Archives for The Big Picture
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Return each item to its home after each use. If it doesn’t have a home, it can’t stay.
- Make a sign to hang at the entrance of the room:
THIS ROOM IS FOR WATCHING TV, READING, AND PLAYING GAMES
Anything not used for these purposes must stay away!
- Anyone breaking the rule can be fined. Use the money to hire a cleaner or go out to dinner.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Today we welcome Jeri Dansky to our Unclutterer content team. She’ll have a weekly post full of uncluttering and organizing advice that is guided by her many successful years as a professional organizer.
What would happen if you became seriously ill and a family member or friend had to make sure you and your household were properly taken care of?
Of course, it’s wise to have a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care or the equivalents. (The specific documents you need will depend on where you live.) You’ll also want a financial power of attorney or whatever legal document provides a similar ability to manage your money on your behalf. Consider consulting with an estate attorney to make sure you’re prepared in this regard.
Even with these legal documents in place, you still have some preparation to do. Think of all the things someone would need to know in order to run your life on your behalf. Here are just a few:
- What medicines are you taking? Do you have any allergies? What immunizations have you had? What are the major events in your medical history: surgeries, etc.?
- If you have pets, what do they get fed, and when? Are they taking any medications? If so, where are those medications and how do they get taken?
- What’s the password to pick up your voice mail messages? How would someone check your email?
- Where is your calendar — and if it’s online, how does it get accessed? Are there any standing appointments that should be cancelled?
- Where is your address book — and again, how does it get accessed if it’s online? Who should be notified if there’s a serious problem?
- Do you have a post office box where mail should be checked? Where’s the key for the box?
- What regular bills get paid automatically, and which ones need to get paid manually? Will someone need access to your online bill paying systems? Will someone need the PIN for your ATM card?
- Is there a home alarm system? If so, how does it work?
- Are there any quirks about your home that someone should know about? For example, in my home, the switch for the garbage disposal is hard to find.
It may seem, at first, that pulling this information together only matters if you’re single — but actually, everyone could benefit by gathering this information and sharing it with trusted people. Sometimes, one spouse or life partner doesn’t know everything the other one does. And, there are scenarios where both spouses or partners would need help at the same time.
It’s natural to avoid thinking about the chance of anything bad happening to us — but it’s a real kindness to your friends and family to take the time to pull this information together, just in case it’s needed. I remember being in the emergency room with my mom, filling out the hospital admission forms and trying desperately to remember if it was her left hip or her right that got replaced some years ago. When Mom had surgery and was away from home for weeks, I was glad I knew all the little things to do, such as canceling her weekly appointment at the beauty salon. While it wouldn’t have been a tragedy if I didn’t cancel that appointment, it was a nice courtesy. It also comforted my mom to know I’d be taking care of such things for her.
I’ve written about the benefits of a trusted system before. It can be anything you like, really: index cards in your pocket, project management software, a notepad, audio recorder, whatever. The crucial thing is that your brain knows: 1.) You’ll enter information into it reliably; 2.) You’ll check on it regularly, and 3.) Nothing entered into the system will get lost through the cracks. Some people use Getting Things Done, while some use a home-grown solution. When you trust your system in your bones, your brain will stop nagging you about what needs to be done.
That nagging happens to me when I carry around excessive “mental clutter.” As I’ve said before, I use David Allen’s definition of clutter (I’m paraphrasing here): Anything that isn’t where it’s supposed to be for all time. For example, sneakers lying under the coffee table are clutter until they’re placed in the shoe basket in the mudroom. Likewise, “Dentist appointment on the 14th at 9:00 AM” is clutter while it’s in my mind until I write it on a calendar that I know I’ll check.
Mental clutter is detrimental to me in several ways. When I my mind is cluttered I remember obligations when it’s impossible to do anything about them (“Finish William’s Pinewood Derby car” is useless to me while doing 60 mph on the highway), and the subsequent distraction causes me to miss other, more important things.
Now, about the snowman.
A year ago, I was in the checkout line with my then-4-year-old son. He clanked his Keds against the steel shopping cart as I moved bottled water, bagels, and potato chips onto the conveyor belt. While my hands worked I thought about which items would go into the freezer, which ones I’d cook right away, what we’d eat later that night….
“Daddy, look at the snowman.”
“Look at the snowman.”
“Honey, it’s summer time. There’s no snowman.”
“I see a snowman.”
I looked up, my arms moving items from cart to belt, my eyes scanning the store. “Where’s your snowman, honey?”
He pointed. I looked. I saw it.
A snowman. In the floral department, there was a balloon shaped like a snowman, about 18 inches tall.
I hadn’t noticed it. I never would have if he hadn’t pointed it out. What’s more, he was right. Why would there be a snowman balloon for sale in July? What an odd thing that I missed. What else had I missed? I wanted to know.
That’s when I vowed to notice what I was missing. The first step, I figured, was to identify how I was missing things. Once I found it, I could change it and then cease missing things. I began to monitor my habits. Initially I didn’t change them, I just observed. I was stunned at how frequently I invited distraction upon myself. Here’s what I was doing:
Waking up in the morning, and switching on the news. Dressing while barely glancing at my clothing. Heck, I was watching the news while barely glancing at the TV. Between buttons and sound bites, my eyes were scanning emails while my brain was running its own acrobatics. What will happen today? What will happen this weekend? I need to do laundry. Why are the kids moving so slowly, don’t they know it’s a school day?
There were constant distractions and a mentally consuming dialogue like this throughout the entire day.
Eventually, I realized something significant — I never did what I was doing. For example, when I got dressed in the morning, I didn’t get dressed. Instead, I spent that time filtering much incoming stimuli: The TV, email, my children’s progress toward getting ready for school and so on. My mind wasn’t on what was happening, which was selecting clothing, buttoning a shirt, tying a shoe, tightening a belt.
With the problem identified, I worked on eliminating it. In the morning, I turned off the TV and the computer and just got dressed. I even told myself, “I’m getting dressed.” It was nice! I kept doing it. I found that I appreciate that I have the motor skills required to dress myself. I found that I have nice clothes. I found that my backyard looks nice in the morning through the bedroom window, and I can look down on the berry patch and rhubarb plants. When I was done, I felt, well, happy.
I also realize that there’s so much good in the ordinary. Kurt Vonnegut expressed this more eloquently that I can:
“[When Kurt Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying an envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babies. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, I don’t know. The moral of the story is, we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, with the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.”
Now, I’m not saying it’s impossible to do two things at once. Nor am I suggesting that we eschew productivity or fail to pack the kids’ lunches because it’s time to examine every detail of every moment. I still occasionally write and listen to music at the same time, or breeze through my Twitter stream like a humming bird, or review the day’s schedule in my head. But now I know that’s what I’m doing, if that makes sense. And I’m missing a lot less.
When you’re looking for inspiration and motivation to accomplish a goal, it can be helpful to look for analogies or similar features with other topics. Doing this can also reinforce the purpose of a goal or even help you to see things a little differently. You’ve probably noticed that losing the weight of clutter is often associated with losing those extra pounds that can creep up on your body. I once likened clutter to armadillos and, recently, it seemed to me that uncluttering can be a lot like running. Both require discipline and strong commitment if you’re to accomplish the results you’re looking for. Often, the tips given to people who are just starting a running program can also be applied to becoming more organized.
Create a plan with action steps
New runners can benefit from setting particular goals they want achieve each time they go running (distance, specific pace) as well as time-based goals (daily, weekly, monthly). Unclutterers need a plan, too, for without one, your activities will be scattered and you won’t have a good way of tracking your progress. To give yourself a better chance of succeeding, break your overall goal into mini-goals or action steps and add deadlines to help keep you accountable.
Unclutter every day
To get in the routine of running, new runners will likely need a bit of practice. Hitting the pavement (or the treadmill) sporadically may not help you develop that routine, so those taking up the activity for the first time are often advised to run for a few minutes every day. The same holds true for uncluttering. Engaging in a few minutes of daily organizing activities will help you to tackle the clutter and solidify a regular set of organizing habits, especially if you’re not feeling very motivated at the outset.
Use the right supplies
To avoid injury, runners must find a shoe that is not too small or too big — it must fit properly from toe to heel. Since sizes differ from brand to brand, it’s important to have your feet measured at the time of each purchase.
Just as runners need the right pair of shoes before they hit the pavement, it’s important for unclutterers to get the right tools. It may be tempting to run out (see what I did there?) and buy containers in multiple sizes and colors without giving any thought to:
- The volume of things that you’ll keep
- Where you’ll store your items
Avoid that buying temptation by first sorting and indexing the items that you’re keeping. That way, you can then find the right containers to fit the number of things you have in the designated storage location. Otherwise, purchases made without advanced planning can end up adding more clutter to your space.
Track your progress
Some runners keep a journal to look back on past successes and obstacles that they overcame. Journaling can be an inspirational tool and help you to continue reaching your goals. As you unclutter, consider writing down your successes as well as specific strategies that have worked for you. These will be helpful, particularly on days when things don’t go according to plan.
Work with a friend
Running doesn’t have to be a solitary activity. But, new runners may be a bit self-conscious if they don’t have the proper running form yet or are really slow. I suspect that people who decide to get more organized may have similar fears and be worried what their friends may think. But, when you partner with someone, the process can seem more manageable, you can get much needed help, and you may learn new strategies. Working with someone that you trust can not only distract you from the fears you may be feeling, but he/she can also help you stay focused on the uncluttering task at hand.
Remind yourself that you are an unclutterer
On those days when you’re feeling a little discouraged, be sure to keep your negative thoughts in check. If you let them hang about, this can lead to stress. Forcefully push doubts aside and remind yourself that you are an unclutterer. The seasoned runners at RunnersWorld.com recognize newbies can become discouraged in the beginning and use this quote as a reminder to turn those thoughts around: “We are all runners, some just run faster than others. I never met a fake runner.”
Clutter can be a wily and cunning opponent. Sometimes, it just seems to appear as if out of nowhere. It sneaks up behind you and overpowers you with a bit of help from long work hours, too many projects, a busy travel schedule, and a lack of sleep. But, you can turn the tables on clutter and fight your way out of its grip. By gaining a good understanding of all its nuances, you’ll have a better chance of thwarting its attempt at getting control of all your living spaces.
As you probably already know, you will need to craft and execute a plan of attack. In fact, each room in your home may need its own plan. Since the layout and furniture is likely different in each area, clutter can build up in different ways. So, be observant. Look out for how pockets of clutter materialize. Does it happen at night when you’re feeling most tired? Or, perhaps in the morning when you’re not feeling as prepared as you’d like to be? As you notice the particular ways that clutter collects, stage a counterattack. Think of specific steps you can take to stop it from infiltrating your space. For example, you might keep an “out” box for things that need to be mailed, returned, or donated. Or, you can simply use a basket to collect the stuff you bring home from work. Once you find a strategy that works, keep it in your arsenal and use it often. And, if you live with others, encourage them to do the same.
Now, keep in mind that clutter doesn’t only build up, but it can also hide from you. Somehow it knows that you’ll probably forget that bag of mail that you stashed in the closet when you had company over or the linens you threw inside the closet. It can also hide in plain sight, like under furniture, inside storage chests, and under piles of paper on your desk. Your plan for each room should include a reminder to look in places that may not be so obvious.
In a final stealth move, clutter can lurk in a place that’s perhaps closest to you — your mind. Old arguments, hurt feelings, past mistakes, and fears about the future can take up residence in your thoughts. When these negative thoughts congregate in your head, they make it difficult to follow through on your clutter-busting plans and, more importantly, hamper your ability to just feel happy. Flush them out and replace them with positive thoughts and ideas. But, be cautious. Even seemingly harmless things — like that great business idea or interesting project you’re working on — can take over during times that they need to be quiet (like when you’re on vacation or hanging out with friends). Give them attention when it’s time to focus on work and be sure to put them away when it’s time to relax, to have fun — to just be.
Arm yourself with the right tools so you can turn the tables on clutter, and you’ll soon find yourself reveling in the victory of hard-fought battle.