Organized people usually don’t understand why other people struggle to be organized. Punctual people not only can’t grasp why other people are late; they take it as a personal attack and some kind of moral crime. I see both as missed opportunities.
If you’re always on time, maybe you can help teach other people your secrets. If you’re organized, maybe you can help others.
Or maybe it’s harder than it looks? Maybe we start to realize, when we try to help, that what comes easily to us isn’t necessarily easy at all?
If you do want to help someone else, the first step is to learn how to be a good body double.
A body double is someone who sits with someone else.
It sounds simple, and it can be, but there are also a million ways to mess it up!
There are a lot of reasons why someone might be chronically disorganized. Many of them are situational, such as working twelve-hour shifts, having the flu, or raising tiny kids. The person knows what to do, but there’s too much going on at the moment. Help with even one single chore or errand can help this kind of person get it back together. Sometimes we can help just by taking over for a couple of hours while they take a nap.
For others, it can be more complicated. Some of my people come at the puzzle of organization from the perspective of autism, attention deficit, baby brain, remission from cancer, or simply having no idea what to do.
(Has anyone ever mentioned that by 21st-century marketing standards, probably 80% of people are “disorganized”?)
For most people, the answer is stunningly simple.
They can’t work alone.
A lot of people suffer under the delusion that a desk or office will help with their organizational difficulties. They may spend quite a bit of time and treasure setting up such an area, only to find it impossible to sit there and get anything done.
The real problem is that if they’re alone in a room, they shut down. They can’t work in isolation.
This is where a good body double comes into play.
This is what I think, although I can’t prove it without specialty equipment. I think that when two people are working side by side, they can amplify their ability to focus. I think it’s related to how birds and animals will take turns keeping watch while the rest of the group eats. In one way, we can relax when we have social proof that it’s okay, that nothing alarming is going on. In another way, I think it has to do with how people start to walk in step, or how singers can harmonize. Entrainment.
It’s worth trying, if you have roommates, colleagues, etc who aren’t much for taking the initiative to clean up. Often one person cleaning will spark others into pitching in. Rearrange chairs, wipe down a counter, or start putting things away, and others may silently participate. This works best if you treat it like a butterfly resting on your knee. Appreciate it, but don’t startle it.
This phenomenon, like many others, can be quickly destroyed by a single unrestrained facial expression or sarcastic remark.
This is another unheralded issue between the “organized” or “punctual” person and everyone else. Criticism. What might never have become an issue is now an area of perpetual power struggle, simply because the “good one” won’t leave it alone.
Sometimes people need a little time and space to get started.
I stay out of it. As an organizer, I’m learning more from my people than they are learning from me. It always amazes me how singular each person’s situation is. Sure, they have things in common, like unsorted bags or scattered coins, but otherwise their personal distribution of space versus stuff is completely unique.
I’m good at what I do partly because I approach my work with gentle curiosity and compassion. I’m also good at it because I know how to sit quietly for many many hours and keep my opinions to myself.
Sometimes, yes, I am thinking to myself GROSS! HOW CAN YOU LIVE LIKE THIS?? I recognize this voice, though, as a troll’s voice. One. Single. Comment. Can permanently etch someone’s confidence or willingness to tackle a difficult project. Let it never come from me.
I only act as a body double when it’s clear that my person is working confidently. What I’ve found is that most people can work for hours on end, skipping meal breaks, not even wanting to stop for basic biology. They’ll go for twelve hours if the mood is right.
They just won’t do it on their own and they won’t do it in a room by themselves.
I like these quiet times. Very little is asked of me other than to 1. Avoid critical comments or facial expressions and 2. Sit quietly, exuding companionship and concentrating on my own stuff.
I can catch up on so much reading!
It doesn’t work as well if I get up and actually start working on something else. If I’m sitting four feet farther away, working at my keyboard, the spell is broken.
What works is for me to sit there, meek as a little mouse, simply available.
I can hold my phone, or maaaaybe a book or my tablet. Usually I sit somewhere that seems temporary, like the floor, or the edge of a chair.
The goal is to create a sort of timeless fog. Nothing is happening. Nothing is going on. Nobody is doing anything. No seagull incursions or distractions of any kind. Nothing to do but sort this box, sort these papers.
When there are simply two adults in the room, this is easy work, and it can carry on uninterrupted for many hours. When there is even one little kid involved, it can go completely haywire. Kids can sense when someone’s attention is elsewhere. They need to feel like someone is WATCH THIS or YOU KNOW WHAT at all times. Here, the body double needs to be able to reassure the child without distracting the working adult. Can there be a third party who is responsible for entertaining the little one(s) for half a day? A weekend?
The great thing about sorting and organizing is that once a working system is put into place, the work doesn’t need to be repeated. A good system explains itself and becomes its own reward. Having, or being, a good body double can be a key part of this kind of automatic system.
The reason there is still a market for books on clutter-clearing is so many people are still buried in clutter. There’s another reason behind that, and that is that most of these books are written by methodical people who think the process is simple. Just get four boxes and start sorting! Tracy McCubbin knows better. Making Space, Clutter Free arose from years of working directly with people and understanding why almost everyone finds the process so emotionally challenging.
Making Space, Clutter Free is built around seven “Clutter Blocks.” I have seen all of these in play with my own clients (and many of them I have experienced myself). No amount of physical effort, no amount of bins or tubs or boxes, no approach is going to work until these blocks are identified and acknowledged.
The good news is that, in my experience, this emotional work can be done anywhere, at any time, and you don’t have to have a duster in your hand to do it. It’s much easier to do the inner work and go in prepared, having developed the interior certainty that it’s definitely time for this stuff to go.
Making Space, Clutter Free is the book to read if you’re still stuck, if you’re working through someone else’s things, if you’re having power struggles with your family, basically in any situation in which the whole “spark joy” thing isn’t working.
We use shopping as a shorthand for doing the work.
We imbue objects with tremendous power.
“I can love and hold their memory and still let go of their things.”
Instead of thinking of buying the item, think of buying the option of that item.
Invariably, these people are kicking the clutter can down the road because they don’t trust their judgement.
None of us want to be contributing to landfills, but that is no reason to let your home become one.
Don’t give your power away by thinking you need someone else to show up and get this done.
He opened the box. He closed it again. He opened it. He closed it.
This went on, from time to time, for nearly ten years.
I barely gave it any thought. When the box turned up in our lives, we had tons of storage. Not only did we have a walk-in closet, we had an office and a two-car garage with a loft. I doubt I even knew where this box was kept.
It wasn’t until we downsized for the fourth or fifth time that the box had nowhere to go. It sat in our bedroom for months. I had to move it over and over again just to clean the floor. Time to do something.
Normally I wouldn’t interfere. Someone else’s box of memories is their business, not mine (unless they ask me for help). Sometimes this stuff takes time to process. In this case, though, I knew the box was full of medals and ribbons and other marks of achievement. I truly couldn’t understand why anyone would hesitate to “deal with” what looked very much like a box full of success.
I asked him about it.
“It feels like a moral hazard,” he said.
What, to acknowledge that you worked really hard for several years? That participating in these things built you into the person you are today? That the values that earned you these trophies are values you still hold forty years later?
It’s okay to admit that you worked hard and you did a good job!
This whole situation was hilarious to me. I work with chronically disorganized people, and almost always their situation stems from accumulated trauma. They have trouble sorting their stuff, partly for cognitive reasons, partly because it physically wears them out, but mostly because it’s sad.
I share some of this to help people see their issue from a more clinically removed perspective. Putting things in the third person or giving some other type of emotional distance can often help them to make decisions. It can be easier if you see yourself as Someone, a generic person facing a slightly more abstract dilemma. Hmm. What should Person X do about Box Y and Box Z?
I also like to try to help my people see themselves as the endearing characters they so often are.
Here before you is a grown man, afraid that admitting he was once pretty good at swimming might turn him arrogant or vain.
Usually, when I start probing into how someone feels about a particular box of clutter, I’ll venture a version that doesn’t quite fit. I might share how I think I might feel in that situation, or I might mention a different client’s situation. The reason I do that is that it helps the person in front of me right now to get more specific. No, what I said isn’t how they feel at all. It’s actually...
Something quite unique, as it turns out!
The reason someone keeps a fork or a pencil or a set of keys is pretty consistent. “I need it.” If we get rid of these utilitarian objects, we’ll just have to replace them. We don’t have to explain why we have towels, unless we have like a thousand towels.
It’s much more interesting when someone explains why they have something that nobody else has, or why their emotional reaction is different than anyone else’s.
Do other people have boxes full of trophies or medals or ribbons or newspaper clippings of all the times local reporters interviewed them? I sure don’t! I only won my first trophy a little over a year ago.
It turns out that the reason the box was so hard to open was because of where it came from. My mother-in-law presented it to my husband a few years before her death, when her cancer came back. It was impossible to detach the contents of the box from their archivist.
She was so proud of you, I said. She must have shown all of this stuff to all her friends.
I was wrong about this box and its contents. It wasn’t entirely full of ribbons and medals. There were also quite a lot of photos, some of them framed. And? Homework and artwork from first grade on.
A lot is happening during the sorting of an archive like this. There are the rushes of various emotions, with the knowledge that at least some of them will be surprise sneaker waves. There are policy decisions: what to keep, what not to keep, and what do we do with it all? Where does it go?
What do we do with the stuff we want to keep? Frame or display it? Scan it? If we digitize it, do we also keep the originals?
Is there anything we should send to someone else? (Example: a funny newspaper photo attributing my husband’s name to another boy).
What do we do with the stuff that’s going away? Recycle it? Throw it in the trash? Shred it? Burn it?
The main thing I recommend, after sorting it all, is to set it aside until the next day, when all the emotions that have been stirred up have time to settle a bit.
My position on my husband’s box of stuff was that he should keep most of it, at least long enough to show his interns. They would really get a kick out of the pictures of him with a mullet! I also recused myself, because I had sorted, scanned, and burned my own stuff several years prior.
(That’s the problem: the two of us did that ritual together, going through stuff from our divorces, but this box wasn’t around at the time).
This is what he actually did. He kept the photos and the ribbons and medals. He elected to throw out the homework, with one exception.
Apparently, at some time back in the 1970s, my man had set aside a brain teaser and never finished it. Never mind that he has a master’s degree. He wasn’t going to let this incomplete homework assignment hang on as an open loop. He sat back and figured out the puzzle.
It took him ten minutes, which to me legitimated how challenging the question was. It seemed fair to me that a child would struggle if an adult aerospace engineer did.
“You know you’re allowed to have been a kid, right? You can’t blame yourself for not being grown up yet.”
I get it, though. Few of us can forgive ourselves for being young and making a young person’s mistakes. We judge our child-selves for not being adults yet, for not knowing how to make the decisions we would make today.
This is why it’s so hard to let go, because we can’t forgive ourselves even for being little children. We can’t be proud of ourselves even when we win.
Disaster struck my little household a week or so ago. It was like an earthquake, short in duration but dramatic in impact. Just like an earthquake, we got through it more easily because we were prepared. Out of everything else we organize, our ability to come and go quickly is perhaps the most important.
I happened to be working on a presentation about “getting organized” when my husband suddenly got a severe eye injury. This is why it was on my mind. There’s a lot of Hurry Up and Wait in any crisis, and an overnight in an emergency room includes many hours of time for reflection.
I work with people who are chronically disorganized. What would any of them have done in a situation like this?
Imagine you walk into your front door covering your face because you’ve hurt your eye, and you can’t see. What do you do?
Can you easily open and walk through the front door?
Can you make it to a chair, or somewhere to sit?
Do you have a first aid kit? What’s in it? How long does it take you to get to it?
(A first aid kit was actually not helpful in this case; nor was ice, although my hubby was able to put together a baggie of ice cubes for himself. In case of a corneal abrasion, just go to urgent care or the ER as soon as you can).
The tricky thing about our situation was not so much that we each had to know where our own stuff was. I had to be able to find *his* stuff. In particular, I needed his wallet and his health insurance card. It’s easy to imagine the reverse situation, where he would have to get into my purse.
Not being able to find your identification is one of the endless hassles of the chronically disorganized. Photo ID? Social security card? Birth certificate? Often what could have been a simple bureaucratic chore can take weeks, because my person has to go back and fill out forms and pay extra fees for additional copies of documents that they already have. Somewhere.
Our stuff is either in our wallets or in the fireproof safe. Simple. I knew right where to go.
Some people can get deep into the weeds of organization. I call it “alphabetizing your socks.” The goal is perfection. Really, the goal is efficiency: Can you get what you need the moment you need it? Like when you need emergency instructions on how to save someone’s eye?
This is why we called the advice nurse rather than rushing straight out the door. First, we needed to know if there was something we could quickly do at home to help the eye. Second, it turns out my hubby was worried that if we went to the ER without the proper authorization, we could wind up on the hook for thousands of dollars of bills. We talked about it later and realized that if we had been on vacation when this happened, it could easily have been financially ruinous.
(Here we were lucky. A corneal abrasion is off-the-charts painful, and it can indeed result in permanent vision damage, but with the right treatment it can heal in 24 hours. Because of the type of injury, we could afford to delay).
It turned out we had about forty minutes to DO ALL THE THINGS while on hold for the advice nurse. My temporarily blind husband sat with the phone on hold, since he was in too much pain to do much else anyway. Every other thing that I did to get ready involved... stuff.
Basically the level of organization of our entire apartment.
Needed the insurance card. It was in the drop zone, right where it belonged.
Needed to make a quick meal for hubby and grab something for myself. Fridge and freezer were stocked. I was able to throw something in the microwave and grab a clean plate and fork with about five seconds of conscious thought.
Needed to clean up after our sick dog. Had gloves and enzyme cleaner right where they were supposed to be.
Needed to give a pill to the poor sick dog. Knew where it was and which bottle it was in. There was a trick here, because they have to be cut in half and I had to do it with a knife. Apparently our pill slicer had broken and been thrown out without being replaced. Who would have thought something this minor would ever be a matter of urgency?
Needed to take the dog out. His leash and baggies were right there in the drop zone. He had his harness on and he knows the drill. Good boy.
Needed my keys, since we live on the fifth floor. Yet another item that was right in the drop zone.
Needed to get out of my workout clothes, shower, and throw on something for cold weather. This was another sticking point, because we were planning to do laundry the next day and I only really had one clean outfit. But all I needed was one.
When it was finally time to go, I did a bag check on both our bags. Usually I only need my own bag, with my phone, purse, wallet, and keys. This time I also needed to track someone else’s stuff. It was all there... right in the drop zone.
A drop zone, if you haven’t figured it out, is the area where everyone in your home drops their stuff when they come in. For chronically disorganized people, there is no drop zone. It might be different every single day. Each person might drop certain items (shoes, backpack, glasses, inhaler, hoodie) in different rooms. Someone else might kick something under a table, or drop something on top of it. Nobody knows where anything is because nobody formed a memory when the thing got dropped. When the entire house is a drop zone, nobody can ever find anything truly important, like the keys, the health insurance card, or the first aid kit.
It feels simple and easy to drop stuff “wherever,” and that’s why it is such an easy habit to develop. In reality, having no drop zone can create endless chaos. Designing a drop zone and training everyone in the house to use it, including young kids, can feel like running up the down escalator. After that, though, the most important stuff is streamlined. Getting ready to go somewhere is a matter of minutes, and nobody cries.
Our drop zone is the top of a bookcase, as close as we could get to the front door. There’s a wooden crate, and my hubby literally drops his stuff into it when he comes in. I keep my stuff in my bag and hang it on the chair by my desk. That’s all. Nothing fancy. One chair, one flat surface.
It’s true that this particular disaster of an evening involved several housekeeping systems. The kitchen, the bathroom, the linen closet, the laundry and the groceries and even our dog’s few possessions were all involved. We could have figured out how to get around a systemic failure in any of these areas. The really important things were the wallet with that pesky insurance card, the phone, and the keys.
The art of the drop zone can transform any home, no matter how many people live there, whether it’s a tiny apartment like ours or a sprawling five-bedroom. Try it, and then make a game out of practicing your emergency preparedness skills.
Apparently there is a feature on Goodreads that shows the most commonly abandoned books. I found out about it from a Boing Boing article. The graphic showed the first few titles on the list, which naturally caught my attention. I had read… all of them?
I had to see the rest of that list!
I clicked the link. It got even more interesting as I scanned the list. I didn’t hit one that I had not already read until #8, a book I had abandoned as COMPLETELY UNREADABLE after the second chapter even though I felt obligated to cover it on my book blog.
“I’d be better off going out to the garage and pounding nails through my hand,” I thought at the time, and it seemed fair that hundreds of other people had also quit on this one.
The rest, though? These were great books, fantastic books! In a few cases they were some of my personal favorite books of all time.
I read through the list, lost count, realized I would be better off subtracting the titles I hadn’t read rather than counting the ones I had, and came up with my total. Out of the top fifty most abandoned books on Goodreads, I had read forty-five. Two or three of those I could have skipped, but I still found them worth reading.
In my opinion that makes it a really excellent list of Fifty Best Contemporary Novels! (Plus a couple-few nonfiction titles).
What was it, though, that led so many people to abandon such excellent reads? Potboilers, page-turning thrillers even?
A lot of these books are quite long, and I think that plays into it. In my twenties I started seeking out what I call BFBs (Big Fat Books) because I “read too fast” and I wanted something that would last me the week. I looked for books that weighed in at least at 500 pages, hopefully 800 or more. My philosophy is that almost all books are 220 to 300 pages, so almost any title will make the cut, but for a publisher to put out a very long book, the author has to have made the case that it’s worth all that ink and paper.
This is part of why I finally caved and read the Harry Potter series. I figured if so many grade school children were reading and re-reading and re-re-reading these doorstoppers, they must be pretty good. Whatever people might think, any book that helps kids build their reading chops and extend their attention span is a worthy book.
I think another reason, probably the prime reason, that people abandon these great books is the reason they started reading them.
It’s easy and obvious to get ahold of a very popular book. Either someone hands it to you and commands you to read it, or you see it everywhere, or you throw it in your cart at Costco next to the bulk hand grenades and family-size sardines. There’s minimal selection effort.
What this means is that fewer readers need to put in their normal paces to choose something more their style.
True crime, for instance, is so on-point for me that I’ve only dropped two titles, one because I literally dropped it at the bus station and never managed to procure another copy. Out of print! Now I’ll never know why the Menendez Brothers did it! The other was after midterms and I ran out of steam.
(It would be intriguing if we could harvest data on when people tend to abandon books; are there trends here of seasonality, holidays, taxes, etc?)
On the other hand, I have a really hard time pushing myself to read series fantasy or sci-fi. I know that about myself, so when someone suggests that I read their favorite series, I tell them it’s probably never going to happen. Dude. You have to WANT to read thirty-five-hundred pages of a story. It don’t read itself!
I looked again at the list of abandoned titles, and particularly the five that I hadn’t read. One I never will. Life is too short. What about the other four, though?
One I was consciously “saving” because I’ve read a few short pieces by the author and I knew I would enjoy more. This showed my habit of hoarding what I think will be the very best books, because I don’t want them to be over, which is why I stopped reading The Lord of the Rings in middle school and didn’t finish until my late twenties. (To impress a boy)
Another I’d never heard of, which makes me go OOH! *takes notes*
Another was on my “saving it” list, literally on my library wish list, and come to think of it, so was that other one I’d been saving
And I’m 44 so when did I think I was going to read them?
The last of the five is on my phone actually at this moment. Got a good laugh out of that.
What all this shows about me is that:
I read a LOT
I have apparently very middlebrow, popular tastes
Or, more charitably, I’m good at trend analysis
I probably match with almost everyone on LibraryThing because I’ve probably read a large portion of their collection
I may one day run out of popular books to read, because every time I see one of these lists I am better able to narrow my focus and see what’s left.
Lists of popular books always make me wonder what’s so special about them. Why are they so popular? Sometimes I see it coming. I was an early reader of The Hunger Games because I was reading Publishers Weekly at the time, and before it even came out I knew it would be good. I reviewed it and ran around telling all my book friends about it. It was the first time in many, many years that I stayed up until 2 AM to finish a book, even though it was Friday night and I had nothing else planned all weekend.
That’s what I want for everyone. I want everyone to be so excited and captivated by books that we’re constantly grabbing at them, desperate to get through at least another few pages before life intervenes. Leisure time is so underrated these days. I think most of us lose at least an hour or two a day staring into the abyss of our phones, swiping endlessly away and not even remembering why, or what we saw, scrolling scrolling scrolling.
Think how many books we could be reading instead!
Start by consciously abandoning any books that simply aren’t for you. Be brave and admit it like all these fellow readers did. Go through your shelves and give back all the popular titles your friends foisted on you. Make room for something you actually want to read, something you’ve chosen for yourself. Maybe even one of the books off the list of abandoned titles!
Here is the list, for those who are curious. Most of them are amazing, at least worth the 40-page test.
The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
*Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
*Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Wicked by Gregory Maguire
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
*My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
1984 by George Orwell
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
*City of Bones by Cassandra Clare
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
Quiet by Susan Cain
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
*A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Martian by Andy Weir
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett
Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
Minus the ghosts, there are some common images that suggest a haunted house, and you can spot them in any neighborhood. An overgrown yard with a dead lawn choked with weeds. Chipped and peeling paint. Windows with constantly closed curtains, blinds, or shutters. Nothing about such a home says Welcome, friends and neighbors! But a house doesn’t have to be haunted to look like that.
Houses are much more likely to be haunted by bad memories and a feeling of being trapped in the past.
Houses can also be haunted by power struggles, shame, constant fights, or occupants who have nothing to say to one another.
Myself, I wouldn’t mind a ghost so much. What’s it going to do, whisper in my ear at night or write on a foggy mirror? Leave my cabinets open? Pfft. I had student loans for twelve years so nothing scares me now. I’d much rather live in a house that WAS haunted or LOOKED haunted than in one that merely felt that way.
We do it to ourselves as often as not.
When I do clutter work during home visits, I almost always come across haunted relics. A sheaf of love letters, never mind the terrible breakups that followed. Random junk left behind by that roommate who left without paying the rent. Swag from every former job, especially the worst ones. Paperwork from...from everything:
Benefits folders from a decade ago
Collections letters from three years ago
Credit card statements from *gulp* today
Negative performance reviews
Scary medical reports
One of my very first space clearing jobs included an entire box of parking tickets, paid long ago, but there they were. An adult career woman carrying the guilt of a busy college student’s ancient mistakes.
We punish ourselves by keeping constant reminders of the worst moments of our lives. We don’t usually even realize we’re doing it. Either we’ve completely forgotten this stuff is hanging around, we have no memory of it, we’ve buried it in harmless junk mail, or we are avoiding it.
We know it’s there, we think about it constantly, and yet we can’t bear to face it or deal with it.
That right there. That’s the feeling of being haunted by your own stuff.
There is another category of stuff that haunts us, and that is the category of grief clutter. This is the hardest clutter of all to clear, and in fact I’ve failed at it every time. When the subject comes up, I tell people that I have no idea what to do about it. I have no suggestions. I don’t know what to say because nothing I have said has ever done any good.
In the worst example of this that I have yet seen, the surviving daughter sat on one couch cushion every night, because the rest of the couch had boxes on it. Both her parents had passed away, and she had ALL of their worldly goods packed in boxes, stacked four feet high, completely packing her home. Only a narrow goat path was available from the front door to the bathroom, the bedroom door, and the kitchen. You had to turn sideways. The bedroom was full, too.
She lived in a monument to the dead.
This impulse is universal. Death turns the survivors crazy, at least temporarily. Siblings will cut each other off for life. Entire extended families will disintegrate, just when they need each other the most. All that’s left is the stuff.
Hairbrushes with hair still in them
Prescription bottles on the nightstand
Old worn-out slippers
Every single stupid pot-holder and fridge magnet
We believe that these objects hold our memories, and so we turn them into horcruxes. It’s not a baking dish, it’s my childhood! We’ll drive ourselves to penury paying for storage units to hold stuff we don’t need, because we have no appropriate ceremony for letting it go.
It’s harder when it’s the residue of multiple lives. I know someone who moved into a family home hoarded up with at least two generations of grief clutter. The grandparents died, and the parents never dealt with it their entire lives, and then they died, and guess what. Pass the buck.
What I’d like when I go is a park bench, or ideally an entire park. I want my memorial to be a place where friends sit and talk together, where young people fall in love (or old people for that matter), where kids climb on and off their parents’ laps. I do NOT, for the love of all that is holy, want my memorial to be a bunch of boxes filled with my old clothes and dishes. Ugh.
One of my biggest fears is that this will happen, that nobody will throw out my old socks or my toothbrush and my spirit will be caught in purgatory for an extra generation.
It’s the time of the year to think about this stuff, how there is a time for every purpose and how the seasons come and go. We’re here for just a little minute, and then we’re gone. Why, then, does our old stuff hang around for so long?
Thinking of grief clutter, we can use that energy for some positive procrastination. We simply pretend that it’s finally time to deal with all those boxes, and then instead we find ourselves sorting through our own haunted junk. The clothes that we quit wearing because they remind us of a bad incident. The broken ornament or decoration that we can’t make ourselves throw out. The dead houseplants. The papers!
Unhaunting your house is getting rid of anything that serves only to hold bad memories. If even thinking about it makes you feel sad, guilty, or depressed, why do you have it? Because you’d have to look at it again as you were trashing it?
Unhaunt your house and do it soon. Maybe there’s a bonfire coming up and you can burn a bunch of your old papers and photos, like I did with my old wedding album. What if your house was clear, and only for the living, and facing toward the future rather than the past?
Have you ever had a bad houseguest? It’s okay, you can tell me.
I’ve had a bunch, because I’ve had a lot of roommates over the years, because we used to host a lot of Couchsurfers, and because we tend to like an open house. It helps to make a person patient and flexible. The more people who are around, the more likely that some of them are more demanding than others.
The one who left huge clumps of hair in the drain every day. The one who left their notifications on high volume and got pinged several times an hour, all night long. The one who basically ate everything in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. The one who rearranged the furniture while we were gone. The one who invited a bunch of people over, one of whom looked at me when I came home and asked, “Who are you?”
Um, I live here? And who are YOU?
We have to ask our stuff the same questions that we would ask of a bad houseguest.
What are you still doing here?
When are you planning to leave?
Am I your personal maid or were you ever planning to pitch in a little?
You wouldn’t believe the stuff I’ve seen, both in photos and in home visits. Piles of stuff covering half the bed, so the owner only has a little sliver to sleep on. Piles of stuff covering most of the couch. Piles of stuff blocking doorways, blocking the stairs.
If this were a person, we’d be inclined to say, “Excuse me but could you please MOVE?”
When it’s our stuff, it blends into the background, taking over the joint while we just make our own space smaller and try to ignore it.
Stuff doesn’t just hog the couch or bogart the dining room table. It leaves the kitchen and bathroom a mess, has no intention of cleaning up after itself in the laundry room, and furthermore, it’s taking over the garage.
Sometimes it even rents out a storage unit and starts billing you for it.
If stuff were a person, we’d be writing to advice columns about it. People all over the country would be reading it over coffee and dropping their jaws. Oh my gosh what next?? The nerve of some people! Then what did they do??
Stuff can be so outrageous that way.
It doesn’t earn its keep.
It never helps out around the house.
It has no intention of ever getting up off the couch.
It has no future plans or goals.
It will just sit there and let you do all the work, no problem.
It will expect you to step around it and it’s never going to move itself out of your way.
It doesn’t care if it sets a bad example for your kids.
It doesn’t care if it embarrasses you in front of your friends.
It doesn’t care if it gets into your photos and messes up your shots.
It’s happy to let you pay for all the household expenses, and it will never pitch in.
It’s never going to cook you dinner.
It’s never going to walk your dog.
It’s just going to make your life difficult until you finally decide to do something about it.
What’s going on in our heads when we tolerate an annoying situation? I can tell you what I’ve thought when I’ve had bad houseguests. “She’s having a tough time right now.” “It’s only for a few more days.” “Our dog loves them.” “Well, they didn’t set anything on fire.”
I had a supposed roommate when I was 19. He moved in, and not only did he never pay any rent, not one dollar, but he also ran up my long-distance phone bill and refused to pay it. I had a two-bedroom apartment, and the rent was about 80% of my income at the time. I couldn’t afford to carry both of us, nor should I have had to, since this guy was just a friend of a friend.
I felt bad for him, though, and I didn’t want to make my friend mad, and I believed all his stories about why he quit or got fired and all the interviews and new job opportunities he had coming up. It never crossed my mind to just say, “Pack your stuff,” and get a different roommate who would actually pay.
Finally my boyfriend got mad for me and took action for me. He even found me a replacement roommate, a friend of his who needed a place.
I had a typical young person’s passive attitude, not realizing that a lot of things were my responsibility because not long ago, “real adults” handled those things in my life. I focused on the stuff a teenager would focus on. It didn’t cross my mind that nobody else was in charge.
Sadly, a lot of “real adults” have the same attitude even when they are decades older than I was in those days. They don’t notice things in their situation or their environment because it hasn’t occurred to them that nobody else is in charge.
What things? Things like falling into debt, missing tax deadlines, leaking pipes, infestations of insects or rodents, mold, asymmetrical power dynamics, or, of course, piles of clutter.
What, you mean all that stuff is up to me to deal with?? What are you saying??
Taking full accountability can be very painful at first. It requires a perimeter check.
Going to the dentist after several years, checking bank balances and figuring out how much you owe to how many lenders, writing a list of overdue action items and understanding how much work it will be to dig out. Getting a bunch of bags and boxes and starting to haul clutter out the door. Setting boundaries with people, including those pesky bad roommates and houseguests.
It’s a good thing, though. Clarity about what to do is a huge part of finding motivation. What do I do next? This, this, and this. Clarity leads to solid boundaries, and boundaries lead to peace of mind.
Is your stuff being a bad houseguest? What are you going to do about it?
The thing about goals is that they’re often too small, too easy to reach. It takes something on a grander scale to be really exciting and worth chasing, and that’s the visionary scale of a dream. Just like goals, though, dreams may not be what we had imagined when once we actually make them real. As time goes by, we may not realize that what we really want is something entirely different.
That’s when it’s time to release an old, expired dream and start chasing a new one.
When I was a kid, like a lot of children, I wanted to be a veterinarian. It’s fun to say big words and impress adults. As I started to realize what veterinarians actually do, I changed my mind. All I could picture was having to give shots to puppies and kittens all day, and owie! Now, as a middle-aged person, I know a few vets, and the truth is that theirs is a very difficult and often sad profession. It’s been over thirty years since I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, and I was okay with letting that dream go.
(But thank you ever so much to those of you who pursued it!)
Optimists like myself have a fairly easy time of it, recognizing and letting go of expired dreams. We’re future-facing, and we’re more interested in moving forward, toward something appealing. The reverse is true of a lot of people, those who lean toward melancholy and regret. Releasing an expired dream can feel achingly sad in these cases.
I have a dear old friend who is at the top of his profession. This is funny to me, because I’ve known him since he was a university student, filling his study area with towers of cola cans. He is literally working his dream job, the only thing he’s ever wanted to do with his life, and he’s wildly successful at it. He’s making more money than he could have imagined, living in his dream city, married and traveling the world. Yet he’s constantly wistful about his teens and twenties and in some ways feeling like life is passing him by.
Why? What could have been better than the outcome he got? Staying twenty forever, battling bad skin, being broke and not knowing how to cook?
As we get older, the past starts to put on this golden, hazy glow. We forget the bad parts and the rough edges. This really seems to start to kick in after we hit our sixties, and it’s part of why older people tend to be happier. We can see it in action if we compare the stories someone tells us with the version they were telling ten or twenty years ago. We can compare their notes with those of their friends and family who were there, we can compare it with photos, we can compare it with journals and letters and news headlines. Gee, that sure isn’t how you were telling it when it happened!
Come to think of it, *I* was there, and that’s not how I remember it either!
It’s probably for the best. Our shiny new versions of tawdry old events are part of what keeps us going.
Nostalgia isn’t a very good bargain, if you ask me. Why trade future visions for feeling like our best times are behind us? I know that isn’t true in my life. I wouldn’t even want to go back two months, much less two years or twenty years. I look better today than I did in old photos. My life is easier and better, and why? Because I’ve always chased my dreams and continued to dream bigger.
I live the life I do because I’m specific about what I want, and that motivates me to go out and get it.
The easiest of the expired dreams to let go is the dream of being with your old crush. One of the greatest things about social media is that it’s easy to find people and see how they’ve turned out. In my case, my crushes are now of an age to have grown vast wizard beards, which is awesome, but my husband can do that too.
Any single one of my old crushes would not result in the marriage that I have today, and that’s a thought that makes me feel small and panicky. Trade this for that? No thank you.
Dreams can be of any size or duration, just exactly like clouds. Is yours continent-spanning majestic size, or a house-sized bit of fluff? Is it going to drift away before you can grab it?
Here are some dreams that I’ve released, and why.
I used to dream of having an electric car, when they were new and uncommon. I’ve released that dream because I hate driving! My dream is not to have a car at all, and I’ve been living that out for nearly three years now.
I used to dream of being 5’10” - six inches taller than my adult height - and I’ve released that dream. Now I understand that my size is efficient for things I like to do, such as distance running and backpacking. It’s easier for someone of my size to do pull-ups and other body weight exercises, too.
Once upon a time, I dreamed of earning a degree in Classics. I released that in my senior year, when I changed majors, because I finally realized that nobody understood what it meant, and I got tired of explaining it. Also, it struck me that I could spend my time learning modern languages rather than Latin and Attic Greek. (I did come away with rather splendid Greek handwriting, though).
It’s interesting to picture myself as a tall woman driving around town in an electric vehicle and wielding a Classics degree. What am I doing? Am I a professor of antiquities? Hmm. A valid life, an intriguing dream, but... nah. I’ll take what I have today, thanks.
Aspirations usually show up in physical form, and they’re far more likely to manifest in small consumer items than in bigger things, like acceptance letters or class syllabuses. We buy little trinkets as placeholders for our wildest desires. I see this all the time, and in fact I can usually pinpoint someone’s expired aspirations within minutes of entering their home.
Foreign language dictionaries, unopened packages of art supplies, dusty fitness equipment, books with pristine spines, mute instruments, clothes that don’t fit... signs and relics of unlived personas, untouched fantasies, untested dreams.
These are objects of power, mind you. There is vast energy stored in these sigils, these artifacts of past dreams.
Let’s all agree to forgive ourselves for having lived our actual lives. Let’s let go of this idea that things might have been better if only we had been someone else. Imagine if everyone you loved was someone else instead: would anyone be left to love you? Love yourself the same way, just the way you are. Then box up your old aspirational clutter and offer it to someone else, someone for whom that dream still has bits of sparkle to explore.
I just moved, and this book was a big help to me. What Your Clutter is Trying to Tell You, sometimes, is “either pay for a bigger apartment or get rid of some stuff!” Unlike most clutter books, this one focuses more on the inner work and less on the routine organizing aspects of space clearing. In this sense, it’s a better pick for those of us who sometimes struggle to let go.
Q: Why is my house so full of stuff?
A: I have no idea!
Kerri L. Richardson gradually downsized from a 2,000 square foot house to 500 square feet. I’ve done a similar process, and I can verify that this experience definitely clarifies what you do and don’t need! On the other hand, I’ve also found that when people discard a lot of stuff in a short period of time, they can feel so distraught that it becomes traumatic.
This is exactly why it’s so important to focus on the emotional aspects of why we care so much about our stuff.
What Your Clutter is Trying to Tell You covers everything, from sorting through clothes and books and papers to setting boundaries with people. This is a very rich topic, because so often a person’s family members have made more choices about the stuff in the home than the owner has.
Richardson’s book is an excellent companion for the intense work of space clearing. If you’ve been feeling stuck or struggling with why you can’t seem to motivate yourself to get rid of clutter, maybe you should find out What Your Clutter is Trying to Tell You.
I define clutter as anything that gets in the way of living the life of your dreams.
What am I tolerating in my life?
Organizing your mental clutter begins the process of establishing realistic expectations.
Once my clutter is gone, I’ll be able to _______________.
How long would it take to wear everything you own at least once?
This is a bit of math that always confounds my people. I have them do an assignment called “How many shirts?” We count off how many they need, according to their own standards and preferences, and then we count what’s in the closet and compare the numbers. They always have at least triple what they thought they needed.
Then when it’s time to sort and cast off some of the excess, they freeze.
There’s another classic indicator of unwillingness to proceed, and that is the concept of taking inventory.
Count everything you have in this category.
What if you needed to file a claim with your renters insurance because the upstairs neighbors broke their waterbed?
If the thought of taking inventory is overwhelming, then the stuff is taking over. Your home is for you, not for a bunch of inanimate objects. YOU live there. The stuff just takes up space.
I’ve been very aware of this lately because we just moved into a much nicer, slightly larger apartment with about half the storage of our old place.
I’ve started the Wear Everything project.
The goal is to put together an outfit featuring each article of clothing in my wardrobe at least once. When I wear it, I can take notes. Do I like it as much as I did when I first got it? Do I still have at least three other garments that I can combine with it? Does it fit the same? Is it getting worn out?
As an under-buyer and someone who hates shopping in general, I tend to hang onto things until they are really getting past the point of acceptability. I had to reluctantly put something in the rag bag a couple of weeks ago because I realized the entire chest area was becoming threadbare, exposing undergarments that I did not intend to become outergarments.
That’s one thing for pajamas, and quite another for a professional wardrobe.
Unlike most people, I was carefully taught how to do mending, ironing, and stain removal. I can even darn socks. The trouble with this is that I lean toward a Depression-Era sensibility. I don’t need to be walking into a conference room looking like an extra from Oliver Twist.
In my closet, things tend to fall into two categories: Stuff I rarely wear, and Stuff I wear until it’s ready to fall apart. The Wear Everything project is meant to bring attention to both categories. Should I be wearing certain things more often, or is there a solid reason they aren’t in regular rotation? Are there things I rely on a little too much that have served their time?
For the past twenty years, I’ve followed a cost per wear formula. How much did I pay for something, and how often would I have to wear it for it to work out to $1 per wear? If I pay $50 for something, I should then wear it about once a week for a year, or twice a month for two years. The exceptions to this guideline are formal occasions, like evening clothes or, most especially, an interview outfit.
How much is appropriate to pay for a garment that helps you get a $10,000 annual raise?
This was a challenging lesson for me to learn. I remember waffling over an $80 discounted interview suit for weeks, going back to visit it three times before I shakily handed over my debit card. I got the offer ten minutes after the interview, and that suit had paid itself off by the end of my first day on the job.
BUT… think of how many thrift store outfits I could buy with $80! (not the point, knock it off, Scarcity Brain)
Scarcity is the single biggest issue behind the clothing issues that my people have. With a single exception, all of them have had absolute mounds of clothes. Three dressers in one bedroom is standard for my people. Most will have a range of at least three clothing sizes - I personally have retained six sizes at one time.
Why? Why do we keep things that don’t fit, that we don’t like to wear, that we may never have worn even once?
Example: a brand-new pair of men’s formal slacks, the inseam of which had never been sewn together, due to postponed alterations
We keep things because we like how they look (on the hanger, not on our bodies), because they were gifts, because of what they cost, because the act of sorting is overwhelming, because we strongly identify with the aspirational image that these clothes represent, because they remind us of a moment in time, because we can’t even see or find them in the depths of the wardrobe.
We should be keeping them because we wear them regularly, they fit great, they work well with other things that we also wear regularly, and we look good in them.
There can easily be a wide gap between these two standards!
Most of my people wear a small selection of clothes over and over again, pulling them out of a laundry hamper, when 80-90% of their total wardrobe languishes on hangers, in drawers, on top of the dryer, on the floor, scattered across a dresser, piled on the couch, in the back seat of a car, et cetera.
Get rid of everything that doesn’t get worn and a huge series of problems magically disappears!
What I’m finding as I methodically Wear Everything is that I don’t always LIKE everything. I wore a top the other day and felt like, This is so low-cut, why did I even buy it in the first place? (The answer: it probably didn’t fit the same way when I bought it four years ago).
As I do the laundry, I pull out the awkward space-fillers in my wardrobe, fold them, and put them in the donation bag. Inevitably they will suit someone else better than they suit me today.
Or not. Excess clothing is a global problem. What we really need to do is to slow our roll, to buy fewer things in the first place, cut back demand and manufacture less.
Bulging closets are one symptom among many. When we have too many clothes, we often also have too many books (yes there is such a thing), too much in our pantries, too many papers, too much in our bags weighing down our shoulders, and too many demands on our time and attention overall.
At this transition between one season and another, I’m Wearing Everything because some of it has to go, just like autumn leaves turn color, fall off, and turn into soil. It’s time for me to replace many garments that have served me for several years - ten years in a few cases! Considering what I will be wearing this fall, and the next few autumns as well, helps me to look forward, imagining fun times to come. I release what I no longer need, making space for the new.
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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