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The modern obsession with decluttering: minimalism as a refuge in an ever-chaotic world

In a modern world of chaos, we are desperate to find peace and serenity. Minimalism and decluttering has been trending worldwide since the 1920s, and is penetrating the collective subconscious today, with book titled “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying” being a nationwide best-seller. This back-to-basics aesthetic choice has found many people strongly advocating for the process of decluttering as we toss the t-shirt we haven’t worn for five years over our left shoulder, and the neon coloured socks that are (rightly so) no longer fashionable to the right.

“Tidy space, tidy mind” – a common phrase often uttered to describe the process by which our personal space directly impacts the mind. As I rummage through my jewellery box, hand-picking almost every piece I bought before 2017, the process of flinging unwanted jewellery across my bedroom and into the bin like a basketball slam-dunk, finds me slowly feeling a sense of getting my life together. A subconscious trigger to indicate to myself that I have established a sense of order in my life. But why is this sense of order necessary in order to feel calm? Is it because we’ve lost our sense of control in an ever complex and fragmented world? Does decluttering help us regain power and control in our daily lives?

My unintentional Sunday routine of cleaning the bed sheets, hoovering the bedroom floor, emptying the bin and eliminating the odd item out of my life, would suggest just that. I have honestly become a sucker for this modern obsession with cleaning and decluttering my personal space (although the state of underneath my bed is something I’ll continue to put off for the next few weeks), but I can’t see it right now so it’s fine….

To help us make sense of the modern obsession to declutter, we’ll rewind ourselves back to agricultural life, which consisted of small communities of people inhabiting large natural space of leaves, trees and grass (oh, what a simple life they led)… However, with the rise of industrialisation in the late eighteenth century, the pace of life went from 0 – 100 in the blink of an eye. Technological innovation, the rise of scientific rationalism and an overall shift from an agricultural to industrial capitalist movement, eventually culminated in what we experience today - Calvin Klein billboards, an ever-growing entertainment industry and the obsession of forging identities through the consumption of brands.

Georg Simmel was one of the first writers to describe the impact of the rise of the ‘metropolis’ (a fancy word for the city) on the individual’s mental state. Reflecting on the transition between rural life and the life of the “city dweller”, he observed that the continuous shift of images and impressions has detrimental impacts on us at an individual level. The constant images impressed onto our minds about status and identity, going hand-in-hand with the detachment from spiritual forms of life (which previously gave people security and identity), means the individual has been forced to express autonomy and individuality. Rather than a simple relationship between the individual and spiritual realms which provided a sense of community, it is now the individual navigating life in a pursuit for economic freedom, identity and status.

So, with a rapid pace of life, comes rapid decisions and impulsive behaviour. Most of us have experienced that depressingly mind-numbing job that we did out of fear of having no cash in the piggy bank. And we’ve all had those drunken mistakes that leave us with Sunday “hanxiety” where you’re wondering what on earth you were telling your mate the night before. Pressures run high in modern life….it’s no wonder our minds are running at 100mph due to the need to shift from one context such as family life, to others such as work and leisure time. We have whatsapp messages blowing up our personal phone, ads selling us ideas of who we want to be, and emails coming through our inbox about that work deadline you have coming up next week. Modern life, and the amount of impressions we consume on a daily basis, is relentless.

So now that we’ve been sucked into the pressure cooker of 21st century life, we’re now told it’s time to declutter our space, in order declutter our minds. This modern obsession is considered to help us zone in on what is important and find our ‘peace’ again. It goes hand-in-hand with the increasingly popular trend of minimalism – white walls, plants, wooden textures (we all have that one instagrammer we follow who embraces the minimalist approach – and we love to watch it). So simple, it seems as if it’s trying to revert back to those agricultural times where only a small handful of leaves and trees occupied space.

Modern industrial life has also shrunk our time available to do things magnificently. We no longer have the time to rummage through our belongings, so we need them to be easily locatable as the clock ticks. Think about it: if you have less material objects in your home, you don’t have to frantically run around the house polishing all those extra ornaments. Your brain cells love clarity, and you need more time to get the everyday tasks done. So, the ability to cut down any cleaning and rummaging time is a god send in the fast-paced nature of life.

So, in a world of chaos, in walks in the modern obsession with decluttering…and with the obsession of decluttering, comes a whole new market opportunity for selling a very particular style which has become increasingly popular amongst us youngsters (and it’s insanely profitable too). The nudes, rummaged textures, wooden panels and a millennial obsession with plants….one for another post I think.


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