Three organizing lessons I learned 30 years ago

I’m not one of those people who obsessively organized her books, clothes, or toys as a child — but I do thank my family, and one of my first bosses, for teaching me some valuable lessons as a child and a young adult. The following are important life lessons they taught me, years before I became a professional organizer:

Perfectionism often doesn’t pay

I have distinct perfectionist tendencies, but over the years I’ve learned that they don’t always serve me well. The story that really highlights this happened when I was in middle school.

I had a homework assignment that involved listing the rivers found in a number of the 50 states. I sat at my desk with a big atlas, and wrote down every single river in those states. There are a lot of rivers, and this was a very time-consuming task.

My parents insisted that the teacher really just wanted the biggest rivers and that I was going overboard — which, in retrospect, I certainly was. But there was no convincing me, and I missed an annual family outing to the local cider mill — something I looked forward to every year — so I could complete the assignment to my ridiculous level of detail. I gave up delicious cider and fresh-cooked doughnuts, and no one cared about my very complete list of rivers except me.

I didn’t learn my lesson back in grade school, but the story has since become my touchstone when I find myself veering back into unnecessary perfectionism. “Are you doing the river thing again?” I’ll ask myself.

Keep up on maintenance

My family lived in Michigan, and I had a beloved aunt, uncle, and three cousins who lived in Florida. Much to my delight as a grade-school kid — and much to my mother’s horror — these relatives would sometimes take road trips, which included coming to visit us with almost zero notice.

I remember getting a phone call from my aunt telling me that all five of them were at a certain intersection, and asking how to get to our house from there. She was about a five-minute drive away.

As I grew older, I understood why my mother went into a tizzy when she got such calls. And the lesson I took away was to always be ready for unexpected (but very welcome) company.

While I’m far from being a neat freak, I do want to keep my life and my home organized enough — no perfectionism here — that I would always be delighted to get a call like the one from my aunt. It requires doing maintenance tasks (like putting things back in their homes) on a regular basis.

Focus on one thing at a time

I remember a day in one of my first jobs when I was feeling totally overwhelmed. My boss came by and coached me through it. “What’s the first thing you need to do?” he asked. Then he had me ignore everything else, and only work on getting that one thing done. Then I moved on to the next thing and the next, until it all got done.

The same strategy can apply to other situations, like an overwhelming backlog of papers to sort. You pick up just one piece of paper and decide what to do with it. And then the next and the next — and after a while, the paperwork is complete.

Identifying a collection

Collections aren’t inherently bad. The first book collectors helped create libraries and the first collectors of antiquities helped establish museums. Collections help us identify with the world around us and introduce us to like-minded people. However, labelling a group of similar items a “collection” does not automatically make it one. The following are guidelines to help you identify a collection:

Intention. A collection is intentional. There are certain items that meet the criteria for being a part of the collection and others that don’t. For example, when you collect “vintage pig salt and pepper shakers” you wouldn’t have brand new salt and pepper shakers or vintage cow salt and pepper shakers in your collection.

Time. You are able to spend time managing the collection without sacrificing the time you spend on your job or with your family. You take the time to ensure the items are clean, in good condition, and properly stored. You enjoy spending time with other collectors discussing the collectibles, trading, or buying and selling pieces.

Money. Your collection does not put your financial security at risk. You know the value of the items, know how much new pieces cost, and where to find the best deals for new acquisitions. You may also have prepared a budget for your collection and have ranked new pieces in order of priority of purchase.

Space. Your collection does not take up so much space that it impairs the normal functioning of your home. Because your collection reflects your life, you’ve taken the time to arrange the pieces to complement the beauty of your home. There may be many pieces to your collection but each one is has a special place.

Investment. The investment in your collection should be the joy that it brings you. You might be able to sell a few pieces for a profit but you’re not counting on it for your retirement savings plan. The last time I checked there were over 2700 Star Wars figurines for sale on ebay and 95 per cent of them were selling at less than $100 each.

Future Provisions. You’ve made some decisions on what should happen to the collection when you are unable to care for it. If you’re giving it to someone, that person has agreed to take care of the collection and enjoy it as much as you have. If no one wants to take the collection, you’ve made appropriate plans to sell it.

Overall, the collection should be a joy to own. Seeing it should reduce stress and bring peace-of-mind. The collection should bring a feeling of peace and contentment and reflect part of who you are. If your collection is taking up too much time, money, or space and/or if it isn’t bringing joy to your life, it may have crossed into the clutter category and it may be time to let it go.

3-D printing: For better or for worse?

You may remember Erin mentioning that I recently attended a Star Trek Convention. One thing I enjoy about Star Trek is that it provides an interesting view into the future. For example, on the original series (1966-1969) the crew of the Enterprise used communicators that resembled cell phones of the mid-1990s. The Enterprise crew of The Next Generation (1987-1994) used tablets that resemble iPads (2010).

On Star Trek, because of the limitations in deep space travel, food and other items such as clothing and tools were created using a device called a “replicator”. Replicators use recycled items and transforms them into new items. Today, this technology is available to us in a limited form — the 3-D printer.

3-D printers are very useful. Dentists can create crowns for teeth without the need for dental moulds. Custom orthotics can be created faster and more easily. 3-D printing allows developing countries to produce everyday items we take for granted using recycled materials readily available, thereby avoiding the costs of production and shipping.

Over the next decade, the cost of 3-D printers will steadily decline and become affordable for the average North American. Owning a 3-D printer could be beneficial as it would be easy to create replacement parts for objects that have broken. This could lead to fewer items being sent to landfill, as it would be easy to make repairs. Also, items could be customized to function better for your specific situation. For example, if you cannot find a shelf at the store to fit your uniquely sized space, a customized shelf could be built with a 3-D printer and that would allow you to become better organized.

However, 3-D printing is a double-edged sword. The cost for raw material is relatively low. Would consumers spend time building items that would create even more clutter in their homes and offices? (Custom bobble-head doll anyone?) Would even more items end up in landfills because it will be too easy for people to create items they don’t really need?

In the Star Trek series Voyager, Captain Janeway refused to share replicator technology with certain alien species because she felt they were not ready to use it wisely. Are we ready to use 3-D printing to reduce clutter and improve our lives?

Kicking off February with Valentine’s Day resolutions

Last year, I was inspired by David Seah’s post “Ground Hog Day Resolutions.” In the post, he introduces a set of goals that he revisits monthly with standardized check-ins. Each goal is meant to provide a tangible means of fostering success throughout the year. I came across this practice on Valentine’s Day, so my list of Valentine’s Day resolutions (VDR) was born.

Defining a VDR

A Valentine’s Day resolution is a monthly goal. I’ve decided to focus on professional resolutions, not personal ones. To be considered, a goal must meet certain criteria. Specifically, a VDR must (this list is strongly influenced by Seah, as his list is darn-near perfect):

  • Make me more visible.
  • Build a product inventory.
  • Create a reason for people to visit my site.
  • Build a new habit.
  • Build excellence (practice makes perfect).

Review Days

A goal that meets all five criteria will be considered. Once a goal is set, it requires a monthly check-in, so that progress/success/failure can be determined. To make things easy, I’ve made the check-in date for each month equal to that month’s number on the calendar. For example, in April, my VDR review day (VDRR) is on the 4th. In May, the 5th and so forth. Therefore, my schedule looks like this:

March 3 — VDRR #1
April 4 – VDRR #2
May 5 – VDRR #3
June 6 – VDRR #4
July 7 – VDRR #5
August 8 – VDRR #6
September 9 – VDRR #7
October 10 – VDRR #8
November 11 – VDRR #9
December 12 – VDRR #10

There are no goals set for January, as the beginning of the new year is set aside for reflection and relaxation.

My February resolution

My main professional goal for 2014 is to improve my writing skills. This February, I will write one post per day on my personal site. This satisfies all of my criteria: it increases visibility, builds a product inventory, creates a reason for people to visit the site, reinforces a productive new habit, and fosters excellence.

I encourage you to play along. You needn’t adopt professional goals, of course. Anything will work. Define the criteria that will represent success for yourself and set up monthly review periods (that’s the crucial bit). And, by December, I should have accomplished nine awesome monthly goals.

Rules of organized people

Lately, Unclutterer writer Jacki Hollywood Brown and I have been sending each other links to humorous articles about people who come up as the INTJ type on the Meyers-Briggs personality test. Both Jacki and I are this rare result (fewer than 3 percent of females), and although we don’t put a huge amount of stake in these test results, we both nod our heads and smile when we read articles describing traits that are common to our INTJ type.

It is in this same vein that I present these rules of being organized. Obviously, they aren’t laws and don’t all apply exactly to everyone who is organized. Rather, they’re a trend. They’re a fun way to get a big picture view of how people who are organized live. As we do with the INTJ personality descriptions, feel welcome to nod and smile as you read through this list, but please stop short of printing it out and handing it to someone demanding they adopt each of these rules. (Although, my INTJ personality does love a good checklist …)

Rules for being organized

  1. Know yourself. Organized people typically know themselves very well. They know how they access information and goods and create storage systems that reflect these preferences. They know how many steps is too many for them to maintain order. They know how they prefer to work and live. They know what they need, and what they don’t need. They know their responsibilities. Most importantly, they know what they want in life and what their priorities are.
  2. Being organized is not the goal. People who are organized are not organized for the sake of being organized. They are organized so they can enjoy the benefits of being organized. An organized life is their way of getting rid of distractions so they can focus on what matters most to them.
  3. Expect to fail. No one is organized in every aspect of their life every day of their life. People fall off the organized wagon. The difference between organized and disorganized people, however, is that organized people accept this as part of the process and simply start again. We’re human; we don’t have super powers.
  4. A place for everything, and everything in its place. People who are organized have a place to store every single item they have in their home. If something doesn’t have a storage place, it will always be out of place and in the way. Each shirt needs a hanger or a space in a drawer. If there isn’t enough room to store all of your shirts, there will always be dirty laundry or clean laundry hanging out in a hamper. If shoes don’t have a place to live, they will wind up in the middle of the living room floor or in a heap by the door.
  5. Write it down. This could also be stated as “capture it” or “type it in.” The point is that organized people get their to-do items out of their heads and onto a list or calendar so they don’t worry about dropping the ball. No need to remember you have a dentist appointment on Thursday when you can just look at your calendar and see that it’s scheduled on Thursday. Your mental resources are free to think about important problems/happy thoughts/complex issues instead of when, six months from now, you should be at your dentist’s office.
  6. Routines are the backbone of organization. Organized people have routines worked into their days to take care of the boring, repetitive, and/or undesirable tasks. At the end of a work day, the desk is cleared, tomorrow’s calendar and to-do lists are reviewed, and the desk is set so it is ready to go the next morning so work can begin immediately. After school, the kids pull out their lunch boxes and put them on the kitchen counter and then have a snack high in protein before settling in to do their homework. At bedtime, the kids take a bath, put on their pajamas, have no more than three books read to them (which have been chosen prior to the bath), and then it is lights out at the same time every night. Actions are dependable and familiar and provide stability.
  7. Follow through and don’t delay. Organized people don’t see dinner as being finished when the last bite of food is swallowed. Organized people see dinner as being finished when the table is cleared and wiped down, the floor has been swept, all dirty dishes have been loaded into the dishwasher, and the dishwasher is started. Wrapping a present isn’t finished when the bow is placed on the package but only after all supplies — tape, wrapping paper — have been properly stored. If anything can be done in less than two minutes, it will be done straight away instead of putting it on a to-do list.
  8. Do your part. Organized people tend to see that they are part of a unit or team instead of a lone wolf. This means, if they share a house with someone, they know they have responsibilities about cleaning, caring, and maintaining the home simply because they live there. They try not to make work for other people and do what has been assigned to them. Or, if they are in charge of assigning work, they know that everyone involved has a stake in the project/home/team/etc. and thus make sure everyone has responsibilities reflecting their abilities to contribute.
  9. Don’t own a lot of superfluous stuff. When organized people cease having a need for something, they typically get rid of it. They only keep what they value or use.
  10. Trust in the future. Most organized people trust that in the future they will be able to either buy, borrow, or acquire the tools they will need when they need them. Saving an unnecessary object just in case isn’t really an organized person’s style. That being said, an organized person does tend to have things that are useful and necessary on hand when they are needed. For example, toilet paper rarely runs out in an organized person’s home because systems are in place for storing and replacing toilet paper as demand requires. An organized person will likely have one shelf in a linen closet designated for toilet paper storage and when supply depletes beyond a certain point, toilet paper will be added to the shopping list. Conversely, an organized person doesn’t buy more toilet paper than can fit on the toilet paper storing shelf just because there is a deal. Other deals will come and an organized person trusts that he will take advantage of those other deals when he needs more toilet paper.
  11. You are not your things and your things don’t contain souls. Organized people aren’t heartless creatures who never feel anything sentimental toward a physical object. In fact, they might be sentimental fools. This being said, they are rational enough to know that grandpa is not IN the painting he left them after he died. They know that the baby blanket they saved for their child is not their child. If they get rid of the object or if the object is destroyed in a fire, their memories still exist and they still love grandpa and their child.
  12. It’s better to have a tree than a forest. Sometimes I phrase this as “quality over quantity.” Either way, organized people tend to keep the best object (best, obviously, being subjective to the keeper) instead of all the objects. Instead of keeping a five inch stack of their child’s artwork from kindergarten, they keep their favorite piece and hang it on the wall or store it in an archival quality way. Instead of printing every photograph from a favorite vacation and hanging all 427 images on the wall, they frame their one favorite image or use it as their screensaver on their computer.
  13. Being organized isn’t for everyone, it’s a choice only you can make for yourself. Simply stated, you can’t force someone to be organized. Not everyone has a desire to be organized. There are multiple paths to a happy, fulfilled life, and being organized is just one path to that goal. You can certainly teach others about how to be organized and you can let them see the benefits you garner from being organized, but you can’t force someone into being organized. And, harboring resentment toward others for not being organized only clutters up your time. Accept their decision, no matter how much it frustrates you. Maybe one day they will come around to your way of seeing things and they will be more likely to ask for your help if they’re not mad at you for being a jerk to them when they weren’t.
  14. Anyone can be organized. Being organized is a skill set, it is not a natural ability — it’s nurture, not nature. It certainly comes more easily to some people, but that doesn’t mean an organized life is impossible to achieve if it comes slowly to someone else. Being organized takes practice, same as a sport.

Benefits of being organized

Every day at Unclutterer, we share tips, tricks, thoughts, and strategies for a clutter-free lifestyle. As 2014 begins, I want to step back and see the proverbial forest instead of the trees. Just what are the benefits of being organized? It’s potentially a long list, but I’ve narrowed it down to what has affected me the most. Read on for what I consider the benefits of an organized life, at home and at work.

  1. Less stress. Above anything else, this is the number one reason I burn calories to stay on top of things. Here’s a great example: This year, I’m making a concerted effort to keep my office neat and tidy (I work from home and my office is also my bedroom). I added a bulletin board and have designated a home for everything: inbox, keys, wallet, office supplies, charger cables, and more. Now, when I need something, I know exactly where it is. This fact reduces stress and allows me to …
  2. Relax more. I once saw a bumper sticker that read, “Organized people are just too lazy to search for stuff.” That’s cute, but I’d rather be the “lazy” one mentioned in the punchline. Less time spent running around means more time. Just, more time to do what I want to do, like …
  3. Spend time with my family. Getting clean and clear professionally and personally means I’ve got more time to spend with the kids and my wife. For example, my workday ends at 2:00, just as I drive to the school bus. I know that I’ll be spending the next six hours with my family. That’s easy to do when I took care of all my work stuff before then.
  4. I’m ready for a curveball. I’m sure you know how this goes: life throws a kink into the works that interrupts your plans in a major way. Being prepared ahead of time lessens the impact. For example, I have a designated “emergency” office and ultra-portable setup ready. That way, if my Internet connection goes down at home, or a construction crew sets up outside my window, I already know where I’m going to go to work and what I need to bring.
  5. The overwhelming seems manageable. I never would have believed this if I hadn’t experienced it myself. I don’t care if you’re talking about work, the kids, or home management, but it’s a great feeling to have every project defined, and every action step that stands between you and “done” clearly identified. When I do this, I can look at a daunting to-do list and feel like I’m on top of it and capable of doing what needs to be done.
  6. Improved health. The stress I mentioned earlier, which I feel when things start to get out of control, does not promote good health. There are numerous studies that demonstrate a link between sustained high levels of stress and a variety of health problems.
  7. I’m a better example for my kids. There was a time when I spent most of my time behind my computer, working on this or that. I felt productive, sure, but I also worried about the message I was sending to the kids. Adults work all the time? My job is more important than them? I want my kids to become productive, contributing adults, of course, but I want them to enjoy life, too, and that absolutely includes time spent not working.
  8. Fewer little jobs. There are four people in my house. If we miss a day or two of laundry, we’re behind. That means that, some day this week, someone has to spend an inordinate amount of time digging out from Mt. Clothing in the basement. However, just turning over a single load per day makes all the difference. Little things like making sure the kids put their hats and boots away each day after school improves our family’s ability to easily function.
  9. Greater productivity. When you know where things are, what your goals are, and take care of the piddley busy work as it appears, you’ve got significantly more time and energy for the big goals in life.

An organized life takes some doing, and you’re going to slip up. No one is clean and clear all day, every day! But when you strive to do the best you can, you’ll experience the benefits listed above … and more. Here’s to an organized and rewarding 2014, unclutterers! May you experience the best of an organized life.

Getting started with a daily routine

A few years ago, I was fed up with the frenzy of realizing something important was due … two hours after I had missed a deadline. After much trial and error, and a little dragging of my feet, I’ve established a workable daily routine. For me, adherence to a routine is especially important. Since I work from home, I’ve only got six hours to myself while my wife and kids are at school, and enough work for much more than that. I keep it all manageable, in part, with a fixed routine. It’s all about knowing what’s coming, preparing ahead of time, and finding a “home” for key items and ideas.

The view from up here – knowing what’s coming

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of my routine, I must briefly address projects. I define a project as David Allen does: anything that takes more than one action step to complete. Therefore, “land the new client” is a project, but so is “give Jr. permission to go on the field trip.”

In Getting Things Done, Allen emphasizes the importance of dealing with your stuff “when it shows up, not when it blows up.” If you can get past the Doctor Phil-ness of that rhyme, you see the wisdom in it. Remembering Jr.’s permission slip is no good after he’s been at school for two hours.

With this in mind, I have a running list of what tasks need to be done. My list is a week long, and it lives on a bulletin board behind my desk (I’ve previously written about my search for the perfect bulletin board). Each Sunday, I review what must be done over the next week, write those actions on index cards, and pin them to the board.

Preparing ahead of time

It took me years to learn this lesson. Remember the kid who was always rushing last second to finish that paper in school?

Hello. Nice to see you again.

Today I’ve finally realized that I’m not an adrenaline junkie, and that last-second frenzy is not something I enjoy. As a result, my daily routine actually begins the night before. As evening draws near, I:

  1. Make sure the kids’ bags are packed for school and that all required papers, etc. are inside those bags.
  2. Ensure that clean, weather-appropriate clothing is available for school the next morning.
  3. Review the “home” calendar (I have a separate work calendar) for pressing to-dos (sign permission slips, special pick-up or drop-off arrangements, etc.) and act accordingly.
  4. Review what’s due at work tomorrow, make sure it’s written down, and any necessary materials are ready to go for the morning.

Your evening prep list might look different, but the idea is the same: review what’s due tomorrow — be it a PowerPoint presentation or snow boots and gloves — and get it as ready as you can the night before.

Finding a home

Being who I am (warning: one NSFW word in the title of the linked post) I tend to misplace things. Just like the sun tends to be hot. So, a part of my daily routine has been to ensure that everything is where it needs to be.

This isn’t the same as my evening prep. Instead, I’ve established a “home” for important items when they’re idle. For example, car keys are always in the Roscoe, New York, coffee mug on my night stand. Always. My coat and hat live on the second peg of the closet door. Even when I’m walking around, I know which pocket each doohicky should inhabit (phone is right front, every day).

Following these rules impacts my day significantly. I can’t afford to spend 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there looking for who knows what. I’ve done that and it’s not fun. An ongoing part of my daily routine is to put everything in its proper place as I go.

General guidelines

The website Personal Organizing has shared some good, general tips for establishing and, more importantly, adhering to a daily routine. Some highlights include:

  1. Make breakfast simple. Find something nutritious that you can routinely prepare without much fuss.
  2. Organize the kitchen and pantry cabinets. Meal prep is easier, and everyone living with you can answer, “where does this go?” all on their own.
  3. Have a good mail management system. In regards to paper mail, my wife and I have our own desks for processing this stuff, and that’s been a godsend.
  4. Get the pets on a schedule. It takes some doing, but it’s definitely worth it.

Keeping New Year’s resolutions

Have you resolved to get more organized in 2014? The following suggestions are ways to ensure you actually accomplish the goals you’ve set.

Get a buddy or a support group

Here’s what works best for me when I’m trying to keep a resolution: involving other people in helping me reach my goal. One of my goals is to go walking daily. I have been most successful when I had a walking buddy as we’d keep each other going. Another thing that worked, although not quite as well, has been to get a Fitbit. I have friends that also use Fitbits, and we see each other’s daily step counts, and cheer each other on.

I’ve also found that having an accountability partner works well for me. For the past few months, I’ve been exchanging daily emails with a friend, telling her what I accomplished that day, and often mentioning my plans for the next day; she sends similar messages to me. Knowing I’m going to tell someone what I’ve completed inspires me to have good news to report every day. We’re each other’s cheering squad — and who couldn’t use one of those?

Be willing to adjust if necessary

If you find you’re having a hard time with a particular resolution, maybe you need to rethink it. For example, could you reach your goal using a different strategy than you originally had in mind?

Let’s say your goal was to keep up with your mail (or your email) and not let things pile up in your inbox. Maybe you intended to clear out your inbox every day. If that’s not working for you, what could you adjust? Would it work better to tackle this at a different time of day? Would it work better to set this as a weekly goal rather than a daily goal? Would it help to focus on eliminating the incoming mail, so there’s less to go through each day? Could someone else do a part of the “dealing with the mail” work?

You may find the resolution you set was simply overly ambitious. Maybe the answer is to set a new goal that still moves you in the right direction, even if it doesn’t take you quite as far, quite as quickly.

Make things easy; remove barriers

Continuing on the mail example: Do you get a lot of items that require shredding? If so, do you have a good shredder?

More generally, make sure you have the tools you need to support you in reaching your goals. For example, when I needed to get more exercise, one thing I needed was a pair of better shoes than the ones I had.

Understand the science of habits

Stopping bad habits and developing new ones isn’t always easy. If you understand more about how habits work, you may find it easier to get those new habits in place. One place to start would be The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, which looks at some recent research on this subject. Steve Silberman has an informative review of the book, as well as an interview with Duhigg.

It’s also worth realizing, as Margaret Lukens points out, establishing new habits might take longer than the 21 days or 30 days you’ve probably heard about. If it’s taking a while for your new habits to become automatic, that’s normal — and no reason to get discouraged.

A case against New Year’s Resolutions

I think I’m the only person I know who doesn’t make New Year’s Resolutions. I used to when I was younger, but I never followed through on any of them. When I was older I developed strategies for following through on my resolutions. I made plans. I made sure my resolutions were S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely). Yet, even with all of this planning and organizing, I still could not keep my resolutions beyond the first week in January.

After a few years of feeling guilty and beating myself up about this, I took a good hard look at why my New Year’s Resolutions may not work.

Why New Year’s resolutions often fail

January is a busy time of year

Usually there is a two-week holiday surrounding Christmas and the New Year. Vacations and visiting family and friends can cause major disruptions in routines and schedules. Getting back on track can be a chore in itself. Trying to re-vamp your life with resolutions during this time can be almost impossible.

December is often the fiscal year end

If you’re running a business and your fiscal year end is December 31, there may be the added work of bookkeeping and accounting to deal with on top of the vacations and visitors. Trying to implement your resolution of re-organizing your home when your business needs more of your time can create frustration and may lead to failure.

In the northern hemisphere, January has bad weather

For those in the north, January is cold and there is lots of snow and ice. There can be major power outages. Local governments may even declare states of emergency. During times like these, resolutions often fall by the wayside and may not be continued afterwards. You’re focused on staying warm and providing for your basic needs, in addition to it often being gloomy.

The date is arbitrary

With celebrations and champagne, the first day of January may feel like a momentous time. However, the celebration could be any day of the year. Except for adding new pages to your daily calendar and nursing a hangover, there isn’t any difference between January 1 and May 1.

Alternatives to New Year’s Resolutions

Make your resolutions on another date

Your birthday is the start of another new year of your life. It may be the perfect time to start your resolutions. Many people choose the start of the new school year as a good date to make resolutions. The Chinese New Year or your country’s “National Day” may be ideal dates to start your resolutions. Religious holidays may also work well for you. Consider making resolutions for Ash Wednesday, Rosh Hashanah, or Diwali.

Make monthly resolutions

Choosing one resolution per month may work better for some people. Don’t feel that you must start on the first day of every month, either. If your birthday is on June 25, consider starting your monthly resolution on the 25th of each month.

Avoid resolutions and adopt a better habit

Since I’ve given up on resolutions, I just adopt better habits throughout the year. For example, my previous habit was eating chocolate as an afternoon pick-me-up. My new habit is eating a piece of fruit and drinking a glass of water. This habit took me only two weeks to adopt. It was very easy. Now, I don’t even think about the chocolate.

Some habits take longer to integrate into my life than others, but once it does become a habit then I examine my routines and see what other habits need to be improved.

The following are examples of small habit changes that can make big differences:

  • Clean the dinner dishes right after eating instead of checking email or watching TV.
  • Hang your keys on a hook on entering the house instead of leaving them in your coat pocket.
  • Write events in your planner as soon as they arrive in an email.
  • Hang your coat on a hook/hanger instead of draping it over a chair.
  • Prepare your lunch for work the night before instead of first thing in the morning.

You don’t have to put a dozen resolutions into effect on New Year’s Day to change your life. Just change one habit at a time, as it works best with your schedule. As Lao Tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Creating New Year’s Resolutions for 2014

After Christmas each year, the search function on our website gets a lot of activity by people looking for articles on “how to get organized” and “be more organized.” This is of little surprise since “Get Organized!” is such a common New Year’s Resolution.

Over the next couple weeks, we are going to address New Year’s Resolutions in a series of posts — how to create them, how to make a plan for achieving them, technology that can help you work on them, and even an alternative perspective on how not to make them. We want to help the thousands of people looking to get rid of clutter and find more organization in the new year, just as we do every day, but also lend a helping hand to those of you creating resolutions that have nothing at all to do with clutter and disorganization.

Brainstorm

Grab a pen and paper, find a quiet and comfortable place to sit, close your eyes, and take a deep breath. Spend a few minutes in solitude trying your best to think about nothing. If you’re like most people (myself included) it will be very difficult to clear your mind, especially if this is not an activity you do regularly. Responsibilities, concerns, wishes, dreams, embarrassing situations, and maybe a few random jokes will flood your mind. As they do, write down these thoughts on your paper and then quickly return to trying to clear your mind. Eventually, you’ll either tire of the activity or be successful at having a clear mind, and this is when you can stop the meditation activity and review the list you created.

Do you notice any themes among the items on your list? Do you see items that evoke strong feelings — good or bad? Are there items on your list of things you wish to change or improve upon or achieve?

While reviewing this list, think about how you want to feel in 2014. Like most people, you probably wish to have more energy, more happiness, and less stress. Are there any items on your list that will help you achieve these feelings of contentment?

Work through your notes and begin to draft your resolutions for the new year.

Be precise

After brainstorming, “Get Organized!” may still be at the forefront of your resolutions. Unfortunately, it is an extremely vague resolution, and people who make vague resolutions are more likely to fail at achieving them than people who make precise resolutions.

Do you want to get organized at work or at home? Is there a specific area of your life where, if you were more organized, you would have less stress? Do you have one or two projects that are out of control and a little organizing can help them succeed?

The more exact you are with what you want to change, the more likely you will be to create steps to help you achieve your resolutions. Instead of “Get Organized!” perhaps you want to create precise resolutions like: Better organize the children’s bedtime routine; Organize and file medical records and bills; Unclutter clothes that don’t fit from bedroom closet; Research, acquire, learn how to use, and maintain a new project management system at work.

Be realistic

There are a number of things I would like to change about myself, but I am not super human. I have limitations — limited time, energy, finances, etc. As a result, I’ve never been successful at achieving more than 12 resolutions (one per month) in a given year. And, most years, I’ve only been able to achieve four or five large resolutions. You know yourself best, so be realistic with what you can achieve. If you have a newborn at home, you may only want to have two or three resolutions for 2014. If “Get the proper amount of sleep each night by going to bed by 10:00 pm” is one of your resolutions, as it is one of mine, put it at the top of your list. The more energy you have, the more likely you’ll be to achieve the other resolutions on your list.

Further reading

When creating New Year’s Resolutions, I always think about the brilliant and inspiring Danielle LaPorte. Her book The Desire Map is one of the best books I’ve encountered for helping to decide what new path or paths you wish to take in life.

One step toward uncluttering: get rid of the things that make you feel bad

The things we own don’t just serve utilitarian or decorative purposes; many of them also have an emotional connection with us.

When I look at the pictures on the walls of my office, they bring back memories of fantastic vacations and they make me smile. I have four coffee mugs that were gifts from people I care about, and they constantly remind me of these wonderful people.

But, sometimes we wind up owning things that don’t have such good associations. Our things might remind of us of sad times, of people who weren’t kind to us, of the company that laid us off, etc.

Often, we haven’t articulated to ourselves just how an item makes us feel. Once we do, it’s much easier to decide if it’s something we want to keep in our lives.

The following is part of a story from Derek Powazek about his relationship with a handmade coffee mug that he had for years, including some years that involved a relationship that ended badly:

I was now living in a new place, with a new love. And a decade and a half later, that old black and purple mug was still in my hand every morning.

But now … it just made me feel bad on a barely conscious level. It reminded me of the failed relationship that nearly broke me.

So one morning, as I waited for the coffeemaker to finish its burbling with that old mug in my hand, I looked around my new kitchen, in my new life, with a new woman who loved me, and I realized it was time to stop holding on to things that hurt.

In Clutter’s Last Stand, Don Aslett wrote about “aftermath junk” — what you get from “keeping something to remind you of a terrible experience, like the knife that cut the tendon in your hand, that old cast, your kidney stones, your ex-boyfriend’s insulting letter and even his frayed jacket, the cleats you were wearing when you scored the goal for the other team and lost the national tournament.”

It isn’t just things with negative associations that can make us feel bad. I once owned a lovely painting of a little girl, given to me by people I love. But, after a number of years, I realized she always looked sad to me, and I didn’t want pictures of sad people in my home. I gave the painting away to someone who didn’t have the same reaction I did and could therefore appreciate it much more.

Sometimes the thing making you feel bad is an unwise purchase, so you have what Gretchen Rubin calls “buyer’s remorse clutter.” However, as Cindy Jobs explained, “Unfortunately, keeping a bad purchase doesn’t make it a better purchase.”

As we move toward the end of the year, consider taking some time to remove anything in your space that makes you feel bad, for whatever reason. As Erin said back in April 2012: “Keep only objects that bring you happiness. Life is too short to surround yourself with sorrow and pain.”

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!