3 root causes of clutter (and how to overcome each!)

Ilona T

4 min read

When I was going through my track of thoughts that lead me to discover the solution to my messiness, I understood that there are three root causes of mess and clutter:

① Too much stuff

② No dedicated, easy-to-use place for every item

③ Things don't go where they belong after use

None of the decluttering methods I had tried addressed all these in a structured, messie-friendly way, and that was the reason I failed at them. Most decluttering methods I've encountered focus on No. 1 and some of them address No. 2 whereas No. 3 is only mentioned shortly - if at all!

These three form a triangle - a bit like the fire triangle (you know the one that illustrates the three elements a fire needs to ignite):

Clutter Triangle
Clutter Triangle

No. 1: Too much stuff

Most of the decluttering advice concentrate on this one and without doubt it is very hard to keep your home tidy if you have lots and lots of stuff. For the "normal" people (i.e. those who aren't especially messy by nature) too much stuff is probably the main reason they have difficulties getting or maintaining their house in order. Things get better when they get rid of the extra and there's room for the rest.

But for us messies, the Clutter Triangle differs from the fire triangle: not all the three root causes are needed to make a mess! It is perfectly possible - and it was even inevitable for yours truly - to make a mess with very minimal belongings. But even if it doesn't automatically guarantee a tidy home for people like me, getting rid of as much stuff as possible makes all the rest so much easier!

You can do this in one huge project or little by little, depending on the time and energy (and money) you can invest, the size of your home, and the amount of stuff you have accumulated. There's no one-size-fits-all solution to this root cause!

No. 2: No easy-to-use place for every item

This root cause has two parts: either stuff doesn't have a place at all or the place is too cumbersome to use.

No place at all - Have you ever organized a clutter pile and ended up with a small pile of things that you don't what to do with? They don't quite have a place and/or you don't know whether you should keep them or not. By that time you're so exhausted from the stress of decluttering the rest of the pile that you can't deal with the remnants and they are left there on the spot. The spot is so much emptier and you feel happy that you got the most of the clutter away. But the remnant clutter acts as a seed and before you know it the place is full of clutter again!

Too cumbersome to use - What about this: You have some stuff you need to organize. You search for and find nice storage hacks on Pinterest, get nice containers for it, and spend hours in hyperfocus organizing all the stuff nicely according to color, size, or alphabetical order. Once you've got it all done, you're exhausted but super proud of your perfectly organized storage: it's so pretty and everything fits in perfectly. But soon you need to take something out and have to put it back in a hurry - or maybe you bought a new item that doesn't fit in the perfect order and you just toss it on the pretty containers thinking, you'll find a place for it soon "when you have the time". "The time" never comes and before you know it the place is full of clutter again!

So in order to get rid of clutter piles, every item in your home should have a home of its own, and the home should be effortless to use, so you can't talk yourself out of putting the item where it belongs after use.

Because finding easy-to-use places for everything is not a quick and simple task, I'm a firm believer of slow and gradual home organizing. You should go one category of stuff at a time and really give thought on the user experience of each category: who uses it, how often, in what kind of a situation, etc.

No. 3: Things don't get put away after use

This is closely related to No. 2 but yet a completely different animal for us messies. If you're as distractable and absent-minded as I am, it's possible for you to drop your socks on the floor next to the hamper or forget your milk on the table right next to the fridge!

Have you ever had someone say to you: "Just put things away after use, it's that simple!" Oh, why didn't I think of that! eyeroll

If it's not hardwired in you, it just won't happen with the snap of fingers - even when you really want to do it and decide to start putting things away. You'll have to learn the habit of "putting it where it belongs" (or PIWIB in my acronym-loving mind). And as it turned out the PIWIB habit isn't one habit but a bazillion different ones, which makes it impossible to just start doing once and for all.

Here's the trick: you must learn a habit for each piece of the mess, one at a time, and keep practicing until it becomes second nature before moving to the next one. It sounds boring and arduous but it's the only way (at least for me it was!) to get permanent results without sacrificing your energy, time, and/or sanity.

Three Root Causes of Clutter
Three Root Causes of Clutter

In brief, to tame the mess in your home, you must get rid of all extra stuff, dissect the rest of your mess into elementary particles and find the right place and the right habit for each particle.

If you don't feel like figuring out how to do this on your own, check out Track to Tidy, the ADHD-friendly way of addressing all the root causes - with a game!