Sunk costs and discontinuing things you’re doing

Don’t cling to a mistake just because you have spent a lot of time making it. — Banksy

I’ve written before that it’s perfectly okay to give up on a book. But there are plenty of other cases where you might want to give up on something — a TV series, a craft project, a hobby, a class, etc. — even if you’ve already put a lot of time (and perhaps money) into that thing. The time and money are already gone. The question is whether you now want to spend any more. As Margie Warrell wrote in Forbes, “Continuing down a path that isn’t taking you where you want to go for no other reason than you’ve already walked a long way … is crazy.”

Arianna Huffington spoke of the benefits she found from discontinuing some projects:

“Did you know that you can complete a project by dropping it?” Huffington told a women’s business audience. … She said that in her case, dropping projects — learning to ski and to speak German, for example — led to feelings of relief, not a sense of failure. And by dropping them, she was free to pursue the things she truly cared about.

How do you know when it’s time to give up on an activity, a project, etc.? In Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz suggested a number of questions related to pursuing business opportunities. But one question has broad applicability: “Is there a more enjoyable and productive way I could be investing my time and energy right now?”

Todd VanDerWerff, writing for the Vox website, had some suggestions on when to give up on a TV show. If you’re uncertain about a show, he provided a number of suggestions about how many episodes to watch before you decide to give up. But his number one rule was this:

You can — and should — ditch a show at any time, for any reason. … Sometimes you’ll realize a show is just rubbing you the wrong way, or you don’t like the lead actor, or whatever. And if that’s the case, turn it off. Find something else.

Sometimes you may just need to change tactics rather than give up on a project. For example, if you’re truly interested in learning another language but find yourself getting frustrated by your lack of progress, you may want to change your learning method and see if that helps. Some people do better with classes and some are fine with self-study, and there are many variations in both methods.

But sometimes you’ll find that the activity that sounded good just doesn’t work for you, even after giving it your best effort for a reasonable time. For example, I’ve discovered I have no aptitude for languages — no matter how much I’d like to become a fluent Spanish speaker it isn’t going to happen. So my time is better spent on other pursuits that are more fruitful and rewarding.

How good are you at letting others help you?

I’m not. Not at all, in fact. Whenever someone offers to help me with anything, my immediate reaction is, “No, I can do it!” As if I were a five year old in front of an adult who questions my ability to do something.

It’s a terrible affliction this need to be so independent. And to be quite honest, it’s rather selfish on my part, too.

In an article in Psychology Today, the author talks about how letting others help you is a gift you give them. Most of us feel the desire to help whenever loved ones need it and helping them makes us feel better.

Just last night a friend was saying how her vacation plans fell through because of a mix-up with the online vacation reseller. We automatically offered our place in La Rioja – at least they would be able to get away from home for a week and they both love wine and sun. While it’s not the 5-star hotel they had hoped for, at least it’s a change of pace and scenery.

She said she couldn’t possibly and I countered with, “If the roles were reversed, would you offer us your place?” When she said, “Of course!” half-offended that I would imply otherwise, she realized how incongruent she was being and added, “Fine, I’ll think about it.”

When it comes to clutter, disorganization, or a lack to time deal with all of your responsibilities, can you ask for help, or are you like my friend who is horrified at imposing on others?

If you are like my friend (and to be honest, like me) and don’t like asking for help, these five tips from the “Savvy Psychologist” Ellen Hendrikson, PhD, may just help you:

  1. I don’t want to be a burden. As I’ve said already, people love to help. To get over this feeling, try asking for something small and very specific. Ask your best friend over and say, “Can you help me go through my closet? I want to get rid of some clothes, and I need an objective eye.” (Offering wine while you do it might help soothe your feelings of imposing.)
  2. I can’t admit that I need help. There’s nothing wrong with needing help. Being a human being means being part of a community, and in communities, people help each other. Try depersonalizing the problem. Instead of saying, “I can’t get the bathroom cabinets under control.” say, “The bathroom cabinets are about to explode (and it has nothing to do with me as a person; it’s external to who I am).”
  3. I don’t want to feel indebted. Helping isn’t a barter system. People don’t help in order to be able to call in the favour later (at least people with a healthy understanding of relationships don’t). Try feeling gratitude. Say, “Thank you, I really appreciate this.” No need to offer reciprocal help in that moment. No one is going to present you with a bill (unless you’ve hired yourself a Professional Organizer, of course).
  4. I can’t show my weakness. This is my issue. I’m independent. I can do it! I don’t need anyone! Whenever I find myself acting like this I give myself a good shake and say, “Oh, please, you’re not a toddler and you’re not some macho alpha who always has to be strong. No one is always strong.” Or, you can take this as an opportunity to learn something new, especially if you consult with an expert (again, perhaps a Professional Organizer).
  5. I might get rejected. People have their own situations to deal with and this might not be the right moment for them to help you. Don’t take it as rejection of you or your problems. Thank them anyway and find someone else to ask. Not everyone is going to be too busy to help. And if they are, as I’ve repeated several times now, you can always turn to professionals.

If you have trouble asking for help, which one (or ones) of these five reactions do you feel when considering asking for help? Do you think the tips are good ones for getting over each reaction? Have others worked for you?

And if you want a book to help you ask for help, why not check out Kickstarter-star Amanda Palmer’s book, The Art of Asking?

Ask Unclutterer: How do you let things go?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three steps to decide what to do with stuff you don’t use (but haven’t let go of yet)

“Is there such a thing as a fake unclutterer?” This question was asked by an Unclutterer reader in response to a previous post, “Uncluttering is a lot like running.” What exactly does it mean to be a fake unclutterer? One person replied:

… yes there are fake unclutterers, my mother-in-law is one. She has convinced everyone she is uncluttering but has instead just moved the clutter to her bedroom …

Someone else commented:

My mom was the perfect example of a fake unclutterer. She had every closet crammed with stuff, all categorized and neatly organized in plastic boxes. It didn’t look bad until you pulled it all out and realized just how much junk she saved. Yes, junk–hundreds of neat little bundles of twist ties for one example. All useful junk in reasonable quantities, but several lifetime supplies of pens, pencils, sewing needles, thread, chopsticks, notepads, letter openers, grocery bags, paper coasters, tape, hotel soaps and shampoos, ad infinitum.

Family dynamics aside, I suspect many people have their own notion of what it means to be an effective unclutterer as well as what the opposite looks like. The underlying impression of the latter is that you’re not really ridding yourself of clutter. Even if you move your stuff to a different location, hide it, or make everything look neater (though a reasonable first step), it is still clutter. If the items are useful but not used by you, that’s clutter, too.

The following are three steps you can take to begin the process of letting go of things you don’t use:

Figure out why you’re keeping items

It can be a tricky endeavor to figure out where to store everything you own and that’s probably why some things still linger throughout your home. You might feel sentimental about a few items or you might keep something even though you don’t want it because it was received as a gift. Maybe you think you might use it someday. In addition, when you don’t use something often (or at all), it may not be clear where it should be kept. There’s no framework for how to store and access it. So, if you find yourself surrounded by (or are hiding) items that you’re not using, look at the reasons why letting go is difficult. Your reasons for holding onto things can help set the stage for creating a successful plan for letting go of real clutter.

Create a plan and take action

Before sorting through your stuff, create a plan with steps that you can follow through on easily. For instance, your plan might include working in microbursts to avoid getting overwhelmed. You may also want to work during times when you are most alert and focused (so, if you’re not a morning person, you likely won’t be productive during early morning hours). Each of these strategies can work very well when they are incorporated in a regular routine. On the other hand, you’re not likely to see consistent results if you don’t commit to taking action on each item. If you begin to feel stressed or overwhelmed, resist the temptation to shuffle things from spot to spot or to put them in closet.

Think about the purpose of each item

What’s the likelihood that you’ll use the item and how often will you use it? Is that item essential to getting things done? Can someone else benefit from having it? Is it still in good working order? The questions you ask yourself will vary depending on the things you need to act on, so consider the purpose of each one so that you can let them go. If you still have trouble deciding, you might want to work with a friend who is a good accountability partner (or professional organizer) who can help you through the decision-making process.

Letting go of things that are not useful to you or that you don’t want doesn’t have to be a difficult process. Set aside some time each day (or as your schedule allows) to sort through and decide what to do with these items so that you can free up your space for things that you do use.

Keep your Someday list from being clutter

A creative, productive person has a motor. Much like a car or scooter, that person is driven by his or her motor — driven to do, to make, to create, to find fun things to do with the kids, to build a media room in the basement, to learn French, to pursue innovative carrer goals, or to plant a flower garden.

The problem is that sometimes the motor won’t shut off and you get more ideas than you have time or attention to achieve right now. Many people put these on a “Someday/Maybe” list of goals to consider for another day. I think a list such as that is organized clutter. The someday list can cause a lot of guilt. So, instead I put my own spin on this type of list.

Someday/Maybe is a tenent of David Allen’s Getting Things Done methodology. He refers to it as (I’m paraphrasing), a way to capture the projects you’d like to complete in the future, lest they continue to nag at your thoughts. Additionally (critically, even), those items should be a part of your weekly review. Every seven days, ask yourself, “Is it time to move on any of these things?”

My problem is, the answer is always “No,” and that fantastical trip to Japan remains untouched, emphasizing my inaction for another week. Here’s what’s worse: noticing the pattern, I add items that I know I won’t act on, consciously or not. The someday list is my personal waiting room.

I’ve no doubt that it’s important to have long-term goals, even those whose only benefit is dining in an out-of-the-way noodle house. However, there must be a better way to keep track of them and taking action.

The Culling

A few years ago, I attended Macworld | iWorld in San Francisco (it was still called Macworld Expo back then). One of the highlights was hearing Merlin Mann speak. He said, among other things, that one should take a good, hard look at the Someday/Maybe list. Ask yourself, “Will I ever do this?” If the answer is no, ditch the item completely. Will I ever become fluent in Japanese? It’s highly unlikely. Off it goes. But will I ever travel to Japan? That item is much more likely, so it stays.

While understandable, culling the improbable has a “crush your dreams” vibe that bothers many people. “Spend a month in Japan” is a huge project, but there’s a little more likelihood I’ll achieve it than learning an entire language.

Baby Steps

Before ditching that trip all together, let’s consider how it can remain on the list of things I’d like to do without any of the guilt.

Years ago, I worked as a special needs teacher in a residential school for children with Autism and other developmental delays. I taught in a classroom and eventually supervised a group home with 8 students and a staff of 12 teachers. We practiced the Ivar Lovaas method of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). I’ll do Dr. Lovaas (and by extension, B. F. Skinner) a great disservice here and offer too brief an explanation of his life’s work.

ABA uses positive and negative reinforcement to change behavior. One method is called chaining, or breaking a complex task into several simple ones that can be taught in succession and, when successfully performed sequentially, comprise the original task. I never guessed that training would be so influential in my everyday life.

In GTD, “visit Japan” is not a task, it’s a project. Fortunately, my old job helped me get good at breaking complex behaviors (or in this case, projects) down into very small, observable, concrete actions. Perhaps “discuss life in Japan with uncle who used to live there” is a doable first step. Maybe “research seasonal weather in Japan” or “find a well-written book on Japanese customs or food” could be other first steps. In breaking down the project, two things happen.

First, I feel like I’m making progress on this huge task, rather than letting it stagnate. Second, I’ll get a true measure of my willingness to go through with completing the project completely. If my interest wanes, I can safely remove it from the list as Merlin suggested. If I have an increase in interest that will suggest motivation, and I’ll continue to devise small steps that move me closer to completing the project.

The Research List

What’s really happening here is I’m turning the someday list into research tasks. Therefore, I’ll suggest changing the name from Someday/Maybe to Research. It sounds more pro-active and suggests something to do other than sit and wait until I get around to it “someday.”

I’m not going to tell you to ditch your Someday/Maybe list completely. Again, let’s not crush those dreams. However, I will say be very honest with yourself and consider:

  1. Is this list a dumping ground for the unachievable?
  2. Am I dropping things here that are too unpleasant to consider for some reason?
  3. Is there a way to actually make progress on this?
  4. What is the first tiny baby step I can actually do?

Figure out the answers to these questions and get moving. Avoid the clutter and guilt of a Someday/Maybe list and start working toward these projects in the present.

How to receive gifts when you’re uncluttering

Who doesn’t love receiving gifts? If you’re like me, you tear them open enthusiastically to see the fantastic things that await you. Gifts can be tangible reminders that someone was thinking of us or wanted to help us celebrate a special occasion. In fact, the person giving the gift likely gains a good dose of positive feelings by the act of giving. It’s hard to think of a downside to getting a present.

…except perhaps when your space is limited. And, when you’re uncluttering. If you’re focused on reducing your stash of stuff and having “a place for everything and everything in it’s place,” you might find yourself reluctant to bring something new into your home. On the other hand, refusing (even if you do so graciously) can result in the gift-giver (and you) having hurt feelings. To better navigate these delicate situations and to avoid mistunderstandings, first…

Talk about your uncluttering plans

…with everyone. When you decide to make a change in your life, like eating healthier, you probably tend to tell those closest to you. That way, they’re not surprised when you decide to eat in or order healthier fare from the menu. A nice side effect of telling the people in your life about your plans is that they can help motivate you and try to help you reach your goal.

Why not do the same when you’re uncluttering? Let your friends, family members, and colleagues know you’re being very purposeful (or even ruthless) about the types and number of things that you will keep. They genuinely care about you and want to see you succeed. So, rather than stop them from giving you a gift, tell them you’re minimizing the tangible things you purchase and receive, and instead …

Suggest experience gifts

Have you been meaning to go to the new play that opened a few months ago? Or, perhaps you really want to see your favorite musical group the next time they come to town? Or, maybe you’d like to get in one last road trip with friends before the summer comes to a final close? If there’s a special event or new experience that you’d like to try (like driving your dream car or riding in a hot air balloon), don’t keep it a secret. These types of gifts still let the important people in your life celebrate special moments with you, and you won’t have to carve out storage space for something new.

Ask for a gift for others in need

Knowing that you’re helping someone without getting anything in return can often be very rewarding. In lieu of receiving a physical gift, ask friends and family members to donate to a charity you love. You could also spend some time together volunteering to help others in need (local meal center/food bank, animal shelter). This would be an opportunity to do something good for someone else and spend time with each other.

Accept gifts you receive

It’s not likely that you’ll never again receive a physical gift. When those occasions arise, graciously accept the gift, send a thank you note, and then take some time to decide how useful the item is to you. You may need to create a “deciding space” in your home to store gifts so you can figure out if you will keep them (perhaps in a well frequented closet so that you don’t forget about them). At first, you might not think that you’d find the gifts helpful, but they could end up being just what you needed. If, after a second look, the gift really doesn’t suit you or your current lifestyle, donate the gift to a charitable organization or regift it to someone you believe would really use it (letting that person know they’re welcome to pass it along if they don’t need it).

If you do receive gifts as you’re purging and uncluttering, remember that gift-giving is an emotional experience. The person giving is probably excited about giving you a present and has the best of intentions. He/she is not trying to thwart your plans to simplify, and just might not know that you’re doing things a little differently. Start by having conversation with those in your inner circle about your uncluttering plans. Over time, they will likely adjust to a new way of sharing special moments and experiences with you.

From clutter to cash: Four ways to sell your unwanted stuff

Gardeners everywhere can probably tell a great number of stories about their attempts to get rid of weeds. It’s not always a fun task (though some of us may find it calming) and it’s one of those things that we often put off doing. In that way, it’s a bit like uncluttering. It’s something we may need to do, but it may feel like a big undertaking. Did you also know that a weed can actually be any plant that is unwanted, even if it looks pretty and has beautiful blooms? Likewise, anything in your home that is unwanted, even if it’s in great shape (i.e., not broken or tattered), can be like weeds. We just classify those things as clutter.

The difference between the two, of course, is that you can’t do much with the weeds once you’ve pulled them, but you do have several options when it’s time to unclutter and let go of unwanted items that are still in good condition. You can donate those things to a group or organization, pass them on to a specific person, or you can sell them. Though, you will likely not get the original value of the item, you will clear your space and get cash or a gift card in return.

Recommerce is not a new idea, but it is one that has become more popular in recent times. This can perhaps be attributed to a tough economy, though some people sell to get an updated version of the item they’re letting go of. Whatever your reasons are, consider the four selling options below as you weed and sift through your belongings. You might end up choosing to only sell some things, but this list will at least get you started.

Seller Websites

Many of us are familiar with sites like Craigslist, eBay, and Etsy (e.g. vintage clothing) for selling (and buying) things. Those websites are still viable options, but there are many others that can help you transition your items to a new owner.

  • Electronics. will take your gadgets (mobile phones, tablets, desktop machines) — even broken ones — and send you a check, an Amazon gift card, or transfer funds to your PayPal account. has a similar service and payment options, except that you can opt to receive a Target gift card. That site also has a referral program. If you decide to sell your electronics on eBay, be sure to check out their Technology & Electronics Selling Guide.
  • Books. If you used Gazelle or TheNextWorth to get a new tablet or Kindle, you may be thinking about purging a few books. You can sell them on Amazon,, or, to name a few. You will need the ISBN number (typically found on the back of the book or inside the book on the copyright page). Payments are made via check, PayPal, or an account of your choosing.
  • Anything. uses the power of your social networks to help you sell your stuff. Log in using your Facebook account and let your friends see what you’re selling in your online yard sale. You will be paid via check or funds transfer to your PayPal account. There are no seller fees, however, Yardseller does markup your asking price. Check out their FAQs for more information.

Pawn Shops

Pawn shops can be a good option for specific things you may want to sell (like guitars) so do a bit of research to find out what is successful through these stores in your area. Selling to a pawn shop may work well since they can often take a wide variety of things, though, because they resell your item, you might not get top dollar. But, they will take the item off your hands immediately and you will get paid at the time of drop off.

Consignment Shops

If you have high-end clothing, shoes, jewelry, or antique pieces, a consignment shop in your neighborhood will consider selling your items and giving you a percentage of the sale. These stores tend to be pretty picky about the items they will accept and prefer to purchase things that are in excellent condition and seasonally appropriate. Some shops will require that you call to make an appointment, so be sure to check their guidelines before going.

A new type of consignment shop has arisen in the last few years that does things slightly differently. will buy your gently used and laundered women’s clothes, accessories, perfume, etc. The transaction takes place at one of their stores (use the store locator to see if they have a shop near you) and you will be paid immediately for the items they purchase. Plato’s Closet works in a similar way for “teen and twenty something guys and girls,” and you can either accept cash on the spot or trade your clothes for a new outfit. They also don’t require that you make an appointment.


So, bartering is technically not selling, but it is a way to let go of things in return for a service that you may need. I read an article recently about someone who bartered a scooter to have her shed painted and dry walled. You may want to have a written agreement about the details of your exchange, and keep in mind that there are tax implications with bartering (read How the IRS Taxes Bartering for more information).

Of course, you don’t have to sell your things at all. You can simply donate them or give them away to a specific person. You wouldn’t have to take your clothing to a re-seller shop, create online seller accounts, upload photos/descriptions of your items, or manage buyer inquiries. You can arrange for donations to be picked up free of cost or meet up with the person receiving your donation. Whether you decide to sell or donate, you’ll unclutter, free up some much needed space, and do something good for yourself.

Unstuck: An app that helps you achieve your goals

I’m always on the lookout for smart phone and iPad applications that can improve my productivity. It’s probably not a good idea to keep app switching all the time (it certainly makes more sense to stick with what works), but if I did that I wouldn’t have discovered Unstuck, a free iPad app.

Basically, if you’re stuck in a rut, Unstuck can help. It helps you to get rid of said rut, take action, and “live better every day.” I’ve decided to use it for a project that’s been hanging over my head for a bit, and it’s time to get it moving.

But, first, a test run. Here’s the process:

Step One

After downloading and registering, the app asks you to select three emotions in response to “How are you feeling in this stuck moment?” Some of your choices include hazy, high and dry, tired, unprepared, uninformed, indecisive, to name a few. Then, you get to rate how strongly you feel each emotion. I chose conflicted, uninformed, and up in the air, all with medium strength.

Step Two

In this step, you drill down the type of stuck you’re in (personal, professional, or both) and who’s stuck with you (alone, you + another person, or you + other people). For my test, I chose professional and to go it alone, but if you select that you’re working with others, you’ll be asked to name the people in the rut with you.

Step Three

You get to answer why you’re stuck and see examples of what others have written. I entered: “I’m stuck because there’s so much I want to do.” Even though this is a test, that statement is 100 percent true.

Step Four

Now for the fun part. You get to sort your thoughts using these cool thought cards (they look like playing cards except they have words on them) that you drag and drop into two categories: So Me and Not Me.

Here are some of the cards:

  • I thought I knew what to do but now I’m not sure
  • I don’t know why this is not working
  • It doesn’t seem real yet
  • Remind me why this is important to me
  • Maybe I need to ask somebody else what to do
  • Why is it so hard to decide?
  • Doing a lot but getting nowhere

Can you see how these might be helpful? I really think this app forces you to think about the nuances of why things are not going the way you want them to.

Step Five

Here, you’re asked to pick three (out of twelve) things you’re doing. I randomly chose:

  • Letting yourself get distracted
  • Doing busywork that gets nowhere
  • Debating an issue over and over again

Step Six

You wait a second or two until Unstuck diagnoses your problem. The app decided that based on my entries, I’m a Waffler. I may not like being called wishy-washy, but I like knowing that I’m not the only one in this spot. And, I know this because the app tells me that three other people, like Amy Tan, Ellen Degeneres, and Wallace Stevens, are just like me. Well, if they can get past that … you know the rest. I also learn that 9 percent of the Unstuck community is also having a “waffler” moment.

There’s an explanation of what it means to be a waffler, and I’m asked to confirm if this really sounds like me. I clicked yes, but when you click “no,” you get to start over, save and start a new stuck moment, or keep going. You also get a few tips.

Step Seven

This is where the work really begins as I’m asked to select a tool to help fix my flip-floppy self. But, first, I’m greeted by a lovely note that tells me not to give up and that change is a process. I’m also encouraged to be creative. I’m so in love with this app!

And, it loves me back by telling me to Take a stand, a.k.a., make a decision.

The next three steps really help you to do just that. It’s a very simple process, but that’s the beauty of it. It makes you think things through and gives you several tools (e.g., Map it out, Get your game on, Shake up your routine) so that you’re not just muddling through. If you don’t think that you’re quite through the woods, you can try out other tools.

So far, Unstuck seems different from all other project motivation apps I’ve seen. It seems to ask the right questions and help you to really think through your next steps. It’s similar to having a mentor or coach.

Could this app help you make life-altering decisions? Maybe. Could you get a few steps closer to a project’s goals? Definitely.

And, just to be clear, Unstuck didn’t pay me or reward me in any way for writing this post. I’m just really fond of it and think it can help anyone who is stuck on a project or problem.

Strategies for letting go of your uncluttering fears

Continuing on the theme of letting go of fear from yesterday’s post, I wanted to provide some strategies for how to let go of your uncluttering fears. Most of us have them — I certainly do — but they shouldn’t keep us from achieving our uncluttering and organizing goals.

  1. The fear that you’re making a mistake. Mistakes are a part of life, and you’re going to make them. As long as the mistake isn’t fatal, you can recover from it. Thankfully, very few mistakes related to uncluttering are life-threatening. It’s okay if you get rid of what you think is clutter and then later realize you need it. Borrow the item from a friend the one time you need it or rent it or buy it used off Craigslist. With one-of-a-kind items that you don’t know if you’ll be able to easily replace, consider long-term loaning these objects to close friends or family members who are interested in using the objects. Then, borrow the item if you find you ever need it.
  2. The fear that you’ll fall on hard times. You may actually fall on hard times at some point in the future. Unfortunately, a smooth path through life isn’t guaranteed for anyone. Owning clutter, though, isn’t going to help you through those difficult times. Clutter can keep you from being able to quickly respond to a problem or handle it well. Clutter can sometimes make the problem worse. The fewer things you have to clean and maintain during a tragedy will allow you to focus on what really matters during those times.
  3. The fear that people in your life won’t understand. This is going to happen. Someone in your life will be confused by your desire to live without clutter. Don’t worry, though, you’re confused by other people all the time. It doesn’t keep you from loving them or being friends or enjoying their company — and the same will be true for other people who are confused by you. Life would be boring if we were all the same.
  4. The fear that someone else in your house will just clutter it all up again. Once again, this is a real possibility. It’s also a real possibility that you’ll be the one to clutter up the space again. The risk that the space might become cluttered again isn’t a reason not to unclutter. There is also a big possibility that the space won’t get cluttered again. Uncluttering and organizing take practice, just like all skills. Michael Phelps didn’t win an Olympic gold medal the first time he jumped into a swimming pool.
  5. The fear that your life will change, and change is hard even when it’s good. Your life will change. You won’t ever know how amazing an uncluttered life focused on what matters most to you is until you give it a try. It’s your choice, however, and you should only make the change if you really want to. No one can unclutter your life except for you, other people can help, but you’re the one who has to do the majority of the work.

Unclutter your emotions and time by giving others the benefit of the doubt

A couple months ago, I was at the pharmacy picking up a medication for my son because he had a truly disgusting sinus infection. I had him in a stroller because I didn’t trust him to keep his bug-ridden hands to himself and because a 22-month old loose in a pharmacy is rarely a good idea (especially one who enjoys impersonating a tornado).

While we were waiting on the prescription to be filled, a woman came up to me and told me that my son was “too big to be in a stroller” and if “I knew how to properly control him” I wouldn’t need to use it. I didn’t know this woman, I hadn’t even made eye contact with her, and I certainly wasn’t wearing a t-shirt that said, “Please critique my parenting choices.” Irrespective of this, she still felt the need to reprimand me for using a stroller.

I thought about lying and saying that my son had polio or a congenital spinal deformity in an attempt to make her feel guilty for being rude to me, but I didn’t. Instead, I simply offered up my son’s snotty hand and said she was welcome to walk around with him while we waited.

She declined.

This is by no means the first time I have been chastised by total strangers for raising my child differently than how they think I should. And, I’m doubting it will be the last.

It has been a wonderful reminder to me, however, to not clutter up my time worrying about what other people are doing as long as they’re not actually injuring themselves or others, putting another person or themselves in harm’s way, or violating another person’s rights.

As annoyed as I might be by a person driving a few miles below the speed limit, I just assume there is a reason and give the person the benefit of the doubt. As irksome as it is when someone’s cell phone rings in a movie theater, I just assume it must be an emergency and go back to enjoying the film. If I see a tall child in a stroller, I know the kid is safe and don’t let it bother me. Not letting these minor frustrations get to me frees up my emotions and time to focus on things I enjoy and want to do.

There are only 24 hours in a day, and I have decided not to fill that time being frustrated by other people and negative situations that are out of my control (again, assuming nothing really bad is occurring). I barely have the energy to do all of the things I want to do, and giving people the benefit of the doubt helps me to stay in control of my emotions and time.

In light of practicing what I preach, from this point forward I’m just going to assume that the woman who criticized me about having my son in a stroller was having a bad day. She likely felt the need to yell at me because someone had probably screamed at her. I ended up getting a good reminder out of the situation (give people the benefit of the doubt) and an introduction for a post (this one), so at least a couple good things came from the tongue lashing.

Unclutter your writing with self-imposed limitations

Two ideas recently converged for me in one device. The first idea is the notion of self-imposed limitations, and the second is the concept of retro-computing. The device is the AlphaSmart Neo. Here’s how it all fits together.

Self-imposed limitations

writeroom-color-screens.jpgI’m not the first to note the challenge that modern computing presents to human concentration. Writing is a hard thing to do, and when you have to do it, easy things like email, feeds, and Facebook can tempt and paralyze you.

The name of the game is focus and a cottage industry of apps has sprouted around eliminating distractions. The poster-child for these is WriteRoom, which hides everything on your screen except a monochrome text-editor. Slate has called these programs “zenware,” while the New York Times took a more Western tack and called them “biblical.”

These programs work because they allow users to self-impose limitations in order to concentrate and get more done in less time. Internet-related distractions are not the only target. In large part these tools are a revolt against the tyranny of Word. That was the focus of the New York Times piece, which was inspired by the Steven Poole essay “Goodbye, cruel Word.” In it he explains how the Microsoft flagship long ago gave up the pretense that it was a tool for the art of writing. A good tool disappears in the act of creation. Word might once have been such a thing, but that’s certainly no longer the case. Poole, an author of two books and countless articles, writes:

Many people agree that revision 5.1a, specifically, was the best version of Word that Microsoft has ever shipped, combining utility and minimalist elegance with reliability. Sadly for me, although it wasn’t strictly necessary, after a few years and a colour Performa I “upgraded” to Word 98, and somehow the magic was gone. Yes, I turned off all the crappy lurid toolbars and tried to make the compositional space as simple as possible, but by this time Word was stuffed with all kinds of “features” that let you print a pie-chart on the back of a million envelopes or publish your cookery graphs to your “world wide web home-page”, and it already felt to me that Word was only grudgingly letting me write nothing but, you know, words. Trigger Happy got out of Word 98 and onto the streets, but not without routine crashes and the occasional catastrophic loss of a few finely honed paragraphs.

He goes on to say that he’s converted to WriteRoom and Scrivener, but not before giving us a tour of the tools that he’s loved the most. Apart from Word 5.1a, they include a Brother LW-20 electric typewriter with a 6-line LCD screen, and an ultraportable Psion 5. What he likes so much about WriteRoom and the rest, he says, is how much they imitate the single-minded purposefulness of those old tools.


That brings me to the second theme in this story. One way to achieve zen word processing is to hide the fact that your modern computer is a modern computer. (Out there, no doubt, is someone who paid $1,800 for a MacBook Air only to then run WriteRoom on it.) It’s an attempt to travel back to a time before virtual tailfins. Another way to zen, however, is to simply use the tools from that era—the era in which word processing had been perfected.

Writer Paul Ford has said that his weapon against distractions was installing WordPerfect for DOS on his computer—the original that WriteRoom emulates. As a result of switching to the mouse-less, crash-less WordPerfect he says, “My average daily word count has doubled, and my stock of fresh ideas seems to be replenishing.”

Another promoter of retro-computing is Andy Ihnatko who inspired me to look not just to old software, but to old hardware as well. He sings the praises of his NEC MobilePro 790, a Windows CE device he picked up for $10 at the MIT flea market. It doesn’t have the MacBook Air’s 1.6 GHz or good looks, but it matches its weight, comfortable keyboard, and more than serviceable screen. But when distraction-free writing is the goal, the latter matters more than the former.

The AlphaSmart Neo

I think I did Andy one better, though, or at least more retro. I discovered the AlphaSmart Neo, in part thanks to Paul Ford’s writings because the Neo is his companion to WordPerfect. What is the Neo? It’s a full keyboard with six-line LCD attached. That’s it. No distractions. It’s a thing of beauty.


At two pounds, I take it everywhere. I love my MacBook, but it kills my back, and for no good reason since most of the time I just want to write. Instant-on, and automatic save of every keystroke make it even more appealing. Some other retro advantages:

  • At an all-day conference my three-hour battery on my Mac isn’t much help and I have to be on the hunt for limited power outlets. (The NEC MobilePro wouldn’t fare much better.) The Neo’s frugal processor and simple screen, on the other hand, gets me 700 hours from 3 AA batteries. That’s about a year’s worth of normal use.
  • The keyboard is amazing. It’s a real, honest-to-goodness keyboard with satisfying travel and quiet clickitiness. It really feels better than my Apple Bluetooth Keyboard, which is the same design as the Air’s. It also beats out the MobilePro’s slightly cramped keyboard.
  • AlphaSmart was started by two former Apple engineers and it has overtones of the eMate 300. Like the eMate, the AlphaSmart was designed for the education market, and it shows in the build quality. If it’s tough enough for kindergardeners, it’s tough enough for me.

Most important, though, is that it keeps me focused. If I go to a coffee shop to get some work done, the only thing I can do with my Neo is write. There are no distractions. There isn’t even bold or italics (something I get around with Markdown). When writing is the only thing you can do, you get it done, and it remains an enjoyable activity because it’s not the thing that’s keeping you from Twitter.

At some point in our technological past we perfected word processing. Every feature since then seems to have subtracted from the experience. Do yourself a favor and look into some single-purpose, “underpowered,” and self-limiting tech.

Saying farewell to a hobby, part two

In the original “Saying farewell to a hobby” post, I talked about how to decide if you’re not really into your hobby. Letting go of a no-longer-active hobby can be difficult, especially if part of your identity is wrapped up in that activity. (I know I still think of myself as a tennis player even though I haven’t touched a tennis racket in more than 10 years because of a rotator cuff injury.) But, if you make the hard decision to break up with the stuff for a hobby you’re no longer doing, getting rid of the supplies can be emotionally difficult.

The following are five ways to let go of hobby supplies to make the purging process less traumatic:

  1. Call up local enthusiasts whom you know are still into the hobby and let them take what they want from your house. They are more likely to use the materials than you are, and they will truly appreciate your generosity. Plus, as you pass along your supplies you can tell them stories and talk about how and when you acquired or used the items. You’ll get another happy moment sharing the history with your friends.
  2. Sell the supplies on a website whose community is dedicated to the hobby. For instance, if you’re a knitter or crocheter looking to de-stash your yarn, the website Ravelry has a marketplace forum that is perfect for you. Be sure to include shipping costs in the price of your goods, though, so that you don’t go broke getting rid of your items.
  3. Have a yard sale, but be very specific in your advertising to point out what types of things you are selling. “Woodworking Supplies Yard Sale” “Sailing Supplies Yard Sale” If you place an advertisement for your sale, use similar language and target publications people interested in these hobbies would read.
  4. Often stores that sell new supplies for a hobby also will sell “gently used” items on consignment. Call your local stores and ask about their policies. If they won’t sell them, usually they know who will or clubs related to the activity that could use the supplies.
  5. Programs and/or schools that teach the hobby — rock climbing schools, your local YMCA or community center, the high school down the street, a day care center (for adults or children) or seniors’ center — typically need supplies to help teach others about the activity. Make a few phone calls and you’ll probably find a program that is elated to take the discount or free supplies off your hands.

Sites like eBay, Craigslist, and Freecycle are great for getting rid of items, but I’ve found that it’s harder for me to use these sites for hobby supplies that I have some sort of bizarre sentimental attachment to. Even though I’m no longer using the stuff, I still want to know that it’s going to someone who is enthusiastically going to use it. This is probably true for whomever buys or picks up the item from one of these three websites, but my mind doesn’t process it that way. Weird, right?

Good luck with the final step in purging your no-longer-active hobby supplies. And, most of all, enjoy the space for whatever new will take — or not take — its place.


This post has been updated since its original publication in 2008.