 5 kinds of clutter — which one is filling your life?

Apr 12, 2021 /

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here. 


That word doesn’t feel very pleasant hanging there, does it? It brings up feelings of failure and isolation. I’m a professional organizer, and it’s the word that I hear the most from new clients.

I have a friend and client who runs a successful business, is very active in the community, and is the most positive person you will ever meet. Yet at our first consultation, she told me that not only did she feel overwhelmed, she felt paralyzed. When I asked her to elaborate, she brought up words like shame, failure, fear and isolation.

I assured her that she is not alone.

In fact, in our homes, businesses and relationships, “overwhelm” is our society’s dirty little secret. We fill everything. We fill our houses, our cars, our storage units, our offices, our phones, our minds and our hearts with more than we can manage.

We think that more will lead us to happiness, but all it does is perpetuate the overwhelm. Because of this, the word “clutter” is everywhere.  But what people don’t realize is clutter is not just our stuff. Yes, it can be the physical things that clog up our homes, but it can also be digital, mental, emotional or even spiritual.

I define clutter as anything that keeps you from living the life that you were meant to lead, anything that keeps you from living the life that you want to lead and anything that stops you from accomplishing your work and enjoying your life.

Physical clutter is the typical stuff we think of — the closets that are overflowing, the garages that can’t hold cars, the storage units that have become a billion-dollar industry in the US alone.

Digital clutter are things like the 10 or 200 or 50,000 emails in inboxes — something I see on a very regular basis. It’s also all the files saved on your computer without naming conventions so you don’t know what they are and you spend a lot of time looking for the ones you want.

Mental clutter could be your fears, your to-do list, what’s going on in the news or anything else that’s filling your head at night.

Emotional clutter can be the negative patterns and beliefs you don’t even realize that you’re carrying around. It can be all those “I can statements that run through your head like “I can’t lose weight” or “I can’t quit my job and own my own business”.

Spiritual clutter can be a lack of forgiveness or a lack of peace.

Those last two — emotional and spiritual clutter — can be very subtle, and they can also be the most paralyzing.

While it may not seem possible, I believe that all the different types of clutter I’ve listed here have one main cause. My wonderful friend, mentor and business coach Barbara Hemphill has trademarked a phrase that sums it up: “Clutter is postponed decisions.”

Think about that for a minute. Take physical clutter, for example. When you look at your closet, perhaps there’s a whole section of clothes that we don’t wear and the postponed decision there is: “Am I really going to
put in the effort or time to lose that last 10 pounds and fit into this whole stuff?” Or maybe the postponed decision is: “Am I going to clean out my storage area so I can take these things, put them into bins, and rotate
them in and out every season?”

Paper is a huge source of the clutter I deal with. We pick up a piece of paper; we put it back down and one pile becomes 10 piles. Then when you have family coming over for dinner, you push them all in a bag and put them in the closet.

And we do the same thing with email that we do with paper. We open it but we’re not making any decisions about it. Sometimes our decisions are easy — we just delete, reply or put it in a folder, but quite often we postpone making a decision until we get to the point where we don’t even want to open up our computer.

I always had a very good handle on the first two: physical and digital clutter. And I understood how the other ones worked with my clients, but I didn’t truly understand how those could affect me in my own life until I got stuck.

In 2012, I had heart surgery. My whole life I’d had a valve defect, and I’d always been told: “You’ll live into your 80s with no medical intervention; you’re fine.”

Well, that year, my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given a very short time to live, and my oldest son was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. My heart figuratively and then literally broke.

By April 2012, I was in heart failure so I had to have surgery.

I flew through it, and I was the model patient. I was only in the hospital for 48 hours. Afterwards, I was up walking and doing things in record time. I
completed a half marathon 11 months after heart surgery.

My life looked great and I was getting a lot of compliments, but I felt stuck. Why? I had massive amounts of emotional clutter. It consisted of fears, questions like:
“What if the surgery didn’t work?”
“What if my heart breaks again?”
“Why am I having these dizziness spells?”
“Why do I still need a nap every single day a year later?”

And also guilt. I asked myself: “Why am I still here while other people aren’t?”

And — let me tell you — those two combine to make some pretty big spiritual clutter.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that my house is very, very neat and clean almost all the time. At the time, I had a client who was the opposite. She was depressed by her townhouse and hadn’t had people over in years — except for me, to try to work on it. We became very close very quickly.

One day, I was commenting to her that besides this stuff that was dragging her down, she had a vibrant life, was doing fun things, continuing her education, going on trips. I tried to prompt her a bit by saying: “Imagine what you could do without all this stuff weighing you down!”

She zinged me and said, “Look who’s talking. You keep telling me about ideas that you have for your business and things you want to do, and you’re not doing any of them. You are also stuck.”

So we challenged each other, and we both started facing our issues. I stopped postponing my decision to look at my fear and postponing the need to deal with my guilt.

Now I don’t know what your postponed decisions are. Do you have a fear you’re not facing?  Or is there someone you need to give forgiveness to?

To move forward, you need to make a decision.  Some are easy — for instance, you could say, “Two weeks from today and I will clean out this garage!” Some are grand — “I’m going to drop out of school, move to California, and write a novel!” And some are minuscule — “Every week I’m going to unsubscribe from two store emails.” Having clutter does not make you a bad person; it is not a moral sentence. And feeling guilty about your clutter is not going to help you, whether it’s guilt from someone else or from yourself.

There’s a saying I like that goes: “Change is a result of action, and action is the result of a decision.” You have the power — even in the midst of feeling horrible overwhelm to the point of being paralyzed — to create change by making a decision. It all starts with an action.

With the physical clutter, you’ve got to box it up, bag it up, take it to the donation center or the curb or wherever it goes. For the other kinds of clutter, you also need to take an action — it might be talking to a good friend, getting out in nature, meditating or journaling. In other words, do something, move forward, make a decision and take an action, even if it’s tiny. The universe will reward you with momentum.

And yes, some clutter is going to come back; that’s just life. But if you keep making decisions and don’t postpone them, you’ll ultimately move from overwhelm towards something that all of us want — peace.

This post was adapted from Kerry Thomas‘s TEDxAshburn Talk. Watch it here: