You would go through those boxes of books and papers in your basement, those overflowing buckets of toys your kids no longer play with, those closets bursting with mismatched mittens and old lacrosse sticks. You really would. Except that your phone is ringing just now.
OK, finished with that call. But now your cell phone is ringing. Your BlackBerry is chirping. The baby needs changing. What's for dinner? Where's the remote? When was that field-trip permission slip due? You've got mail!
We are busier and more distracted than ever. And, among other things, it's making a mess.
In this season of spring-cleaning and renewal, many of us are having a hard time keeping our real and virtual possessions in their place. Our baskets, whether they hold laundry or e-mail, overfloweth.
"I think that people who used to be organized are not anymore," said Julie Morgenstern, an organizing expert who has written books such as Making Work Work and Organizing from the Inside Out. "It's gotten harder and harder and harder."
When Roland Rotz, a clinical psychologist in Santa Barbara, Calif., started a support group for people who struggle with clutter about a year ago, he expected 15 to 20 to show up. The room was packed with more than 70 people, and they've kept coming -- all kinds of people, from attorneys trying to control paperwork to grandparents overwhelmed by the clutter that comes with raising their grandchildren.
"Part of what I would call the problem is we don't have simple and effective management strategies," Rotz said. "We get space and we're quick to fill it in."
Technology, which was supposed to bring us a streamlined, paperless society, is partly to blame, say psychologists and professional organizers. Instead, the information overload it has produced is making our clutter problem worse.
"Material is printed faster than we can read," said Harold Steinitz, a psychologist and co-director of the Anxiety and Stress Disorders Institute of Maryland, who has seen more people lately who struggle with clutter. "Technology can be produced faster than we can use it up. We can't process and sort as fast as things are being manufactured and delivered."
Many adults who now run households have grown up in technological transition. First, they typed forms. Then they learned word-processing. Then they went online, then wireless.
But they still tend to trust what they can touch. So they print out -- and make piles of paper. As more people work after-hours on home computers, or work from home, their business paperwork spills into their living space.
We have more stuff
Our consumer culture has given us more stuff to keep track of. Advances in gadgetry means often-expensive gear can be out of date long before it's physically worn out, making many people reluctant to part with the old even when they buy the new.
"Years ago when you had a family, there would be two bicycles in the house for the family," said Jerrold Pollak, a psychologist in Portsmouth, N.H. "Now there might be two kids and five bicycles. Where do you put them?"
The professional organizing business has blossomed as a result. The Maryland Association of Professional Organizers, a six-member group when it started in 2001, now has 41 members. Shows like HGTV's Mission: Organization, which recently produced an organizing book by the same name, and TLC's Clean Sweep demonstrate how cluttered homes from large to small have become.
Organizing books and containers can help, but not always. Some clutterers accumulate them and add them to the piles.
Marla Cilley, who runs an online housekeeping mentoring list as "The FlyLady," calls it CHAOS -- Can't Have Anyone Over Syndrome. For many, she said, it takes more than buying containers and shelves. It takes a mental makeover.
"We're all spending way too much time trying to organize clutter," Cilley said. "We need to get rid of it. I'm against putting our clutter in pretty little silk boxes and Rubbermaid tubs."
Many of us are dealing not only with our own possessions, but those of others. Baby Boomers are losing their parents, many of whom grew up during the Depression and had trouble throwing anything away.
"A lot of us didn't have models for organization," says Kathy Trezise, a professional organizer based in Cockeysville. "We never learned that decision-making process."
Ro Curran, a Cockeysville freelance writer and volunteer, called Trezise about four years ago, when she found herself dealing suddenly with the contents of two large homes owned by relatives. "They didn't part with very much," said Curran, 55. "We had enough in the basement to furnish three households."
Trezise advises clients who must empty a house with many family possessions not to take anything into their own homes right away. "Rent a storage unit," she says. "Go through them after your own grieving period, when you have more time."
People are busy
Part of the problem is that, even when we do want to find a new home for things, we resist taking the trouble to get them there. We don't want to throw away; we want to recycle, says Rotz. EBay and other Internet selling or trading sites have been a boon, but they take time to monitor.
And even once they've gotten organized, many busy people have a hard time keeping to a system when everything else seems more pressing.
Gregg Gregory of Kensington hired Baltimore professional organizer Tara Donohue to put his home office in order. But he needs her to come back every few months; he travels so much as a leadership trainer that his piles of paperwork can easily get out of control. "My wife and I get an average of a pound of mail a day," said Gregory, 47. "That is our biggest clutter in our lives."
Organizer Morgenstern said some of her clients are so busy that they make appointments with her to get organized -- only to reschedule because a big work project or family activity inevitably conflicts. "There's always something else to do," she said.
Some people turn to cluttering support groups. Linnea Stouffer, a hairdresser who lives in Reisterstown, has gotten help with her clutter from an online support group patterned after Messies Anonymous.
She schedules regular pickups from charitable organizations that prompt her to donate items she doesn't use. But Stouffer, 46, still finds controlling her family's paper and possessions a battle. "You're always playing catch-up; always working on it," she said.
Resistant to change
At the extreme end of the cluttering spectrum are compulsive hoarders, the less than 1 percent of the population who have trouble parting with anything -- items the rest of us would consider useless, like outdated coupons and hamburger wrappers. It can take outside intervention, such as an eviction, to force them to get rid of things.
Researchers have concluded that hoarders suffer from a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. A recent University of Iowa study linked the compulsion to certain types of brain damage from stroke, surgery or encephalitis.
Pollak, the New Hampshire psychologist, said clutterers often want help with the stuff overwhelming their homes, and feel better after a cleanup. Hoarders, he says, are far more resistant to change.
But even people with a heightened awareness of the emotional drag of clutter can have a hard time breaking completely free of it.
One day three years ago, psychologist Steinitz went through a wall of journals he had been keeping. Saving only the articles that looked interesting, he reduced the volume of paper to a one-foot pile.
"You know what?" he said recently. "I haven't read those, either."
Battle the clutter
Here are a few tips for fighting clutter in a world of overload and distraction:
Control what comes in to your home. Before you buy it, know exactly where you'll keep it -- and what you'll get rid of in exchange.
Stick to one time-management method -- high-tech or low -- to keep track of your schedule, says organizer Julie Morgenstern.
Use organizer Kathy Trezise's strategy of viewing inherited possessions as "friends," "acquaintances," or "strangers." Take home only the friends you'd want around your house.
Schedule a regular pickup with a charitable organization. It will prompt you to regularly donate things you no longer use.
Weed as you go. Open mail daily, over the trash can. Delete unnecessary e-mail right away, and send what you need to keep to electronic folders.
Get help, support
Clutterers Anonymous, a 12-step support group for people who struggle with clutter, has started a meeting in Baltimore from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays in Room 10 of St. John's of Hamilton United Methodist Church, Harford Road and Gibbons Avenue. Information: firstname.lastname@example.org.