Dyeing to love my clothes again

Today’s guest post is from my hometown friend Rebecca Bealmear. Lawyer by day and aspiring minimalist by night, she writes about her adventures in simple living, bicycling, and whatever captivates her attention on her personal blog Seven2seven8.com. She currently lives in St. Louis, Missouri. A big welcome to the lovely Rebecca. — Erin

For the past three years, I’ve joined up with the women on my husband’s side of the family for a once-a-year shopping trip. We often time it in the fall, to celebrate my mother-in-law’s birthday, and to get a head start on holiday shopping. And so, I found myself with my in-laws, at the Osage Beach outlets in Missouri this past October 26. This time, however, I didn’t feel like buying anything.

The funny thing about our tradition (and the point at which I became part of it), is that it coincides with the time I started to question all of the belongings I was holding onto in my home “just in case” they became useful or somehow morphed into what I really wanted or needed. This was especially true in my clothing closet — my tiny, circa-1939, approximately 10 square foot closet.

It was then my clothing projects began. I donated, but then I replaced more than I donated. I tried storing just a quarter of my huge wardrobe (full of inexpensive and trendy items) in my closet, with the remainder hanging on racks in my basement. And this worked, well, not at all. Then, it took a turn for the worse when I was bitten on the hip in February 2012 by a brown recluse spider that moved into a pair of pants I had been storing downstairs.

Suddenly, donating clothing I was not consistently wearing became so much easier.

Fast forward to today, and my wardrobe is easily a quarter (a sixth? an eighth?) the size it was a couple of years ago, and I have found a wardrobe system that really helps me evaluate the remaining items.

In February of 2013, I decided to try Courtney Carver’s Project 333. I tailored the challenge to the size of my current wardrobe, so I could reasonably cycle through almost all of my clothing in a year’s time (by dividing six rounds of 33 items across two months each). I have now completed four of my six rounds, and I am hooked, and I am changed.

I can no longer tolerate excess in my wardrobe or home, though I am still negotiating for myself what is “enough” and what is “excess.” I am simultaneously surprised, relieved, and horrified by the volume of items I have donated to charity organizations, and by the lack of sustainability I have learned is inherent in our fast-fashion culture. I struggle with ethical concerns raised by the toll rampant consumerism has taken on the lives of garment manufacturing factory employees in places like Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh, where the April collapse of a building (costing the lives of thousands of workers) has resulted in almost no improvement in conditions for workers — those who make the clothing we often wear just once or twice before discarding it for the next great deal.

This is how I found myself uninterested in purchasing clothing on my recent shopping trip with my in-laws, and strangely attached to some clothing in my own closet — specifically, four items that had disappointed me over various rounds of Project 333: (1) a white t-shirt, too sheer and becoming discolored; (2) a white button-up tunic, stained with bicycle-basket oil; (3) a white blouse with a lace panel, discolored from overuse; and (4) a chevron-striped blue skirt in a color I found difficult to wear and weirdly cheap-looking.

My solution? They had to dye.

Armed with one box of Rit Dye in Denim Blue, a large stockpot, and the four items to dye, I set out to improve the items in my closet. These are the items before:

And these are the items after dyeing, rinsing, washing, and drying:

I am pleased with the results. The practical life of each garment has been extended, and they each have a different personality in the new blue versus the original shade. And, if I ultimately donate a garment, it might actually find its way into another person’s closet now, instead of landing in a rag heap or landfill – a much better fate than the tops would have met, had I donated them in their stained or discolored states.

The box of Rit Dye cost about $3 and since I already owned the clothing, it was free. I’d recommend getting some rubber gloves to protect your hands. I simply followed the provided instructions, which were very well-written. I dyed the skirt first for 20 minutes, then all three shirts together for another 20. Once finished, I rinsed the clothing well, and ran them, alone, through a heavy-duty wash cycle with a generous amount of detergent, then dried them.

No shopping, no landfills, no waste. I’ve deemed it a success!

A funeral for riding boots

Maybe it’s because I keep my possessions to a minimum that I sometimes have difficulty parting with objects that have been a significant part of my life.

A few years ago, I had to say goodbye to a pair of riding boots. I’ve been an avid equestrienne for the better part of 30 years and I bought my first pair of REAL riding boots in 1986. I wore these boots in horse shows around the province and in clinics with Olympians. The boots helped me ride at various equestrian centres in nine different cities in four different provinces.

Finally, in June 2010, they broke beyond repair while in service at a local horse show. It was a difficult moment for me, realizing that I would have to say goodbye to these boots that had served me so well for so long.

In order to cope with the loss, I decided to have a funeral for the boots. I set up a Facebook event and invited my friends, many of whom I have ridden with over the years. At first I thought that they would think that I was crazy (and they may have a point) but most of my friends helped me make the event memorable. One of my friends quoted a poem from Harpers New Monthly Magazine, Volume 54, December 1876:

Farewell, old boots! a tender last farewell!
Inanimate, but mourned as if with souls
Instead of soles: I’ll find for you some dell
Where, though no bell for your requiem tolls.

I had a few other friends weigh in and admit that this event encouraged them to retire various objects: dance shoes, army boots, and paint brushes. One colleague wrote that it was “time to lay to rest ‘Wedding Glass’, the last surviving member of a set of glasses that outlived ‘Marriage’ by 21 years”. Of course there is always one clown in the bunch and he thanked me for the “booty call”!

All in all, it made me feel much better that I had given a public tribute to my riding boots that had served me so well in the past. I wrapped them tightly in a plastic bag and they were taken away in the “hearse” (garbage truck).

If you have items that you have difficulty parting with, try having a funeral or a tea party or even writing a letter to the item, explaining its importance in your life. Save the letters with pictures of the items either on your computer or in a scrap book. It helps to let your friends in on the deal. They can comfort you and make you laugh like no inanimate object ever could.

Keeping your head above water when you’re exhausted and/or going through a major life change

As a parent with an infant at home, I haven’t been getting much sleep. Oddly, though, I’m incredibly happy to be exhausted. Even when she’s screaming at 2:00 in the morning for a bottle and a diaper change, I’m smiling. We waited so long for her and having her in our family is an incredible blessing.

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the exhaustion is taking its toll, however. I wrote an email to my mom, never hit send, and then wondered for a few days why she didn’t respond — all the while the drafted email was just sitting on my computer’s desktop, staring me in the face. Clean laundry is hanging out on the bed in our guest room, waiting to be put away. And, those of us in the house with teeth, well, we have eaten more pizza for dinner in the last month than we had in the previous six months combined.

Thankfully, I know this exhaustion will pass as our daughter gets older. She’ll start sleeping through the night and I’ll stop trying to open the front door of the house with the car key. In the meantime, there are steps I’ve been taking to keep things from spinning out of control that I thought might be able to help other new parents as well as anyone going through a major life event or bout of exhaustion.

Embrace chaos in the minor priorities

I have an infant, a four year old, a full-time job, and numerous other responsibilities to care for right now, and very little energy. The energy I have is going toward the things that must be done, and pretty much zero energy is being spent on other things. I’ve resigned from a committee I was serving on that I enjoyed but that my participation isn’t essential to the success of the committee. I haven’t made my bed in the last month except for the two times I’ve changed the sheets. My pile of filing and scanning is three inches high. When my energy levels return, I’ll resume taking care of the minor priorities in my life. Until then, oh well …

If you are unclear as to which priorities in your life are major and which are minor, take a few minutes to list them. What deserves your attention right now? What doesn’t? Be honest with yourself and remember you’re only human and you lack super powers.

Hire, accept, and ask for help

My mother-in-law stayed with us the first week after our daughter was born. A cleaning crew has come to the house twice to clean the toilets and floors and to dust. Next week, I’ll be hiring the neighbor boys to rake the leaves in the yard and do the last mowing of the season. I can’t do it all and I’m not about to let pride or having things done my way get in the way of my family’s sanity.

Also, it’s a good idea to remind yourself that people cannot read your mind. If you need help, you have to ask for it. If someone offers to bring your family dinner, you have to respond to the person who made the offer that you think this is a great idea and then provide them a date, time, and information about any food allergies. Now is not the time to be polite for the sake of being polite and decline the offer if you actually would like the help. If you are overwhelmed by a project at work and everything else going on at home, you need to tell your coworkers/boss that you are overwhelmed and ask for help to rectify the situation. Don’t just wish for someone to help you, ask for help if you need it.

Simplify tasks

I have an inbox for each of my children that is collecting stuff I want to keep or remember for later, but don’t have the time to process right this moment. For my daughter, I’ve been writing important milestones on notecards and tossing the notecards in the box to eventually be recorded in her baby book. “Rolled over unassisted first time 10/16″ is on one of the cards, for example. Yes, I could just write the information into the baby book now, but getting out and putting the book away each time I want to record something isn’t going to happen. Writing on a note card is more my speed. It’s all about the bare minimum right now.

On the television show Holmes on Homes, host Mike Holmes often points out that other people’s work has been done to “minimum code.” He means the contractor or plumber or whomever only did the work the law required, and nothing else. This phrase has made its way into our family’s regular dialog when we want to refer to doing something as easily as possible, and nothing more. Minimum code is now how we make lunch and dinner — a protein and a vegetable. Minimum code is how we take care of the car — put gas in it when the tank is low. Minimum code is how we maintain the house — put stuff away after using it, but let a cleaning crew take care of the rest. Be realistic about what you will do and simplify tasks to minimal code.

Hit pause

Now is not the time to become commissioner of the softball league or volunteer to spearhead the silent auction for the annual PTA fundraiser. It’s also not a good time to make a major life decision. Get through this period of exhaustion and then start adding new things to your life and contemplating your next move. This wave is temporary and you just need to ride it out.

Obviously, the advice doesn’t stop here. Please feel welcome to share valuable lessons you have learned from being ridiculously exhausted in the post’s comment section. I’m certainly looking for even more ways to reduce stress and streamline processes right now and I know there are many readers out there who could benefit as well.

Ask Unclutterer: How do you let things go?

Reader Callum submitted an email to Ask Unclutterer describing his difficulty parting with “I might be able to use this some day” objects and anything he has attached with sentimental value. The email contained the following:

Over the years growing up I always held onto everything I could, and even directly collected things I found or picked up. Like most people I’ve spoken to about this, I have found myself attached to most of my objects … I find it impossible to declutter beyond the very basics! I only just managed to give away some shirts today, which was hard enough as I have had some for a very long time and reminded me of when I was a different person. Luckily I took a picture of them just in case, but I’m not sure if this method will work for some of my more quaint objects.

Callum, right now, your situation feels like it is specific to magazines and t-shirts and electronics and knick knacks, but what you describe is at the heart of almost everyone’s issues with clutter. Simply stated, you are emotionally attached to the things you own. And, as a student who is not extremely wealthy, you fear letting things go because there may be a time when you will need something and not be able to afford buying it again.

Neither the emotional attachment nor your fear of letting things go is wrong. You’re human. You have fears and doubts and you also like to remember happy moments from your past. Everything you’re feeling is normal.

However, things have started to go to the extreme. You have reached a point where you are no longer in control of your stuff. Your stuff is starting to control you and your space. You can’t find the things you need and you can’t let go of the things you don’t want. This happened to me, and it happens to a lot of people. In your case, I think regaining control of your stuff and getting a clear picture of what you want for your life will help to alleviate this extraneous anxiety.

My first suggestion is to take advantage of any mental health services your school may offer its students. Talk through with a therapist why you feel such strong ties to your past and your things. Why are you so interested in making your past a continued part of your present? You may simply have normal levels of nostalgia, but there might be more to it and a therapist can help you make that determination. Since most student mental health services are free, I think it’s a great place to start.

Another action I think would be good for you is to immediately get rid of any item you’re keeping that has negative feelings attached to it. This is usually an easy task, even for the most sentimental of folks. There is no reason in the world to own anything that doesn’t make us happy or, at bare minimum, have no impact on us at all. Your space is limited, you can’t keep everything, so get rid of the bad.

Finally, I think it is important for you — for all of us — to be clear about what kind of a life you really want to lead. Do you have a clear vision of who you are and what is important to you? What does a good day look like to you? What does an ideal home look like to you? Spend some time reflecting on what you want for yourself and your space. Once you know what kind of life you want, you can take actions to create that life. You’ll know what objects in your home represent who you are and who you want to be, and what objects don’t belong in your space any longer. Once you know where you’re going, it will be a lot easier to get there.

This site is full of practical advice on how to organize cables and magazines and all the stuff you may eventually decide you want to keep, as well as has suggestions for where to donate unwanted items. When you are ready to get rid of the clutter, check out those tips. Until then, spend some time in introspection, discover what it is you want for your life, talk through the emotional ties with your past with a therapist, and get rid of the stuff that brings you down. After you’ve done these things, parting with the clutter will be much easier than it would if you tried to do it right now.

Thank you, Callum, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. Good luck to you on the next stage of your uncluttering journey! Also, be sure to check out the comments for additional advice from our readers.

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.

Thinking about buy-and-return habits

You go shopping, buy a bunch of things, and bring them home. Later on, you decide to return a number of items. That’s a great way to unclutter, right?

Well, sometimes — and sort of.

Certainly, you’ll want to return anything that’s defective. I bought some shoes online earlier this year and they looked exactly like what I wanted. But when they arrived, I found out they squeaked when I walked. Fortunately, I had bought them from a site that makes returns very easy.

On the other end of the spectrum, some returns are questionable, even if stores accept those types of returns. I don’t think it’s okay to buy a dress, wear it to a special event, and then return it. Nor do I think it’s okay to buy a nice TV right before the Super Bowl and then return it after watching the game. Some stores are fighting back against this practice, as The Cut reports:

Bloomingdale’s has had enough. … So they’re attaching three-inch black-plastic tags to visible places on clothing, like the front bottom hemline. … The new devices on Bloomingdale’s clothing are unhidable; once removed, they cannot be reattached. No more wearing and returning, unless you decide to pretend “visible tags” are a new trend.

But many other return situations are less straightforward. I’d never really thought about the problems returns can cause until I read a discussion on Ask Metafilter, where a number of members who worked in retail shared what goes on behind the scenes. Here are just two of the many perspectives:

I can talk about retail for clothing, two industries I worked retail in. For clothing, if the garment was still selling at full price, and showed no signs of wear, we would re-tag and sell it again at full price. If it were no longer selling at full price, we would re-tag and sell it at the current sale price. If it did show signs of wear but we were obliged by policy to accept it, we’d deeply discount it, donate it or just throw it in the trash.

I can tell you from my experience in working at Restoration Hardware and at a few convenience stores/pharmacies: a good portion of stuff is thrown out. Everything that is possible to put back on the shelf is (unopened, like-new packages, unworn clothing, unused cushions and the like) and all products that can be returned to the manufacturer are. This is, at least at those stores, maybe 40% of returns. Everything else is logged and thrown away. We are trying to find more avenues to donate returned items, but most items that are returned are thought of as liabilities. … If you’ve tried on headphones, they were chucked. I mean, would you want to buy something that someone else had put in their ears?

Another thing I just learned is that a number of retailers are using a program called The Retail Equation aimed at helping to eliminate return fraud and to control what the company calls returnaholics. Some of these returnaholics may have a problem with compulsive shopping and need help in fighting that condition.

But most of us can be more thoughtful about our initial purchasing behaviors. If we don’t buy things we don’t need we won’t have to return those things we later don’t want, irrespective of the reason. Additionally, do we have valid reasons for the returns we do wish to make? Or, are we needlessly creating more work for the stores, and causing good merchandise to wind up in the trash? Would donating the item to a charity that needs that item be a better way of handling the unwanted merchandise?

Of course, if you need to return defective merchandise, you’ll want to be very aware of the store’s return policy. I overlooked this recently, and bought some non-returnable “fits all sizes” socks, which didn’t come close to fitting me. I wound up donating them to charity. When making purchases, you’ll want to check for:

  • Whether the item is returnable at all.
  • How long you have to make the return.
  • If a receipt is required.
  • Whether you’ll get cash or a store credit.
  • If there’s a restocking fee.

What to do when one person abhors clutter and the other attracts it

I’m sure you’ve heard the adage “opposites attract.” In my experience with home organizing, I’ve found that opposites do attract more often than not. One person is usually a neatnik — thrilled by clear surfaces and closet organization. The other is a pack rat — inspired by the endless potential of stuff, glorious stuff! When these two extremes live together, sooner or later, conflicts arise. How can you make it work? Surprisingly, it has very little to do with the stuff itself and a lot to do with mindset.

The first trick is to realize that neatniks and pack rats are two completely different species, so to make living together harmonious, you need to think about habitats. A bird and a fish may be able to live comfortably in the same house, but not in the same container. Put the bird in the bowl and she’ll drown. Put the fish in the cage and she’ll asphxiate. To make it work, both parties must agree on a standard for common areas and carve out a place where one can sing and the other can swim.

Nine steps to create a co-habitable household:

  1. Agree to the acceptable uses for shared areas. For example, you might agree that the living room is to be used for watching TV, reading, and playing games.
  2. Remove anything that is not associated with those activities from the shared area. In the example of the living room, this would mean no craft supplies, dishes, laundry, or egg incubators.
  3. Create specific homes for everything that belongs in the shared room — a bookcase for books, a drawer for videos, a cabinet for games. Labeling makes it easier for visual people to remember what goes where.
  4. Return each item to its home after each use. If it doesn’t have a home, it can’t stay.
  5. Make a sign to hang at the entrance of the room:

    Anything not used for these purposes must stay away!

  6. Anyone breaking the rule can be fined. Use the money to hire a cleaner or go out to dinner.
  7. Set aside a few minutes each day to patrol the room. Use a hamper or basket to collect items that don’t belong. If something has a home elsewhere, put it back. If not, hold an “auction” to give household members a chance to bid on it. If they buy it, they have to find a home for it.
  8. Anything not bid on is going … going … gone! Same for anything that repeatedly ends up back in the basket. Take these items to a local charity and feel good about having fewer items to take care of.
  9. Find at least one place in the home for neatniks to live unfettered by clutter and one place for pack rats to stash their collections. Respect these separate spaces!

How to stay positive when the going gets tough:

No matter how successful you are at establishing shared and separate zones, you are still likely to run into differences of opinion about both. Before becoming combative over any stuff-related arguments, remember why you are together — love, money, you lost the key to the handcuffs, whatever. The point is, there is a reason you are living together. Remembering that reason may help you calm down when you are feeling frustrated. Try the practice of gratitude, in which you intentionally focus on the blessings in your life, no matter how small. This makes less room in your head and heart for the negative voices and can improve your patience and sense of well-being. When you are in a good place, you are less likely to say snarky things that will get the other person’s defenses up. Let me assure you, once the defenses are up, change is just not going to happen.

Lastly, consider the fact that objects are like ink blots. Rarely do two people see the same thing and what they do see depends largely on past experiences and perspective. The overflow of crafting supplies looks like crazy-making chaos to one person, but is a beautiful harmony of endless potential to another. The clear counter-tops that make one partner hum with contentment remind the other of a sterile hospital stay when no one came to visit. So you must be patient with each other. Say what you see and ask the other person to do the same. Try to see the space through each other’s eyes, and, please, keep your sense of humor. If you need an outside perspective, ask a neutral third party or hire a home organizer or other professional to be your mediator.

With large doses of patience and humor, you will be able to see the other’s sleek scales or resplendent plumage and recognize how truly glorious our differences make us.

It is important to note that if the health and safety of household members is compromised by behavior at either end of the spectrum, the above strategies are not enough. Please consult a professional with licensed credentials in these extreme circumstances.

Visit from a time traveller

I read an interesting news article about a house frozen in time. Nothing had changed after the owner had passed away in 1932. The heirs of the deceased bequeathed the house to Britain’s National Trust and it was turned into a museum. The National Trust decided, “to leave it exactly as they found it to give the public a unique insight into family life between the wars.”

©National Trust Images/Geoffrey Frosh

I’ve often asked my clients what they would take with them if their homes were burning or if they had to evacuate their homes immediately. The answer to these questions certainly helps identify the essential, irreplaceable objects. However, reading the article about the house frozen in time got me thinking. What if someone came back in time and looked at your house? What would your stuff say about the way you lived your life? Is it accurate?

Make sure your home reflects the story you want to tell. You never know, one day, you may just see a phone booth on your front lawn or a DeLorean parked in your driveway.

A too-small house?

Today’s guest post is by Amanda Scudder, Organizing Consultant with the company Abundance Organizing. Please give her a nice welcome.

There is a Yiddish folktale about a man whose house is too small and noisy. Seeking a solution, he consults the wise woman of the village. She advises him to bring a chicken into his house. He does, but it makes his house seem even smaller and louder, so he again seeks her council. She tells him to add a goat. Not surprisingly, the goat makes the situation worse, not better. Each time he returns to complain, she tells him to bring another animal into the house. Finally, in exasperation, he returns to the wise woman and tells her that he can’t stand another minute of living in this increasingly cramped, cluttered, and noisy house. She smiles and tells him to go home and let all the animals out. He does so and as he shoos the last goat and chicken out the door he looks around at his now spacious dwelling and savors the calm quiet that surrounds him.

Not unlike this man, many of us find ourselves living in a space that feels cramped and chaotic. Our closets are overflowing, our children’s toys are everywhere, and our basements are jam-packed. So we add more — bigger closets, a larger house with a playroom, a storage unit to hold the overflow. But the more we add, the more chaotic things seem to get. Take a minute to think about the “animals” that have come into your home over the years, be they more stuffed animals than there are days in the year, clothes that no longer fit or flatter, gadgets that sounded good on TV but now sit in a corner collecting dust, equipment from hobbies long forgotten, or more activities and commitments than you can reasonably accomplish. Some of the “animals” might even be day planners or organizing products you’ve brought home hoping they would make your life less busy and cluttered.

I suggest that today is the day to start shooing those animals out. You don’t need to evict all of them at once. Even a few less chickens and goats will make a big difference. Where to start? Pick a number — any number — and find that many items in your home to let go. You make the rules — it could be 23 things from the junk drawer (bread ties count) or 8 unused condiments from your refrigerator or 16 items of clothing or 5 things from under your sink. The trick is just to do it. I’m willing to bet that when you are done, your drawer or refrigerator or cabinet will seem a little bit bigger. You will feel a little bit lighter. Commit to repeating this exercise on a regular basis and you will soon find that your house is calmer and less cluttered. You might even discover that you don’t need a bigger closet, house, or storage unit once the excess has been removed.

When you first start practicing this exercise, you may worry you will regret giving some of your “animals” the boot. If so, here is a strategy to help: Put the items you are evicting into a bag or box marked with the date. Put the bag or box in a closet, basement, garage, under the bed, or any other out of the way place. On your calendar, mark a date one to three months down the road. If, by that date, you haven’t needed anything in the bag or box, commit to letting it go without looking in it. You may even have forgotten what is in there.

Change the workaholic mindset to improve productivity

Many people are often in search of a strategy, tool, or productivity system that will help them to get more done. This is a good goal to have — afterall, who doesn’t want a set of habits that will help them cross stuff off their to-do list? In addition to actually accomplishing what you set out or agree to do, there’s a strong feeling of satisfaction you get when you actually pull it off on a regular basis.

On the other hand, it is possible this exuberant feeling you get from being productive can be taken to the extreme. You might crave that feeling so much that in your attempt to consistently recreate it, you end up working all the time. One could speculate that the need to work all the time is really about wanting to be in control. Others may characterize this as an addiction to working, even if the task you’re engrossed in is a worthwhile endeavor. Perhaps, work feels like a comfortable place to retreat to, a way to escape other parts of your life. No matter what the underlying reasons are, if you find yourself focusing on work tasks all the time, you are likely to be considered a workaholic.

On the surface, there may not seem to be a downside to spending a few extra hours at work each day, especially when you’re achieving the goals you set for yourself. But, keep in mind that you may be confusing working too much with having a strong work ethic. While both may require diligent effort and a reliance on core values, overworking likely includes a lack of discipline or the inability to stop working and recognize when it’s time to take a break. Here on Unclutterer, we’ve often extolled the benefits of taking mini-breaks throughout the work day as well as the positive effect exercise and sleep has on productivity. Certainly, if one is always working, there would be little or no time for either of those activities or any outside interests. Ultimately, this would lead to burnout.

In addition, an overly zealous worker is not beneficial to employers. Bryan E. Robinson, Ph.D., author of Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them, explained:

A workaholic might seem to be every CEO’s dream: an employee who comes in early, stays late, doesn’t take vacations, and takes on mountains of work. But those very qualities may make the workaholic a poor candidate for employee of the month because they often have more work than they can handle effectively, don’t delegate, aren’t team players, and are often more disorganized …

If you’re taking on too much, it is possible that you may not realize it (take Dr. Robinson’s quiz). As I mentioned before, you may think you’re simply a hard worker. Of course, there may be times when you need to work extra hours. Business owners everywhere (myself included) understand this all too well. However, it is important to prioritize specific tasks and to recognize when it’s time to ask for help. The latter will not only allow you to streamline your focus, but also help you to be more productive.

Saving your “rescue from a fire” item

What would you save if your home were burning? It’s an intriguing question that I hope none of us ever have to face. The point, of course, is a harsh way to get us to consider what’s truly important and want’s expendable.

My wife and my daughter spent this past weekend at a Girl Scout campout. This was the big, multi-troop event that takes place each spring. The girls leave home on Friday night to have a great time, enjoy each other’s company, and return on Sunday with, among other things, a car full of stuff that smells like smoke.

I spent most of Sunday afternoon washing the stinky laundry, including Cow (pictured above). Cow has been with my daughter for a decade. In fact, she’s “had” cow since before she was born. When my wife was pregnant, she and I took at trip to Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. I decided it would be fun to win a toy for the new baby on the midway, so I played game after game after game, losing each one in spectacular fashion. I ended up buying Cow from a gift shop (my wife took a photo of the shameful transaction).

My daughter loves Cow and was disappointed when she couldn’t sleep with her on Sunday night because Cow was still wet. That’s when I realized, when my daughter moves out, I’ll keep Cow to remind me of her childhood. Everything else — the artwork, Hogwarts scarf, posters and so on — pale in comparison to Cow’s significance. I could let everything else of hers go. It’s my “rescue from a fire” item I’d grab for my daughter.

A few years ago, when my grandfather passed away, I traveled to New York for the services. We went through the things in his house, and I found many things I wanted to keep. My grandfather was a tremendous artist who worked in pewter and silver mainly, designing flatware and other pieces for Oneida, Ltd. While going through his house, we found so much more than forks, knives and spoons.

There were paintings, sketches, drawings, short stories, tools and so much more, including a steamer trunk from his time in the navy that bore incredible things. I wanted to take so much of it home.

But, I told myself no, and took some time deciding what few items I could store in our house as mementos. As I recovered from the overriding emotion, I thought about it more logically. All of that stuff, as amazing as it was, would be clutter in my home, stuffed in a basement, closet, or attic. I’d take it out to look at occasionally, then infrequently, then almost never. That’s not the kind of treatment my grandfather’s memory deserves.

In the end, I took two spoons he designed, as well as the original sketches for their design. At home, I got a shadowbox from a craft store, mounted them inside and hung the result on a wall as a piece of art. Now I see it almost daily and smile every time I do.

All of the love without the clutter.

My wife did something similar after her grandmother passed away. Her grandmother was a Polish immigrant who often cooked for my wife and her family when she was a kid, generating lasting memories. Today, we have a pastry cutter that she often used and a hand-written recipe plus a photo in a shadowbox that’s hanging, appropriately, in our kitchen.

Here’s one final example. I have a “thing” for T-shirts, much to my wife’s chagrin. Two years ago, she took several of my oldest ones, which I was too afraid to wear due to their age, and had them made into a beautiful quilt that lives on my bed. Again, all the sentiment with none of the clutter.

No, you don’t have to turn off your emotions when de-cluttering. Find that one awesome item (or two or three), treat it with the respect it deserves, and enjoy the uncluttered memories. Treat those things you hope you would be able to save in an emergency with the respect you feel for them.

We’ve cured boredom and that’s not good

My colleague at The Unofficial Apple Weblog, Chris Rawson, recently explained why most people should think long and hard before installing a beta version of the iPad and iPhone operating system. These betas are typically distributed to developers so that they can test their apps against future updates, but any interested party with $100 can sign up as a developer and get it themselvers. It was a great piece and contained this blurb from a frustrated iPad owner:

I recently bought an iPad right before a trip to Africa for a family vacation. Being right after the release of the iOS 5 beta 2, and being part of the development program, I [installed iOS 5 beta 2]. It worked very well for the first 2 weeks of my trip. Then at exactly the halfway point in my trip, the screen went black … It’s just sitting in my backpack now, useless for the next week until I’m home.

Really a pain, because I’m still in Africa with nothing but my iPod nano and an Internet cafe to entertain me for the rest of the trip.

Forget the iOS install and focus on the huge problem illustrated by this user: He’s on vacation in AFRICA — a foreign continent — and can’t find anything to do without his iPad.

There isn’t one single compelling thing to do in all of Africa?

I don’t condemn this reader individually, because he has succumbed to an insidious epidemic. Specifically, we’ve cured boredom. And that’s a real problem. In The Wall Street Journal, Scott Adams wrote back in 2011:

But wait — we might be in dangerous territory. Experts say our brains need boredom so we can process thoughts and be creative. I think they’re right. I’ve noticed that my best ideas always bubble up when the outside world fails in its primary job of frightening, wounding or entertaining me.

I make my living being creative and have always assumed that my potential was inherited from my parents. But for allowing my creativity to flourish, I have to credit the soul-crushing boredom of my childhood.

I’ve expressed this idea in less articulate terms myself. The insistent nature of Twitter, Facebook, and a thousand games in your pocket has produced a generation that never experiences a dull moment. That means we also never experience a contemplative moment, a reflective moment, a creative moment. Scott Belsky agrees:

Interruption-free space is sacred. Yet, in the digital era we live in, we are losing hold of the few sacred spaces that remain untouched by email, the internet, people, and other forms of distraction. Our cars now have mobile phone integration and a thousand satellite radio stations. When walking from one place to another, we have our devices streaming data from dozens of sources. Even at our bedside, we now have our iPads with heaps of digital apps and the world’s information at our fingertips.

I know this makes me sound like a cranky old misanthrope, but I don’t care. It’s impossible to generate a truly creative thought while the incessant barrage pelts us. It’s like complaining that we’re not dry while standing in a rain storm. You won’t dry off until you go inside and get away from the falling water.

Turn off, be quiet, and be comfortable with your thoughts. It’s OK, I promise.

Four steps to better decision making

Have you ever wondered why some decisions seem easier to make than others? Even when people appear to know what they want, making the decision to go in one direction or another can be complex. Sometimes having too many choices can hinder you. You might feel anxious because you don’t want to make the wrong choice and feel the accompanying regret. Whatever the reasons are that make deciding so difficult, there are some steps you can take to make the process at arriving at the best choice a little easier.

Remain neutral

Decisions are not always as straight forward as they may theoretically appear. The process of making a particular selection can be tricky because your feelings can play a role what you end up choosing. Dr. Jennifer Lerner, Director of Harvard Laboratory for Decision Science, conducts research on how one’s feelings can affect one’s perception of risk and how emotions influence one’s judgement and ability to make decisions. Though it may seem that having a negative emotion, like anger, would cloud your outlook and therefore influence you to make a more negative decision, Dr. Lerner’s research appears to indicate the opposite.

Anger makes you optimistic and makes you perceive less risk than if you were in a neutral state, and it makes you take more risks. So for example, you’re more likely to choose a gamble over a sure thing when you’re angry. Anger does a lot of other things, as well. It makes you think more heuristically rather than systematically. It automatically activates relative left frontal hemisphere, which is associated with approach. So when you’re mad, it predisposes you toward believing things are going to work out your way, believing that you have some sense of control. It gives you a sense of certainty, makes you take more risks, perceive less risk, think less deeply, a whole series of choices.

Dr. Lerner also found that people who were feeling sad tended to spend more money when shopping than if they weren’t feeling any strong emotion at all. That said, you wouldn’t want to be feeling any emotional extreme as you are at the moment of deciding what action to take. Instead, consider engaging in activities that would get you back to a neutral state. For each person, that activity can vary so take a minute to think about the types of things that help to regulate your emotions (or keep them in check).

Seek an objective opinion

A public declaration can sometimes help you attain important goals you have set for yourself. You’ll often get encouragement from others to keep making progress. In a similar way, seeking the opinion of a non-biased, trusted advisor, friend, or colleague can give you a different perspective or validate your position. You may want to pick one or two people that you’ll consult with so that you don’t get stuck in the process. When too many people are involved, then it becomes a decision by committee. This would likely make the process take longer than necessary, so be strategic about the number of people you seek for counsel.

Analyze the potential outcomes

All decisions have consequences and it helps to know what they are (or could be) no matter which choice you make. Assess the pros and cons of each one and determine if the benefits outweigh the risks. Using a pro vs. con list can help you pinpoint the various aspects of each decision and help you to arrive at the best choice for you. You might also want to “road test” your options (when possible) and live as though you’ve already made a selection so that you see the possible outcomes. Doing this can also help you to solidify your intended goal (change careers, relocate, make a major purchase) and give purpose to the entire process.

Come up with Plan B

As you think through the possible directions you could go in, you’re likely to come up with some options that might qualify as your “Plan B” should you need an alternate option to fall back on. Knowing that you have a secondary plan should put your mind at ease in the event that you need to change course or if something unexpected occurs.