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Container Theory

Everytime I look in a home decorating magazine, I am amazed at how beautiful the homes are.  It’s hard not to be envious of the beautiful spaces! Perfect lines, gorgeous colors, not one flaw in sight – and in the past few years I’ve noticed that the homes have also transformed from sterile showroom spaces to personal spaces – a person’s books, collections, and pictures have made their way to the cover of “Better Homes & Gardens” within the neatly designed rooms.

It took someone else pointing it out for me to realize the truth – a big reason that these homes are so beautiful  is because they are clean and uncluttered.  Kids toys are neatly put away or not even in the room and books are lined on the bookshelf instead of just being thrown up there.   Sure, the paint job is nice, and the furniture looks incredibly comfortable, but the fact that you can see the floor is a major issue, too.

This was  an especially significant revelation for me because we live in a society of clutter.  We mistake the acquisition of things to be a step on the path toward the “American Dream.” More clothes, more toys, more books, more games.  But those things soon leave us with drawers so full of clothing they wrinkle and garages so full of junk we can’t put our cars in there – I’m guilty of the cluttered garage!   We have to buy more organizational bins, shelves, and accessories to attempt to make sense of it all.  Some Americans rent storage units to store all this stuff – or even buy a bigger house!

This is crazy.  Not only do we not need all this stuff, but we couldn’t find it if we did need it!

So my challenge to you, dear readers, is that if you are tired of trying to find new places to put things – tired of your home looking more like the “before” photos on HGTV’s “Mission: Organization” – to try living by Anne Heerdt’s “Container Theory.”  The basic idea is that material things have limits – money only goes so far, objects can only take up so much spaces, food can only give so much energy, and your “container” – or home – has it’s limits, too.

It’s time to get rid of the excess stuff.  You will find that your home will feel more peaceful, you will be able to find what you need quickly, and you won’t miss all that extra clutter!

This can be really overwhelming, but Heerdt suggests something in her article that I do when I’m feeling overwhelmed by a project – I break it down into smaller, manageable parts.  When the house looks like a tornado has made it’s way through the living area, I focus on cleaning one area at a time.  If I don’t, it feels so overwhelming that I continue to put it off until the situation becomes desperate.

In the same way, even if all you do today is go through one drawer or one box, you should be pleased with your accomplishment.  Organization is much more taxing on the mind than cleaning!

I do want to make a distinction here:  many people see organizing as simply moving the things they have around so they look neater.  That’s not what we’re talking about here – our organization has more to do with streamlining and simplifying life and getting rid of the excess stuff that drags us down mentally and physically.


1.  Choose an area to organize – a cupboard in your kitchen, or a drawer in your bedroom, for instance.  I would recommend you do an easy area first!

2. If possible, remove everything from the cupboard or drawer.  Wipe it down with a damp cloth (You might as well multi-task and clean while it’s empty!)

3. Neatly put back anything that you use on a regular basis.

4. Anything that’s left outside the cupboard needs to be sorted – get rid of anything you don’t need or that is a duplicate of something you already have.  If you use it enough to justify keeping it, then do keep it, but try not to justify keeping things just because you can’t bear to get rid of it.  Place it neatly back in the drawer or cupboard.   If you can think of something else that would substitute for a rarely used item, then get rid of it.  The idea is that you are streamlining your life.  You are getting rid of the unnecessary stuff!

If you are really struggling with whether or not to keep something, put it in a box and stick it in an inconvenient closet or basement for a few months.  After that few months, anything that’s still in the box needs to be donated!

And if it doesn’t fit?  Don’t keep it!  Make do! You may not want to go to such extremes, but Heerdt mentions how they didn’t have room in her tiny kitchen for a coffee maker – so they just used the stove.  The quickly realized that the simplicity of warming coffee on the stove slowed their busy day and was a pleasurable way to go about the morning.

Not only that, but having a clean, organized house saves money – you can find what you need when you need it.  And when your house is organized and everything has a place, you are more likely to think about where you are going to put  new  items.  When your house is cluttered, it’s easy to just add new things to the piles.  So if your house is neat, it may actually stop you from buying things you really don’t need!

I’m going to start with my dresser drawers.  How about you?


6 Responses

  1. I recently moved. Nothing like packing up all of my stuff to make me want to pare down. As I am unpacking, I either have to find a place for the item, or put it in another box to be donated.

    My goal is to get rid of at least half of my things by the time that I move again, in August. Clothing I keep becuase I am changing sizes so fast, books hold sentamental value for me, but everything else I am really examining to see if i can go without it.

  2. We moved back in July and I know exactly how you feel! It’s crazy, though, how much stuff can pile up in a few short months. Let me know how you do – your system sounds like a really good one!

  3. I had to do this a year and a half ago when I moved into a very small apartment with no kitchen counters, 2 small kitchen cupboards and exactly one closet. I did some serious downsizing and couldn’t be happier. My place is clutter free and I know exactly where everything is.

  4. I have been doing this on a regular basis. Joe is finally willing to start doing it also. I will post pictures on our blog soon to show all that we are doing.

  5. […] we’ll sell all these things that have really just been cluttering up our lives (remember the Container Theory?  The office is the exact opposite of what this theory proposes, but selling the stuff will help a […]

  6. […] continued to try to declutter my house, using the Container Theory.  Several of my friends online have joined me, and it’s been fun to hear about the things […]

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