Is Organizing Just Well-Managed Hoarding?

I’ve been buried in my basement for over a week now as part of the 40 Bags in 40 Days Challenge, and I still can’t see the end in sight.  I’ve reached the point of any good cleaning project where the room actually looks worse than when I started, yet that is somehow a sign of progress.  Have you ever been there?  I like to call it the storm before the calm.  That’s where I am right now, right in the eye of the storm.

As I hauled my 35th bag up the basement steps this week, I started to think about where all of this stuff had come from.  The outdated electronics, the plastic bins full of books (the worst fate for a book aside from an actual book burning), the endless crafting supplies I’ve never looked at twice… there is just so much stuff.  I started thinking about the hours I’ve spent organizing this basement, moving these same, sealed bins from one shelf to another, all under the guise that I’d use it someday.  Well, it’s someday, it’s not being used, and it’s gone.

But there is this nagging fear, this persistent whisper that keeps taunting me.

You know you’re just going to fill this space back up.

You’ll be doing this all over again in a year.

I can’t let that fear become a reality.   I cannot.  But something has shifted in this process that makes me believe it won’t.

Since I started this series of blog posts, many of you recommended that I read the book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.  A sweet friend lent me the book  and I eagerly dived in, thinking it would be right up my alley. 

A few chapters in, I was unconvinced.  When the author suggested that my socks are in emotional distress from being kept in balls, I raised an eyebrow.  When she said, “Clothes, like people, can relax more freely when in the company of others who are very similar in type, and therefore organizing them by category helps them feel more comfortable and secure,” I started to wonder if our perspectives on the emotional life of our stuff were just too different.   But then I remembered that I usually learn more from people with different perspectives than I do from people who think just like me, so I recommitted and finished the book. 

Clearly these socks are in agony.  It’s a wonder they can sleep at night. 

Once I got past some of our initial differences (my socks are still in balls and I’m seeking a reputable therapist for them so they can work out their feelings on this) I started to internalize some of Kondo’s messages and noticed a dramatic shift in the way I discarded items. 

“When you come across something that you cannot part with, think carefully about its true purpose in your life.  You’ll be surprised at how many of the things you possess have already fulfilled their role.  By acknowledging their contribution and letting them go with gratitude, you will be able to truly put the things you own, and your life, in order.  In the end, all that will remain are the things that you really treasure.” – Marie Kondo

I opened the first of a few memory boxes in my basement a couple of days ago.  Jason and I jokingly refer to these boxes as black holes because once you get sucked in it is very difficult to come back out.  At first, I felt my old tendencies leading the way, and I honestly considered doing things like separating the awards from the art from the stack of report cards.  Maybe I could file them in one of those upright filing systems and label them by year.  I considered that.  And then, I remembered Kondo’s words and looked at the objects with fresh eyes.  That candle from my senior prom?  I don’t need it to remember my prom because I sleep next to my prom date every night.  Those elementary school report cards?  No one has asked for my elementary credentials in the last three decades so I think it is safe to let them go.  Every token that I kept to remember a significant event in my life has sat dormant in boxes for decades, and when I held each one in my hand I realized that while the events are still fresh in my mind, the mementos have not played even a small role in preserving my memories.  

The search is over.  You were with me all the while.  In a box.  In my basement.

With the exception of photographs and a handful of items I’m now one black hole lighter.  And it feels kind of amazing.  It feels kind of like fully embracing the present. 

I’m finding that this mentality extends beyond the memory boxes.  It allows me to pick up an item and ask, “Does this spark joy?  Am I using this for the life I am currently leading (not the life I used to lead or the life I might someday lead)? ”  (I had to add that second question because Kondo’s “Does this spark joy?” would not allow me to keep things like my toilet plunger.  It does not spark any joy, but unfortunately, I need it.)  It allows me be grateful for the purpose these items once held without feeling guilty that they no longer hold meaning for me.

So, this time around doesn’t just feel different.  It is different. I’m not organizing, I’m purging.  I’m not purchasing bins and label makers, I’m emptying bins and donating the very bins themselves so they do not find themselves full again on my shelves.  I might even donate the shelves. 

I half-jokingly labeled a Pinterest board with this quote back in 2010 – “organization is really just well-managed hoarding” – and The Minimalists make a case for these words here.   I wish I had listened to these words back then.  I’m listening now.

This post is part of a series on quitting your job as a Stuff Manager.  Drop back in to read more about my journey over the next forty days, or subscribe by email if you don’t want to miss a post!  I look forward to hearing about your own resignation. 

1.  Letter of Resignation – On quitting my job as Stuff Manager
2.  I’m Never Going to Make That Beer Bottle Cap Table – On letting go of things that aren’t for us
3.  But I’ll Need That in the Zombie Apocalypse (and Other Excuses) – On excuses for our clutter  
4.  Donating Outside the Box –  On finding a great place for your donations
5.  7 Ideas for Managing Digital Clutter – On minimizing distractions and clutter on your devices 
6.  Is Organizing Just Well-Managed Hoarding? – On the difference between organizing and purging 
7.  Getting to Know Mr. Jones:  An Antidote to ConsumerismOn exploring where we got all of this stuff in the first place and a communal antidote to over-consumption
8.  Taking Back Your Square Footage –  On creating space in your home that reflects your intentions and values

4 thoughts on “Is Organizing Just Well-Managed Hoarding?

  1. This series has been so helpful to me and this post really gets to the heart of the matter. Organizing is how I control my fears of becoming a hoarder like my Mom was. I demonstrate to myself that by organizing and reorganizing and purging my belongings that I will never become a hoarder and that I am in control. I also understand that my Mom's hoarding was also about controlling her world. What I do know is that I have spent way too many hours with things, something I used to accuse her of doing. Time for me to let it go on a lot of levels!

    You are such a gifted writer! And it's clear that you are a very compassionate and thoughtful person.

    Thank you!


  2. I understand what you are saying and really have felt the change, too. I am tired of owning all this stuff! But I did file my socks like she recommended and, lo and behold, now I can see my socks in a line in my drawer and realize I have more socks than I can possibly wear in a month or two – and all the while I thought I needed more!! It is amazing what it does to see your items instead of them being on top of each other! I did this with my next drawer – full of work out clothes and the same thing – I found I have more than enough, thinking I need more.


  3. First of all, thank you. That encouragement means a lot. Secondly, I understand where you are coming from. I was the messiest child you can imagine (just ask my mom) and started using cleaning and organizing as both a coping mechanism and procrastination strategy when I moved out on my own in college. There's so little we can control about the world around us, and we all use different coping mechanisms to deal with that truth. Maybe the first thing we need to let go of is the need to control? I'll be thinking about that too.


  4. Patricia, but I already hired a therapist! 😉 Actually, your very thoughtful and practical comment is about to make me eat my words and rearrange my sock drawer. Thank you.


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