Control the Chaos

Getting a handle on clutter is the key to living better — and losing more.
Messy room
The connection between clutter and weight didn’t occur to me overnight. A few years ago I became the organizational expert on TLC’s Clean Sweep. The premise was simple: We had two days to help a family dig out from under their overwhelming clutter. As I helped families begin to organize their homes, I discovered an unexpected side effect. The link that I had long suspected but only dimly glimpsed became obvious through their experiences.

I was inundated with real examples of the impact that clutter has on all areas of one’s life — especially weight.

They’re not very different — clutter and fat. I see it. I want it. I’ll have it. In our society, consumption is king.

We spend too much, we buy too much, and we eat too much. In the same way we surround ourselves with so much clutter, we overwhelm our bodies with caloric clutter. Almost all of us are carrying extra pounds that we just can’t seem to shake.

The stuff in our homes becomes too much to deal with, but we keep shopping. Similarly, the increasing weight of our bodies becomes more than we are able to handle, but we keep indulging.

So how do you stop the cycle? You need to recognize that your choices have consequences. Every time you pull out your credit card to buy another pair of shoes, you’re making a choice to add to your clutter. Every time you take a bite, you are choosing to bring that piece of food into your body and adding to your weight problem.

Keep this in mind: Every roll of fat on your body came from something you chose to put into your mouth. And every pound that slips away is the result of a decision you made. Before you take control, you need to understand emotional clutter and physical clutter (see the Decode Your Clutter box below). Most people have at least some of both, and it’s no easy task to get a handle on either. We have broken the task into two phases to show how to clear that clutter from your life. It sounds easy, but it takes forethought and commitment. Here’s how to get started:

Phase 1: Declutter your mind
If you acknowledge your emotional clutter (the unhealthy habits that lead you to overeat) and find ways to deal with it, the weight will fall away. But as soon as you let your emotions — be they depression, anger, or joy — make your eating decisions for you, the weight will creep on. Do some personal spring cleaning to break the habits that steer you in the wrong direction. Use this checklist to get started. Post it on your fridge or carry a copy in your purse.

1. Be realistic: The extra weight didn’t appear overnight and it won’t disappear overnight.

2. Imagine the life and body you want. Hold that idea in your mind; conjure it when you’re swayed by unhealthy foods.

3. Organize where, how, and what you eat. Planning is the first step toward achieving your ideal body. Schedule regular supermarket trips, plan meals, space out social events so you aren't hit with three splurge occassions in one week.

4. Create a body goal. Do you want to fit into your favorite pair of jeans, or be able to run a mile? Whatever your goal, if a food doesn’t help in your efforts, don’t eat it.

5. Live in the present, not the past or the future. If you’re eating for emotional reasons, home in on why. Anger? Despair? Fear?

6. Make mindful eating a way of life. Celebrate every meal; it will remind you of the great things a meal provides, beyond food.

Phase 2: Declutter your kitchen
An organized kitchen leads to less eating out, which in turn means better nutrition, less money spent on food, and more family together time. But a clutter-free kitchen goes far beyond cleaning cabinets. It has to do with how you shop and the decisions you make. Like the boxes of stuff filling your basement, clutter foods waste space. Take care that you’re not falling into these traps when stocking your kitchen:

1. The identity crisis trap: Do you keep certain foods in the hope that you’ll magically turn into a person you’re not? For example, you’ve got tins of cocoa powder, bags of semisweet chocolate chips, and bottles of vanilla extract in your pantry, but you never bake. Or a cupboard full of gourmet spices despite the fact that you’re a frozen-food junkie. I’m all for experimentation, but if you’re never going to canoe down the Rio Grande, there’s no point in storing that boat in your garage.

2. The hostess trap: You read somewhere that every good hostess has a few key items on hand for spontaneous entertaining. So you went out and bought a jar of olives, several boxes of crackers, and various other obscure pantry items. It felt good to know that if you ran into someone on the street, you could say, “Come on in for a glass of wine.” You were so organized and ready! Well, that was four years ago — and those party snacks are cluttering your cupboards. Ditch them.

3. The secret stash trap: Do you eat healthy meals but keep junk food in your pantry? “I don’t eat the potato chips — I just like knowing they’re there,” you might say. You rationalize that it makes you feel good to know that the pantry is stocked on the off-chance that you will suffer a major craving and need a salty snack. But those chips are deceiving you: They’re there to be eaten. And they’ll call your name the next time you’re disorganized and in search of an easy fix.

Decode Your Clutter
You have physical clutter if ...
Mail, clothes, and books pile up in your home. They can take on a life of their own, suffocating your healthy habits and weight-loss goals. Does this sound familiar?
• Your kitchen table is covered with mail, so you don’t eat there.

• The counters are too messy for meal prep.

• Your closet is full of clothes that don’t fit.
You have emotional clutter if ...
Your unhealthy eating habits are often tied to certain emotional triggers. Have you ever justified eating for these reasons?
• To reward yourself for an achievement, such as a promotion.

• To make yourself feel better after a tough day at work.

• For a sense of instant gratification.

*Excerpted from Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat? By Peter Walsh. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, A Division of Simon & Schuster Inc., New York

This article first appeared in the May/Jun 2008 issue of Weight Watchers Magazine.

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