brooks palmer and his book clutter busting your life

Book review: Clutter Busting Your Life

By the time Brooks Palmer’s first book fell in my lap, I didn’t need anyone to tell me that my problem with clutter wasn’t the stuff itself. I knew full well that the crap I couldn’t seem to keep myself from accumulating was connected to circuitry gone awry—that I was collecting things to fill emotional holes or wall off feelings or otherwise protect myself from perceived danger.

But I did need someone to say it to me differently, in a way that I could finally begin to hear it. Simply, as it turns out, and with gentleness and compassion. Over and over. And over.

This is how Brooks (once a mysterious angel, now a first-name, real-life friend) works, both on the page and in person. It seems almost too simple at first—that by sitting down and bringing your attention to objects, one item at a time, you could simultaneously reduce the amount of useless stuff in your life and restore a sense of joy and hope. Until, an hour or two later, there is a carful of stuff on its way to Goodwill and the library and various other redistribution centers, and you are left in your little apartment, surrounded by freshly empty spaces and suffused with a surprising mix of energy and calm.

* * * * *

Which brings us to Clutter Busting Your Life and an obvious question: if the first book worked, why another? If the process is so simple to understand, why more pages to explain it? If your spaces remain relatively empty—or if you know what to do when they start becoming less so, and you do it—what could a second book really offer?

The answer, it turns out, is some insight into handling clutter where it intersects—and interferes with—relationships. Because while determining whether an object that is yours alone should stay or go is a straightforward process, dealing with other people’s stuff—a partner’s, a child’s, a parent’s, a friend’s—is fraught. And unless we wall ourselves off from the world (a sad and horrible prospect), we are always, always dealing with other people’s stuff.

Not to mention their “stuff”. Because to further complicate matters, it is not just someone’s actual, physical stuff that can become clutter to us, but our reactions to the stuff, and their reactions to our reactions, and so on. You cannot do a damned thing about anyone else’s crap, but boy, can you ever complicate matters by your response to it: one person’s magazine attachment or drawerful of half-empty toothpaste tubes can metastasize into everyone’s full-blown marriage crisis if tended (im)properly.

So this book, then, is about arresting the escalation. It’s about learning to removing the “clutter” in relationships—the fear and anger and frustration that accompanies all things buried, all decisions forestalled too long—so we can reconnect to each other. Which, yes, begins with reconnecting to ourselves.

Note: in the hands of your average self-helpster, navigation through this territory can get annoying and/or dangerous quickly. Again, Brooks Palmer’s strength resides in his ability to keep things simple and focused. He addresses the levels of relationship one at a time, in order and through the lens of clutter, starting with our relationship with ourselves, then moving outward into our various relationships with others—current and workable, past, current and unworkable. There’s a special chapter on clutter busting for two, but there are exercises throughout to help you with various aspects of the excavation process, emotional and physical, including a recap of basic clutter-busting technique for newbies or those needing a refresher course.

* * * * *

Full disclosure: if you get Brooks’ new book, you will find a blurb from me on the inside front page. While “blurb” is a light, bouncy, almost throwaway word, I take blurbing very seriously. (Except as a verb. Then I laugh like a hyena, because “blurbing” sounds asinine.) Into my very serious blurb I inject one bit of hyperbole, about Brooks possibly being able to help us all clutter-bust our way to world peace. Which is probably an overstatement. There is a whole lot of clutter between us and achieving world peace.

I do believe, though, that on some level, this is holy work. Bringing ourselves back to connection with one another and the present moment is big stuff. That one road back might involve shedding a few things—and ideas, and behaviors—that no longer serve is really not such a far-fetched notion.

If it’s your road, this might very well be your road map.



    1. It’s a great book to read on Kindle (although I love the design of the books that this publishing house does).

      But please—electronic clutter? MY NEMESIS. I’m hoping Brooks devotes his next book to the especially squirrely (for me, anyway) problem of digital cruft.

    1. Please report back if you manage to get your boys to experiment with clutter busting. (Brooks has talked about kids doing it; not surprisingly, they can be better at it than we are!)

  1. Colleen, I just found your site and I’m loving your storytelling concepts. It’s great to find someone else who digs life expressed in narratives. I’m looking forward to reading more!

    1. Thanks, Nate!

      And it’s not that I don’t like the occasional list-y/instructive article. I just really, really like stories.

  2. How is it, Colleen, that you tap into that global timing so well?! Yesterday was the day I had given myself to wrestle that heinous list of emails to the ground. I could feel myself relaxing as the numbers dropped from 250 to 5 messages. So as reward, off I tripped to pick up your recommendation.

    As you suggested, I can feel myself relaxing even further as I think about what to release, physically and emotionally (great “blurb” by the way). It’s hard to put this one down.

    1. How is it, Colleen, that you tap into that global timing so well?!

      I am a witch, of course!

      (Great reward idea. And then you can reward yourself again when you release the book!)

  3. I bought the first book on your recommendation. It really changed my perspective on clutter. I threw out (burned, actually) stacks of old letters from boyfriends, which I never dreamed of doing before. What was I saving them for? Blackmail? eBay if they got famous?

    I can’t wait to read this new book. Thanks, Brooks, and thanks, Colleen for introducing his books to me.

    1. Letters are still the hardest for me. Letters and journals. By Brooks’ guidelines (do you still love/need this? can you let it go?), I’m 50/50 on most of it. Sometimes, I’ll feel a little sad when I revisit certain things, especially when I see how I *haven’t* grown over the years. But mixed in there is joy and delight over glimmers of a true self that hung in there, plus the occasional bit of proof that I actually have learned something over the years.

      Plus, as a writer of personal essays, it’s really, really hard to throw out source material.

  4. Hi, Colleen! “Arresting the escalation”… Yes. Not to mention the increased awareness that might trail along with successful arresting. It’s great how being aware of what you’ve allowed to linger in your life can affect future decisions re: what to allow in.

    My own weakness, as you called it in last comment, is “source material” usually for physical/creative projects that never actually materialize. And journals. What I actually like most about those at this point are the covers and the scanner does a great job of chronicaling (what? that’s not a real word?) them.

    And a big thanks for continuing to be a writing inspiration. I love reading your stuff. So fresh, so real, so easy-to-read.


  5. I’m going to get an Amazon gift card and get this book.I have a very bad problem with physical clutter that is harming any productivity i may be developing as well as my health.The mental clutter gets flushed out by dreaming/daydreaming where every possible permutation of all sorts of life’s drama gets played out and vanquished.One advantage of buying a physical copy of this or any book is that an opportunity exists later to give the book to a current(or new) friend.I am too old to grasp the concept of gifting digital media.”Your birthday gift is in your email” just doesn’t have the same impact.Anyway,thank you again for more thoughtful words and i look forward to the read.

  6. Thanks for this. I’ve ordered the book, partly because my mother died recently, leaving a lot of papers, letters and other fascinating stuff, but I know I can’t keep it all. I’m hoping the book will help me figure out how to deal with letting go.

  7. Colleen:

    This post is particularly interesting to me now, because I’m in the midst of jettisoning a lot of clutter of the physical kind.

    Yes, there’s a close parallel between that kind of clutter and the “clutter” in relationships (as you put it: “the fear and anger and frustration that accompanies all things buried …”).

    I’ve not thought about it this way before, but it makes a lot of sense. There’s so much we let get in the way, isn’t there? What’s with us, anyway?

    I’ll be pondering these questions for sure. A very well done post. Thank you!


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