Clutter versus Chaos

A cluttered table

A cluttered table

I did a little web searching before starting this article, using the term “difference between clutter and chaos.” I found almost nothing except one site that equated chaos with hoarding. Sorry – chaos is not hoarding, even though hoarding produces chaos. Hoarding is an illness under the category of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and while it may be chaotic, you don’t have to have OCD to live in chaos.

Disorganization is a fundamental lack of structure. It’s often associated with perfectionism – “If I can’t do it right, I won’t do it at all.” This inevitably leads to clutter, because you don’t have good places to put things. But it’s possible to be organized and still live in clutter or chaos.

A clutterer doesn’t just have things sitting out because they have no place; the storage spaces that do exist are also cluttered, with things thrown into drawers or placed in cabinets haphazardly, making them tough to find. A clutterer also tends to get things out and then not put them back.

Personal organizers are invaluable for clutterers because they provide the needed structure. They gather like with like and store it all together, most often in labeled bins. They demonstrate the efficiency of keeping similar things together and make it easy to put things where they belong. It’s really quite amazing to see how personal organizers can transform a cluttered home into an organized one – as long as the new storage structure is used.

But chaos is something else again.

I’ve had personal organizers go through my house. They did a fantastic job. They taught me techniques and praised me for the things I had already organized well. We culled the useless items from my possessions and donated or pitched them. The process was relatively painless. They didn’t force me to give anything away – the decisions were all mine. If I couldn’t stand to give something up the first time, I was sometimes able to part with it a year later at a follow-up session when I hadn’t used it or worn it in all that time.

But the chaos always comes back. So what is chaos, as opposed to clutter?

My Definition of Chaos

A chaotic bathroom - nasty toilet, filthy floor, guilt reminders

A chaotic bathroom

First off, chaos includes clutter. It encompasses all the stuff that sits out making a mess, the mail that piles up on a table, the utensils not put away, the makeup sitting out on the vanity instead of tidied into drawers or medicine cabinet. But there’s more to it.

Chaos also includes tasks that aren’t getting done. Take the cats to the vet for checkups and shots (two or three years overdue). Make an eye doctor appointment (due in June). Change the battery in the garage door panel. Take the car for an oil change. Color hair and get a proper haircut. Clean the wound left from a mole biopsy every day. Clean the filthy TV screen in the office. Water the gardens (to hell with the grass) because it’s not raining often enough.

Open packages received a month ago (or more). Send a birthday card to your sister-in-law (oops, missed her birthday). Read the manual on your new used car so you can figure out how the radio works (oops – brought the manual in to read it and now can’t find it). Pay bills. Install Windows 10 on the laptop. Clean the damned toilet. Mop the nasty kitchen floor (oh wait, first have to get all the mess up off it).

Visually, chaos and clutter are quite similar. A kitchen table littered with magazines, used paper cups, groceries not put away, etc., is cluttered. A kitchen where groceries are also lying around on the floor being kicked out of the way as one moves around is chaotic.

Cluttered kitchen table

Cluttered kitchen table

See the rest - and now it's a chaotic kitchen

See the rest – and now it’s a chaotic kitchen

A living room where mail is piled high on a table is cluttered. A living room where there are stacks of mail on that table, on the piano bench, out in the kitchen, on a bookcase, and on the floor is chaotic.

These are my own personal opinions, but after living for a long time in the states of both clutter and chaos, I’ve gained a lot of insights about the differences:

  1. Clutter and chaos both have stuff sitting out when it should be put away.
  2. Both may have underlying storage structure problems, but if your storage IS organized, you’re not keeping up with putting items back where they belong.
  3. Both can become overwhelming, but chaos is often far worse.
  4. Both can be related to depression and anxiety.
  5. Clutter stops with possessions. Your home, your garage, your car, your storage spaces may all be filled with items you don’t know where to put, or have put away so you may never find them again, but along with items 2, 3 and 4 above, that’s the extent of having a cluttered lifestyle.
  6. Both can cause major frustration and intense guilt.
  7. In both cluttered and chaotic situations, there may be decent underlying organization, but you’re not keeping up with the task of putting things where they belong.
  8. Chaos is more virulent and more likely to be paralyzing, especially depending on the amount of depression and anxiety you’re experiencing.
  9. Chaos is more likely to form a feedback loop with that depression and/or anxiety.
  10. Chaos includes all the emotional pressure of tasks left undone that aren’t related to physical clutter.

As I mentioned, the assistance of personal organizers – or at least a willing, well-organized friend – can make a big difference. Knowing where things go is crucial. But slipping back into the old bad habits is common in both states. Four- to six-month follow-up assistance is usually essential.

Clutter approaching chaos - unpacking is a task left undone

Clutter approaching chaos

Unfortunately, just organizing storage and putting things away isn’t going to make a big dent in the other part of chaos – tasks. Oh, you will be able to pay the bills and return overdue library books and borrowed items now that you’ve found them; but are you really more likely to take the cats to the vet now that you’re not agonizing over the mess in your house? Chaos isn’t just a matter of controlling clutter, it’s also state of mind.

Some concrete examples:

  1. A closet filled with clothing you haven’t worn in 5 years, where things have fallen to the floor and just stayed there, where shoes are jumbled in a pile, etc., is cluttered and disorganized. It’s relatively easy to declutter – go through the clothes, the shoes, the scarves, determine what to give away and what to throw away, and restore the rest neatly. If you can’t make up your mind about an item, pack it elsewhere in a labeled container and see whether you are able to fit into it or part with it a year later.

A closet with mixed contents – clothing, sheets, pictures in frames, unfinished projects, miscellaneous boxes, etc. – is both cluttered and chaotic. I looked for a trio of rings give to me by my late boyfriend for a full seven years before I happened to notice a box in such a closet and wonder what it was. Lo and behold, it was a jewelry box, and in it were those rings.

  1. If your desk is covered with unsorted papers, empty soda cans or bottles, things that belong in other rooms entirely, stuff that should be put away in drawers, etc. – that’s clutter.

If there are also papers on the floor you’ve been rolling over with your chair, there are bowls or plates of uneaten food, the floor or carpet is filthy, and you have 10 different to-do lists stored on your computer or on scraps of paper/sticky notes – that’s chaos.

  1. If almost everything on your vanity has a place but you haven’t bothered to put any of it away, that’s clutter.

If you’ve had a new makeup mirror still in its box 18 months that needs to be put up, the toilet is embarrassing, there are empty toilet paper rolls scattered on the floor, you cleaned out your hairbrush and left the hair on the vanity, the floor is disgusting, and you’re not using that medicated mouthwash your dentist prescribed – that’s chaos.

Above all, if the clutter in your life is so overwhelming that it’s preventing you from doing necessary or essential tasks, is sinking you into depression, is paralyzing you with anxiety – it has become chaos.

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