Why I don't buy into the anti-clutter movement

Entering adulthood can be unpleasant.
Entering adulthood can be unpleasant. Photo: Stocksy

There's been a pile of articles written lately about the supreme advantages of keeping house. Empty your kitchen drawers. Streamline your closet. Don't be afraid to stack in order to make better use of space!

Ever since Peter Walsh taught Oprah to declutter in the late 2000s we've been searching for the Holy Grail of a mess-free, stress-free life – and it had better be clearly labelled. From Marie Kondo's The Life-changing Magic of Tidying-Up to Francine Jay's The Joy of Less, tidiness has come to mean not just godliness, but pure, unadulterated bliss.

Feminist writer Anne Friedman has pointed out this tidiness trend seems to be directed, ever-so-slightly toward women, which is unfair. It seems women not only have to "keep it tight" in the body department, but make sure their homes are tidy too (and there are books out there on how you can do both). Although, it should be noted that statistically, it is women who do far more housework than men.  

When does it end? Here. Now. Because I'd like to start a Clutter Acceptance Movement.

Just like the Body Acceptance movement, Clutter Acceptance seeks to cut out the vicious cycle of unrelenting and unrealistic standards ladies put themselves through. Does this scenario sound familiar?

Step 1. Make a New Year's Resolution to downsize wardrobe. Step 2. Stand in front of wardrobe, with a large pile of old clothes at your feet. Recite mantra of tidiness, visualising how good you'll feel with a skinnier wardrobe, having given one third of it to charity, one third to the recycle bin and kept one third (now sorted by colour). Step 3. Become overwhelmed by sheer volume of it all, break down in tears while holding a shoe, telling yourself, "It's more than a shoe, OK?".

I'm sure I don't have to detail the remaining steps for you to understand that, just like a New Year's diet, it all ends with a sleeve of Tim Tams.

But there is a way forward and it doesn't involve relegating 20 Sundays to "cleaning out the garage". Professor and author of A Perfect Mess, Eric Abrahamson, believes a little bit of clutter is not only harmless, it's actually good for you – especially if you're the creative type.

"Creativity is spurred when things that we tend not to organise in the same category come together," is how he put it in a recent interview. "When you allow some messiness into a system, new combinations can result. If you keep all your tools in the tool shed and all your kitchen utensils in the kitchen, you might never think of using a kitchen utensil as a tool or vice-versa."


The concept has found credence in the scientific community. A study undertaken by the University of Michigan found that when students were placed in a tidy room, they became less productive. But when they were placed in a room with a bit of clutter, their input increased.

Here's the thing: it's true that humans crave order, but we also enjoy a bit of disorder too (as anyone who has watched reality TV will appreciate). Moreover, as Abrahamson points out in his book, there is a huge spectrum between a bit of mess and full-blown hoarding. We just have to work out what level of mess we can tolerate. Because, says Abrahamson, if we spend all our time tidying up, there's no time left to actually get stuff done.

Zero tolerance of clutter is not merely unrealistic, it also sets up a kind of rigid outlook, leaving little time for improvised outcomes (read: spontaneous fun). Any woman who opted out of a delicious meal because there were no low carb options on the menu might relate.

If all of the above is not enough to convince you that Clutter Acceptance is the way forward, you might want to check your privilege. Because, all these minimalist fantasies about cutting back and throwing away all the stuff that "Doesn't spark joy" infer that us middle class ladies might have too much stuff to begin with. Perhaps we should take a long look at ourselves, and then at Oprah – not for advice on decluttering, per se but on how to stay grateful for what we have. That way, we won't feel the desperate need to accumulate all that clutter in the first place.