Clutter is probably the most damaging aspect of our modern consumerist lives.

I’ve been on a little mini quest to de-clutter my life as completely as possible.

This has meant looking deeply not only at what superfluous stuff I have, but also at how much of what I actually have to do on a daily basis can also be considered clutter. This has been another mind opener for me, way up there in second place only to meditation practice.

It hadn’t previously occurred to me that clutter could be anything but tangible stuff, although I had long ago made the connection between physical clutter and lack of productivity due to a cluttered mind, brought on by a cluttered home and/or workspace.

There is no truer saying than “you can’t take it with you” and triggered by my new interest in meditation I asked myself (quietly; I’m not a nutter or anything you know!!) why we seem to be storing up loads of stuff for our final journeys? Our whole life is spent building up clutter in our homes, workspace, garages, rented storage spaces and ultimately…our minds…and I am certain that this isn’t good for our mental health, our ability to think creatively or for our ability to be productive in our chosen path or paths.

One of my new freedom income streams brings this home to me over and over again. I’ve always had an interest in books and this has grown into at least two income streams for me in recent years, one of which is buying and selling second-hand and rare books. Sometimes I buy second-hand books in huge lots from auctions for not a lot of money. When I am sorting through these old books I am quite often confronted with a very sad story of a life that is now over and I see first hand, not only the complete lack of importance of stuff like this, but also the potentially damaging effects of clutter, of nostalgia and of living our lives through stuff.

Going though these old books can reveal a person’s entire life story, even if it is a bit patchy. In the early days of doing this my wife and I were so touched by these “stories” that we occasionally phoned the auction house to say that whoever had entered these books in the auction had overlooked a lot of personal paperwork and keepsakes and would probably want them back. This was met with sympathy and sad acknowledgement by the auctioneers, that no, there hadn’t been any mistake and that the books had come from the estate of a dead person and they had been thoroughly catalogued in the presence of the family (usually the offspring of the deceased) and that there was no wish to receive any of it back.

The books will quite often include old school books kept from childhood, perhaps to remind someone of good times (or bad); they will have wallpaper coverings, inscriptions and doodles. Then, quite often there will be a whole variety of further education related books and fond memories and maybe longed for days when the person experienced real freedom for the first or only time when they went to university or college. Then there will always be a whole host of books related to the eventual career or work life of the deceased and ever more gradually, there will creep in the odd gardening book, then cookery books, until eventually almost every other book is a large format glossy coffee table book about gardening, flash cars, aeroplanes, flower arranging or popular biographies; all of which are inscribed with something like Happy Birthday Dad, love from John, or Happy Christmas Mum, wish we could be there, David, Christmas 1987. In some cases the latest of these gift books will be dated the Christmas or Birthday right before the auction and it is very sad but interesting to go through these books, many of which are worthless to me as a book seller.

The reason for mentioning this is twofold. The people most likely to have their goods and chattels sold off at auction are those who have toed the line; they have been good citizens who did what the country expected of them. They have been sent off to boarding school with all of the  lifelong mental trauma this can cause a person, they have gone “up” to University and then into a 30 or 40 year career with their noses well and truly up against the grindstone. Of course in some cases they have been rewarded with good health and a lengthy retirement, but reading between the lines, it seems that this retirement was more about doing what retired people are “supposed” to do than actually eventually getting to live a little.

Lastly of course, it seems that as individuals we don’t really have time or maybe the inclination to dwell on the lives of others regardless of how close they were to us; maybe its just too painful to be a 50 year old and to suddenly be confronted by the fact that you’ve already spent 50 years repeating the same formulaic life your parents lived! Life (death) does have a nasty habit of creeping up on us. I often find myself trying to imagine how much of the deceased’s life was actually wasted on nostalgia and reminiscing over these old books when they could have off loaded their stuff a long time ago, bought a VW camper and followed the Tour de France unburdened by stuff and past goings on.

The key point here is that in the end, these books, their personal mementoes and inscriptions, little inserts, old holiday postcards and photos were treated with very little respect; private belongings put on very public show and sold off to the highest bidder who has no connection with the life story they represent. They were essentially just clutter, like the books on our own shelves that we will never read again, the 1980’s exercise bike in the garage, the fondue set in the darkest corner of that cupboard you can’t reach the back of in the kitchen, the 50 cookery books you keep telling yourself you will get around to using; its all just stuff that you won’t be taking with you and it is probably holding you back emotionally right now.

Last thing about the books; when listing my books for sale, a lot of what’s contained in these auction lots are worthless, nobody wants them. However, I sometimes keep a couple that I want to read and today I kept back a book called “On the Shores of the Mediterranean” by Eric Newby and as if on cue to illustrate this article, he has dedicated the book to his wife as follows:

“To Wanda, the only item of essential equipment – apart from a Rolex watch (boiled by Afghans in a stew to test its waterproof qualities) – not lost, stolen or simply worn out in the course of some thirty years of travel together”

Good old Wanda, that’s living all right!

What’s your Wanda? What can you simply not do without for the work you do?

If some of what you do is based around writing anything or on the web or in an office, its all too easy to succumb to clutter here too and there is probably no worse place for this to happen as it will have a profoundly negative effect on the way that you think about what you do.

As soon as we moved to our farmhouse 8 years ago we converted a little bothy that had been derelict for decades into a small office to separate our then “real” business from family life. Before long I had cluttered that small office with 2 desks, 2 leather “executive” chairs, two PC’s, a network storage hub, a colour laser printer, an A3 printer, an all in one (fax, print, scan, copy) inkjet printer, two massive storage cabinets, a small stationery cabinet, shelves, notice boards a white board, two phones, a shredder, a tickler file etc etc. a bloody mess in other words.

We now use that as a store for my second-hand books (neatly catalogued) a workspace for my book binding and painting and a store for my wife’s fair trade goods business.

All of my previous need for this stuff has gone and I have sold all of it bar a few bits and pieces still awaiting disposal in the garage.

We now have a family PC in a corner of the dining room, with one small inkjet printer. Apart from the kids using the printer for their projects and creations, and my need to print address labels for books I’ve sold there is very little need to print anything out.

I use a small net book for writing, listing my books, building and maintaining the websites we need and email etc.

Between the PC and net book we have ample storage space for files and we back up any essential files to the cloud. If you have Amazon and/or Google accounts you already have a good amount a free storage space available to you in the cloud and it is way safer than anything you can concoct yourself out of expensive external hard drives etc. Lastly, there is almost no need to keep anything on paper now, even car MOTs, insurance and tax are digitally stored by big brother negating the need for bits of paper in reality. My guess is you soon won’t get any paperwork for any of these activities.

I’ve started to see the accumulation of more stuff as a sort of failure and every time we dump, sell or otherwise dispose of stuff I feel nothing but relief, even when I sold off what I thought would be lifelong possessions recently. I found that these had been somehow holding me back mentally and this is the real reason for writing this piece.

The effect of clutter on our minds is enormous. It’s clear that as a species we’ve probably never been more stressed and screwed up than we are now.

For me, physical clutter manifests itself as mental clutter very easily. I find it hard to concentrate on anything if I am surrounded with stuff, mess and junk and I think this is probably accepted as a point of fact by most people now.

However, what I hadn’t ever considered was time clutter. I might have just invented this, but if someone else has already coined the phrase I apologise. To get a handle on time clutter think about your kitchen.

We are a family of 5 and we have quite a small kitchen, certainly when compared to those of our friends who live in modern houses. Until recently we had a dishwasher; it broke and we didn’t replace it at my request because for the previous however many years the thing had been annoying me enormously; it seemed to take a very long time and use a lot of electricity to do something that I could do in minutes with no electricity. This did mean of course that I had volunteered to always wash the dishes.

Here’s what happens when you have a dishwasher; you don’t wash any dishes until the machine is full, so you use many more dishes than you need to. We had at least 3 different crockery sets and 3 different cutlery sets on the go without really noticing it.

When the dishwasher broke and I started washing the dishes I was really pissed off at how long it took to wash the dishes the first time, there was just so much stuff in the kitchen to be washed. So I identified the newest and most complete set of crockery did the same with the cutlery and after washing and drying I hid the rest in a cupboard out of reach and out of mind for everyone. This means that we still have all of that extra stuff just in case the French foreign legion turns up for tea some day, but meantime we have just what we need for our day to day eating habits and the washing up is a breeze. Clutter both physical and mental dealt with.

I’m now onto pots, pans, casseroles etc and minimising these to what we actually need and what we have comfortable storage space for. After that its gadgets; our food processor broke at least two years ago and we haven’t missed it. I’ve recently discovered that one £3.97 electric hand blender can replace a smoothy maker, food processor and milk shake maker.

Clutter of this sort presents headaches for you in finding storage space for it, cleaning it and continually moving it around. Just having it in your field of vision can waste time and energy that could be spent doing stuff you like doing.

The same is true of TV channels, excessive amounts of ornaments, office furniture and equipment, leisure equipment, clothes, shoes, furniture, books, cds, old mobile phones, instruction manuals for stuff you already chucked out years ago, collections of stuff like magazines, annuals, porcelain cats, teapots etc; its all messing with your sanity.

Now I am not saying that minimalism is the only way to be, nor that everyone is as ready for it as I was, but I’ve only started on my quest for a less cluttered existence and the pay off is impressive, not least of all in actual hard cash raised from the sale of a lot of my previously essential stuff.

Clutter is something we have invented for ourselves, but we also have the power to de-clutter, to improve our day to day lives, raise cash, increase creative productivity, reduce damaging nostalgia and help ourselves to live in the moment.

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