Too many things in your closet, in your inbox, in your head? Technology was supposed to sweep our lives clean. Now we're more cluttered than ever.

April 24, 2005|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff

You would go through those boxes of books and papers in your basement, those overflowing buckets of toys your kids no longer play with, those closets bursting with mismatched mittens and old lacrosse sticks. You really would. Except that your phone is ringing just now.

OK, finished with that call. But now your cell phone is ringing. Your BlackBerry is chirping. The baby needs changing. What's for dinner? Where's the remote? When was that field-trip permission slip due? You've got mail!

We are busier and more distracted than ever. And, among other things, it's making a mess.

In this season of spring-cleaning and renewal, many of us are having a hard time keeping our real and virtual possessions in their place. Our baskets, whether they hold laundry or e-mail, overfloweth.

"I think that people who used to be organized are not anymore," said Julie Morgenstern, an organizing expert who has written books such as Making Work Work and Organizing from the Inside Out. "It's gotten harder and harder and harder."

When Roland Rotz, a clinical psychologist in Santa Barbara, Calif., started a support group for people who struggle with clutter about a year ago, he expected 15 to 20 to show up. The room was packed with more than 70 people, and they've kept coming -- all kinds of people, from attorneys trying to control paperwork to grandparents overwhelmed by the clutter that comes with raising their grandchildren.

"Part of what I would call the problem is we don't have simple and effective management strategies," Rotz said. "We get space and we're quick to fill it in."

Technology, which was supposed to bring us a streamlined, paperless society, is partly to blame, say psychologists and professional organizers. Instead, the information overload it has produced is making our clutter problem worse.

"Material is printed faster than we can read," said Harold Steinitz, a psychologist and co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, who has seen more people lately who struggle with clutter. "Technology can be produced faster than we can use it up. We can't process and sort as fast as things are being manufactured and delivered."

Many adults who now run households have grown up in technological transition. First, they typed forms. Then they learned word-processing. Then they went online, then wireless.

But they still tend to trust what they can touch. So they print out -- and make piles of paper. As more people work after-hours on home computers, or work from home, their business paperwork spills into their living space.

We have more stuff

Our consumer culture has given us more stuff to keep track of. Advances in gadgetry means often-expensive gear can be out of date long before it's physically worn out, making many people reluctant to part with the old even when they buy the new.

"Years ago when you had a family, there would be two bicycles in the house for the family," said Jerrold Pollak, a psychologist in Portsmouth, N.H. "Now there might be two kids and five bicycles. Where do you put them?"

The professional organizing business has blossomed as a result. The Maryland Association of Professional Organizers, a six-member group when it started in 2001, now has 41 members. Shows like HGTV's Mission: Organization, which recently produced an organizing book by the same name, and TLC's Clean Sweep demonstrate how cluttered homes from large to small have become.

Organizing books and containers can help, but not always. Some clutterers accumulate them and add them to the piles.

Marla Cilley, who runs an online housekeeping mentoring list as "The FlyLady," calls it CHAOS -- Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome. For many, she said, it takes more than buying containers and shelves. It takes a mental makeover.

"We're all spending way too much time trying to organize clutter," Cilley said. "We need to get rid of it. I'm against putting our clutter in pretty little silk boxes and Rubbermaid tubs."

Many of us are dealing not only with our own possessions, but those of others. Baby Boomers are losing their parents, many of whom grew up during the Depression and had trouble throwing anything away.

"A lot of us didn't have models for organization," says Kathy Trezise, a professional organizer based in Cockeysville. "We never learned that decision-making process."

Ro Curran, a Cockeysville freelance writer and volunteer, called Trezise about four years ago, when she found herself dealing suddenly with the contents of two large homes owned by relatives. "They didn't part with very much," said Curran, 55. "We had enough in the basement to furnish three households."

Trezise advises clients who must empty a house with many family possessions not to take anything into their own homes right away. "Rent a storage unit," she says. "Go through them after your own grieving period, when you have more time."

People are busy

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