There’s no question that the sheer amount of stuff in our lives has increased exponentially in the past couple of generations. We’ve got far bigger closets and more drawer space than most of our grandparents had, and still it takes dedicated effort just to keep our objects from taking over.
While we may love all our stuff and find it good, we’re beginning to see that clutter is bad. The recent rise in popularity of a host of professional decluttering services suggests there’s an increasing appreciation on the part of the general populace that when our living spaces are excessively cluttered or disordered, it can produce mental, emotional and physical malaise. Conversely, we’re also learning that keeping our houses in order can help us stay focused, centered and feeling more at peace.
“Subconsciously, disorder fuels feelings of frustration,” explains Audrey Thomas, a professional organizing consultant who has educated employees of Best Buy, 3M and the U.S. Government on the virtues of organization. “When you can walk into a room that’s well ordered and set up to serve the purpose for which it was intended,” she notes, “it automatically lowers stress. When you can control your environment, it frees you up emotionally.”
Unfortunately, facing clutter on a home-sized scale can be intimidating. Moving objects from one area tends to make another area worse. And at core, decluttering is not about just moving junk around or putting it in new containers. Real decluttering calls for permanently ridding yourself of unnecessary items and bothersome junk. But when every area is a disaster area, this can be exceptionally difficult: Whole-house clutter feels so overwhelming, it prevents many people from ever getting started.
One way to begin a methodical makeover of your personal space is to become familiar with the basic philosophy of feng shui, an ancient Chinese art that over the past several years has become in vogue in interior design circles. Based on the principle that everything is made of energy, and that good energy (or chi) can bring balance and vitality to every element of your life, feng shui is all about how the outer existence mirrors the inner one.
“Simply put, feng shui teaches us that every area of our life, and every aspect of our body’s well-being, is reflected by one or more areas in our home,” explains Andrea Gerasimo, a feng shui consultant based near Minneapolis, Minn. “Feng shui explains how the placement of a wall or a piece of furniture can either block or enhance the energy in a certain area of the home – say, an area related to career or health or partnership. But it also shows us how clutter creates similar challenges and blockages throughout the home.”
Clutter is not just an unsightly nuisance, notes Gerasimo, it’s an obstacle to healthy living. “Clutter clogs and complicates and depresses everything,” she says, “which is why I look at clutter as home-based constipation.”
According to Gerasimo, unstopping clutter blockages in even a small area of a home can create new movement that improves flow throughout it. “I often recommend to clients facing huge clutter issues that they begin with a single surface or contained area,” she says. “They almost always find that making that one space clutter-free inspires them to start working on subsequent areas.”
Where to begin? While Gerasimo bases her advice for clients on customized feng shui evaluations, she notes that there are three specific areas – the entryway, dining room and bedside table – that are important for almost everyone.
Even if these aren’t your home’s biggest or most-used disaster areas, she notes, you may find that decluttering them proves surprisingly rewarding. Read on for some simple suggestions on how to go about it.
1. The Entryway
In feng shui terms, this is the mouth of the home, where the energy (or the breath) comes inside. It’s also the first part of your home guests see when they visit, so you want to make sure it’s both welcoming and uplifting.
If there’s ample closet or storage space near the entryway that provides a good hiding place for all the family’s coats, hats and boots, that’s ideal. But most people will have to come up with some alternatives, says professional organizer Audrey Thomas. That may mean weeding out less frequently used items or relocating them to a different storage area, buying boot mats and tiered shoe racks, pounding in a few hooks or setting up a coat rack and baskets for hats, dog leashes, etc.
What’s crucial to creating good feng shui, says Gerasimo, is that everything that requires a home has one, and items that don’t belong aren’t just sitting there for want of attention or better options. If you have a closet, only store clothing appropriate for the season. If junk mail piles up, place a trash can and mail-sorting station within reach of the front door.
Whatever strategy you employ, make sure there’s room for free and easy entry to your home, and some mobility around the front door, whether it is open or shut. Be particularly careful not to hang or pile things behind the front door, advises Gerasimo. “Having to fight your way in your own front door is going to set up a feeling of constant struggle,” she cautions. “That could negatively influence not only the energetic experience of residing in your home, but your whole experience of life.”
Once you’ve got the entryway clutter under control, consider hanging some art or a beautiful object that says something about you and your home. To find the ideal place on the wall, walk through your front door and notice where your eye lands first. Another way to make the entryway say “welcome” is to infuse the space with calming and relaxing aromas. A little incense or potpourri can do the trick, but be careful to avoid products made up of toxic chemicals or overwhelming fragrances. A few alternatives include flowering plants, scented candles and essential oil diffusers that can be plugged into a nearby outlet.
(See “Order Out of Chaos: The Entryway” for simple, thoughtful, low-cost strategies for transforming the first place you see when you walk in the door.)
2. The Dining Room Table
For most people, this is a multipurpose space. It’s where Mom and Dad tackle paperwork, the kids do their homework or art projects, and where the whole family might gather for board games. It’s no wonder, then, that when it comes time to use the dining room table for its intended purpose, a lot of families don’t. Instead, they end up eating in the kitchen or in front of the TV.
The first step is to recognize how important the dinner hour can be to family unity. Traditionally, this is the time when families gather to share the day’s events, and having a peaceful place for this activity is vital to the ritual. If you have limited space in your home and have to use the table for various tasks, Thomas recommends freeing up some nearby cabinet space or buying a separate storage container to slide under the table, so you can quickly and easily get those tax forms and math assignments cleared off in time for dinner. If you can move some of those odd jobs into another room or onto another surface, though, it’s best to make the table an exclusive place for dining and communal activities – such as family meetings, pumpkin carving or a few hands of cards after dinner.
One way to discourage clutter accumulation, and to encourage routine cleanups, is to dress up the table in some “formalwear”: a vase of flowers, a handcrafted bowl, a beautiful cloth or runner. “Creating beauty to encourage care is a basic principle of feng shui,” says Gerasimo, who also suggests wiping down the table after every task or meal, and occasionally polishing the surface. “Simply the act of beautifying the surface and honoring the furniture will create an aura of respect, which makes you less likely to put junk on it.”
3. The Bedside Table
The bedroom should be considered a sanctuary. It is the last place you see before going to sleep and the first thing you see upon waking, which is why Gerasimo believes the bedside table is one of the most crucial places for decluttering. “If we wake and have an immediate sense of beauty and ease, we are more likely to naturally create that in the rest of our lives,” she explains. “Having a bedroom that’s an island of clarity can also make it easier to weather storms in areas of the home that are a bit more cluttered or chaotic.”
The first step is to ensure you have well-designed bedside tables, says Gerasimo. It’s important to have a stand or table on each side of the bed, she explains – “if you’re coupled, to reflect the equality of you and your partner, and if you’re single, to reflect that you are open to finding a mate.” Bedside tables should be stable and spacious enough to accommodate a lamp and just a few choice items. They should reach as high up as the bed (if not a little higher), and have at least one enclosed drawer, since shelves are hard to keep dust-free and more likely to contribute to visual clutter.
Next, think about what you need in order to enjoy bedtime and to sleep well through the night. For some people, that’s just a glass of water and a book. For others it’s a small arsenal of foot and hand lotions, medications, a book light, tissues and so on. It’s fine to keep what you need on hand, but eliminate giant “to read” piles, and use small covered boxes to corral medications or other unattractive items, advises Gerasimo. You might also want to add a pen and a dream journal to your list, since one way to declutter the mind is to write down whatever comes up in the night.
If you require a bedside alarm, Gerasimo suggests avoiding electrical timekeepers that buzz or give off glare. Many also have an electrical pulse, she says, which can disrupt sleep. For the same reason, she notes, you might wish to keep the phone out of your bedroom, or at least away from the bed.
Don’t place anything on the bedside table that can cause anxiety or stress, either consciously or subconsciously, such as the just-opened phone bill or your boss’s latest memo. “You don’t want to go to bed or wake up immediately overwhelmed by the day’s demands,” notes Gerasimo.
Thomas recommends having a bedside lamp that throws off just enough light to read by, and that also has a dimmer, so you can simulate a relaxing candlelight glow. Finally, both experts advise placing something of sentimental value on the bedside table to help soothe your subconscious, like a small stone you found on your last trip to the beach. Ideally, your bedside tables will send a relaxing and reassuring visual message that encourages you to retire and rise with ease.
Whatever strategies you come up with (and no matter what space you’re tackling), remember that feng shui is not just about keeping an area tidy or pretty, it’s about understanding why something has been placed in a particular place, how to balance the practical with the aesthetic, and what those choices say about what we value and desire.
“When it comes right down to it,” says Gerasimo, “your clear, conscious intention is really the most important thing.”