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Clutter Vs. the Active Mess

What’s the difference between an active mess and clutter? The short answer is DUST. If it’s dusty, it’s probably clutter.


When I was young, my grandmother was an avid seamstress, often sewing multiple projects at a time. If you came to her house unannounced in the middle of her day, you would find her sewing patterns, notions, fabrics, etc., on the cutting table or at her machine. When it was time to start supper, she tidied up and put her “active mess” away in her sewing cupboard for another day.


My active messes are usually papers on my desk or folded laundry on my bed, but occasionally the stack of books I’m reading, earrings in a dish, or cosmetics on the bathroom counter have time to be auto-shuffled by the cat, accumulate in multiples, or take on the characteristics of an exploded Ulta bag.


Think of an active mess as a merely temporary situation caused by an incomplete project. Almost everyone experiences an active mess when they’re cooking. It could be a decorating project, a craft or sewing project, or maybe a gardening project waiting for the rain to stop. It can be any daily activity where things are in use but not yet put away.


Clutter is more easily classified as an accumulation of unused or disorganized items. Several days’ worth of unopened mail is clutter, so are the tools on the kitchen table from the day you spent painting miniatures for your next game night. Any time we let things that need to be sorted, discarded, or stored cover a surface or mix in with other unrelated things, we’ve accomplished “clutter” even if the dust hasn’t settled yet.


Knowing and appreciating the difference between an active mess and clutter helps me tolerate the messes that are temporary. Because we are so busy and we live with people, it’s easy for everyone’s active mess to morph into stress-inducing visual clutter.


Everyone I know is busy with life and doesn’t need the extra overload that comes from trying to impose order over someone else’s active mess. So, here are my tips for curbing active messes:


  • Limit the number of multi-use spaces for active messes. The worst areas tend to be kitchen counters and dining room tables. If it’s not related to that area of the home, find another place to start your active mess.

  • Limit the number of messes you have active at any one time. In other words, clear a workspace of your active mess if you won’t come back to it within 24 hours.

  • Have designated spaces for things that accumulate (paper, clean or dirty clothes, backpacks and totes, sports equipment, tools . . . you get the idea) and put things in those designated spaces as soon as you can.


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