Getting to the Root of the Clutter Problem

What if I told you that the clutter problem in your workspace has nothing to do with storage space?

If your workspace is normally too cluttered to work effectively in, or if you regularly have to move piles of stuff before you can start work on a project, then you don’t need a bigger shop, or more storage space, or a more clever organizational scheme.

You need a different mindset.

I just finished reading a book called Making Space, Clutter Free by Tracy McCubbin (Sourcebooks, 2019). It’s one of many de-cluttering books published over the last few years. While it’s written primarily to women living in upscale neighborhoods, McCubbin’s book has helped me re-think the clutter-problem in my own workspace.

But first, let’s define “clutter.” McCubbin is not selling you some minimalist image of a living space that looks like a hotel room. A workspace can have tools and lumber covering every wall and still not be cluttered. Clutter is the stuff that gets in the way of normal life functioning because it’s not in its proper place—whether that place is a toolbox, a kitchen cabinet, or the trash can. If you have ten boxes of hardwood off-cuts, and you have them all on shelves where you’re not constantly tripping over them, and you don’t need that storage space for anything else, then, well… that’s a lot of off-cuts, but it’s not necessarily clutter. But if you can’t put away your drill bits because you’ve got paint cans stacked in front of the tool chest, which is full of scraps of sandpaper, because you can’t get to the sandpaper drawer anymore… that’s clutter.

To give some personal examples: The partially-roughed-out spoon blanks behind my workbench—that’s clutter. But the stack of sharpening stones on my bench is not clutter—they belong there, because that’s where I use them, and I use them all the time. Clutter is anything that is in the way because it’s not where it belongs, often because something else is occupying the space it should go in.

The genius of McCubbin’s book, though, is that clutter is not the main problem, and storage systems are not the main solution. Clutter is actually a symptom of a deeper problem. You have to take an honest look at your clutter and find out what it’s telling you. It’s not just telling you “I need more storage space.” It’s telling you something about yourself—about some mental habits you have that are preventing you from having a workspace in which you can actually work. McCubbin calls these mental habits “clutter blocks.”

One of the big take-aways from the book is that we choose clutter—not all at once, but one little decision at a time. When I find my workspace too cluttered to work in, it can feel discouraging to realize that, at some level, I chose this. The rusty axe head I thought I would clean up and re-handle, the big oak burl I cut off a fallen tree to make into a bowl (even though I don’t have a lathe), the extra bulbs for a shop light I no longer own—those things are sitting in my workspace because I decided to put them there.

But realizing that can also be empowering. The clutter didn’t just “happen,” so that means it doesn’t have to happen. It’s not actually out of my control. But just as my clutter happens one little, semi-conscious decision at a time, so my path to maintaining a reasonably clear workspace will have to be one little, conscious decision at a time. It’s going to require me to change some habits in my thinking.

This is one of my workspaces, which is supposed to be a workstation for my grinding and buffing equipment. I can’t even stand in front of the grinder right now.

Full disclosure: you may notice that the vast majority of pictures on this blog are close-ups. That’s because my workspace has a lot of visual clutter. Some of the clutter is strictly visual—my sharpening stones stay on my bench at all times because that’s where I use them, and I use them there all the time. But reading Making Space, Clutter Free has helped me see that a lot of the things in my workspace aren’t there because I need them there, but because I am hanging onto stuff that is obstructing my work, not enabling it.

One of McCubbin’s helpful insights is that it’s not necessarily bad to have a lot of things, so long as (a) they are there for a good reason, and (b) they have a place to live when not in use. Reading this book while on vacation, I was able to step back mentally and visualize all the stuff that is currently cluttering up my workspace. Now that I’m home, I’m determined to make some changes in how I think about acquiring and storing my stuff.  

McCubbin is a professional organizer, and in her book she lists seven different “clutter-blocks” that she routinely encounters in her clients. (Want the full list? Go get the book. I read the e-book via my local library’s Hoopla app.) In thinking about how the seven clutter-blocks relate to our workshops and work-spaces, I’ve reduced them down to four main clutter-creating habits of thought that generate the piles of stuff that crowd us (me included) out of our own workspaces:

1. The Stuff for Someday

2. The Stuff I’m Convinced Is Valuable

3. The Stuff I’m Avoiding

4. The Stuff of My Past

In the next few posts, I’ll go through each of the above clutter-creating habits of mind, give some examples from my own experience, and tell how I’m dealing with each one.

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6 Responses to Getting to the Root of the Clutter Problem

  1. Jim Dillon says:

    You have my attention! I moved into a new, larger rented shop last year so I could move 15 years’ worth of hoarded lumber and equipment out of storage units, sort it, and disperse most of it. But guess what? I’m knee-deep in clutter. Lots of stuff for someday, lots of stuff I’m convinced is valuable, with some stuff from my past (which used to be stuff for someday!) – – – reading this helped me re-member what’s going on in my new shop.

  2. Joe says:

    Thank you for this post. I have become quite brutal about donating things to reduce clutter (or more aptly keep it at bay). Even so, it is one of those things that requires constant vigilance inside both the shop and home. Rather recently, I got rid of over 100 books that I might someday want to read. Some of those books I purchased in the early 1990s.

    Looking forward to your future blogs on this topic.

  3. Antonio says:

    Well…. I may have something to de-cluttering…. in my brain and then my bench too!

  4. Dave Owsley says:

    Nice post. Look forward to your coming posts on the subject.

  5. Dave Payton says:

    The fault is not in our stuff, but in ourselves?

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