Of wants and needs

In the first installment in our series of getting started getting organized we went over the steps to decluttering, which can be summarized as keep the things you use all the time, throw out what you don’t, and “practice living without” the things you’re ambivalent about, as Connie Cox and Cris Evatt, the authors of 30 Days to a Simpler Life, say. Today we’re going to cover the next step in the process, which is avoiding clutter in the first place.

Clutter happens when you have too much stuff. We’re all guilty of acquiring more possessions than we need simply because we can. Sometimes a deal is just too good to pass up. Sometimes we buy something to make us feel better. And sometimes that new nick nack just seemed like a very good idea at the time, but in retrospect, what were you thinking?

Cox and Evatt share a simple maxim that was a revelation when I first read it. Never let anything cross the threshold of your home unless it’s something that you know you need or that you know you will love and cherish for a long time to come. That bobble-head you got for free for filing up your gas tank doesn’t count. Neither do pasta, bread or ice cream makers in most cases. Before you buy anything, ask yourself, do you really need it? Is it a replacement for something you’re throwing out? Is it another black sweater? Or is it something you don’t already have?

If you’re just buying yourself a treat to reward yourself or cheer yourself up, consider a consumable, like a nice meal. Or, if you’re watching your figure, how about a movie or a concert. How about downloading some music or getting a massage or manicure. You get the picture. The idea is to not let anything into your home that won’t serve a purpose while not leading a monastic life. It takes some conscious effort, but it’s rewarding when you come home to a serene space.

Cops raid clutter home

Crazy eBay MomHere’s someone who should read Unclutterer. From the Dayton Daily News:

The Miami County Health Department next week plans to inspect the inside of a house that a police officer said was so full of boxes, paper and debris that he had to, at times, walk sideways to get through rooms and up a stairway.

“Words alone cannot fully describe the appearance of the inside of the residence,” Ptlm. Joel Misirian wrote in a police report after being in the house earlier this week. He said there was “complete clutter” that went from the floor to about halfway up walls toward the estimated 10-foot ceilings.

The officer was at the house to serve a warrant on the owner for allegedly failing to show up for a hearing on a city property maintenance charge filed last year in Miami County Municipal.

Not surprisingly, the case was referred to the health department. This reminds me of the Crazy eBay Mom story that floated around a few years ago. A guy gives a tour of his eBay obsessed packrat mother’s home with photos and a narrative. If you haven’t seen it before, you have to take a look. It’s not so much funny as shocking. This kind of clutter doesn’t need an organizer, it needs a shrink. But to be fair, those of us who get hives looking at these pictures probably also need a shrink.

Is clutter not all that bad?

If you’re looking for a justification for your clutter rather than a solution, might I suggest the new book by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder–How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place. In it the authors contend that challenge “the accepted wisdom that tight schedules, neatness, and consistency are the keys to success.” They cite, for example, the success of Arnold Swartzenneger, who refuses to make appointments and just sees people whenever he needs to. Their concerns are that time spent getting organized is tie not spent being creative, and that over-organized people and organizations can close themselves off to random influences that might spur innovation.

In an article about the book, Freedman says that piles serve as an organic form of filing. “The top of the pile are newer papers and the bottom are older,” he said. Sure, but how much of the stuff in the middle is garbage? He also said that “Someone that keeps a neat desk spends more time filing papers that can be ignored,” he said. That’s why the most-used file in any system should be the circular one.

It’s true that too much focus on the process of organization will nullify any possible gain in peace of mind or productivity. The trick is to adopt a set of systems that become second nature and keep you organized. While too much rigidity in any system can make it brittle, I find it hard to believe that clutter is too useful. Sure, some year-old document on your desk that you find while digging through a pile for something else might spark a new idea, but how much time over the course of a year do you waste sifting through piles?