The more I think about clutter, the more I realize how much it has in common with two other near-universal issues, which are financial debt and excess adipose tissue, also known as body fat. In a way, all of these are forms of debt, the result of expecting Future Self to do things that we don’t feel like doing today. One of these things is handling paper clutter. Paper clutter is a form of debt.
Paper debt is what piles up when we have more paper coming in than we do going out, and we have no plan for it.
Just like the money kind of debt, paper debt comes from a variety of sources. There’s the kind that’s hard to avoid, like unexpected medical expenses or car repairs, both of which generate a huge amount of paperwork. There’s the kind that adds no value to our life but just gets in the way, like junk mail and mail addressed to previous tenants. There’s the aspirational kind, like jeans that will never fit, shoes we’ll wear once, and magazines we’ll never read. Then there’s the kind that we keep for sentimental reasons, even though we never use it and probably never will.
All of these types of paper clutter represent time commitments.
Financial debt is a way of saying, “I’ll take this now and Future Me can pay for it later.” Paper debt is a way of saying, “I’ll set this down here for now and Future Me can deal with it later.”
Future Me will totally read that later.
Future Me will totally file that later.
Future Me will totally decide what to do with that later.
Meanwhile all of it is getting buried under a tidal wave of junk mail.
In a way, junk mail is like the finance charges and interest that build up on credit card debt. Every day it adds up, just a little at a time, making the job harder to do and almost guaranteeing that this problem will never be solved.
Just like other forms of debt, if paper debt continues to come in faster than it goes out, it will snowball.
Also like other forms of debt, it can start to fade into the background and feel like wallpaper. It Will Always Be This Way. This is How It Has Always Been.
Paper debt eats things. Just like regular debt, it can take over and you can lose your home to it.
Junk mail is the worst offender here, though it’s not the only one. Important mail can get shuffled into it. Stacks of it can tip over, knocking over other items and hiding things like keys. Paper debt can start to push more and more into time debt.
When we start showing up late or paying bills late or filing taxes late because we simply couldn’t find things, that’s time debt in action.
It can happen so quickly. Go on one vacation and wind up still owing for it six months later. Go a little crazy eating sugar cookies in December and gain four pounds that are still hanging around six months later.
Set down a stack of junk mail on the dining table or the kitchen counter, and it’s still there six months later.
All my clients have paper debt. It’s everywhere. It’s on the kitchen counter and the dining table, it’s on chairs and in windowsills, it’s on the floor of the car and it’s tucked sideways in bookshelves. It’s in purses and backpacks and laptop bags. It’s been on the desk so long that there may never have been a single productive day in that desk’s existence.
By “productive” we mean: doing awesome stuff that we enjoy doing. Sketching? Journaling? Scrapbooking? Working on a thesis? Racing wind-up toys? Anything, anything at all other than looking at (or ignoring) stacks of ugly ol’ boring ol’ mail?
It tends to be hard for people to imagine what they would do with their time if they were financially independent. “Debt-free” is as far as we can imagine. Then what? It’s the same with paper debt. What would we do with all that free space if all that paper was finally sorted out? What would an ordinary day feel like without that background hum of annoyance?
I can speak to that. I keep clear counters because I don’t really have a choice. In a tiny studio apartment, a pile of junk on the kitchen counter means there’s nowhere to make a slice of toast, much less cook a nice dinner. I can’t leave things on the dining table because our dining table is stored on its side in our bedroom closet and the legs are under our bed. What am I going to do, dump piles of paper on my bed?
I say that like it’s irrational and unlikely, but I’ve seen it. My people do crowd themselves out of their own beds with piles of stuff, from papers and backpacks to food wrappers, clean and dirty laundry, and stacks of books.
HEY: You deserve to stretch out and sleep comfortably.
It’s your bed, not your stuff’s bed. It’s your desk, not your paper’s desk. It’s your kitchen, not your mail’s kitchen.
The first priority should be for humans in the home to do what they want to do. Sleep, bathe, cook and eat meals, lounge around reading or doing whatever. That’s why it’s so sad when we accumulate paper debt and erase our own living space with piles and drifts and stacks of inanimate objects. That stuff doesn’t pay rent here, now does it?
What to do with it all, though? Spend years painstakingly eliminating it, one little bit at a time? Ask for help? Consolidate it, also known as “Scoop and Stuff”? (Toss it all into plastic shopping bags that then get piled somewhere or crammed in a closet).
Imagine it gone. That’s the first step. Get into elaborate and thrilling detail about all the ways you’ll use your space once you’ve evicted the junk mail and paid off your paper debt. That should make it easier to simply recycle big stacks of it as fast as you can go. Put your foot down and stop allowing it in your door. Say goodbye to paper debt and say hello to freedom.
The concept of an inheritance is, I think, becoming dated and antiquated. It’s something of a Baby Boomer thing. Those of us who are younger probably understand that the world works differently now. Still, it’s worth talking about. There is a vague dream of a someday inheritance, a financial windfall, that will somehow eliminate all our problems. This is not just a dangerous illusion, but an illusion that can poison ambition and domestic contentment. Kill your inheritance, and kill it in self-defense.
Now, it’s a good thing to think of a legacy in non-material terms. We can be proud of what we’ve inherited from our family when it comes to values and character traits. Hospitality, sense of humor, frugality, ingenuity, a gift for storytelling, grit and fortitude, these are the sort of gifts we should be proud to carry on. This kind of gift is non-zero-sum, meaning it never runs out. The more you share, the larger it grows. You can roll it out and make enough room for spouses, kids, and friends.
All of that goes completely out of the window when we start talking about money, real estate, and material goods.
In my work with clutter, I have seen it over and over again. People will quit talking to each other over a photo album, a single ring, some old furniture, or a stupid teacup. Unbelievable. You’re saying you’d TRADE your blood relation for a piece of scrap that wouldn’t sell for fifty dollars in a pawn shop? A lot of this stuff couldn’t be sold for a bent nickel.
The problem is that grief makes people temporarily insane. It’s understandable. With time and some healing, we’re sometimes able to get enough emotional distance that we can recognize our own irrationality from our own mourning periods. Not likely in the heat of the moment, though. Whatever it is about the old, I dunno, the old 8-track player or the blurry slides from 1958, it seems to activate everyone’s feelings of thwarted power and desire from earliest childhood. GIMME! It’s MINE! Like fighting over the last popsicle.
Then we get to the house and the money. That sweet, sweet munnah.
Back in the bad old days, the land was almost the only thing a family owned. Material goods were expensive and hard to make, and people had very little in terms of clothes, furniture, and housewares. Property went to the oldest son, and the rest of the family had to make do or beg for a place at the table. Imagine being an unmarried adult daughter and having to wheedle your big brother for a chance to stay on and do all the cooking and laundry, because it was that or panhandle in the road.
Then property started to be divided between descendants. Probably more fair, but fast-forward a couple of generations. The first block is divided between four kids. Then they each divide their share between their five or six kids. Then each of those grandchildren has eleven or twelve grandchildren. It doesn’t take long before the tiny slivers that are left are too small to support a family. Or the global economy changes in response to technological advancement, and the world moves on. But somewhere inside all of us is a glimmer of ancestral memory, when our family several generations back were higher in the societal pecking order.
Those photo albums and rings and teacups and old furnishings remind us of a vanished time, a time that we partly believe is our true place.
I have copies of old family pictures from the Civil War through the Victorian era. Look, they’re wearing suits, and fancy hats, and dresses with bustles! Never mind that they probably owned only one or two changes of clothes. I DESERVE.
Some of that genteel feeling, we could easily get back. We could get it by hand-tailoring our clothes in our own living rooms, the way earlier generations did. We could get it by speaking more formally, using appropriate terms of address and ritual politeness formulas. “Good day to you, sir.” It’s not money that they had, so much as stricter rules for social decorum. We’d probably find it unbearably stuffy and restrictive. Personally, I prefer modernity with its electronics, egalitarianism, and endless options.
One of the most dramatic changes of our era is our incredible longevity. Human lifespan has basically doubled in the last century, certainly within the last two hundred years. I’m forty-three and it wouldn’t have been at all uncommon for a woman my age to be gone already. Now it’s not uncommon for a woman to still be up and doing at eighty-six, double the age I am today.
What this means is that our old structure of “inheritance” is going to have to change, the same way the way we think of “retirement” has to change. It was different when the retirement age was sixty-five and most people died by sixty-three. Now a lifetime’s savings and investments will be needed for the next twenty or thirty years of life. A house that would have lasted thirty years, enough time for a young family to grow up and for the owners to age properly, will now be worn out and needing major repairs just in time for that retirement. Buy a house at 35, and at 65, guess what? It’s going to need a new roof, all the appliances are going to wear out, maybe even the foundation, plumbing, wiring, windows, and floors will need to be redone.
How will there be any money left for the adult children after funding the retirement needs of advancing longevity? How can someone fund such a long retirement, working 30 or 35 years to pay to retire for 20 or 30 years or more? How could it be done at all, much less debt-free? How could it be done in perfect health, much less after funding decades of ill health, medications, medical appliances, and surgeries?
If anything, these trends are going to be even more pronounced over the next few decades. At some point, the finance industry will figure out a way to rig new mortgages and consumer debt loads. Individuals will adjust their expectations for their personal longevity, how old they want to be when they give up on their physical health, and how they intend to pay for their retirement. Family arrangements will start to look markedly different. We’ll probably move back to having multiple generations under one roof, and in that case, an “inheritance” might just look like redecorating a bedroom so the sixties-aged kids can move back in to assume caretaking responsibilities, for their eighties-aged parents and their grandparents who are still here as centenarians.
Expecting an inheritance, according to research, tends to lead to more debt and less career success. Today’s reality is that whatever investment money and home equity are there, will most likely be consumed by the daily living expenses of unprecedented old age. This is fantastic, if you actually love your relatives and cherish having more time with them. It’s a bummer, if you’ve always had this lingering hope that they’d shuffle off this mortal coil and leave you enough to pay off your credit cards.
I’m very fortunate to have young parents. They’re still working, and I’m middle-aged, well aware that I need to plan for my own old age. When I “retire,” they may still be spry enough that we can go on vacation together. All I want for them is that they have enough saved to take care of themselves and preserve their independence as long as possible. The inheritance that I desire is a legacy of strength and savvy, and perhaps the secret to a seventy-year marriage.
Cozy Minimalist Home is the book I wish my clutter clients would all read. I’m always trying to get them to consider how they use their space rather than how they feel about each and every single object they own. This lavishly illustrated book shows us how it’s done. Myquillyn Smith explores how to design cute, comfortable, stylish rooms that focus on function rather than tons of decorative items. She suggests that it’s better to focus on the room as a whole, rather than specific objects. The results are charming and convincing.
We really can have “more style with less stuff.” Smith suggests that we start by creating one sane space for the household to hang out and relax, even in the midst of large remodeling projects. No matter what else is going on in the other rooms, there needs to be somewhere for regular daily life to go on.
Moving and redecorating are serious undertakings, rife with pitfalls. Smith finds a lot of comedy here. “This is real life. There would be no buying all new furniture like they do on TV.” She deals with the realization that she’s been dragging a lot of decor through multiple moves, only to find that it isn’t doing her home any favors. The money she had spent on small things could have been saved up for larger pieces she would have liked better.
Smith is relatable and really funny. She voices so many contradictions and frustrations: wanting to streamline and wanting to shop; feeling attracted and repelled by the same style; aiming for domestic harmony and hospitality while wanting the home done her way. She doubts her own design choices, and even her decision to buy a house that she doesn’t absolutely love.
How to deal? Smith becomes Chief Home Curator. Like most of us, she has to solve problems of her own creation, sorting through a mountain of stuff that she herself chose and brought home. She learns to “quiet the room” and scrap previous design attempts before finally working out something that she and her family can love. Generally, what they like has greater design impact while using and displaying far fewer things.
One of the best and most endearing features of Cozy Minimalist Home is the appendix with Before and After photos of Smith’s rooms. She shares what was going on behind the scenes as photos were staged for the book. This focus on process is so helpful for readers who don’t know where to start in their own homes, making the endeavor feel more possible.
Cozy Minimalist Home is a very practical book. It teaches the fundamentals of design, starting with what order to paint, buy furniture, choose window treatments, and hang pictures. For absolute beginners, there are useful discussions on how to discover your own style, create pinboards, and plan rooms. This is a beautiful and useful book that can build confidence and a sense of possibility in even the most nervous novice.
Just because we know perfection isn’t the goal doesn’t mean we don’t long for—and need—function and beauty.
My dirty little secret was that my stuff was draining me.
If I was so good at finding great deals, why didn’t I trust that I could find them a year or two later and not lug all that cute stuff with me from house to house?
Doesn’t an empty kitchen counter seem like the most extravagant luxury?
It’s that time of year and spring is coming!
Spring announced itself in my neighborhood with a mass butterfly migration. I guess they all woke up and decided it was time to move, based on warmth, sunshine, and presence of flowers. There are few things more joyous than being surrounded by hundreds of butterflies everywhere you go for days on end, and noticing your neighbors notice.
Spring is here, summer is coming, and planning can help us make the most of it. How long has it been since you:
Had a picnic
Threw a Frisbee
Went to the beach
Played in a sprinkler
Napped in a hammock
Rode a bike
Laid down a blanket for stargazing
...and how much of your warm-weather-related outdoor equipment is buried in a garage, shed, storage unit, or other impossible mound of junk?
I like to do semi-major cleaning jobs on a quarterly basis. This is partly because there’s no way I would want to save it up and do it once a year. It’s also because it’s my way of declaring that I’m taking the next few months off.
Yes, I’ll do laundry and cook meals and wash dishes and clean the bathroom. No, I will not be doing any major clutter clearing, sorting of closets, or moving of furniture.
I AM TAKING TIME OFF!
I fully intend to spend the six warm months of our region out playing and having fun.
I’m going to go for walks and ride my bike with my husband.
I’m going to lounge around in my favorite chair on our tiny patio with the parrot and the dog.
I’m not going to wear socks. So ha.
In December, I deal with my severe cabin fever by sorting stuff and purging files. I love starting the New Year with a clean slate, and I really have this huge thing about getting our apartment ready. All surfaces should be dusted and polished. That’s how I celebrate, by making an area look pretty and ready for guests.
I like to go through every single cupboard and cabinet and drawer, getting rid of anything that has served its purpose. Things have a certain specific useful lifespan, whether they are lightbulbs or pasta noodles or socks or serving platters. Material objects are designed to be used in certain ways, and if they are truly useful then they eventually get worn out. Just like the Velveteen Rabbit.
Sometimes the useful lifespan of an object is just the time that it was useful to me and my household. I can pass it along, where it can become useful to someone else.
It’s not up to me to find out who that person might be. I send things back to the Stuff Place, where they rejoin the current of usefulness. In my home, they would get in my way and sit around, drained of meaning, while that other person would have to do without.
Almost everything, as far as I’m concerned, should remain in the Stuff Place. I don’t need things until I need them. I don’t like the feeling that I am surrounded by mysterious “supplies” that might or might not “come in handy” for some future disaster. I need my space for my personality and my thoughts. I need a little bit of blank wall and a little bit of room to expand, just in case I want to.
When I pass things on and send them back to the Stuff Place, it makes room. It creates breathing space in my home. I have space to live. Why should a bunch of random material objects have more of a claim on my home than I do? Than my husband and my pets and my friends do?
I can fill my space with friendship, music, conversation, laughter, thoughts and plans and dreams.
Or I can fill it with STUFF.
One of the things I do when I shake down my house, at the change of the seasons, is to look at how I’ve been spending my time. One of the areas that gets the most attention is the kitchen, because we cook differently in cold and warm weather. In the winter, I want the soup pot and the big baking pans. In summer, we do a lot more dinner salads.
Another area that gets extra focus is the bed, because we swap out our bedding too. That’s as good a time as any to think about what we want near us when we sleep. In the past, we both had cluttered nightstands, and that tends to generate dust. It’s nice not to have to worry about that.
Then there’s the area where we both get ready, which in our current studio apartment consists of the bathroom and walk-in closet. What’s going on in the shower rack? How many partial bottles of dog shampoo do we need, really? I clear out my one get-ready drawer next to the sink. I look at my sandals - wait, I don’t seem to have any sandals - and my warm-weather clothes.
My husband wears the same clothes all year, and therefore spends the time I am sorting through my closet... napping on the couch with the dog. Behold: minimalism.
I have a bag to donate and another bag to take to the clothing recycling bin. (If you’re crafty and you have tons of “cabbage” in the form of fabric scraps, you can recycle that too).
You know what I ought to do? I ought to take a few more books off the shelf and plan to read them out in the sun, in the park or next to our apartment pool. I just realized that one of my unread books has passed its ten-year anniversary, because I bought it on a trip with my brother and that was before I got married.
Isn’t it crazy, when we realize that some of our stuff has been with us longer than our relationships with mates or pets or even siblings?
I love summer. I associate it with a lot of summery activities that, often, I haven’t actually done in years. Maybe decades. I haven’t made the time to do them. Summer comes every year, and then it goes. It goes whether I’ve gone on a picnic, or held a sparkler, or eaten a root beer popsicle, or rollerbladed along the beach... or not.
No matter what time it is, now is the time. At this moment, it’s time to plan for fun, and make sure it happens!
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.
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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