In Praise of the Junk Drawer

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Wherever I’ve lived, whether with my family or by myself, there has always been some place to put stuff that doesn’t belong anywhere else. It ends up holding rare fasteners, spare buttons, furniture assembly tools and take-out menus. My parents called it the “junk drawer” and now so do I.

Junk drawers seem to stand against everything that organized people try to be. They resist prioritization or organization or even description. Sometimes I feel the impulse to clean out the junk drawer and find homes for each and every stray fastener, tool and gizmo that has accreted there. Perhaps it would put my home slightly closer to some Platonic ideal like the homes that grace the pages of architecture magazines. But then I think this fantasy is ill-conceived and I’ll tell you why.

Our minds adore categories. Once you’ve categorized an object, you can treat it like all of its category-mates and save yourself the trouble of thinking about each one individually. If we stored each piece of clothing we owned in a different part of the house, it could take us half the day to get dressed. For things like socks or cups or DVDs, categories work well. But the things that end up in the junk drawer are the things for which categories fail.

When scientists tried to impose categories on nature, they hit the same problem. Lots of living things fall neatly into large, distinct categories like mammals or birds. But then along come oddballs like the platypus, which has fur like a mammal but lays eggs. It defies categories we thought we understood. Without a conceptual junk drawer, the platypus is a burr in our organizational hide.

Many parts of our lives, both physical and psychological, may need to spend some time in the junk drawer. For any event in our life, we try to sort it, put it in a particular cubbyhole in our conceptual understanding. But some things won’t fit. Our coworker, so nice one moment but cold the next: is this a friend, an enemy, or something altogether different? We want to know, but sometimes there just isn’t a way to get to an answer yet. If we can accept that the answer won’t come to us now and put the question in our mental “junk drawer” for a while, we can get on with our day.

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Time can bring clarity. Suddenly you need an object you hadn’t thought about in months. What a relief to know you still have it. Other times, if we sort through our junk drawers from time to time, we may know it’s time to dispose of that take-out menu (the restaurant shut down) or those fasteners (sitting unused for a couple of years.) In the mental realm, your frenemy at work may eventually show his or her true nature to the point where you can determine their real attitude towards you.

For every use of a junk drawer, whether physical or mental, there is a potential misuse as well. Tossing something in the junk drawer is helpful when it saves unnecessary over-analysis. But the temptation to overuse this shortcut can be strong. Junk drawers become junk rooms, junk basements or even junk houses. Self-storage lockers end up holding junk that probably has a final destination if we’d take the time to think it through. The bigger the mountain of unresolved stuff, the harder it becomes to make a palpable dent in it.

So too, in our minds, do we leave important decisions unresolved when often any choice is better than the decision not to choose. We may say we hate our jobs, think about leaving, but never resolve either to stick it out or to make a clean break. Piles of un-made decisions can mount up and give the impression we’re living a life that has little to do with what we value and even less to do with any hope of making a change.

Worse still, the habit of not deciding can be over-learned. If everything always goes in the junk zone, then the skills of reviewing, deciding and sorting can get weaker the longer they go under-used. A junk drawer works well as a last resort, but horribly as a go-to solution for uncertainty.

Junk drawers need attention to keep them from losing their purpose and becoming problems instead of solutions. Triggering a review can happen either through proper planning (a regular review that’s part our routines, perhaps during spring cleaning) or through physical limitations (if the junk drawer is too full to get something into it, that’s a signal to take some things out).

For all the inherent risks and misuses, junk drawers are admissions that life is messy. We can’t explain everything. We can’t sort everything. No matter how hard we try, we won’t ever get life fully “done.” A junk drawer, properly employed, is a way to acknowledge imperfect knowledge and incompletion and still go about our lives in a mostly-knowing, mostly-put-together way.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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