Gretchen Rubin comes through my part of the world fairly often, and I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to go to a few of her readings and meet her. First of all, SHE IS SO NICE. The other thing that stands out, after her talk on Outer Order, Inner Calm, is how much the audience responds to this material. I’ve always thought she has delightfully subversive things to say about happiness and human behavior. It’s what she has to say about order and clutter that really seems to click with people the most.
When Gretchen asked how many people in the room make their bed every morning, nearly every hand went up. In fact I’m pretty sure they all did; I’m just hedging. Where else would this be true? Then she asked how many people make their bed even when they stay in a hotel, and everyone laughed because only a few hands went up. (Including mine!) I do it because it helps me make sure I haven’t lost anything in the bedding, like clothes, an eye mask, a pen, or my AirPods. Making the bed is part of my five-minute “perimeter check,” the way I’ve finally stopped losing objects when I travel.
For me, outer order is about mental bandwidth, not so much calmness as simply being able to think straight and remember what I’m doing. When the bed is made, I don’t need to worry about it. When my desk is clear, I don’t need to worry about it. When the counters are clear, I don’t need to worry about them. In a split second, I can glance around and know, there is nothing I need to do here. Now I can focus.
It does make relationships calmer. My husband prefers outer order as well, although for different reasons. I honestly believe he could concentrate on his work in the midst of a tornado or a kindergarten. For Upholders like him, an orderly environment just makes sense. There are no reasons to have things any other way. This is very helpful for me, because I work at home and I don’t need either the mess or the inevitable discussions about the mess!
I started reading this book on the bus on the way home from the Outer Order, Inner Calm event, and I hadn’t even finished it before I had cleared and reorganized an area. I live in a studio apartment with another human, a dog, and a parrot, and even though we own relatively few things, almost all our stuff is on open display at all times. Clearing even one square foot makes a noticeable difference. Not everyone feels it as quickly, though, when most people are used to living in a larger home with more things around them.
Here are some of the ideas that stood out to me:
“Use a photograph to evaluate clutter.” This definitely works. I do photo evaluations with clients all the time.
Choose a “flavor of the month.” Focus on sorting through only one category of object for a month. I need to do this again with my books. How about you?
Assign each day its own task. This also works well for me, since I keep a slightly different schedule every day of the week. I also combine errands because I don’t have a car.
Is your clutter backward-looking or forward-looking? How great a question is this? In my experience, almost all of my chronically disorganized clients are forward-looking types, who let old things go easily but hang on tightly to things like unused craft supplies and unread books.
The holiday rule: Something you want, something you need, something to wear, and something to read. Yes, please! Huge gift explosions at holidays have never made much sense to me. If this happens several times a year, where the heck does it all go??
This book is designed to be read in bursts. The sections are short and punchy. You can read a single page and find yourself jumping up to clear an area. As an organizer and someone who has been reviewing organizing books for years, I still found fresh insights and material that I’ve never seen anywhere else. Especially for Gretchen Rubin fans, Outer Order, Inner Calm is the perfect book to keep beside you as you start spring cleaning!
We want to cherish our possessions and we also want to feel free of them.
Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
What would you accomplish with a magic task - a task that got completed overnight with no work from you?
Nothing is more exhausting than the task that’s never started.
This is the book for those who haven’t gotten very far with clearing clutter by focusing on one item at a time. Joshua Becker offers a better way with The Minimalist Home: A Room-by-Room Guide to a Decluttered, Refocused Life. Focus on the space and how you use it, not the items that are in it. Having lived this process, Becker shares how minimalism can change your relationships, your emotions, and ultimately your entire life.
Clutter causes a lot of problems that we might not realize until we start thinking about it. Resentment is the biggest one. We think of our own stuff as “valuable” and that of our housemates (partners, kids) as “clutter” and “junk.” Everything would be fine if only I had the entire house to store MY stuff! YOUR mess is messing everything up! Becker points out that minimalism is not only easier to keep neat, it also saves time and money. What else do people quarrel over if not those three areas?
The best reason to consider this process is the “minimalism dividend.” Refocus your time, space, energy, and finances around the way you want to live your life. If you feel like you don’t have “enough” (time, money, space) to adopt a child, relocate, go back to school, train for a marathon, or whatever else is your dream, why is that? Becker offers examples of readers who have transformed their lives even under serious constraints, like illness or having seven kids. He also shares that he and his wife started a charitable foundation after they became minimalists.
The hands-on chapters are very practical, clear, and specific, with checklists for each room. There is a method for setting goals, working with other household members, and moving from one room to another. Becker suggests starting with the living room because that’s the area where most people spend the most time, and it’s the first place that guests see. Household members should clear their own personal areas, and may take the initiative after seeing how well it’s going in the rest of the house.
The Minimalist Home draws attention to how we use rooms and how they make us feel. Hospitality is one characteristic on the list. Do guests feel welcome when they visit? Do we ourselves feel welcome in our own homes? I always think of that common saying, found on so many fridge magnets, signs, and pillows: “Sorry for the mess but we live here.” Um, did you want me to come back another time? Or we could meet at the park? Whatever we feel when we’re at home, “defensive” or “resentful” hopefully don’t come up too often.
Becker cites research, statistics, and reader feedback to back up his points about minimalism. For instance, hoarders have worse sleep, and the more cluttered their homes, the more likely they are to have a sleep disorder. (My parasomnia disorder is a major reason I moved toward minimalism, because it’s so dangerous to have stuff in the way when I sleepwalk). The average large kitchen typically has over a thousand individual items, and even a small one has over six hundred, which is hard to believe until you actually try to count up all the utensils in a single drawer. Sometimes a single data point can help to put things in perspective, reminding us that we are part of an era and that our stuff problems are shared, cultural problems.
One of the benefits of minimalism is being able to pay off debt and save money toward other goals. My husband and I did this a few years ago, and we agree with Becker that minimalism makes it possible to move to a smaller, yet nicer, home. We’re in one-quarter of the space we had as newlyweds, we saved 48% of our net income last year, and we travel all the time. We look forward to discussing our finances because we’re almost always doing better than we had planned. It helps us to feel closer to each other. We could expand back into a larger home with more stuff anytime, but why would we, when it would just mean less vacation money and more time doing housework?
Don’t focus on holding up one item at a time and asking how it fits into your life. Pull back and look at your home, your daily life, your relationships with everyone in your household, your finances, and whether you are all living your dreams. Not this shirt, but whether your wardrobe makes you feel fabulous. Not that book, but whether you feel rested and that you have plenty of time to do everything you want to do. Not this cute little decoration, but how you and your partner feel about your finances. Not that kitchen canister, but whether your social life is working for you. Why focus on one consumer item at a time when every other part of your life is more valuable?
Give yourself the house you’ve always wished you had. You’ve already got it! It’s hidden underneath all your stuff.
Not every possession is a belonging.
One underappreciated benefit of minimalism is the ability to walk confidently through your bedroom with the lights off.
Think less about who you were. Focus more on who you are becoming.
Where do you start? This is the most common question about anything, any time. In chaos, it’s even harder to know where to start. Where does it end and where does it begin?
The secret is, it doesn’t matter where you start if it’s all going to get done eventually. When you’re trying to dig out clutter in the home, it’s really about what matters the most to you. Suggestions of where to start are probably just going to make you think of all the reasons why that is actually the wrong place to start.
Fine, then start somewhere else!
In my mind, though, for most people it’s going to be paper. I’ve never met anyone who was 100% on top of their paper piles. Even people who are into electronic everything tend to have issues with paper. It’s okay!
This is why I suggest that you get an empty laundry basket and throw your mail into it. Carry it around, or have someone carry it for you, and consolidate all your papers. Then, if you need to look for it, you’ll know that it’s somewhere in that basket.
Some of you are already thinking that there’s no way one laundry basket will be enough. True. I’ve seen a lot and I believe you. There are two ways you can do it:
Every cluttered home is different. Some are spotless and magazine-ready except for one terrible, scary room. (Scary because the inhabitants live in fear that someone will find out their Secret Shame). Others are mildly lived-in, with a small amount of clutter in every room. Yet others are utterly filled, chaos everywhere, and those are the rooms that belong to my people.
I like to encourage my people to reclaim areas, one square foot at a time. Eventually an entire table or countertop might be bought back. Then an entire room is done. (It can happen!). Working a little bit here and there means there’s never really much to show for all that effort.
If the major problem in the home is mail and other papers, then dealing with the papers is going to have the biggest impact. That’s an instant visual impact and it’s also going to affect mental bandwidth. Get the papers out of the way, and what’s left might be a totally normal, functioning room!
It all starts to feel more manageable.
The thing about paper is that almost none of it is really necessary. At least 80% of it you’re never going to look at again. That means it’s just taking up space and making everything confused. When you can’t find the one thing that you really do need, it’s because it’s buried in with all the unimportant stuff. If you know it’s somewhere in one stack, one filing cabinet, or one laundry basket, then you can find it.
You can even show someone else the basket and ask them to look in it.
What’s standard in the homes of my chronically disorganized people is that there are papers everywhere. Papers in the windowsills, on the bookshelves, on the dressers and nightstands, in drawers, in backpacks and purses and briefcases, in cubbyholes, and definitely on the dining table. Every single room has important papers in it, mixed in with piles that are useless.
Stress tends to make us pace back and forth and keep checking the same spots over and over again, even when we’ve already checked and we know the item isn’t there. (Sometimes it actually IS there and our stress levels were so high that we didn’t notice it or realize what it was). This is why it’s so helpful to go around and gather all the papers from every room, and instead make sure they’re all in one spot.
Ahh, but what if there are 87 million metric tons of paper? What then??
This is the other purpose of the laundry basket for gathering and consolidating papers. It’s a unit of measure. If you’re trying to sort, file, archive, shred, recycle, or toss papers, the only way to do it all at once is via arson, which I don’t advise as it is a potentially lethal crime. A laundry basket load is really quite a lot of paper to sort. Even if it’s entirely filled with magazines or newspapers, it’s a lot.
Maybe do one laundry basket load a week, or a month? Or ask someone who enjoys this sort of thing to help out.
Oddly, papers are one of the fastest and easiest categories to sort when I do home visits. That’s because they’re confusing, but they’re usually not important for emotional reasons. It’s very easy for me to sort through piles of unopened mail, for instance, because it’s usually just 2-3 years’ worth of mail from the same dozen organizations. The logos all match and the envelopes are the same size. It’s no harder than sorting through a stack of playing cards. The client then shrugs and shreds entire stacks at a time.
Meanwhile, sorting a laundry basket load of baby clothes can take a million years, because each piece has so many memories. The client feels like sharing those clothes with a new mom and a new baby is tantamount to throwing away her own child. No, no, I can’t let go of this one. Craft supplies, same struggle, different reason. I was going to USE that! (Three years ago).
Nobody ever says, Oh, I can’t possibly shred that three-year-old electric bill, oh, my heart!
All you really need is your identification, a list of account numbers, and your tax returns. Any accounts that you have, if you owe them money, they’ll find you, and they’ll keep contacting you. Never worry about that. All the truly necessary and important papers generated by one person over one lifetime should easily fit in a fireproof safe. That’s a lot smaller than a laundry basket.
Throw your mail in a laundry basket. Tape a sign to it with the date that you put it in. Then wait and see how much time goes by before you actually need anything from that basket.
The main visible difference between a child’s bedroom and an adult’s bedroom is that kids leave stuff strewn all over the floor. Adults have stepped on enough LEGO and other small toys that we prefer an open field. We appreciate the luxury of walking barefoot across a room without getting punctured by a tiny plastic accessory. Children use these items to mark their territory, assert their aesthetics, avoid boring chores, and also because they don’t know how to do otherwise.
“The floor is lava” is a game we used to play as kids. It’s the sort of thing one child teaches another, like all the rude little verses we call back. “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” The point of “the floor is lava” is that you have to jump around on the furniture, and if you touch the floor, then you fell in the hot lava. It’s a really exciting excuse to hop on the couch. One of the reasons kids will tolerate having stuff all over the floor is that they are nimble enough they don’t really need a floor at all. In a narrow enough hallway, they’ll crawl up the walls.
Another reason kids tolerate having a messy floor is that they have a lot of really small toys. This is a function of culture, of what’s available to buy and own. It’s also a problem created almost entirely by adults. Kids don’t have any money and they can’t drive. All of their stuff, their messy messy stuff, came from THE PARENTS and their ilk. Yes, kids will bring home pebbles and pine cones, but it’s a duty of parenting to explain why that stuff belongs in the natural world and why it isn’t fun to step on stuff barefoot in the dark. It’s also up to the parents to be a filter between affordable materialism and a livable space in the home.
If you don’t want your kids to make a mess, quit bringing them tiny toys. Set boundaries with the grandparents. Sit down with them and sort and purge a few times a year. Teach them what the heck is meant by the mysterious directive, “Clean your room.”
What children have in common with my people, the adult chronically disorganized folks of the world, is that they all struggle with categorizing things. Sorting and grouping is challenging for them. They don’t know what to do or how to do it. They have no idea what ‘done’ looks like. This is something they can learn, but not something they can ever be expected to figure out on their own. That’s where an organizer like me comes in. I understand that they have all the creativity, intelligence, and desire to please that they could ever need. All they need is someone to patiently walk them through how to sort things into categories, many times, many times, until they start to understand. They also start to be supported by a visible, clearly marked system. The room itself starts to show what to do and how to do it.
My people tend to have stuff on their floors, just like little kids do, because of a series of reasons. They don’t see it - especially in the bathrooms, where most people with vision problems are not wearing their glasses or contact lenses. They aren’t looking for it, because “bare floors” is not a metric in their world. There may be a lot of boxes and large furniture and stacks and piles obscuring the small objects that have fallen to the floor. They may have cats or other pets who climb and jump and knock things to the floor and carry things off in their naughty mouths. They may have physical issues, like knee or back pain, that prevent them from bending or kneeling. They may simply be struggling with depression. Mostly, though, they’ve just reached adulthood without anyone teaching them the painstaking process of categorizing the small items.
Since the floor is always scattered with small objects, it never gets vacuumed. Because it never gets vacuumed, cleaning the floors is never a task on the schedule. Because cleaning the floors is never on the timeline, every object that hits the floor stays there. This is how the problem compounds over time.
My people tend to be bright and creative, yet also pessimistic and prone to fatalism. Their reaction to stress and drama is not “time to do something about this” but rather “oh well, oh dang, not again, why me.” My people tend to catastrophize and make problems seem worse than they are because they believe they are powerless. This mindset is compounded by the chaos in their physical surroundings. They are unskilled at estimating how long it takes to do things. They often see chores and other aversive tasks, like financial planning, cooking, or exercising, as moral issues or personal failings or character flaws rather than simple practical jobs to be done. They’ll cling to the same housekeeping techniques their grandparents used. In their minds, “cleaning” or “housework” takes days, it’s physically exhausting, it’s incredibly boring and humiliating, and it must be done alone, in deep silence.
(When I was a kid, housework meant we had company coming later in the day, and that meant party food. It wasn’t that we liked dusting or cleaning our rooms, it was that we knew the clock was ticking toward chips ‘n’ dip or pizza and movie time).
Another way to look at it is that tiny toys and other objects don’t need to be picked up one by one, while crawling on your hands and knees. There are three fast and easy ways to do it, if you do it yourself.
One is to stand up and use the top edge of a mop to scrape all the stuff into a pile. (You can also buy an object called a “toy rake” to do this job).
Another way is to kneel on the floor with a magazine or a child’s board book in each hand. Use the bindings as scraper tools, like windshield wipers, and scoop all the tiny toys toward you.
The third way is to buy a robot vacuum and let it pick up the tiny toys in its ashtray, so you can shake them out afterward.
With kids involved, you can set a timer and make toy pickup into a game.
It’s also important to have a sorting system that is clear and obvious, a system they can reach and that they are old enough to easily understand. Praise the behaviors you want, reward the results that you like on a regular schedule, support the system so it continues to work, but understand that punishment, lectures, and blame are demotivating for children and exhausting for you.
With a bare floor, you can do a lot. You can dance around and do the Sound of Music twirl. You can play and wrestle with your pets and your kids. You can get down and relax with some yoga stretches. You can pace back and forth. You can stumble around at night without hurting your foot in the dark. If you drop an earring or an aspirin, you can spot it and pick it up. A bare floor is an asset, something that it’s easy to take for granted. If the floor is lava at your house, start imagining how you can start walking on it again.
No matter the cultural tradition, this is a time of year when token gifts are exchanged. How fun is that? It’s great if your love language is giving gifts. For the rest of us, it can fall a little flat at best, or disrupt our entire year’s finances at worst. For my people, it’s another major funnel of extra clutter that they find emotionally befuddling. I’ll still be finding gifts in their original gift bags years later, still in their original tissue paper and their original plastic packaging. All this trading of material objects can maybe detract from the real reason we all get together, which is to greet the long, dark winter nights with hope and hospitality. That is why I say, open your unopened gifts, both material and immaterial.
Open the gift bags from last year and the year before. They might come in handy if you get invited to a white elephant exchange. You can reuse the gift wrap, too. They may also put this year’s gifts into context, a handy meter for what is realistic to expect out of a little glitter and plastic.
There is a certain paradox in the holidays, because the more anticipation and excitement there is, the more there can be an emotional letdown when it’s all over. I’ve always thought the big parties should be in midwinter, not near the solstice, because it’s hard knowing there are so many months of horrible weather and darkness still to come. Once all the parties are over and everyone has gone home, there’s nothing but a pile of wrapping paper and trinkets to get us through. Not a few kids will build a reputation for throwing tantrums or openly weeping because they didn’t get their heart’s desire.
A pony. A piano. A Pretty in Pink Barbie. A parrot.
A dirt bike. A rifle. Roller blades. An electric guitar.
Ask anyone of any age, and they’ll recall with perfect clarity the Gift That Got Away. Then ask if they have one now. It’s funny that most of us can afford anything in the range of the budget for a children’s toy, yet we don’t buy these things for ourselves. That’s because it’s not the material object that we really miss. It’s the feeling of innocent hope and fervent wishing, the sparkly feeling of infinite possibility that is continually dashed in the face of cold reality.
The things we did get that didn’t live up to the hype: sea monkeys, x-ray glasses, a supposed all-day lollipop, the triple-scoop ice cream cone that fell on the sidewalk directly outside the ice cream shop.
(As I wrote this, the squirrel that lives outside our front door came too close and my dog ALMOST got him).
How many times have we been fooled by prank gifts? White elephants, oversize boxes and trick packaging designed to hide the modest item inside.
Many of us have mixed feelings about going to holiday parties. Shyness and social anxiety, family dysfunction and trauma, tenuous recovery tested by ever-present intoxicants, the endless aggravation of forced cheer in traffic. Explain why you’re still single. Pretend you’re straight. Act perky about your job hunt. Struggle to cram in every social obligation around the few traditions that actually mean something to you. Stop your cat from eating all those ribbons.
What do we miss? What falls by the wayside because it’s so hard to put into material form?
Storytelling. For every argument or failure of simple tact, there’s an untold story that somebody could have, might have, maybe should have drawn out of someone else. A lot of grumpy people have fascinating stories buried somewhere under all the crankiness. With a little skill and attention, someone could have turned complaining into entertaining.
Connection. When we sit down to write out cards, it can come as a shock to realize that it’s been an entire year since we last reached out to dear friends who live far away. Are we really making the connections and staying engaged with the people we like the best? How long has it been since we even heard each other’s voices? How did those kids get so big? Where did the last five years go?
Neighborliness. In the past, people did a better job of getting to know their neighbors. Gatherings were probably more formal, but the rote phrases and stilted, scripted conversations gave people a framework for how to interact. I started making more of an effort to get to know my neighbors when I realized the man next door was 96. Was anyone looking after him?
The last time. The sad truth is that we never know when it will be the last time we see someone. Could be... could be tonight. There are few regrets as bitter as knowing you could have called someone or gone to see someone, but you let the opportunity pass and later find out it’s too late. One regret that’s worse is knowing that the last time you spoke, you exchanged harsh words and never made up.
Among the unopened gifts, the silly bric-a-brac and the trivial treats, there are others that can’t be shaken out of the wrapper. Those are the simple and timeless human gifts of attention, patience, forgiveness, advanced hospitality, and emotional engagement. Let’s put down our phones and our shiny sacks for a few moments and give a moment to opening our hearts to one another.
There are two ways to take the urgency out of shopping with swirly eyes. One is to cut off the part of you that wants to buy things. The other is to replace it with the feeling that you can have whatever you want, whenever you want it, and that most things aren’t really worth bringing home because they don’t meet your standards. One can lead to either contentment or an intensified scarcity mentality. The other can lead to either mad materialism or placid abundance. This is what I mean when I say you can buy with your eye.
As a young person, I learned to have a certain amount of contempt for people with more consumer power than I had. I thought the fashions and hairstyles looked stupid. I thought the advertisements were annoying. It was a sour grapes problem. I’ve never worn Crocs or Ugg boots, I didn’t have a Tamagotchi or a Beanie Baby or a My Little Pony, yet I was still highly aware of the brands and the majority of their product lines. I might even have been more materialistic in the sense of envy and thwarted desire than the trendsetters who owned those things.
One day in my early thirties, I saw an IKEA catalog for the first time. This was not a store that existed in my previous region, and I had no idea what kind of place it was. I leafed through the pages, because I kinda enjoy scoffing at extremely expensive design collections. Two thousand dollars for a coffee table?! That kind of thing.
Suddenly I realized that for the first time in my life, I could afford to buy something I wanted that would make my life easier.
Thus began a five-year love affair with IKEA furniture. I would pick up a piece a few times a year and spend the evening assembling it. Again, a new experience: not just being able to afford something, but being able to choose something that matched my other stuff.
At a certain point, I felt like my apartment was ‘done’ and that I had everything I needed. Most of the stuff in the store did not suit my tastes and I didn’t have room for more. I felt pretty darn satisfied to have a dining table with matching chairs, a couch with no stains on it. That’s the level of emotion I want to have after I spend money on a consumer object. I use it all the time and it meets my needs.
Why would I buy something I didn’t use? Why would I buy something I didn’t need? Especially, why would I buy something if I didn’t like it?
Why would I buy anything at all when I could just be at home, enjoying my couch and reading a book?
This is the feeling that goes along with a debt-free life. Having the financial means to buy something IF you need or want it takes away that inner drive, unless you are somehow stimulated by the recreational aspects of shopping, which not everyone is. It means circling around looking for parking, it means waiting in line, it means getting there and finding out that location is out of stock on the item you wanted, it means foot-long receipts and yet more plastic bags, it means crying kids, it means a lot of hassle. How do people forget all the hassle and keep lining up for more?
I know people are doing it for the thrill and not for the object because all my clients have unopened shopping bags, still full of items with the tags still on. Sometimes these bags are three years old or more.
I also know that some of the people doing it aren’t even buying things for themselves. They’re buying gifts for others. Often they buy random objects without a specific person in mind, or multiples of the same item, and then they’re tasked with figuring out who might not ‘object’ to such a gift. This is one of the main sources of the unopened gift bags that I keep finding. Anonymous gifts bought for anonymous people, unwanted, unneeded, cluttering up everyone’s homes forevermore. Shopping for the sake of shopping.
What if we just bought with a thought? Mentally considered the object and then left it there? Walked away, knowing it will still be available if we change our minds and buy it later?
I have a gift in mind for my dad when he retires. I’m not buying it yet. I’m not sure which specific store or which color, but I’ll know it when I see it. When the time comes. When the time comes, in fact, I’ll probably wind up buying a nicer one than I would buy today, because a nicer one will be available and because I’ll have been saving for it for a few years. There’s no hurry. This is why I would never consider buying an anonymous gift and keeping it in a closet in case I ‘need’ a gift.
If I don’t know someone well enough to know exactly the kind of thing they’d love to have, then we aren’t on gift-exchange terms. If some extreme situation came up, I would donate to a charity in their name. Boring, sure, but at least it would be more useful than a gift card that never got cashed or an anonymous gift that sat in the bag.
There are, of course, things I choose for myself. I don’t buy them, either. I might think, oh, I like those earrings, and then realize I’m not wearing earrings that day because I only put them on a few times a year. Oh, I love that painting - and it’s too large a format to physically fit in my living room. Oh, I love that bedspread, and I already have a bedspread. I don’t have anywhere to store an extra one and I still love the one that’s on my bed right now. I can feel a brief attachment to something beautiful, something I really like, and acknowledge it and let it pass.
In the moment I buy with my eye, I own that object. It becomes a part of the fantasy me that floats in a castle in the sky, one with infinite closets and an unlimited floor plan. I have no interest in mopping that castle in the sky, and that’s why I don’t live there. In the sky castle, I can dance around in a hundred wedding gowns, because in reality I have no interest in ever planning another wedding. Fantasy Me can wear chunky bracelets and liquid eyeliner, because Reality Me knows better. Reality Me is really good at translating the moment’s impulse into practical terms. Just because I think it’s pretty for ninety seconds does not mean I really actually want to wear or use such a thing.
What I like better than the myriad things is the financial power to ignore them. I’d rather brag that we save 40% of our income than boast about where I bought this or that.
The other thing about buying with your eye is that you can imagine yourself buying much more expensive things. You can walk through a gallery or a store outside your price range, and you can still mentally shop there. This helps build that denial muscle, that refusal to waste a dollar here or five dollars there on poorly-made disposable junk that will fall apart a year later.
Learn to buy with your eye. It will save money, save time, and result in less housework. In the end, you’ll have more fun and the few things you do buy will delight you more than you realized they could.
As a longtime frugalite, I use a lot of techniques to keep my spending aligned with my future plans. It often amazes me to shop with friends who have swirly eyes. Most people don’t seem to have many defenses against the onslaughts of consumer culture. As a result, debt is rampant, retirement plans go unfunded, and financial anxiety stalks the earth. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can control our behaviors and our emotional reactions. Let’s look at some ways to slow down a shopping habit.
Avoid stores. This sounds dumb, or impossible, but really it’s key to the whole enterprise. Just do other stuff instead. Go to the park one day a week, go to the public library one day, do your laundry and clean house one day, catch up on email and phone calls one day, go to bed super-early one night a week, do some bulk cooking one night, and have a card party one night. All of a sudden, your free time is full of interesting things to do every night of the week. Shopping becomes a necessary annoyance that requires shuffling your schedule around.
Don’t buy anything until you’ve used everything else you’ve bought at least once. This might also sound dumb. However, every single one of my clutter clients has had a problem with shopping bags and gift bags that were never opened. There also tends to be a problem with unworn clothes in the closet that still have their tags. How much value can you possibly be getting out of buying things if you don’t use them?
Don’t order anything if you are waiting for other items to show up. This not only slows down your shopping, but it also helps to keep track of orders that may be lost or incorrect.
Don’t go to the store if you’re waiting on a package, either. Except for the grocery store.
Don’t keep a “pantry.” Food hoarding tends to happen on accident, because it’s technologically possible and affordable. People in the past could not go out and buy fifty cans of green beans on sale. They had to grow them, preserve them, and then eat them during the winter, when not much other food was available. Accumulating a lot of food packages leads inevitably to food waste, because it’s impossible to keep track of expiration dates. That’s where the brown sludge in most people’s vegetable crispers comes from.
Take an inventory of everything you own. Haha, mostly kidding! Nobody does this, but maybe we should. Pausing to examine and analyze all of your possessions will shed a light on what you buy and why you buy it. Nothing better to do, therefore wandering around looking for excuses to buy things, therefore unused items with ‘sale’ stickers on them. Tons of ‘beauty’ products, self-image problems. Tons of clothes, indecisive. Tons of books, procrastinator. Not saying anything here is true, mind you! I don’t know your life. Just guessing.
Balance your bank statements. This is another thing that many people don’t do, and it’s part of how we get into trouble with debt. If you haven’t done it in a few years, it can certainly fill up several days or weeks. If you’ve never done it at all, you can wander down to your local bank branch and ask one of the tellers to help you.
Deep clean your house. This is an opportunity to, among other things, realize how many duplicate gallons of cleansers have been reproducing under your sink. Of course it will also reveal how many weeks of food supplies are filling your cabinets, how many weeks of complete wardrobe changes are filling your closets, how many months of entertainment options are stacked up on your shelves, and all that sort of thing. Maybe during the process, you can get a sense of what it will take for you to feel the domestic comforts and tranquility you have been lacking.
Change sizes. When you’re in size transition, it’s really challenging to guess what you’re going to be wearing three months from now. I had been hanging onto my size 8s for many years, only to blip past that size in only a couple of weeks on my way to my goal weight. Now I only have one size in my closet, instead of six sizes.
Get into the metrics. Nothing will slow down your shopping quite as much as having a strong financial goal. Just like most people won’t eat a whole pizza an hour before Thanksgiving dinner, it’s possible to use the desire for a big purchase like a vacation or a motorcycle to put some restraints on your recreational shopping.
Use a time limit when shopping in stores that you find irresistible or problematic. For instance, I categorically do not “go shopping” for clothes as a pastime. I hate it and I find it deeply annoying and frustrating. I will set out to buy a specific item, like a pair of boots or a cardigan, with a 20-minute time limit. The way I do this is to have my husband buy movie tickets, and then get to the mall just a little early. Often, I can’t find anything tolerable in the store I’ve chosen, and we go to our show without my purchasing anything. Twenty minutes is enough time to try on a pair of shoes in two sizes, or to try on three or four sweaters.
Try on everything you buy and inspect it carefully. I typically try on five or six items for every one that I buy. I’m not just looking at the label for the care instructions, I’m also inspecting the garment for quality. Are the seams well sewn? Are all the buttons present and accounted for? Are there any spots, stains, or threadbare spots? I can fix most of that stuff, but it isn’t worth my time in most cases.
Only buy items that rate a four or five out of five. This is part of a personal rating system. For instance, I wear a size 7.5 shoe, and I learned through stupid experience that I can’t wear a size 5 shoe, even if I can somehow cram my foot inside it. Those shoes should have rated a one out of five for not fitting, no matter what they look like. Clothes should fit well today, look attractive, go with at least three other items, and work for your climate.
What if you had only one of everything? One frying pan, one place setting, one pair of jeans? What parts of your life would be easier? (Dishes yes, laundry...maybe?).
Ultimately, anyone who is into recreational shopping might be better off becoming a stylist, designer, or personal shopper for others. Earn money and build a career off something that might otherwise become a constant source of debt. Remind yourself of what you want out of your life. Is your life’s purpose and meaning really to buy things, eat things, stare at screens, and poke your phone? Maybe? Guaranteed, there are more interesting things to be doing with your time than shopping, if you’ll give yourself enough time to discover what they are. With the money you save, you can put yourself through school, start a business, or make all sorts of other dreams come true.
Shh, shh, it’s okay. I won’t tell anyone. Look, this is a nearly universal problem. Papers everywhere. Even people who don’t have any other clutter problems have a problem with paper. It’s a sign of our times, that paper is so cheap and plentiful, people will not only send it to us for free, we can’t even get them to stop. They’ll send so much we can’t even read it all, much less figure out how to sort through it. I don’t think it’s anyone’s fault; it’s a cultural issue. Twenty years from now it won’t be a problem anymore. For now, here we all are, buried in junk mail and coupons and flyers and menus we never asked for. Makes it awfully hard to find the important stuff, and that’s why it all gets jumbled together.
Does this sound familiar?
Unopened mail by the front door
Unopened mail on the coffee table
Unopened mail on the kitchen counter
Unopened mail on the dresser
Unopened mail on the bookshelves
Unopened mail on the desk
Plastic grocery bags filled with mail, some junk, some important
Boxes and bags filled with those mail-stuffed plastic bags
A filing cabinet with an empty drawer
A filing cabinet vertically stacked with unsorted papers
An outer envelope stuffed with various papers from different accounts
Mail and papers mixed with 3D objects, anything from a flashlight to a package of gum
Papers tucked away somewhere “obvious” where they will never see the light of day
Important papers mixed with expired coupons, menus to restaurants that closed, and invitations to events that have already passed by
Stacks of papers all pointing in different directions, so that it’s more like “52 Pickup” than a “stack” per se
Papers on the floor of the passenger side in the car
Papers under the passenger seat
Plastic bags with mail and papers in the trunk of the car
And, of course, the backpack or purse stuffed with mixed mail and papers
All of these are common signs. About one in five people are chronically disorganized, which simply means that they don’t have a system. Papers everywhere? That’s the default, natural state of the systemless. Papers in the wild!
People tend to feel guilty or ashamed when these papers start taking over. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s your own home, after all. Your own home, your own vehicle, your own desk, your own bag. Shouldn’t you be more... irritated that outside agents keep pelting you with unwanted junk? Shouldn’t you feel... annoyed that every time you turn around, someone else is trying to get you to take more papers home?
When I think about junk mail, I just feel angry. In other countries, it isn’t like this. It’s an American problem. In New Zealand, for instance, you have to sign up to opt in for what we call junk mail. Some people do, because they can get free shampoo samples or whatever. Everyone else is free, free from invasions to their privacy, personal space, and mental bandwidth.
Alas, this is the world we live in. Papers, papers, trying to get in every door and window, just like an invasion of ants or fruit flies.
I don’t blame people for creating little nests of papers. It makes sense in a way. “These are important, I don’t want to lose them in the tide, I’d better put them... [looks around]... HERE so I don’t lose track of them.” Except that there are always like 18 “here’s” with VIPs (Very Important Papers) stuffed in them.
The only people who can actually manage to Get Organized and stay that way are those who understand how much time it takes to process this stuff on a routine basis. The only ones who are Organized are those who understand how to set up and maintain a filing system. The only Organized People who have it easy are those of us who have joined the ranks of the Paperless. Just stop it before it starts.
If you want to start reclaiming your space and your mental energy from scattered paper, this is what I would do.
The most important part of filing is to GET RID OF the 80-90% of junk papers that are irrelevant to your life. All they do is create a fire hazard, draw mold and dust and insects, and, worst of all, obscure your important stuff.
What do you do with your action items? We handle ours as we get them, because my husband and I both despise paper clutter, but other methods work for other people. Clipboards are good, or a file folder that stands out in a vivid color, like red or neon orange. Some people tape them to the front door where they won’t lose them. When I was single, I would use the big counter at the post office to handle stuff when I collected my mail, so it was done before I even left the premises. If it wasn’t mail, I’d usually put it in my purse and handle it during my lunch break at work. As often as possible, try to keep papers from getting into your home, and if you have to bring them in, try to process and get them back out again in as few hours as possible.
If you do have unsorted bags, boxes, and stacks of papers, breathe easy. Start with five minutes a day, processing just the day’s new mail. Set a timer. If you have a little time left over, grab from the nearest stack and do a little out of that. All of those stacks and bags and boxes are good, because they are natural sorting units. You can just do one at a time until it’s emptied out. Each box and bag and stack represents another cubic foot of relaxation that you’ve just bought yourself.
It’s here, it’s here! I finally got my new podcast set up. Are you excited? I’m excited!
The idea behind the show is help listeners to get organized and clear clutter in just a few minutes a day. Rather than read something and then have to get up and take action, now you can listen and work at the same time.
I have three different episode lengths planned.
The five-minute version is free to the public. The longer versions are available to Patreon subscribers.
Why am I doing it this way? Almost all of my work is already free to the public, including over two thousand pages of writing on this blog alone, not to mention all the accompanying illustrations. Now, in addition, there will also be free podcast episodes. Those who are willing and able to pay a couple dollars a month will have more, just as they would have more if I published a book and they bought a copy. The main difference is that doing a podcast requires additional equipment and software. As much as everyone in the known universe enjoys having free entertainment of every medium, it’s not free to produce.
Enough about that. The point is, hey, I have a new show! Please pop on over and check it out. You can even catch a glimpse of my spokesmodel Noelle in the video.
Thanks as always for your support.
Information is not motivation, and common knowledge is not common action. Basically this means that we know everything we need to know in order to get started, but it isn’t enough. No matter what it is that we’d like to do, for some reason, we aren’t doing it. Maybe we just aren’t juiced up enough about the benefits of change. Maybe we’re unsure about how getting the goal will change our relationships. Probably it’s different for every person and every situation. One thing that seems to be working for me is the contrary approach of imagining the worst version of something. How is what I’m doing as bad as it could be, and how could it be worse?
Let’s say I’m thinking about my car. I don’t actually own a car right now, so this is purely a figment of my imagination. The worst version of “my car” would be: unsafe, unreliable, smelly, dirty, filled with trash, and expensive. I’m picturing something that’s burning oil, with a black smoky cloud pouring out from behind me. The brakes are failing! The “check engine” light constantly flickers on and off. The body is rusting out, I have a broken tail light, one of the side windows is broken and replaced with cardboard and tape, and the passenger door lock doesn’t work. The interior smells like spoiled milk, the floors are covered with wrappers and food crumbs of every color, and there’s a suspicious stain on the seat. It gets 16 miles to the gallon and I’m still making payments. The glove compartment is so full of unpaid parking tickets that it won’t close.
Want me to swing by and pick you up?
Honestly, thinking about this “worst version” of a car makes me feel really smug about walking everywhere. I pulled that description from actual vehicles in which I have ridden. I could make this worst version slightly worse, although less realistic, by adding more broken windows or engine problems. At the point at which it is no longer operational, it stops being a “vehicle” and transitions to “junk.” Perhaps junk that is more valuable than other junk, like a broken and obsolete washing machine, but junk it still is.
This worst version method can be applied to other things.
Worst job: Underpaid, no benefits, unethical business practices, mean and domineering boss, unsafe working conditions, long commute, rude customers, no path to advancement, no social contribution
Worst relationship: Dishonest, dysfunctional; partner is contemptuous, hypercritical, and unpredictably disappears or cuts communication for no obvious reason. Can I say that if it’s violent then it isn’t a relationship, it’s a slow-motion crime?
Worst desk: Can’t work there, just looking at it stresses me out, covered with clutter, uncomfortable to sit there, poor lighting, not enough power outlets, other people dump their stuff on it
Worst shoes: Give me blisters, wearing them for more than an hour makes me walk with a limp, only match one outfit (or zero)
Worst lunch: Diet Coke and a bag of microwave popcorn
Worst cat: Actually an opossum
There are two benefits to using the worst version method. First, when things are bad, it can help to get at least a weak chuckle by imagining how they could be worse. Second, it can draw attention to ways we’ve been tolerating the intolerable. That perspective can be the jolt that we need to get moving, to take action and set limits.
Worst neighbor: Accidentally shot out our living room window, their dog got loose and attacked our dog
Worst landlord: Lived next door, had chronic domestic disputes
What do we do with this information? OKAY, TIME TO MOVE
Complaining is of very limited use. Its purpose should be to clarify our true desires. If not this, then what?
I had a silverware sorter in chrome. I thought it looked great. Then one day, one of the wires came loose and I managed to ram it under my fingernail. Bled everywhere. TIME TO GO! We shouldn’t be assaulted by our own stuff.
When we’re clear and certain about what we find unacceptable, we can rule it out. Nothing that makes us bleed, et cetera. It’s that response of OH HECK NO that abruptly puts a stop to ruts and habitual behavior that doesn’t serve us.
If not this, then what?
Ask that again and again.
If not this job, or one just like it, then what? How would we define a “good” boss or a “reasonable” commute?
If not this relationship, then what? Taking some time to be alone for a while, that might be good. What does “good communication” sound like? What does “functional” feel like?
If not this financial problem, then what? What will it take to reach a place of peace and clarity here?
If not this persistent physical annoyance, then what? What do we want for our bodies? Agility, symmetry, high energy, supple muscles, speed, power, strength, clear skin, a strong immune system? What specifically?
If not this room, then where? What would a dream office/bedroom/kitchen/living room look like? How would it feel to inhabit this space?
Most of all, what is the worst version of myself? When am I at my lowest? Selfish, inconsiderate, bored, envious, whiny, unproductive, not contributing or doing anything interesting, too much unstructured time, out of physical balance, no direction or purpose, making life difficult for other people, stuck and unhappy. What else?
Let’s not be our worst selves. Let’s not live the worst version of our lives, okay? If we’re ever going to make the world a better place, we’ll do it by always looking up to at least a slightly higher standard.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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