The idea of clear, clutter-free spaces is seductive. No piles. Nothing to trip over. A well-organized closet with everything hung and neatly folded. Kitchen cabinets set up to make cooking a joy. Each room of your home beautifully adorned and decorated in a way that makes you feel happy and peaceful.
Doesn’t that sound divine? Of course it does! Then why is it so difficult to attain?
From my experience, I have found that the top three causes of clutter are:
- Old stories
- Unrealistic expectations
- Lack of boundaries
Many of my client and student conversations lately have been about number three.
A lack of boundaries will show up as physical clutter for a couple of different reasons. If you’re someone who puts others’ needs ahead of your own, you are likely wiped out energetically much of the time. When you feel this way, the last thing you want to do is clean up your environment. You probably come home, plop on the couch, and either numb out or beat yourself for not cleaning up.
The clutter around you is a reminder of your lack of self care and is a call for help; an alert that it’s time to make your needs a priority. And those needs aren’t only a tidy home. Your external environment is a reflection of your internal environment so a neglected home speaks to a neglected you.
The stuff around you reflects an abandonment of your core desires; your hopes; your dreams; your vision. After all, how can you feel motivated to make bold moves in your life when your environment is weighing you down?
Here, your physical clutter represents the boundaries you need to set with the people in your life. It’s time to say no more often. To decline invitations. To turn down requests for your time or talents.
I often give clients who fall into this category a challenge: to disappoint at least one person each day for two weeks. This is a little technique I gleaned from Thomas Leonard, the father of coaching.
On the surface, it may sound intentionally mean or horrendously selfish. However, by keeping your eyes open for opportunities to disappoint shines a light on how many requests you get for your time. It also shows you how often you tend to say “yes” without really giving any thought to the invitation or request.
And the cherry on top is you get to see that the fears you have around saying “no” are largely unfounded. People rarely get angry or abandon you or throw fits. Sure, they might be disappointed, but they’ll be just fine.
The other common way a lack of boundaries shows up as clutter is when you have literally given the role of boundary to the stuff. If you struggle to say no or to protect your space (both physical and energetic), your clutter can be a great excuse.
Maybe you think it’s easier to live in C.H.A.O.S.* (can’t have anyone over syndrome) than avoid entertaining or hosting. You can probably ensure no one is going to ask to stay at your place if they know it’s in a condition you’re not happy with.
Or you might hang on to the clutter to keep expectations low — yours and others. After all, if you got your house all shipshape, what else might you be able to do? What else would you have the time to do?
Clutter can be a fantastic scapegoat.
In addition to physical piles, a lack of boundaries can result in relationship clutter (imbalanced or unfulfilling friendships or partnerships), calendar clutter (overcommitting), and inner critic clutter (“why do I always agree to this?” “I wish I never said ‘yes’!”).
When you consider all of the above, it might just be easier to set those boundaries. Let’s get you started.
- Begin by recognizing where you need boundaries in your life.Do you have a coworker who always interrupts your lunch break?
A friend who calls to dump her relationship woes on you?
A family member who expects you to drop everything to babysit her kids?
Be sure to notice the seemingly smaller instances, too, like the person who emails her resume to you for you to review and tweak. Or the neighbor who asks you to scoot over and water his flowers while you’re tending to yours.
- Pause before responding to any and all requests.Take a moment to check in with your gut to be sure you’re clear on how you want to respond. Watch for the tendency to automatically agree only to later regret it. Come up with some phrases you can use to break the habit; things like “Let me check my calendar,” or “I’ll give it some thought and get back to you.” For more on this, check out the blog I wrote called The Power of the Pause.
- You probably knew this was coming: Take on the Disappointing Challenge.Find at least one opportunity each day to disappoint someone. It needn’t be anything major. With boundaries, it’s best to start small. For example, walk past the Girl Scout cookie table outside of the market instead of stopping to buy a box. After you’ve warmed up the muscle, you can move on to bigger things like declining a friend’s dinner invitation.
Here’s the really cool thing — the more you practice setting boundaries, the less you’ll “need” your clutter. You’ll find you have more time and energy to tend to your home, relationships, and self. You’ll be less tolerable of an environment that weighs you down.
And you’ll be much more likely to take decisive action toward living your very best life.
So what’d ya say? You up for it?
*Hat tip to the Fly Lady