Ask Unclutterer: Having it all

Reader April asked the following question in the comments section of a recent post:

How do you have time for all of this – running a blog, writing a book, all of these musical activities & all the other stuff you seem to do?

At the time she posted the question, I responded that the answer can be found in my upcoming book — which, is true. However, I’ve felt like a punk ever since for essentially saying, “I have a secret and you can’t know it until November. Na na nee boo boo.”

Since my intention wasn’t to be annoying, April, here is the answer that I should have given to you the first time. The following is my system for living a remarkable life:

  1. Purge clutter, downsize, and minimize. The less stuff you own, the less you have to clean, store, maintain, manage, protect, worry about, stress about, waste money on, forget, and pick up. Have the minimum amount of stuff for you to be comfortable. (This level is different for everyone and you’ll have to figure it out for yourself.)
  2. Organize what you choose to own and use. Your home and office don’t need to be pristine museums, but you and the people who access the same space/items need to be able to easily find things when they’re needed. Order is better than chaos, and order saves you time and energy.
  3. Commit to a streamlined routine for the mundane tasks in your life and be disciplined enough to maintain that routine. If you do 30 minutes of housework a day, your home is never chaotic. But, you have to be committed to these daily activities (dishes, laundry as needed, things put back in place when finished, kitty litter scooped, etc.) and not put them off for another day. The same is true for work; you have to stay on top of the necessary tasks or they will haunt you. I also think of this item as taking responsibility for the things you choose to own.
  4. Determine what matters most to you. Make a list of the people, activities, and things in your life that mean the most to you and then spend the vast majority of your time focusing on these items. Be honest with yourself, though, and put on your list what really matters to you, not what you think should matter to you.
  5. Remind yourself that even if you live to be 100, life is short. There is no better time to live your life than right now. My life’s motto is carpe vitam, Latin for seize life. It’s morbid to think about, but someday might not ever come. Stop putting things off until tomorrow.
  6. Say “no” to what doesn’t matter. If an activity or responsibility isn’t on your list of what matters most to you, say “no” to it. Learn to say “no” in such a way as to not be a jerk, but say “no” when you need to. This is where I greatly differ from most people because I don’t feel guilty about protecting my time. And, as far as I know, most people don’t think I’m a jerk because I’m clear about why I’m declining offers and invitations. (“Taking a yoga class with you would be fun, but Wednesday nights are date night with my husband. Is there a similar class we can take together on another night?”)
  7. Enjoy being industrious. Working provides us with the resources to take care of the things that matter most. Whatever you do for a career, make sure it is something that you enjoy (even if just minimally).
  8. Get rid of everything that is toxic in your life because toxic things are clutter. Toxic people and habits suck up resources and energy. I was an avid smoker until I calculated how much of my money, time, and energy were going into my smoking addiction. No matter how gifted and talented, I avoid employing, working with, and spending time with people who are toxic. A toxic person can waste your time and mental energy faster than any other form of clutter.
  9. Live within your means and save money for retirement, rainy days, and adventures. Get rid of your credit cards and only use cash or your debit card. Live on a budget even if you don’t need to be mindful of your spending habits. Have a retirement account, and two savings accounts — one for emergencies (refrigerator died, fender bender) and one for splurging on what matters most to you (vacation, rock climbing lessons, a camera to capture your child’s first steps). Buy quality instead of quantity. Be a smart consumer.
  10. Take risks and be brazen. A second motto in my life is ad astra per aspera, which is loosely translated as to the stars through difficulty. (It’s also the Kansas state motto.) Great things might fall in your lap from time to time, but for the most part you have to get outside your comfort zone and initiate something new. Have you always wanted to learn to play the flute? Get your hands on a flute and start taking lessons. You’ll be really awful those first six months (or year or five), but you’ll never learn to play the flute if you don’t take the chance and try.
  11. Get adequate sleep. Keep a sleep journal and find out how much sleep you need to function at your best. Then, make sure you get that amount of sleep every night. When you’re well rested, it’s easier to stay calm, be productive, and focus on what you need and want to do.

Thank you, April, for asking your question, and my apologies for not giving you a decent answer the first time. Also, I want to say that I struggle with some of the things on this list like everyone will (especially the sleep item). But, when it happens, it is usually because some type of clutter has crept back into my life and I need to focus again on #1 to get the other items back on track.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

84 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Having it all”

  1. posted by Becky on

    This was a really good post. Thanks. It was a great teaser to your book.

    Sometimes your “extreme clutter free” looks/decorating seem overboard and cold to me, but this article was full of good ideas–with the ability for all of us to adapt as fits our personalities and situations.

  2. posted by Steven on

    Discovered this post on Get Rich Slowly. This post is really well done.

    I retired in 2005 and moved from California to Illinois. After 30 years of collecting stuff, I gave everything to charity except what would fit in six boxes.
    I’ve never been happier and I truly love my minimalist life style.

    “The least of things with a meaning is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.”
    -Carl Jung

  3. posted by Jac Lynn on

    Great post. I use flylady dot com to help me keep to my “streamlined routine for mundane tasks”. Especially when I don’t have the time to think about it.

  4. posted by Mandi @ Organizing Your Way on

    This is a great list! I’m currently juggling a ton of projects and I get the impression that people think something must be suffering because of it. But the truth is I have a goal, and I’m working towards it, and this busyness will only last for a season, which keeps me energized as I move forward. Being organized and maintaining my daily routines are KEY to “doing it all,” as is prioritizing my to-do list to eliminate those things that really don’t have to be done after all!

  5. posted by Peter on

    This I completely agree with. I’ve been minimizing everything in my life and it has helped a great deal. I have a list of what is important to me, it’s not allowed to have more than six items, so far I only have five. Of course my partner is on top, she is what’s most important to me after all.
    I’ve managed to minimize my desk down to my laptop and my iPhone. Nothing else sits on top (I used to have a pen on top too, but that goes in the drawer now).

  6. posted by Monday Micro Links For Caregivers 7-13-09 | on

    [...] is out and colds are less common. Now might be a great time to declutter around the house. I love Don Aslett’s books on decluttering. I got half way through Clutter’s Last Stand, [...]

  7. posted by Doing it All : Productivity501 on

    [...] Erin over at Unclutterer has a nice piece about how she does everything by cutting down on the things that aren’t important. [...]

  8. posted by Magchunk on

    Excellent list. I am totally printing this out and hanging it above my computer as a daily reminder!

    I think the especially important items are saying no and ditching toxic people/activities. After 17 years of friendship, I finally had to ditch a toxic friend who had changed so much since we met in first grade and was the equivilant of emotional clutter. Drama drama. It would stress me out just to see that she had called or emailed.

    And as someone who works for a non-profit, we’re always recruiting volunteers to serve on our board of directors. Such a bummer when people say no (my boss gets really annoyed, actually). But then I consider, “Would this be a priority to me if I was a volunteer? Would I say yes?” Probably not. Plus, while some organizations value butts-in-chairs for boards, I value committed volunteers who are truly passionate about what we do! Just a matter of connecting with the right people.

  9. posted by Have More by Choosing Less | usabestcreditreport on

    [...] at Unclutterer yesterday, Erin shared her guide to “having it all”. She explains how she’s able to lead a full life without getting bogged down by Stuff — [...]

  10. posted by Leah on

    I love #10. As a former professor once said: “start piano lessons tomorrow. How old are you? 20? When you’re 25, you will have been playing for 5 years.”

    In my phone, I have a note I wrote last year while squatting on a friend’s couch between the time when my lease ended and my job ended and I moved to a new state. All my stuff was packed up and in storage, and I was having more fun than ever just getting out and seeing people. I wrote “stuff lets us do things but lack of stuff pushes us out of the house and forces us to live in the present moment.” At the time, I had a duffel bag of clothes, my cleats, and my ultimate disc. I went on walks, played ulti, and visited parks all around the city. It was awesome! I’m preparing to move in a few weeks, and I am working greatly to downsize my stuff and make living in the present easier on a day to day basis.

  11. posted by Non-Consumer Mish-Mash « The Non-Consumer Advocate on

    [...] means . . . it’s mish-mash time! Here’s terrific post from unclutterer that I think I might actually print out to put on my fridge for inspiration. (Although . . . having [...]

  12. posted by Employee or Entrepreneur? The Pros and Cons of Self-Employment | usabestcreditreport on

    [...] Update: Erin from Unclutterer (one of my favorite blogs) has posted an article that seems related to this — at least in my mind. She explains how to have it all. [...]

  13. posted by pril on

    I think i asked that question or one close to it. wow and slightly weird. i just was checking in and wow. anyway nice read and thank you!

  14. posted by Matt on

    Great article. I definitely agree with your point about streamlining. I struggle with keeping up with specific tasks each day to keep organized and experience first hand the way these things can haunt you. I look forward to reading your tips on this and other things on your blog. Hopefully enough of it will click so I can finally shake these bad habits.

    Thank you,

  15. posted by The Simple Dollar » The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Old Connections Edition on

    [...] Having It All This article by Erin Doland is fantastic, outlining in detail the life-changing value of minimizing clutter in all aspects of your life. (@ unclutterer) Related Posts The Simple Dollar Morning Roundup: Post-Super Bowl EditionThe Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Birthday Update EditionSlowing Down, or Starting on My DreamsThe Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Crunch EditionThe Simple Dollar Morning Roundup: Moving Monday Edition Did you like this article? You can get the complete text of all the latest articles at The Simple Dollar in your email inbox each morning by entering your email address below. Your address will only be used for mailing you the articles, and each one will include a link so you can unsubscribe at any time. No comments yet. Be the first. Leave a reply [...]

  16. posted by Dia on

    Great streamlined list!
    I’m also a ‘deadbeat’ CC user (needed to get one to establish ‘credit’ to buy my house) & recently challanged a finance charge (& had it removed) because the check ran for $8- less than the total . . . great interaction with the banker, who got it cleared, & we traded cards – her husband works for a company that has massage as an employee benefit ($15 co-pay, & no hastle with paperwork for us – so very Win-Win!) & she hasn’t been using it . . . .

    I’m working on de-thugging my place & doing some streamlining!

    I also try to balance my ‘yes’ & ‘no’ to projects I feel good about.

  17. posted by Mletta on

    RE: Cash versus credit cards.

    We order a lot online. It actually saves us money as well as costs for transportation and time.

    We would NEVER use a debit card to order online. EVER. You have no recourse.

    That is why we use credit cards.

    We pay off the full balance each month.

    You simply cannot pay cash for a lot of things these days. (We also use paypal, but again, we link it to a credit card, not our bank accounts, to protect ourselves.)

    We’re actually doing what the “experts” recommend to protect yourself from identity theft.

    RE: Being available for your children

    There’s a huge difference between doing things for your children and being at their beck and call, which, I’ve seen, in many families where what started out as a few “activities” has turned into nonstop scheduling and driving around.

    I’m sorry, but time in a car with folks rushing to be somewhere, eating in the car, not at a dining table, and parents and kids overwhelmed by fatigue (emotional and physical) is NOT quality family time.

    Parents arguing with each other when they have to seriously disrupt work schedules to accommodate their kids activities schedules is not a way to feel closer to each other.

    I won’t even get into all the craziness that surrounds some parents and their kids when it comes to sports. How the parents hound their kids about performance and competition, etc. to the point that children hate sports.

    I believe in family time, but it’s about real time with each other doing something you all enjoy, or can enjoy. About sitting together at meals, not each person jumping up and down to go somewhere else or get picked up, etc. but sitting together and just relaxing and talking with each other.

    We actually agree. I’m only saying that the ideal is not always achievable and if we could accept that, even while striving to improve our experiences, it’d be easier.

    Too many people think that if only they could get “organized” it would all fall into place.

    Some of the most out of control people I know are those who seem to be “organized.” Look closely and it’s their way to deal with the chaos and the reality of life, which requires true flexibility every day.

    I came from a home with an “organized” parent. It was a nightmare. We kids could not enjoy anything due to our mother’s need to organize EVERYTHING. That is NOT life.

    So while I believe in plans, intentions, discipline and deadlines, I know that life is far more complex and requires more openness to whatever happens. Our kids would learn more if parents would just relax and help their kids learn how to deal with the world where you can’t control what happens a lot of the time.

    Life is not a calendar, schedule or game plan.

  18. posted by link up | SIMA on

    [...] Eleven rules for living an uncluttered life. [...]

  19. posted by The Simple Dollar Weekly Roundup: Old Connections Edition | USA Best Credit Report on

    [...] Having It All This article by Erin Doland is fantastic, outlining in detail the life-changing value of minimizing clutter in all aspects of your life. (@ unclutterer) [...]

  20. posted by Jerry Kolber » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup July 17 2009 on

    [...] heard before but Erin brings it all together from her personal perspective. The article is at Having it All.  I particularly like her advice “Even if you live to be 100 life is short”.  Putting [...]

  21. posted by Jerry Kolber on

    Great article Erin – I included it in my weekly roundup of the 3 best articles about creativity this week on the web, at my site

  22. posted by Organizing Your Way | Surfin’ the Net: 7/5-7/18 on

    [...] Ask Unclutterer: Having It All, Unclutterer [...]

  23. posted by Rah BIckley on

    Great list! You rock.

  24. posted by Golfing Girl on

    I’m pretty good at minimizing clutter, but how can I get my 5-year old who loves to save every piece of macaroni art, scribble, etc. to subscribe to the Unclutter mindset?

  25. posted by Employee or Entrepreneur? The Pros and Cons of Self-Employment | Follow My Money - Financial Advicer, Money Management, Debt Free Tips on

    [...] Update: Erin from Unclutterer (one of my favorite blogs) has posted an article that seems related to this — at least in my mind. She explains how to have it all. [...]

  26. posted by The moral vs the practical « Applying philosophy to life on

    [...] moral vs the practical Posted on August 10, 2009 by K. M. Via NoodleFood I came across this blog post on time management. The post is quite good in general but one particular point is not. Determine what matters most [...]

  27. posted by 当员工还是当老板?干个体户的利与弊 « 生活奇客 on

    [...] 更新:“Unclutter”(我最喜欢的博客之一)的艾琳发表了一篇文章,好像和这个相关—至少我是这个印象。她解释了如何鱼和熊掌兼得。 [...]

  28. posted by Charlotte on

    I just want to add that Mletta’s comment is one of the best comments I’ve read online in – well, months, if not years.

  29. posted by body loving blog-o-sphere 07.12.09 on

    [...] Ask Unclutterer, Having it All [...]

  30. posted by What are you letting go of today? « Melinda Roos on

    [...] 5) The stuff which clutters. [...]

  31. posted by How to have it all | Tenniswood Blog on

    [...] Unclutterer. [...]

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