Organizing to foster creativity

Creative personalities have the stereotype of being messy, disorganized people. When, in reality, the incredibly successful creative people of the world are often profoundly organized — they have to be to manage their work and schedules, so they can be ready when inspiration strikes.

Reader Sarah sent us a clip from the Joan Rivers documentary that illustrates one comedian’s method for organizing the jokes of her decades-long career:

Sarah went on to say, “Organization is in part about being prepared for the moment when insight strikes. It’s about creating the conditions for creativity to flourish, so that when you enter into creation mode, your physical world is set up to support you.”

I think of this organized preparation every time I watch the Olympics. The five minute gymnastic routine or the less than 30 second speed-skating race took decades of daily practices, workouts, proper nutrition, sacrifice, and emotional turmoil to make happen. Success doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t happen surrounded by clutter. To be at the top of any profession requires commitment and structure — even for artists.

Preserving for posterity or hoarding?

The Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail ran an article last week about artist and writer Douglas Coupland. Irrespective of if you are familiar with Coupland’s work, “A Generation X pack rat forfeits his treasures” is a thought-provoking article that explores the fanfare surrounding Coupland’s recent donation of his home’s vast collection of clutter to a university’s library.

On Thursday, the library at the University of British Columbia announced it had acquired Mr. Coupland’s papers, a voluminous and fascinating collection now available to researchers.

Among the treasures is the first draft of the novel Generation X, the title of which became a catchphrase for those who, like the 48-year-old author, were born in the shadow of self-obsessed baby boomers. The opening page of the draft, written in tidy cursive in blue ink, includes the author’s annotations and revisions.

The archive is stored in 122 boxes featuring 30 metres of text and graphic material. It includes 30 objects, 40 audio and videocassettes, and 1,425 photographs, among them a Polaroid snapshot of Terry Fox’s artificial leg. (The prolific author’s credits include a non-fiction book about Mr. Fox’s aborted cross-Canada run.)

Articles such as this always make me uncomfortable with their choice of words like “treasures” and “archives” when discussing someone’s clutter. And, I’m not the one calling the 122 boxes clutter, Coupland is:

“I was feeling like I was on that TV show Hoarders,” Mr. Coupland said Thursday. “The excuses people gave for keeping an old empty Styrofoam cup were the same reasons I was using for holding on to stuff. It was a wake-up moment.

“The moment it was out the door, I felt a thousand pounds lighter.”

Coupland admits that keeping all these things was unfulfilling and he was happy to see all of the clutter go — but the article treats his things like an archeological discovery “now available to researchers.” And, based on a paragraph in the middle of the article, it sounds like the library may have paid for the donation:

The library received the archive 18 months ago after several years of gentle entreaties and, finally, serious negotiations.

Reality is that the majority of us and our things will end up in landfills and recycling centers. We are not Douglas Couplands. No one is interested in our clutter. We do not need to be curators or purveyors of stuff for future generations. But articles like this one seem to promote collecting or hoarding random things on the chance that we might become famous and that someone might be interested in our stuff and they might pay us for it.

What do you think? What came to your mind while you were reading this article? Were you as conflicted about the message of the article as I was? I’m interested in reading your reactions to this thought-provoking piece, and I’m glad Coupland is now living clutter free.

(Thanks to all the readers who sent this news story our way.)

Jane Siberry: Minimalist celebrity

Canadian singer Jane Siberry, who briefly went by the name Issa, decided a few years ago to get rid of almost all of her possessions — and recently decided to free her music, too. She had been using a “pay what you think it’s worth” price structure since 2005, but recently ended that method because of her frustrations with the payment system. From her website:

i have let paypal go. old-fashioned wheezy paranoid beast. and i can’t find a simple enough new solution. so, all music is pay-it-forward.

All 16 of Siberry’s albums can be downloaded for free from her website, if you’re interested. What interests me, however, is the unique story behind the woman and her dedication to simple and minimalist living.

From “Jane Siberry makes real lounge music” in the London Times:

Siberry travels lightly through life. In 2006 she closed her office and gave away almost all her possessions. Insofar as she has a home now, it is a log cabin in northern Ontario that’s inaccessible in the winter. “It was about removing everything that was at odds with my concept of music,” she says.”

More about her minimalist life from a May 3 article about her in The Scotsman:

There is, arguably, no performer in the world quite like Jane Siberry. Kate Bush, Joanna Newsom and PJ Harvey all show a similar fearlessness, individuality, and defiance of the usual rules in the way they approach what they do. But what other Western performer has gone quite as far as Siberry in paring back their creativity to its absolute essentials? Most people, as they get older, cling on to material possessions – letters, photos, clothes – for dear life. It’s proof that you’ve lived, that you’ve had relationships, that you’ve had some success, that you exist. Siberry, now 54, has discarded it all, in a bid “to find a new way of doing things”.

Some people, of course, may cynically regard all this as rather self-indulgent and hippyish, and may feel like repeating John Travolta’s quip in Pulp Fiction, after Samuel L Jackson tells him he’s going to give up his hitman ways to “walk the earth”. “So you decided to be a bum?” says Travolta dismissively. It’s a good joke, but an easy, cheap shot, the kind designed to keep someone in their place. Siberry, though, has never seemed very interested in doing what’s expected of her. In a society obsessed by material things, in which art has become a commodity, a lifestyle statement or just background noise, she embodies a different approach to living.

Learn more about her in her eye on jane section of her website.

Celebrity minimalist: Vincent Kartheiser

Actor Vincent Kartheiser plays the loathsome Pete Campbell on the hit television show Mad Men, and he does it extremely well. (In fact, he does it so well, I can’t watch the show because I truly disdain his character.) In addition to being a great actor, he also appears to be in the running for the most extreme minimalist celebrity in Hollywood. From an April 25 interview with the actor in The Guardian/Observer by Tim Adams:

Some of the ways that Kartheiser has chosen to [search for who he is] are unconventional, at least among Hollywood TV stars. He has, for example, in the city of cheap gas and freeways, given up on a car.

“I go on the bus, I walk. A friend left his car recently at my house and I took it out one day just for 15 minutes and it was terrible. You know why? I felt like I was back in LA again. Four or five years ago, when I had a car and I had been out of the city I wouldn’t feel I was back until I got in the car, you know. But now I feel off the grid. I feel that I am not part of the culture. And because I don’t have a car I don’t really go anywhere to buy things. In fact, I have been in a slow process of selling and giving away everything I own.”

He has? Like what?

“Like, I don’t have a toilet at the moment. My house is just a wooden box. I mean I am planning to get a toilet at some point. But for now I have to go to the neighbours. I threw it all out.”

(As he says this, I’m wondering whether this is just another of the parts Kartheiser might be trying on for size, but to prove the point he later takes me back to his house, which really is an empty wooden box, a small one-room bungalow on a nondescript Hollywood street and indeed it has no lavatory.) Is that a Buddhist thing, I wonder, or an early midlife crisis thing?

“It started a couple of years ago,” he says. “It was in response to going to these Golden Globe type events and they just give you stuff. You don’t want it. You don’t use it. And then Mad Men started to become a success on a popular level and people started sending me stuff, just boxes of shit. Gifts for every holiday, clothes. One day, I looked around and thought ‘I don’t want this stuff, I didn’t ask for it’. So I started giving it to friends or charity stores, or if it is still in its box I might sell it for a hundred bucks. I liked it so I didn’t stop.”

Does he have a bed?

“I do,” he concedes, “but that might go…”


“Actually, that was the big discussion today, when a friend came over: I was wondering, should I have a screen in my home? It seems like the next step. I haven’t had a mirror for six or seven years, though I admit that causes a lot of problems when I have to tie a bow tie. Or if I have to, you know, comb my hair for something. I’m forever looking in the mirrors of parked cars.”

It sounds a bit like an extreme reaction to the venal material desire of Mad Men (and Money [a forth-coming movie on BBC Two in Britain]). He’s not worried about this tendency at all?

He laughs. “I probably should be worried. Sometimes, I look around my house and think: is this normal, Vinny? I mean it’s a bit more than just a remodel…”

Giving up most everything you own — especially your bathroom — isn’t my preferred uncluttered style. (And, can you imagine how annoying it would be to be his neighbor?) However, I like knowing that there is at least one celebrity out there embracing the minimalist life (even if he seems a little wacky) and turning his back on the consumer-obsessed image of the celebrity that most often is represented in the media.

Thanks to all of the readers who sent us the article from the The Guardian/Observer. The image with this article is by Barry J. Holmes for The Observer.

Video: Peter Walsh discusses office organizing and answers an Unclutterer’s question

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Oprah’s go-to organizer, the organizing star of Clean Sweep, and all-around fantastic gentleman Peter Walsh. We talked about office organizing and his new line of products he designed for Office Max — you.organized. At the end of the interview, I posed him a question from Unclutterer readers Klyla, Jackie Pettus, and Lose That Girl (their questions were on a similar theme, so I merged them into one mega question). As always, his tips and answers were insightful and incredibly helpful:

After the interview, he e-mailed MORE organizing tips:

  • To-Do Lists: When writing a to-do list, group alike tasks together such as making calls or running errands to increase efficiency. But avoid getting overwhelmed with your workload by breaking it into small, manageable tasks. Write to-do list items on individual sticky notes and put them on a wall calendar. Rearrange them as your priorities change. At the end of the day, review your checklist and cross off completed items. Move any pending items to a fresh list for tomorrow.
  • Calendars: You might feel like multiple schedules lead to more confusion. For a little planning relief, combine home and work calendars. Simply choose various colors to mark important dates: one for professional tasks and meetings, one for personal appointments, one for social engagements, one for your children’s activities, and so on.
  • Closing Thoughts: Remember that your desk sends a clear signal about who you are and how you approach your work. You should have an organized desk at the start and finish of every day.

He also included an closeup image of the vertical storage system from the video:

Thanks again to Peter for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with Unclutterer, Office Max for setting up the interview, and Klyla, Jackie Pettus, and Lose That Girl for asking such a terrific question. I must admit, it was nice to know that his systems fall apart from time-to-time, too! A great reminder that we’re all human.

Video: Erin on Monday’s Rachael Ray Show

This week seems to be all about videos here on Unclutterer (don’t forget our upcoming Ask Peter Walsh anything!), and I’m excited to be part of the collection. For anyone who doesn’t have a television, lives outside the U.S. or Canada, or missed Saturday’s announcement, you can now see my appearance on yesterday’s Rachael Ray Show online:

The clip is just a little over three minutes long, and I’m really happy with how it went. I had a great time on set, and Rachael and her staff were incredibly kind. I also love how Michael Buffer says my name — Erin Roooooooooooooney Dolaaaaaaaand! I hope you enjoy the clip and the closet organizing tips, too.

Unclutterer on the Rachael Ray Show

Set your TiVOs, DVRs, or tune in Monday morning, April 26, to the Rachael Ray Daytime Talk Show. I’m on the episode giving advice on how to organize your closet, just in time for warmer weather.

I filmed my segment for this episode back in January, and I can’t believe I was able to keep it a secret until now while I’ve been waiting for it to air. I had an amazing time on set, and Rachael was incredibly nice to me. Michael Buffer (famous for his “Let’s Get Ready to Rumble” tagline) was on set the same day and I was able to meet his adorable dogs and daughter. Buffer announces the whole episode, and even announced me! In the same episode, RuPaul teaches the audience how to put on fake eyelashes (and, wow, RuPaul is tall — I had no idea), and veterinarian Dr. Ernie Ward shows viewers how to safely trim their pets’ nails. There are even more experts giving advice in the episode, but you’ll have to watch to learn more.

My appearance on the show is a little bittersweet, as it was the last time I wore high heel shoes. After my accident, I may never be able to wear high heels again. I know it’s not the most important thing in the world, and my podiatrist assures me my feet will appreciate the change, but it’s still a little sad. Feel welcome to join me in waving goodbye to my high heels at the end of the segment.

For clarification, I’m on Rachael’s daytime talk show, not her 30-Minute Meals show. Check your local listings for when the show airs in your region. I hope you enjoy the tips!

O Magazine focuses on uncluttering

The March 2010 issue of O: The Oprah Magazine just hit newsstands and it is dedicated to the theme “De-Clutter Your Life!” The uncluttering articles begin on page 142, but most of the content in the rest of the magazine is tangentially related to the topic.

If you turn to page 158 of the issue, and search diligently, you can even spot a quote from me (hunting for it is like playing a game of Where’s Waldo?). This was my first time being quoted in O, and I was thrilled they thought of me for their big “De-Clutter Your Life!” issue.

For one of the uncluttering stories, Oprah let camera crews into her closet to see how much clutter she had stored on her rods and shelves. Her closet seemed to me to be in decent shape, but she talked frankly about her decisions to keep and purge items with Adam Glassman, O‘s creative director:

OPRAH: “I bought a lot of little bags when I thought I was going to be a ‘lady who lunches.’ I’ve never been one, but I’ve always liked the idea and longed for that life. There’s something about dressing up and being ladies–it’s like playing house.”
ADAM: “Fashion can help you create an image, but be honest about your lifestyle. Do you really need yachting clothes when you never set foot on a boat? When buying an item, if you can answer ‘Where am I going in this?’ with at least four legitimate places, you have my blessing.”

One of my favorite features in the issue is a chart on page 153 “The 10 Habits of Highly Organized People.” From the list:

9. FORSEE (AND AVOID) PROBLEMS. You wouldn’t leave the house on a gray day without an umbrella, right? People who appear to sail through life unruffled apply this thinking to every scenario, says [Dorthy] Breininger [president of the Delphi Center for Organization]. Have a cabinet packed with leaning towers of Tupperware? Organized folks will take a few minutes to short-circuit an avalanche before it happens. (In other words, rearranging that cupboard now is easier than chasing after wayward lids as they scatter underneath the fridge.)

There are many great tips to be garnered from the March issue of O. Also, the items that Oprah decided to pitch from her closet are being auctioned on eBay starting March 1, and proceeds with benefit her Leadership Academy.

Saturday’s assorted links

Except for when a kind neighbor drove me to the grocery store in his all-wheel drive station wagon on Monday, I haven’t left my house in 10 days. Since I declared February as Super Simple Month, I guess I should think of this time as Mother Nature’s way of helping me to keep to my plans. (We’ve received about 4′ of snow in the past two weeks.) But, unfortunately, being shut up in my house for so long has negatively affected my creativity. I haven’t been able to run (usually this is my time to be alone with my thoughts each day), and I’m finding nothing in my house inspiring right now.

Instead of reading about my cabin fever, I thought you might enjoy checking out some links that have more valuable insights into uncluttering, organizing, and simple living than I can produce right now. Trust me, this is what is best for all of us:

An author’s minimalist home of the future

In 1952, Popular Mechanics magazine ran an article about science fiction author Robert Heinlein‘s then-new 1,150-square-foot minimalist home. Titled “A House To Make Life Easy,” the article written by Thomas E. Stimson, Jr., explores the “house that’s called extreme today but may become conventional before the 20th century has run its course.”

More than half a century later, it’s interesting to look back on this article and see which of the futuristic ideas caught on and which ones didn’t. One of the more interesting items that didn’t become a mainstream feature in American homes is the “commuting” table on page 66:

The “commuting” table allows you to set the table in the kitchen and then push it through the wall into the bookshelf-lined dining area. As full-time housekeepers were becoming more rare in the 1950s, I’m sure this was seen as a luxury for Heinlein’s wife. Nowadays, most new homes simply have open kitchen and dining floor plans where no walls exist between the two areas.

Check out the article (be sure to catch the jump from page 69 to 228, and then again to page 230) and learn about Heinlein’s minimalist home that supposedly only took “about an hour” to clean. Then, come back here and tell us your thoughts on this house that was supposed to make life easy.

Thanks to reader Robert R. for leading us to the article.

Celebrity decluttering: Barbra Streisand

Singer-actress extraordinaire Barbra Streisand will be auctioning off more than 500 of her belongings October 17-18 and the proceeds of the auction will be going to charity. CNN reporter Kareen Wynter asked Barbra why she chose to purge her things:

Barbra Streisand: We really never possess anything — I mean, not forever. We borrow things and then we let them go and be used and shared and enjoyed by the next generation and the next generation. So if you can’t really use something anymore, even though it belonged to you for a long time and you loved it, it’s great to pass it on.

Costumes she wore in movies, furniture from her home, and her piano are some of the things she is putting up for auction. You can find the entire collection on Juliens Auctions.

Purging your life of more than 500 items is a significant decluttering endeavor and I’m impressed to read about it. Uncluttering kudos to Barbra Streisand.

(Image from Juliens Auctions, and a hat tip to reader Katie for directing us to the story.)

Workspaces of the rich and famous

Today’s first post is a quick one. I simply want to direct you to a fun feature that ran last week over on Lifehacker: “Nine Workspaces Where Famous Folks Get Stuff Done.”

We’ve shown Al Gore‘s piled space here on Unclutterer before, but the others are new to us. I especially love the video of David Allen’s desk — simple and extremely productive:

Now I’m really curious what all of these famous peoples’ assistant’s desks look like …

Go on and check out the article, and then come back here and share your reactions.