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Stuffocation: Why we're all drowning in ‘stuff’ and how decluttering calms the mind

In a year where people have spent more time at home than ever before, it's crucial to

make your living environment a clutter-free one

By Sarah Rodrigues29 December 2020 • 2:34pm


Living with less 'stuff' can make you happier and calmer

Even for happy homebodies, this year has been somewhat stifling. Restrictions on

everything from when and where we can shop, to whom we can embrace, to where

we can go on holiday have cast a shadow over activities and freedoms we previously

took for granted. Rarely before have we spent so much time within our own four


For those working from home and living at work, the sense of claustrophobia has

often been overwhelming, with many having mere steps to cover between bed, sofa,

desk and kitchen table – these latter two often one and the same thing.

Research shows that around one in four people impulse-bought a dog, both for the

company and a legitimate reason to get outside each day, while other insights show

that comfort spending became as ubiquitous as comfort eating or drinking.

In his 2013 book, Stuffocation: Living More with Less, trend forecaster James

Wallman wrote about how having lots of “stuff” was, far from making us happier,

exacerbating feelings of overwhelm and stress. His insights were supported by a

range of experts, including psychologists, anthropologists and economists, and his

overarching message was that we could find more contentment in experiences than

in things. As it says on his website: “We have to focus less on possessions… Rather

than a new watch or another pair of shoes, we should invest in shared experiences

like holidays and time with friends.”

Ay, there’s the rub, as Hamlet would say. Or not, given that most theatres are

currently dark. Travel and time with friends are severely curtailed and many of the

experiential gifts that may commonly have been given over Christmas – spa

treatments, theatre tokens and meals out – are shrouded in uncertainty: when might

they be able to be redeemed?

Indeed, even in spite of the giving (or not) of vouchers, the festive season is notorious

for the accumulation of clutter, a feeling that’s very likely heightened by the looming,

albeit lovely, presence of a tree, a festoonage of decorations, and the anxious wait for

recycling collection day so that the rest of the cardboard cartons currently stacked in

the hallway can be crammed into the green bin.

Neither is it hard to imagine that many people, separated from one another for much

of the year and now again by Christmas bubbles, will throw money at the issue,

lavishing their loved ones with unnecessary purchases in an effort to make up for

having a weird and somewhat sad festive season.

As Olivia Heyworth, of property management and home organisation

company Heyworth Gordon, points out, this year this influx of objects is

not limited to the festive season. “All clutter is the physical manifestation

of emotional clutter,” she says, “and, given the year that we’ve had, the

tendency to over-consume, which happens mostly when we feel stressed,

afraid or unsafe, has been greater than ever. We over-purchase to fill a


She mentions that in having to make our homes take on multiple roles –

school room, office, fitness studio – we may well have lost sight of its

true purpose, which is “a place of peace, love, creativity and relaxation.”

Additionally, that feeling of overwhelm is not only associated with objects in our

space – for some, it’s simply the space itself. “I remember being hyper-aware of what

needed doing when we bought our current home five years ago,” says Becky Oakden,

49. “I couldn’t walk up the stairs without seeing that bald patch on the carpet, or into

the bathroom without seeing the tile that was cracked – but over time, they just

became ‘part of the furniture,’ as they say. It was only after the first lockdown was

imposed that my sensors seemed to switch back on and all I could see was this

increasingly shabby home – marks on the walls, a wobbly toilet seat, crammed and

unbeautiful shelves – yet I felt too stressed and lethargic to even make a dent in any

of it.”

She was not alone. According to hypnotherapist and life coach Malminder Gill: “A lot

of my patients were suffering from what I call Lockdown Lethargy.” The trick, she

says, is to celebrate your achievements, however small they may be (even if it’s just

getting out of bed when you don’t want to) rather than focusing on what you’re not

doing. “Let go of ‘I should’,” she says. “The word ‘should’ highlights the areas in

which we think we’re failing and can be incredibly discouraging, coating our own

actions in blame and negativity.”

Since a number of studies have linked social media usage with decreased motivation,

we’d be well advised to spend less time online looking at the achievements (baking,

fitness goals, crafting an entire nativity from avocado stones) and seemingly perfect

homes of others. “That’s not to say that you can’t be inspired by what you

see on social media,” says Heyworth, “but endless scrolling is a drain on

time and energy.”

“Sometimes, the only way to lift yourself out of a funk is to push through it,” says

Gill. Heyworth agrees. “Just doing one job that has been playing on your

mind will encourage you to do others,” she says, “but set yourself limits

before you start – for instance, one hour, or one set of shelves – to

cultivate a feeling of success and prevent decision fatigue. At this time of

year, it’s important that we try to bring levity into the home, so keep it

fun with festive tunes.”

Making the most of the limited daylight hours we have is also important,

so get out for a walk and allow as much natural light into the home as

possible. Above all, she says: “Leave expectations out in the cold, and

invite gratitude in. Reflect on how your home has kept you safe during

this crazy year – and say thank you.”

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