Cutting off options is one of the worst feelings. This is why so many people hate making decisions; ‘decision’ means “to cut off.” It’s also a major reason why we procrastinate (or feel like we do), and it’s one of the major root causes of clutter. We like to feel surrounded by possibilities and potential. We like it even when maintaining that illusion of options is precisely what’s holding us back.
This is why I recommend choosing and focusing on a primary project.
It came to me just now, while I was brushing my teeth, in fact. I’m writing this at what is technically past my bedtime, because I know otherwise I’ll toss and turn writing it in my head. This is how we like to think of inspiration, as this external, spiritual force that strikes us like a lightning bolt from an ethereal weather system. We like it, even though when it actually happens it’s terribly inconvenient! We like it, even when it tends to result in years stacked upon many years of unproductive dallying and lack of any measurable result.
This is the year I’m dedicating to tying off old cords, closing open loops, and deciding once and for all whether to finish certain projects, schedule them, or jettison them entirely. Supposedly that is my primary project. It’s the middle of the year and I haven’t actually finished anything.
These are the projects that, if asked, I would have to define as “current”:
A novel; a non-fiction book; yet a different novel; the new podcast; a cross stitch that is maybe half done; an attempt to learn to juggle/ride a unicycle/solve a Rubik’s cube/do the splits/this is getting embarrassing, but the gear is everywhere; clearing the data off my old phone so I can sell it; getting an orange belt in Muay Thai; finishing my Advanced Communicator Silver in Toastmasters; putting together a workshop; this blog of course
Of COURSE there are more. It’s so much worse than it looks.
The trouble with being a multi-potentialite is this tendency to have eighty things going at once, making 1% progress on all of them. It means we never finish anything, we never build a reputation (or at least not one we’d want), we have no legacy, we blow people off and we flake out.
All the time I seem to want to prioritize on learning circus tricks is time taken away from a bunch of finite projects, many of which are at the 80-90% mark.
Why wouldn’t I want to finish them? It’s not like I’m in any danger of running out of ideas, foolish, impractical, brilliant, fun, interesting, or silly as they might be.
I’m better than I used to be. That’s the whole and entire point of a growth mindset, right? To be better than we used to be, and to strive for more? I do pride myself on publishing a blog post every business day. I’m also making steady, measurable progress in both public speaking and martial arts. That’s three things! If I continue to do those three things, then eventually I’ll be a sixth-degree black belt, a Distinguished Toastmaster, and author of a blog that just keeps going and going.
This is what we always have to ask ourselves about our projects. Why are we doing them?
Is it just to have something to keep our hands busy? In that case, we’re ever and always going to have some knitting or crochet or embroidery or hand-stitching or beading or sanding or what-have-you. If the goal is to fill the days and evenings, then we might as well finish our projects one after another. We might as well start trying to make a dent in our accumulated supplies and materials (even though, honestly, we have enough for three lifetimes divided between four people). We could even, dare I say it? We could even finish ALL OF IT. We could wake up one fine morning with zero supplies, zero materials, zero patterns, zero plans, and we could simply wander around the craft store and come home with something new.
There’s no risk in finishing anything!
Are we doing projects as proof of concept? Demonstrating that we have a clear intention of mastering a particular art? Writing, painting, dancing, sculpting, carving? In that case, it’s perfectly fine to have more false starts and bits and pieces of something than we do actual finished work. We simply have to accept that we’ll never impress ourselves, we’ll never reach a point of satisfaction with our own work, because true artists pretty much never feel that way. Never being quite as good as your interior vision is the mark, after all. That’s exactly what sets us apart. We have to ask whether anyone is ever going to see our work, which is really asking if we care about making something that matters. To anyone.
What I’ve just distinguished is the difference between an art and a craft, between an artist and an artisan, or perhaps a hobbyist. All of them are fine but they do have different goals and different processes.
I’m also distinguishing between the finite and the infinite. The finite project is the specific book; the infinite project is to write. The finite project is the afghan; the infinite project is, from what I’ve seen, to collect yarn. Wait, um? Have I ever asked myself to identify my infinite project?
Most of my projects are signs of curiosity. I get interested in something and I want to dive in and immerse myself in it. My interests tend to layer themselves; I rarely drop them. That’s why I have a parrot, and a twenty-year-old bicycle that I still ride, and a vast recipe collection, and a tub full of backpacking equipment. I also tend to have a certain amount of random books and objects that signal my intention for future use. I drive myself crazy doing this, yet I do it.
I have all this stuff, but what I don’t have is a published novel. I don’t have a workshop on the calendar. I don’t have a podcast episode recorded. I don’t necessarily have to choose between these distinctly different projects; I do have to make some solid choices about where I’m putting my primary focus most days of the week. Do one until it’s done, and then do the other until it’s done, and then pick something else. Inexperience with this condition is probably why there are six juggling balls on my desk. What’s going to be my primary project for the next month? What will I have to show for the next three months?
We’re leaving for a trip tomorrow. There are three ways to go about this.
Freaking out is a common reaction. Most people manage their anxiety about change and transition by trying to over-plan and overpack. Just bring everything you can possibly carry, and most eventualities will be covered, right?? This attitude guarantees that you’ll have the maximum weight and bulk to drag around, which multiplies the hassle and planning time that you’ll need. The longer you spend worrying and fretting about what to bring, the more ideas you have of more stuff to cram into the suitcase.
The way I used to pack was basically, Look around at every single thing I own, exclude as few things as possible, and try to bring it all. Like, okay, I probably don’t need to bring the furnace but maybe it will fit? Do they have ovens where I’m going?
Harness this overthinking energy. It’s a rational, logical way to deal with uncertainty, and that rationality can be used more efficiently.
Start with the minimum. What if I just went in the clothes on my back, and all I had was my wallet and phone? Worst case scenario, my outfit would get smelly. Maybe I’d wash it and I’d have to borrow a towel to wear while it was being laundered. Second worst case, maybe I’d have to stop somewhere and buy a new shirt and pants. If that happened, I could bring the new clothes home and install them in my regular wardrobe rotation.
My hubby once grudgingly spent $80 buying a simple fleece pullover at a gift shop on a motorcycle trip. It was LUDICROUSLY overpriced. He loves it, though, and he’s still wearing it nine years later. It’s amortized down to less than $9/per year of ownership, and it still fits and looks great.
All we’re doing is taking that “WHAT IF?????” feeling and welcoming it, taking it seriously. Okay, what if?
What won’t happen is that we won’t vaporize or suddenly find ourselves in the eighth dimension. We won’t swap personalities and find ourselves suddenly in a different body. We won’t forget the names or faces of everyone we’ve ever known. All that happens is that we go somewhere else for a while, sleep in a different bed for a while, meet some new people, and, if we’re lucky, eat some different food a few times.
This is my method.
Pack four outfits and one extra pair of shoes.
Literally, that’s it.
I don’t fold them or roll them, either. I lay out the four distinct outfits on my bed, so I make sure that they match and I have the correct undergarments. In the past, I’ve often forgotten to pack socks, and this “stack for each day” method has helped with that.
Next, I take one garment at a time and lay it in the suitcase, matching the shoulder seams and waistbands to the edge of the bag. Pant legs, skirts, et cetera, are laid out flat, stacked one on another. When they’re all matched up, I fold over all the legs and skirts. Socks, underwear, and swimsuits get stuck in the corners and along the edges. Then I zip it closed. The extra shoes and my shower kit go in another compartment. It takes five minutes.
I’m able to do this because I just pack my regular wardrobe. These are the clothes I wear all season long. I know they go in the washer and dryer. I know they fit. I know they mix and match because I plan ahead and buy things that go together. I don’t tolerate singletons and I remorselessly ditch any odd garment that isn’t earning its space in my closet. My clothes serve me, period. I’m not a museum curator and I don’t run a boutique. I don’t owe a piece of fabric anything, anything at all. I’m not going to be the defense lawyer for something if it isn’t already obvious why I should bring it. No threes, no maybes, no almosts. Just four outfits.
If my trip is longer than four days, then I simply do a load of laundry during the trip. I’ve done it at hotels, I’ve done it at campsites, and of course I’ve done it at my parents’ house.
I have had a couple of trips over the years where the weather suddenly turned, and it was much hotter or colder than the forecast. The way I deal with that is to allow one extra garment for the off chance, like a tank top or a layer of thermal underwear. It’s not the end of the world.
What about all the other stuff? All the special travel gadgets and pillows and what-not?
I like to buy travel doodads for the same reason that I like to buy kitchen utensils. They look cool! Then I inevitably realize that I don’t need them and I never use them.
My priority when I travel (and remember, priority is singular) is to bring only one bag that fits under the seat.
To that end, I bring only what I feel that I really, really want during the flight. I wear a heavy cardigan because I always feel cold on a plane. Wallet, obviously. Phone, tablet, charger, backup battery, headphones. Light snack. Hand lotion and lip balm. That’s it. Why would I need more than that?
The thing to remember is the reason for the trip. MY STUFF is never the reason for a trip! I’m traveling to be with specific people and to go to a specific location. I’m only there for a limited window of time. I can worry about MY STUFF when I’m home again, assuming I want to spend my precious life thinking about and stroking material objects. I want to channel my feelings of elevated adrenalin and remember, That’s excitement!
Now it’s time to chill out and pack. Remember, everything can be bought 24/7 and objects are consumable. Bring the minimum, remind yourself what you’re doing on the trip, and, yes, chill out and pack.
One of the consistently humorous moments in my work with chronically disorganized people is when they find stuff in their homes, and they can’t figure out how it got there. Whose is it? How long has it been here? Where did it come from?
Sometimes they don’t even know what it is!
We’ve been in situations where there is an entire box full of random items to redistribute. Whose are they? Former roommates? Friends from gaming night? Gremlins? The best we can do is to put that box by the front door and try to remember to ask people to check inside the next time they come over.
This issue of infiltration by random items comes from a lack of situational awareness. It’s cute and charming and funny, but it can also be... a little dangerous?
Not noticing your surroundings can lead to all sorts of problems, from spilling coffee to tripping and falling downstairs. I had a client who couldn’t find an actual dead rat for several days! It’s worse than that. The rat was in plain view. In the living room. And the pet dogs didn’t notice it, either. I’m like, your dogs are fired. But then, my personal dog is a rat terrier, so maybe it’s unfair to compare other dogs to him in that regard.
The simplest way to grow into greater situational awareness is with a focusing exercise that I call Perimeter Check.
Simply put, Perimeter Check means walking through each room and looking around. Many people learn to do this at work, using a checklist and doing routine tasks like closing out the till, taking out the trash, or setting the security system. There are few things more common than my people using a skill at a high level on the job, and then failing to use that same skill once they get home. That’s because there is no built-in accountability, no negative consequence for not doing it. We try to see Perimeter Check as a quick, easy thing we do for ourselves and our friends and family.
Perimeter Check can be done in mere seconds. Every time you get up, whether it’s on a bus seat, leaving work for the day, or at the movies, just glance around and make sure you have all your stuff. My hubby and I are both notorious for having to go back for stuff. I made up a little rhyme to try to make this something funny, rather than annoying:
Wallet, phone, glasses, keys / I don’t like mac and cheese
In a hotel room, Perimeter Check can be done in about a minute. I’ve been conditioning my hubby to perform it with me as a redundantly duplicate act of redundancy. We both open and shut every drawer, look in the closet, and check the shower and the bathroom counter. Before we started doing this, we had something of a track record of losing things in hotels, including the earrings I wore to our wedding. It would be nice to live in a perfect world where these left behind items are returned to Lost and Found, but in practice that has virtually never happened. It’s our responsibility to look after our own belongings, and with a sixty-second Perimeter Check, we do.
Around the house, Perimeter Check depends entirely on how many rooms there are and how much stuff is in each room.
We live in a studio apartment (technically a “junior one-bedroom” but it does not have a bedroom door, or a wall, or... a dishwasher or a washer or dryer or air conditioning or... ). Optimally, a Perimeter Check should only take us a couple of minutes. Due to the nature of living in two rooms, almost every single thing we own is in open view at all times. Even the closet doesn’t have its own door, so you can stand in the bathroom and see all our clothes, luggage, sheets, towels, shoes, laundry soap, etc. Obviously we can’t have a huge amount of personal items in a 600-square-foot apartment, but there is that issue of dozens of things in multiple colors and shapes and sizes. It’s like a “find the hidden object” puzzle. Without systems in place, it could be challenging.
What are the systems?
Everything has to justify its existence in our home
One in, one or two out
A place for everything and everything in its place
Never put something big in front of or on top of something small
Clear surfaces except when in use
Paper-free whenever possible
Basically what this means is that the kitchen counter, bathroom counter, floor, couch, and desktops need to be kept clear. If something is sitting on one of these clear, flat surfaces, that means it’s an intentional signal to do something. (Mail it, replace it, repair it, bring it with you).
Perimeter Check happens as a routine a few times a day. My hubby does it every morning when he leaves for work: Feed dog, walk dog, put dog in crate, grab backpack, grab bike, lock door. After that process, the only objects left on view in those areas should be things that belong there, like the dog leash. I do almost the identical routine when I leave, and then we both reverse it when we get home. This gives us ample opportunity to notice when the dog food bag is getting low or when he needs his prescription filled at the vet. The vitally important area around the front door is constantly being checked and cleared. At bedtime, it takes just a few seconds to check the locks, turn out lights, and gauge the levels of the laundry basket, toothpaste tube, dental floss, etc. There are a thousand tiny cogs in the machinery of daily life, and it can be a lot, but doing the routine Perimeter Check is a way of keeping everything running smoothly without a lot of extra mental energy.
Our home is for us, not our stuff. A house should serve the people and animals who live there. We should be able to sit on the couch, eat at the table, cook in the kitchen, sleep on the bed, and get ready in the bathroom. If there are any mysterious objects floating around, how did they get there and why didn’t we notice them? A stray tennis ball wound up in our yard one day, and believe me, our dog noticed within hours, if not minutes. A Perimeter Check is a way of fully inhabiting our home and, even more, our mental space.
On the biggest clutter-clearing jobs, there is one category of stuff that takes more time than everything else put together. In this category, a single item can burn up an hour of time. A single grocery sack could represent weeks of work. This category is where people tend to get lost, and that’s why I advise them to wait and save it for last. That category: The Flats.
The Flats are flat things. Original, right?
What is it about the Flats? What makes them so much harder to sort?
The Flats include:
Coupons, expired and current
Articles to read
Old to-do lists
Procrastinated social obligations
Papers representing anxiety, dread, guilt, shame, and grief
You can see how it works. An entire truckload of construction debris or yard waste can be hauled off with a single decision. The trunk of a car can be filled with old blankets and linens for the pet hospital in, oh, half an hour. A decision to free up kitchen space by donating all the plastics could be executed in half a day. Vast volumes of bulk clutter can be virtually waved away. The Flats, though, they take concentration. Concentration and focus.
What’s worse, the Flats can take emotional energy in a way and at a level that physical objects may not.
Physical clutter is often aspirational. Stuff represents imaginary versions of ourselves that we haven’t yet lived out. Maybe we never will. We pile up things like foreign language workbooks, exercise equipment, art supplies, musical instruments, and clothes with the tags still on. We acquire them because we’re enchanted by the possibilities they represent. Getting rid of aspirational items feels like killing that potential, erasing those potential future selves before they’ve had a real chance.
The Flats, though, usually represent the past rather than the future.
Photographs, artwork, school papers, journals, and other keepsakes represent our history, our legacy, our memories, and often our relationships. That’s why it can be hard to discard things like wedding invitations, even after that once-happy couple has divorced and remarried other people. We tend to feel obligated to preserve what feel like archival records.
I have a degree in history and I can tell you, you don’t have an obligation to save anything if you don’t want to. If we were required to archive every piece of official-looking paperwork for every person who ever lived, much less every lock of hair, baby tooth, tiny shoe, or piece of children’s art, there wouldn’t be enough buildings on the planet to house it all. What makes records special is their uniqueness. When everything is special, then nothing is.
I can also tell you, as a person, that it’s better to live an interesting life than to mull over old records of things that have already happened. That’s my opinion. I’d be horrified if my grade school artwork or even my college papers wound up being the most interesting manifestations of my lifetime here on earth. I’d be equally horrified if I had nothing better to do in my old age than to pore over that musty, mildewed old junk.
‘Nostalgia’ means ‘sickness.’ Sickness for home. People used to believe that one could die of it.
Not all the Flats consist of sentimental papers, though. The warnings there are to avoid getting lost in it, to know what a huge time suck it can be when memory-laden papers catch your attention. The other variety of the Flats are those that represent more of a cognitive load.
Most of my clients are chronically disorganized. They often think they are hoarders because their stuff has tended to pile up. Once they decide that it’s time to get a handle on it, though, it turns out that they don’t hoard at all. They’re quickly able to decide to get rid of absolute truckloads of stuff, and they don’t tend to be emotionally attached to much of anything. Where they get into trouble is in mentally processing their bureaucratic papers. That’s why 80% of the Flats belonging to my chronically disorganized people are junk mail and other expired stuff.
What I do when we sit down to work is to set expectations. I say, “I will never throw away any of your stuff. That’s your decision to make. The only things I’ll throw away are candy wrappers or dirty napkins, and you can check the bag before it goes out. I’m just here to sort.” Then we start going through sacks of mail. It’s easy for me, just like it’s easy for anyone to sort someone else’s stuff. No decisions! Almost everything is unopened mail. I whip through it and sort by the logos on the envelopes. Coupon circulars go in one pile, newspapers in another, magazines in another. There’s usually a distinct pile for invitations, another for photos, another for receipts, and another for business cards. While I sort, my client suddenly realizes that most of this stuff is irrelevant, redundant, or obsolete.
We once sorted TEN YEARS of old papers in two days, ending by setting up an entire filing system that fit in two drawers. One of the drawers was filled with printer paper, envelopes, and other office supplies.
The thing is, if this client with ten years’ worth of unsorted paper tried to do it alone, it could have taken months or years.
My recommendations are twofold:
If your issue with the Flats is one of mental focus, maybe see how much you can “get organized” digitally first. I don’t have a paperwork problem because we pay our bills and do our taxes electronically. We spend about two minutes sorting our mail every day. In this millennium, there’s no need to have disorganized drifts of papers.
If, on the other hand, your issue with the Flats is one of unprocessed emotion, be gentle with yourself. Recognize that if you let it, this kind of sorting job can go on for years. Maybe what you need is just to buy some acid-free archival boxes or albums and put everything away neatly. You aren’t required to read through it all. Don’t bother unless you feel it will be meaningful or constructive for you. If the Flats are one piece of a larger organizing and space clearing job, I exhort you, save them for last.
Zero savings. I keep reading about it everywhere and it’s infecting my mind. Where does the money go? How can people possibly have not one single dollar tucked away somewhere? I have a jar with over $80 in it, because I’m a scrounge, just from coins I’ve picked up in the street in the last twelve years. (Mostly pennies!) Then I remind myself that most people do not make a mental or emotional connection between “savings” and their spending habits. We don’t even think of our “spending habits” as spending habits, just as “trying to live my life.” When I work with photos or do home visits with my clutter clients, I look around and think, even at a dollar per item, there’s a lot of money sunk into this room.
When I don’t have any savings, then my personal belongings represent my net worth.
Um, unless I have debt. Then I have clutter and a negative net worth.
Before we go on, I’ll state the obvious: Financial net worth is not the same as spiritual net worth or social net worth. All we’re talking about today is money. Although, as long as we’re on the topic, when we don’t save any money then we are counting on other people to fill in for us, bail us out of trouble, and perhaps support us in frail old age. What will we do if we find out that they had the same plan as us, to count on us for material support the exact same way we were counting on them? We tend to fill our homes and lives with clutter when we cut ourselves off socially and isolate ourselves emotionally. That’s part of why any discussion of the emotional, spiritual, and social inevitably includes the financial.
Back to the clutter. Where did it come from?
The extremely frugal of us will be chuckling and remembering all the stuff we’ve brought home for free. The chronically disorganized will be looking around and noticing how much of the clutter consists of junk mail, newspapers, recycling, and other stuff that... well, it didn’t cost anything but we don’t think it’s all that valuable, either. In both cases, we might do well to ask ourselves if we could lower our rent by using less space. We can also ask whether we could earn more by diverting our scrounging, bargain-hunting energy toward more lucrative side hustles or training for a higher-paid career.
The rest of us can ask, did this cost more than a dollar? A used book, a shirt, a throw pillow, a pen, a can of soup? I still shop at thrift stores, and the price range in my area is now $3-8 for most items. Anyone with a good memory for the lineage of their bargains may be able to bump up that estimate and say, Yes, everything in this room cost at least three bucks, or whatever that number might be.
It could be an interesting exercise to go around with a notepad and write down estimates for the larger items. Roughly how much was the couch, the TV, the bed? It could also be interesting to do an estimate for one small area, such as “everything in the fridge” or “everything on the floor of my car.”
There’s something about the number 55 that comes up often in my work. Fifty-five coffee mugs, fifty-five t-shirts on the floor, fifty-five mechanical pencils. At a dollar each, we can say, “Okay, that’s $55.” Did I actually need each and every one of them? If all my shirts are in layers on the bedroom floor, and I’ve been washing the same basket of other clothes for the last several weeks, then is it possible I could have saved that $55? If I had, would I then have an envelope of money and a clear surface in my home?
Or does any cash on hand “burn a hole in my pocket”? Does a bare surface make me feel a little stir-crazy? Do I spend money quickly or surround myself with stuff because it’s emotionally more comfortable and familiar?
The trouble with clutter is that it fades into the background. We’re so used to it that we forget it’s there. More, we have trouble imagining anything else. How would life be different if I never had to clean this up again? How would life be different if I actually had an emergency savings account? How would life be different if that savings built up over years, and I started trusting its presence?
The other problem with clutter is that it generally doesn’t have any resale value. Many of my people are so emotionally attached to the sunk value of their stuff that they’ll hang onto boxes and piles of it for years, hoping to “get something for it” at the yard sale they’ll never have. Then they finally do put a yard sale together, spend twelve hours a day sitting out in the hot sun, and fail to sell 80% of it. This is a mistake that derives naturally from scarcity mindset. Abundance mindset says, donate it all to charity, spend the weekend napping and going to the park, and think of a different way to come up with $300. My husband and I once wasted a beautiful summer weekend trying to make $100 at a yard sale, and this year we just offset our expenses $600 a month by moving. The new place is thirty square feet smaller, which is less than the size of a ping pong table.
In an emergency, could we get everything out? I think not. I have two pets, and if a natural disaster happened, I’d really have my hands full just collecting them and getting them safely out the door. In my area, the main risks are tsunami, earthquake, wildfire, flash flood, and mudslide. Years ago, I decided that I would never allow myself to get my heart broken by feeling like my stuff was “ruined” or that I’d “lost everything.” If I’m alive, my loved ones are alive, and my pets are alive, then I have lost nothing. I feel much better having an emergency plan, a go bag, physical fitness, insurance, and emergency savings than I think I would if my apartment were full of a bunch of material objects, no matter how awesome they might be.
We keep clutter because we’re overly concerned with the value of things. We’re caught up in the aspirational feelings that we will Definitely Use This Someday. We believe that objects represent our memories and our heritage, and that without the objects we’d forget our past. Many of us believe that our stuff is our personality, so much that we even use the term ‘conversation piece.’ When we feel poor and that life is difficult, we hang onto our stuff because we believe it’s the best we’ll ever have. Imagine how different it would be to instead feel financial comfort, to feel that the future will be more interesting than the past ever was, that we are changing and growing and contributing all the time, that tomorrow will be easier. Imagine how it would be to feel less “this thing is worth something” and more “I am worthy.”
We’re sharing a table at a conference. Breakfast is being served. We haven’t met before, but I know immediately that he’s one of mine. I know because he’s a bag-spreader. He has more personal belongings arrayed around him than I’ve brought with me on long international flights. At a table meant to seat eight, where there aren’t enough spots for all the attendees to eat their meals, he’s taking up a quarter of the table, and that’s only because my husband has nudged some of his stuff away from his plate.
Bag-spreader, bag-spreader, what’s in your bag?
Nobody knows. I find out later that, in addition to all the stuff he has spread around him at the table, he has two additional bags stashed on the extra chairs off to the side of the room.
What’s in front of him?
A smartphone. A tablet with a keyboard. A Moleskine notebook. A composition book. A stack of catalogs, not relevant to the conference. Two separate glasses cases. A pen. A protein bar. The folder of conference materials. Index cards.
Some people might be annoyed at this excess, for excess it surely was. Across the table, I was able to find it amusing and interesting. That’s because I study material culture through history. This tableau is a solid representation of the challenge of straddling two or three eras: the 19th Century desire to keep archival records and commonplace books, the 20th Century habit of taking paper notes at meetings, and the nascent 21st Century practice of using portable “smart” electronic devices. A generation or two further down, it will feel more natural and obvious to rely on the electronics alone and see all that paper as unwieldy and inefficient.
To my guy, Mr. Bag-Spreader, all that paper must feel like a good idea. Why? What is he thinking?
I’d ask him, but we’re on a tight agenda today. Besides, he hasn’t introduced himself or spoken to anyone at our table. He’s taken it upon himself to move other people’s belongings as well. It seems clear that he really wants the whole table to himself and he’s made annoyed faces at those encroaching on him.
Sorry, bud, this is a common area! We paid to be here, too. We have to share.
Why can’t you just keep all your stuff in your bag and put it by your feet or hang it off the back of your chair? You could take items out one at a time as you need them, and put them back in when you’re not actively using them. I mean, that’s what I’m doing.
Back to what’s going on with the bag-spreading. Why a Moleskine AND a composition book AND index cards? Even excluding the two electronic devices? My guess is that he’s using index cards because he doesn’t want to mess up his nice expensive (bright yellow) Moleskine. But he wants to have it out because he’s referencing earlier notes? Or he just likes looking at it? Or he doesn’t even realize that this particular object is extraneous to purpose? I’m also guessing that the composition book is part of a different project, perhaps notes from his home club’s meetings. The catalogs are in case he gets bored.
I used to be like this. I was a bag-spreader myself. I would bag-spread in class, on the bus, on airplanes, at restaurants. I didn’t realize that I was being selfish and unfair to others around me. I didn’t realize that I was spending far more time than other people in interacting with objects, playing with my personal possessions, distracting myself from whatever was going on. It was most likely a way to sublimate my desire to just stay home, a way of comforting myself with familiar belongings and marking my territory. I guess. I can’t say I had much insight into it at the time.
It’s pretty common for bag-spreaders to drag multiple bags everywhere. I kinda still do this, at least one day a week. I have to go straight from kickboxing to one of my weekly Toastmasters meetings, so I have my gym bag with my boxing gloves and shin guards, and then I have my work bag with my tablet, pen, workbook, sunglasses, wallet, etc.
That’s what gets us into trouble with the bag-spreading. Our stuff expands to fill the bag available, and then it becomes background stuff, and then we stop having enough space to carry all the other stuff we want to bring with us.
Right now I have an explanation for everything in my bag, but I can guarantee that there are things in it that would make someone else laugh. (Library cards for three distinct libraries?). Sun block. Wallet. Keys. Lotion. Lip balm. Tissues. Headache tablets. Microfiber screen cleaner cloth. Backup battery with two types of charger cables. Dental floss. Phone and tablet. Paper day planner, for which I cannot defend myself. Right now there’s a trophy and a cowbell, and hopefully I remember to take them out. It’s true that I could have gone out the door with half this stuff and made it through the day.
The heuristic behind bag-spreading is to bring as much as possible, just in case. In case of what? I have no idea, which is what “just in case” means! This is the opposite of minimalism. The minimalist heuristic is to try to bring nothing at all, and add only that which is truly necessary. Anything more is an encumbrance.
More to carry, more chronic neck pain and shoulder pain and back pain. More to lose, more to have stolen. More to spill on, more to stain and fold and spindle and mutilate. More to detract from your fashionable ensemble and general poise. More to spoil photographs. More to trip people or bump into them. More to spread over twice as much space as you’re legitimately entitled to. Or three times. One man, three chairs?
What if everyone brought three bags everywhere? Where would they all go? Would every hallway and every room have to have a wall of cubbyholes? Would every bus need an overhead rack and every plane have room for only half as many passengers?
There were three reasons why I finally learned to quit bag-spreading. One, working with chronically disorganized people and hoarders put it into context. Two, my career ambitions demanded a more polished appearance. Three, I got a smartphone and realized that almost everything I carried could be digitized. I had a fear of boredom as much as anything else. I learned to trust that my phone wouldn’t start bulging or weighing more if I put more books, magazines, news articles, podcasts, or music on it. Oh, and then I became a distance runner and learned that I could leave my house with nothing more than my phone, headphones, and keys.
Bag-spreading can come from a desire to feel resourceful and prepared for every occasion. It can come from a desire to look polished and have backup hygiene and beauty supplies on demand. It can come from a fear of boredom. It can come from simple habit. It can come from distraction and lack of focus. Look at it as a behavior pattern, and observe how many other people indulge in it. Look again and wonder how the majority of people seem to be able to get through the day without bag-spreading. It can be done!
The thought of introducing myself to potential new clients by leaving a business card on their door was something I smacked down almost as soon as it entered my mind. As obvious as these homes are to me, it’s equally obvious that their inhabitants would be horrified that anyone could guess how they live from the street. The entire point of hoarding is emotional insulation, to create a barrier that blocks this secret world from the outside.
Doesn’t work, though. Like it or not, we’re stuck participating in this world. People can see us. Worse yet, they’d help us if we’d let them in.
That would be defeating the purpose, because isolation is the purpose as well as the cause.
What is it that I can see from the street? What makes “one of mine” stand out?
The windows are always covered, even on the brightest summer day. Curtains, blinds, sheets, blankets, cardboard, car window shades, even a sheet of plywood in one case. You can tell that it’s been this way for a long time because often objects are visible, either between the covers and the glass, or pressing the curtains into weird shapes. DON’T LOOK IN.
The front door is obscured in some way. Maybe there are a bunch of boxes stacked out there, or bags of recycling, or dead potted plants. Anything that might have said, “Welcome Friend” is noticeable in its absence. DON’T COME INSIDE.
Usually there’s a large amount of visible clutter outside. You can see it in the side yard, or poking over the back fence, or strewn in the yard or driveway. We used to have a neighbor across the street who kept dozens of rubber storage tubs stacked up in front of the garage door. When this happens outside an American-standard suburban ranch house, it says one or both of two things. 1. The inside of the house is already full and/or 2. Nobody is helping to take care of things here. DON’T OFFER.
Of course I’ve been allowed inside dozens of cluttered homes in the course of my work. I’ve worked with extreme hoarding and squalor. What you see on the hoarding shows on TV? That’s about five times more common than I think people realize. There are also a LOT of people living with a level of clutter not too far above that point. Sure, a lot of my people are overwhelmed by chronic disorganization, and they can quickly “get organized” once they’re taught what to do. I think the majority are having more trouble managing their emotions than they are their stuff.
The Anger House is the most common. This is what happens when nobody has ever worked out the power dynamics of who does what. People snap at each other every day. Who ate it? Who left it there? Who took it? Where is it? Whose turn is it? The kitchen looks like a bomb hit it because the thought of washing everyone else’s dishes touches off a radioactive cloud of resentment, grudges, quarrels, and previous fights. Doing laundry or cleaning the bathroom are battle-worthy premises, usually not worth the effort. In the Anger House, someone is often shouting first thing in the morning, before work or school have even started. Every single task is politically charged; you can’t pick up a sock without making some kind of statement.
The Sorrow House is usually a scene of mourning. Hoarding is almost always triggered by a death in the family, and sometimes a series. If there are grief boxes of the possessions of the departed, that will virtually always touch it off. The first time I saw this in action, the adult daughter had filled her entire living room, dining room, and kitchen four feet high with boxes of her deceased parents’ housewares. There was a narrow path from room to room, and she had saved herself one of three sofa cushions. (The other two? Boxes!). She would come home, weave through the box barricade, and nestle into that one available soft spot, where she had sat for several years. I can’t help but think of how deeply saddened her parents would have been, to think that this was the life she chose. Parents like to think our kids will do better than we did, that they’ll have better lives than ours, and certainly we want our kids to go on to live many happy years after we leave this world. It’s a conversation we should be having while all parties are still among the living. Our culture’s distinct lack of burial rites and formal mourning rituals leads us to these bizarre, unhelpful states of limbo. For lack of a cenotaph, we’ll pay thousands of dollars for storage units we’ll never visit, so we never have to face the sorrow of throwing away our parents’ old pot holders and dish towels.
A Sorrow House is often the result of a restructured family. Maybe divorce or separation, maybe an empty nest from whence the grown children have flown. Living alone and rattling around a big old empty house? It IS sad! I just really wish more people would shrug it off and choose to live like the Golden Girls, finding a way to be relatively cheerful with roommates rather than lonely with a television.
Maybe I should use the term ‘anxiety’ instead, but maybe it’s helpful to call things by their names and label the Fear House for what it is. Because a Fear House doesn’t feel scary to the occupant, it feels safe. In the Fear House, it just feels safer not to venture outside to take out the trash right now, or return those purchases, or run those errands. In the Fear House, there are always a million and five reasons to delay going out the door and just stay home a few more minutes. It always feels better to do the coping mechanism than to do anything else.
I teach that we should evaluate our homes by the use we get out of the space. Home should feel welcoming, a place of peace, warmth, safety, and hospitality. Kitchens for cooking, dining tables for meals, beds for sleeping, desks for creative projects. We can also go through and evaluate what emotions rise up in different areas. What parts of the home are evidence of unresolved power struggles? Unprocessed grief? Loneliness? Anxiety, stress, or boredom? What would it look and feel like if it were instead to be a happy, cheerful, joyous home?
I wish there were a better euphemism to use for translating the Swedish word döstädning than the phrase “death cleaning.” Okay, that may be the most metal thing of all time, but it may cast an unfairly gloomy pall over what is really a very charming and sweet book. Maybe let’s call it... life sifting. Then let’s move on and talk about how this is just the best book, one that deserves worldwide success.
The author, artist Margareta Magnusson, claims to be “somewhere between eighty and one hundred.” She put together The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning while sorting her own belongings. She did the same process after the deaths of her mother, her husband, and her mother-in-law, among others, and she points out that this work usually falls to the women in the family. She says: “I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.” One of the reasons for doing this work ourselves, Magnusson says, is to prevent fights between family members. For instance, rather than have her five kids quarrel over an heirloom bracelet, she sold it! In my work, it is more common than not for my adult clients to have siblings, aunts, uncles, and sometimes parents or kids who have not been on speaking terms in years over some piece of jewelry or furniture. If death cleaning can prevent these stupid materialistic arguments and keep families together, that is reason enough to do it.
The other reason is that as far as I can tell, the majority of bereavements result in grief clutter that is still hanging around, years or decades later. Almost every storage unit I’ve encountered in my practice includes boxes of the ordinary domestic wares of a relative who has passed on. Often, the boxes are stacked up in the adult child’s home. There has never yet been a time when anyone has been “ready” to process and clear this type of grief clutter. I know of one home with three generations’ worth. Clearly our culture is in need of some new mourning rituals and traditions. Swedish death cleaning, why not?
My beloved mother-in-law did this process after her fifth lymphoma diagnosis. She spent the last months of her life systematically sorting through all her things. She had a lifetime’s worth of wacky costumes, hats, costume jewelry, and stuffed animals, including all sorts of prizes and joke gifts from her different clubs. She invited her friends to visit, one by one, and had them choose things that spoke to them. She sorted through every shelf and closet. When she was done, she taught her husband how to cook all of his favorite recipes. I believe this methodical clearing work helped my mother-in-law to make her peace, while also pacing those inevitable goodbye visits that might otherwise have been overwhelming. She wasn’t Swedish, but that process is reflected in this book, which even closes with some bonus recipes.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is a light-hearted, breezy take on a situation that could really use it, viz. mortality. The author’s illustrations add just the right note of whimsy. Read it, share it, bring it to book club, and give out copies to everyone in your family. Then let’s all push up our sleeves and get started.
A moment of truth is a realization, an epiphany, a moment of clarity. In business and marketing, it’s the moment the customer decides to make a purchase. I like to think there’s more to life than deciding to buy things, but maybe that’s just me. In some situations, all we need is one moment of truth. With others, it takes several. Sometimes, maybe no amount of information is enough to get us to change what we’re doing.
Example: When I’m giving myself a paper cut, and all I can seem to do is to watch it happen in slow motion rather than drop the paper
What are some common moments of truth?
Realizing these leftovers are past the point of no return
Looking at the clock and realizing you’re going to be late
Not being able to button those pants
The thing about clutter is that it’s not a single object. Generally, any one thing has its reasons for being there. There’s a long list of reasons to keep every single thing, or explanations for how it got to be where it is. It’s hard to single out particular items from a cluttered space and eject them. How do you know what to pick? This is why clutter tends to lead to multiple moments of truth.
One of the reasons that it’s so common to clean up a space and then clutter it up again is that each of these steps needs more examination and introspection. If all we do is Step 4 and Step 8, we’re not pausing to consider why the space got this way.
Sorting clutter is a “bottom up” process. That means we’re starting with what’s already there and trying to impose order on it. The “top down” way to do it is to start with the function and appearance of the space, what needs to be there, and then remove everything that doesn’t work. Most American homes could shed half the stuff from every room. My people, the chronically disorganized and the compulsive accumulators, can usually get rid of 80% or more.
Sleep in the bedroom, cook in the kitchen, eat at the table, sit on the couch, work at the desk, go places on time, find everything on demand.
Or, if you’re one of mine: share your bed with laundry, books, papers, and food packaging; cook nowhere and never; pile the table with food, dishes, and shopping bags; bury the couch under a pile of laundry; which desk?; be late everywhere; search for stuff endlessly.
The longer I do this work, the harder it is for me to understand why so many people prioritize inanimate objects over and above their quality of life. They’ll shed genuine, bitter tears over a cracked figurine or a keepsake with water damage. But they don’t even seem to notice how cramped they are in their own homes, how their stuff interferes with their daily routine.
There are other realizations that can happen, moments of truth that allow for a new perspective:
The biggest problem with both procrastination and getting organized is knowing where to start. This is because knowing there’s a system is not the same as understanding and using a system. People who think of themselves as procrastinators or as disorganized have a strong suspicion that life is easier for other people. They’re right, too. One of the main reasons is the awareness of a system, and another is a bias toward action. Just get started! Getting started when you don’t feel like you really even know how to get started can happen when you learn to spot the no-brainer.
What is one thing you can do right now?
What’s a tiny piece that’s so small, you’re sure you can do it in just a minute or two?
What’s so obvious that it doesn’t even feel like you actually did anything?
What is so simple that you don’t even need to explain it or describe it?
A no-brainer is simple, obvious, and easy. Sometimes there are a bunch of no-brainers, and sometimes maybe there’s only one. It doesn’t matter. The secret is that finishing one step makes other steps more obvious.
What is simple and obvious to one person is not necessarily simple or obvious to someone else. For instance, it’s easy for me to know how to eat a burrito because I grew up eating burritos. It’s not so simple or easy for me to WRAP a burrito, though! There’s a trick to it. I always wind up putting in too much stuff, and then it starts to unwrap and everything starts to drip out of the bottom. I know I could learn to do this if I wanted to. I could watch a YouTube video and practice it a bunch of times.
Everything is on YouTube. I’ve used YouTube videos to help me figure out how to wrap my headphone cords, clean a shower door track, open a pomegranate, and fold fitted sheets.
“Getting organized” and “procrastinating” are different, though. That’s for two reasons. One, neither of them has a specific, objective definition and each person’s organization or procrastination problem is different. Two, almost everything written about these topics was developed by people who are very well organized or highly productive. What works for them may not work at the novice, disorganized level.
Where videos or tutorials come in is when there’s a specific task or skill to be learned. Maybe I can’t learn how to “be organized,” but I can look at a bunch of pictures of organized refrigerators or read an article on how to set up a filing system. I take it one piece at a time. Each part of my life and my personal environment that I “organize” makes it easier to figure out the next part.
I believe that procrastination comes from not knowing how to go about doing something, not liking it, feeling pressured by external expectations, and not knowing about mood management. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do something if I hate doing it and I’m rebelling against it. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do it, if I don’t know how to make myself do it. If I know how to fight my procrastinating types of moods, though, I can push through and learn how to do the specific small tasks involved.
How do I write an outline? How do I make a mind map? How do I create and name files? How do I write an effective email header? What format should this report be in? How do smart, competent people effectively admit that they’re still learning how to do something?
Start by writing out a list of everything you don’t know, everything you don’t know how to do. Why are you stuck? Give it a name. This is how you figure out where to start. Which question seems the hardest or the most embarrassing? Okay, tackle that one last.
Procrastination and disorganization usually tend to go together. What’s funny about this is that the feeling of procrastinating on a deadline is sometimes the only thing that can motivate someone to tackle minor cleaning and organizing tasks. I didn’t want to do my ironing until it was time to clean the oven. I didn’t want to clean the oven until it was time to do my taxes. I didn’t want to do my taxes until it was time to work on my book proposal.
What happens in the case of the procrastination bustle is that we realize we are surrounded by no-brainer tasks and chores. We feel intuitively that once we’ve cleared the slate, we can retrieve some of our mental bandwidth. Once something is done, we get to stop thinking about it. It’s a puzzle that we’ve solved. We can look around and see that it’s done. This is done, that is done, this is done, that other thing is done. The more we get into the habit of doing the obvious, the more types of things eventually become no-brainers. Sort the mail. Put away the groceries. Hang up the coats. File the papers. Write the outlines. Submit the proposals.
Every day, we do obvious no-brainer activities that were once too hard for us. Eating with a fork! Putting our shoes on the correct feet! Memorizing our phone number! Finding a parking spot! Buying groceries! Paying bills! We build skills as we grow older and more experienced. We get more done as we realize that it’s faster and easier to do it right away, rather than stewing over it.
Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get moving. It’s a way to feel smarter and more accomplished. It’s a way to get ready and build momentum. Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get started and, eventually, a way to be finished.
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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.