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.”

Five organizing myths

Myths abound in the organising world. Don’t let yourself fall for these five common tales:

  1. Sticking to a rigid meal plan for the whole week will save time. What if you’ve planned a 5-course meal on Wednesday then have an emergency orthodontist appointment at 4:00pm? Generally a meal plan will save time but keep the ingredients for a few healthy, easy-to-prepare meals in your pantry at all times. This way, you can eat what you want, when you want.
  2. I only need to touch it once when I am organising something. Many jobs may have to be broken down into smaller tasks (divide and conquer) so they are not so overwhelming. For example, if you have lots of photos that need to be organised, the first step might be to separate them by year into boxes. Step two would be sorting within each box. You’re going to touch things more than once.
  3. Using the latest technology will save time. This may be true if you’re a techno-wiz, but it does take time to learn the new technology and new gadgets can be expensive. Ask yourself if you are willing to invest the time and money in a product so it can actually help you.
  4. Organising is easy and I can do it myself. While you may be able to clear some of your clutter yourself, you may have too much emotional attachment to your own belongings and may need someone with no biases to help you. I often ask my sister for help with my wardrobe or else I would still be wearing the clothes I had in high school. Many people work better with accountability partners.
  5. My house should look like the ones in the magazines. The homes in magazines are staged for pictures. Life is never picture perfect. Daily living is messy and over the course of a day it’s not going to look like a museum installation.

When to let chaos reign

Danielle LaPorte is in the midst of finishing work on her next book and recently tweeted the following:

Danielle’s perspective is wonderful. I know her home and work spaces are usually well organized, clutter free, and inspiring. While she is in crunch time with her book, though, she has let many of her minor responsibilities go for a few days as she focuses on what matters most to her. Her book and her family are her top priorities, and nothing is distracting her from these two things. She can see the big picture, knows eventually order will return, and isn’t letting herself feel any guilt over the secondary details.

When people turn to me for advice, often their questions begin with descriptions of very serious issues in their lives — physical limitations, sick family members, personal health concerns, financial difficulties, legal matters, major deadlines, and job security. After sharing these heavy anxieties, they will ask for guidance on handling clutter and being organized. In some cases, especially with long-term issues, turning to uncluttering and organizing can provide relief and improve the quality of life (especially with on-going physical limitations and financial difficulties). In most cases, however, the decision to turn to uncluttering and organizing is a distraction from what is really important. People want to avoid the serious problem or have lost sight of what matters most and can no longer see the big picture. It’s like an amplified desire a student might have to clean her apartment when she really should be studying for an exam taking place in a few hours. Stress can quickly cause someone to lose their clarity of priorities and sight of what really matters.

Regardless of the situation, my first piece of advice is to pause, take a deep breath, and remember uncluttering and organizing are not brain surgery. Unless a hoarding situation is immediately endangering someone’s life, clutter is typically not a life-or-death affair. Too-small clothes crammed into a stuffed closet or old magazines sitting on an end table will be fine if they sit a few days longer. Your bookshelf doesn’t have to be dusted right now. Your son can load the dishwasher using his haphazard method instead of the one you prefer and the sun will still rise tomorrow. Just take a break from whatever it is you’re doing and try to relax.

Once you’ve calmed a bit and have a clearer state of mind, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Right now, in this very moment, what really matters to you?
  2. Will uncluttering and organizing help you focus on these priorities, or are these actions avoidance or procrastination measures?
  3. Do you want to unclutter for the sake of uncluttering, or do you want to unclutter to help you focus on what really matters to you?
  4. If you delay uncluttering and organizing a few days/weeks/months will there be major repercussions, or will your situation actually improve if you focus on what really matters instead?

There is a time and place for uncluttering and organizing, but it usually isn’t when more important issues deserve your full attention. Focusing on the big picture and what really matters to you will help you gain perspective to know when is the right time for uncluttering and organizing, and when isn’t. Uncluttering and organizing are simply tools to help you achieve a remarkable life — they’re not the only tools in your workshop and they’re not what matters most to you. When calmer waters return, then is the time to put more effort into uncluttering and organizing.

Repercussions of uncluttering and organizing

We often talk about the benefits of uncluttering and organizing, but we rarely even hint of their being downsides. Today, I thought we’d break that trend and discuss all the work, headaches, stress, and additional responsibilities that — at least in the short term — uncluttering and organizing create.

  • Physical reactions to dust, dander, and whatever else you might stir up during the process. If you have pets (or pests), multiply this reaction by 100. Sometimes, you can take an over-the-counter allergy medicine mid-way through your uncluttering endeavor and wake up the next morning with no signs of a minor allergic reaction. However, if it’s been awhile since you’ve seen the floor under your bed, you may want to don a silly looking surgical mask while you work and avoid rubbing your eyes.
  • Muscle soreness from bending, reaching, scrubbing, lifting, and carrying. For this I recommend a warm soaking bath and a good night’s rest. If you have a massage therapist, maybe you schedule a massage for the next day?
  • Cuts, bruises, chipped fingernails and other minor injuries are common. Keep a small first-aid kit nearby to disinfect and bandage up any small scrapes you garner along the way.
  • Necessary trips to Goodwill or your favorite local charity. If you already have a lot of things on your to-do list, it might be stressful to schedule in a trip to your favorite donation destination. Before starting your uncluttering project, jump online and research when the charity accepts donations, what kinds of things they accept, and learn if they do home pick ups — you might not need to drive to the charity, after all.
  • A journey to the recycling center or your county dump. Similar to an errand to a charity, you might need to make a stop at your recycling center or a large drop off at your county dump. Similar to my recommendation above, jump online and see where, when, and how to make deliveries. Also check to see if you can pay a few bucks and have the county or 1-800-Got-Junk pick up at your home.
  • Discover more things you need to do. Inevitably, my to-do list increases while I’m uncluttering and organizing. I’ll find a scratch on the wall that needs some touch-up painting or objects that need returning to their owners. It can feel like Sisyphus has his hand in your uncluttering projects, and, to be honest, I don’t know how to keep this one from happening. I think it’s called “life.”
  • Speaking of life, sometimes uncluttering dredges up the past — and not in a joyful, fun, nostalgic way. During a recent uncluttering project, I discovered a beautiful copy of Jane Eyre a student gave to me one year for Christmas back when I was teaching. A couple years ago, the student passed away, and seeing the book stirred up a lot of sadness.
  • Too many cooks in the kitchen. As much as I recommend having buddies to work with during any uncluttering project (they’re great for motivation, inspiration, and an extra pair of hands), sometimes there can be too many people involved. If you have very young children, now is the time to call in a favor from a friend or family member and have her babysit.
  • Specifically in a work environment, your colleagues might not look fondly on you taking part of a day away from your other work to focus on improving your office. If this is the case, it likely means the best time to focus on these beneficial activities is not during regular business hours.

What downsides have you discovered to the uncluttering and organizing processes? How have you moved past or solved these problems so you can go back to enjoying the benefits of all your hard work? Share your experiences with us in the comments.

What clutter affects an unclutterer?

When I talk about struggles with clutter, I tend to speak in generalities — messy closets, disorganized desks, etc. My assumption is that the specific ways I fight with clutter in my life are different than other folks, and using generalities can make the advice applicable to more people.

However, I know there is value in concrete examples, and I believe our Friday Ask Unclutterer column is a great way to explore specific problems readers face. I received an e-mail from a reader recently, though, asking if I would talk about actual problems I face in my daily life. She wanted to know where clutter creeps into my schedule, home, and office.

I thought about it for a week and decided I would reveal one area where I completely fail at uncluttering. I’ve hinted at some of this in the past, but now I’ll share the whole story. It is, without a doubt, my Achilles heel:

Erin’s Failure: If something I rely upon breaks, stops working, or fails to do its job any longer, I have a tendency to ignore it instead of dealing with it. Last year, our washing machine was broken for two months and I responded by ignoring the problem. Out of necessity, I had to go to the Laundromat twice — spending more than $25 and hauling five hampers of clothes with me each time. Did I once research washing machines online to learn what might be wrong with our washer? No. Did I research replacement units, prices, warranties, or reviews? No. Did I find out which stores would haul off my broken machine if I replaced the washer with a new one? Definitely not.

I told my husband that I would take care of it, yet he’s the one who called the repairman, researched reviews of new washers, and dragged me to Sears kicking and screaming to buy a replacement. Our new washing machine cost less than $500, and I had spent over $50 at the Laundromat. I wasted more than 10 percent of the cost of the new unit because I refused to act and take care of the situation.

Nine years ago, my car died. While driving it home one evening, it transformed from a Volvo sedan into a piece of steel sculpture in the shape of a car. Did I call a mechanic to check to see what was wrong with it? No. Did I call Goodwill to donate it to charity? No. Did I have it towed to a junk yard? No. Instead, I paid $200 a month for EIGHT MONTHS for it to sit in its parking space in downtown D.C. Finally, my husband (who was just my fiance at the time) picked up the phone and called a local charity that came and towed the car away on my behalf. I wasted $1,600 in parking and $950 on insurance over that time period, and I didn’t even need a car. I lived in D.C., worked in D.C., and had unlimited access to taxis and the Metro. I’m still kicking myself over my inability to act when my car died and the loss of $2,500.

Now you know where my uncluttering fails. This is my very specific thorn in my side. How about you? What uncluttering failure specifically plagues your life? Apparently Martha Stewart struggles with clutter in her clothes closet, so I know it affects everyone. Feel welcome to bare your soul in the comments.

Unitaskers we love

Each Wednesday, when we make fun of unitaskers, we usually report on the most ridiculous items we can find. Cat wigs! Large, electrical martini shakers! Monogrammed branding irons for your steaks!

We’ve found that there are so many outrageous possibilities for sale that we can avoid writing about the more common unitaskers that grace our homes. It’s safe to assume, however, that anyone with a kitchen has at least one prized unitasker in his or her collection. For example, my friend Ann swears by her egg timer, which does nothing except sit in the water while she hard boils eggs. (Ann may have had an incident once involving eggs shooting out of a pan and exploding because she fell asleep while making them. Maybe. And, if that is the case, I think her egg timer is a perfect unitasker for her and those of us who may get near her kitchen.)

In a fun tribute to less outrageous unitaskers, I thought today would be a good day to sing the praises of the unitaskers we love and make space for in our homes. Here are my additions, and I look forward to reading your unitaskers in the comments:

Fire extinguisher. I have to agree with Alton Brown on this one, and admit that my fire extinguisher serves an important, but solitary purpose in my home. If you don’t have one of these, you should get one (or more) and keep it handy.

Ice cream maker. Much to Matt’s disdain, I love my ice cream maker. I fill it with fresh cream from my farmer’s market and invent sweet creations on a weekly basis. I can’t imagine living without this unitasker.

Lever-style wine opener. It takes up an absurd amount of space in our cabinet, but I can’t get a cork out of a wine bottle any other way. I can pretend to be effective with a fully manual style, but then I have to strain cork out of the wine before I drink it. When we got this contraption for a wedding present, I did a dance of joy.

Tomato knife. I don’t own one of these, but my food-guru friend Kim is in love with hers and insists that I mention it as a cannot-live-without item. In theory, you can use it on tomatoes AND bagels, but Kim won’t support any of that multiple use talk. If you eat tomatoes all summer long, then apparently this is the unitasker to woo your heart.

Are you a fan of the cherry pitter? Are you like Ann and love your hard boiled egg timer or Kim and her tomato knife? Sing the praises of your favorite unitasker in the comments!

In defense of a messy desk

A Financial Times Deutschland article asks the following question: “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what does an empty desk say about the quality of your ideas?” I guess the assumption is an empty desk equals an empty mind. I think an empty mind can help you focus on what the task at hand is, while a cluttered mind makes it a bit more difficult to concentrate.

The article continues:

Ian Smalley, creative director of corporate digital communications agency CTN, is a believer in just that sort of messy medium.

The perimeter of his desk is delineated by towers of paper: “I have a relatively big desk so as long as there is elbow room, things tend to pile up, even if some of them do date back to 2004.”

But his main reason for untidiness is lack of time to tidy:

“It is a busy environment and at the end of the day, while all confidential documents are shredded and recycled, I want to leave and see my son, not file bits of paper.” He adds: “I can get a professional-looking desk by doing a ‘five-minute tidy’ where I straighten all the piles of paper up if I need to.”

Keeping a clean workspace isn’t the only key to being successful at your job, but it doesn’t hurt. Yes, there are some people with tidy desks who don’t have the best work ethic and there are people with messy desks who are invaluable to their companies. But, as a rule of thumb, it can be more efficient to have a well organized workspace. An organized workspace allows you to focus on the task at hand rather than losing focus while looking for a misplaced paper or file.

What do you think of the article? Agree or disagree? I’m eager to read your responses to it.

In Praise Of (A Little) Mess: Be (A Little) Scruffy

At Unclutterer, we know that getting started on an organization project can be a difficult task — especially when your home or office are in complete disarray. Since we believe in baby steps, we wanted to present a guest post from someone who has found that a little mess is still better than a lot of mess, and that striving for perfection may not be necessary (at least not immediately). Thank you, Stowe Boyd, for once again sharing your valuable insights with us!

I am not a naturally organized person. Left to my own devices, I think I might have become a truly obsessively messy type. As it is, I have adopted some of the tools of being organized — like task lists, and well-honed scheduling for meetings and calls — but I am definitely a bit scruffy compared to most.

I use the term scruffy not just for a poetic turn of phrase, but in its application as a scientific term among those who study human organization, pro and con.

[from A Perfect Mess, by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman]

What is it in your office environment that helps you figure our how to pick up where you left off or to being a new task, when you’re interrupted, leave the office, or finish a task? “Neats,” he’s [researcher David Kirsch] found, depend on a small number of “explicit coordinating structures” such as lists, day planners, and in-boxes to quickly and surely determine what to do next. Scruffies, on the other hand, are “data driven” — that is they don’t explicitly plan out and specify what they do but instead rely on the office environment to give them clues and prompts, in the form of documents lying on the desk, files piled up on top of the filing cabinet, comments scribbled on envelopes, Post-it notes (which , surprisingly, many Neats disdain) stuck here and there, books left open on the floor, and so forth.

Kirsch and others have shown that Scruffies do overestimate their ability to keep track of things in the physical world as a means of structuring work, but they have also demonstrated that Scruffies gain a significant amount of traction from this approach, anyway. Perhaps most important, Kirsch states that different folks work better in ‘different work landscapes:

“People shape their environment over time until it conforms to the way they are comfortable working, even if it seems out of control to someone else.”

Worst of all, trying to make Scruffies into Neats won’t work, and will just make them less productive. They will just end up disorganized anyway.

So, organizations may want to be somewhat more tolerant of (slightly) cluttered desks than they generally are. Many companies have an explicit clean desk policy that simply doesn’t take into account the brain/desk landscape relationship of Scruffies.

The Iowa-based First Federal Bankshares posted their policy on the web:

Work areas should be kept neat and orderly. The Company must always look its best. Just as we are judged by our personal appearance, so is the Company. Good housekeeping makes it easier to organize your work, prevents loss of items, and provides a professional appearance. Excessive display of personal items is unprofessional. Supervisors and managers are expected to maintain a professional appearance in their department and stores, and they may request that you remove items if they detract from a professional appearance. In addition, they may require you to clean or straighten your work area.

The implication is clear: a well-ordered desk leads to better work habits. Or else.

Let’s be clear: I am not advocating McDonald’s wrappers under the desk, or a White Snake poster in the cubicle. But leaving your active work open on your desk when you leave for the day — three folders, a manual, a stack of reports on the corner of desk, and post it notes hanging off your PC monitor — could save an hour of time the next morning. Every morning. And trying to force Scruffies to be Neats just won’t work.

Some of this is driven by senior executives who have assistants to keep their desktops empty, and some of it is motivated by a misplaced overemphasis on empty desks as a good in their own right, independent of actual functionality.

Many extremely productive people rely on a messy work landscape. Looking at the desk of a busy scientific genius, it’s clear that the piles of papers and books that fill the surface give a pretty good indication of what an Einstein has been working on recently.

Albert Einstein has been considered the patron saint of useful messiness, and once stated “The cluttered desk signs a cluttered mind; what does an empty desk sign?”

Einstein’s Desk

You might say that a messy desk is fine if you are a Da Vinci, but the average guy isn’t a Da Vinci, and without genius you need structure to compensate.

The evidence suggests otherwise. There is a psychological division in the world, and all the hypothetical benefits of an uncluttered desk simply don’t play if you are a Scruffy.

There are many other benefits of (a little) mess, not the least of which is that the novelty of looking up from our task lists periodically, and scanning the real world for new inputs can enliven a hidebound agenda of work, work, work.

Kevin Kelly perhaps takes this thinking to new extremes in his writings on what he calls the “Network Economy” — this new era we live and work in. The gist is that the old measures of personal productivity don’t really matter as much as they once did, as we move away from industrial age notions of work and efficiency, and when the major challenge is not really doing many things but choosing the right thing to do:

Productivity, however, is exactly the wrong thing to care about in the new economy.

The problem with trying to measure productivity is that it measures only how well people can do the wrong jobs. Any job that can be measured for productivity probably should be eliminated from the list of jobs that people do.

In the coming era, doing the exactly right next thing is far more fruitful than doing the same thing twice.

I think that Einstein would have thought a (slightly) messy desk can play a structural role in helping people decide what is the next right thing to do given all the things you might do. Well, at least if you are a Scruffy, anyway.

And what about places like First Federal Bankshares? Increasingly, the sort of work being done in places where clean desks prevail is being automated, so people won’t be processing banking reports, or processing claims, or any of the myriad office jobs of the past. As Kevin Kelly puts it:

Productivity is for machines. If you can measure it, robots should do it.

Perhaps he goes a hair too far into a glistening future, but we shouldn’t accept the premise that invention, insight, and imagination are less important than and somehow disconnected from the tangible landscape of our work, either. We have to accept a (little) disorder in the world, if only for inspiration; and for Scruffies, a smidge of disorder is like a signpost, pointing the way forward.

Signpost image from alisdair.

Documentarian responds to messy minions

Josh Freed, the man behind My Messy Life, wrote a piece for the Montreal Gazette in which he highlights some of the reactions he received about his film. (I wrote about this documentary a couple weeks ago here.) From the article:

In the program, I revealed my extraordinarily messy office, then visited some stupendous messes with similar “order disorders.” I also teased neat freaks for their obsession with closet organizers, desk organizers and other weapons of mess destruction.

Since then I’ve been inundated by almost 100 letters, mostly from Gazette readers eager to talk about (or rationalize) their own disorderly conduct. I’ve become the man to whom you turn to confess your mess – and the leader of a budding mess liberation movement.

Freed defends his messy file system, or lack there of, while doing so in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Calling himself the “Messiah of Mess” he highlights the his new followers’ reaction to his documentary. While Freed will receive no love from us at Unclutterer, he did admit to tidying up his office after the documentary was finished filming.

The other day I went in and did seven hours of spring cleaning and repiling so I finally know where everything is again. I threw out seven large bags of stuff – and felt great. But trust me: If you walked in, you’d never know the difference.

That’s a good first step, sir. Maybe there is hope for Freed just yet.

Documentary defends the clutter lifestyle

Journalist, author, and filmmaker, Josh Freed, directed and starred in My Messy Life. The film documents his messy lifestyle and defends his “cult of clutter.” From the CTV article:

“My Messy Life,” an original documentary directed by and starring Freed himself, takes a light-hearted look at clutter in a symbolic act of defiance against what Freed calls the “tyranny of the tidy.”

In the film, Freed turns the cameras on his home office, which he aptly calls his “messterpiece.”

Aside from his chair, not a single surface is visible in Freed’s office. Notes plaster walls, bins cover the floor and stacks of paper, files and books consume the desk.

Freed’s way of life is the antithesis of what we strive for here at Unclutterer, but this film looks interesting and entertaining. Freed seems to have a good sense of humor about his organizational skills, or lack there of, so the film seems to be a bit tongue-in-cheek.

Freed did need to have some outside organizing help while making the documentary.

During the making of “My Messy Life” Freed’s producers kept the details in check so he could focus on creating.

You can watch a news clip about the documentary here, but unfortunately we can’t seem to find the whole of the documentary online. Have any of our Canadian readers had the pleasure of viewing this documentary? It originally aired on CTV on May 17.

Clutter saved their home

As a tornado ripped through a small town in Tennessee, one man’s cluttered trailer was credited with saving the home in which his family sought shelter. From the WSMV-TV article:

A Lawrenceburg man who has saved everything for years said his clutter may have saved his life.

Several homes were destroyed and many more were damaged in Friday’s tornadoes in Lawrence and Giles counties, but Bobby Massey’s family is crediting his bad habit of being a pack rat with saving their house.

I find it hard to believe that a trailer full of clutter withstood the awesome power of a tornado, but the Massey family may argue the contrary.

When the Masseys walked outside, they said the trailer packed with Bobby Massey’s stuff had stood fast and protected the house.

“That thing is loaded down with heavy stuff,” he said.”Had that trailer not been there, what do you think would have happened?” Dorsey asked. “I guarantee you, it would have leveled the house,” he said.

This is one of the first times I can admit to reading a clutter-is-good story. It definitely isn’t persuading me to change my uncluttered ways, but it is interesting. Honestly, I’d be more afraid of what would happen to all that stuff if it were directly hit by a tornado — I’d be terrified of all of the flying projectiles. What do you think? Did clutter save this man’s home?