It’s here, it’s here! I finally got my new podcast set up. Are you excited? I’m excited!
The idea behind the show is help listeners to get organized and clear clutter in just a few minutes a day. Rather than read something and then have to get up and take action, now you can listen and work at the same time.
I have three different episode lengths planned.
The five-minute version is free to the public. The longer versions are available to Patreon subscribers.
Why am I doing it this way? Almost all of my work is already free to the public, including over two thousand pages of writing on this blog alone, not to mention all the accompanying illustrations. Now, in addition, there will also be free podcast episodes. Those who are willing and able to pay a couple dollars a month will have more, just as they would have more if I published a book and they bought a copy. The main difference is that doing a podcast requires additional equipment and software. As much as everyone in the known universe enjoys having free entertainment of every medium, it’s not free to produce.
Enough about that. The point is, hey, I have a new show! Please pop on over and check it out. You can even catch a glimpse of my spokesmodel Noelle in the video.
Thanks as always for your support.
Information is not motivation, and common knowledge is not common action. Basically this means that we know everything we need to know in order to get started, but it isn’t enough. No matter what it is that we’d like to do, for some reason, we aren’t doing it. Maybe we just aren’t juiced up enough about the benefits of change. Maybe we’re unsure about how getting the goal will change our relationships. Probably it’s different for every person and every situation. One thing that seems to be working for me is the contrary approach of imagining the worst version of something. How is what I’m doing as bad as it could be, and how could it be worse?
Let’s say I’m thinking about my car. I don’t actually own a car right now, so this is purely a figment of my imagination. The worst version of “my car” would be: unsafe, unreliable, smelly, dirty, filled with trash, and expensive. I’m picturing something that’s burning oil, with a black smoky cloud pouring out from behind me. The brakes are failing! The “check engine” light constantly flickers on and off. The body is rusting out, I have a broken tail light, one of the side windows is broken and replaced with cardboard and tape, and the passenger door lock doesn’t work. The interior smells like spoiled milk, the floors are covered with wrappers and food crumbs of every color, and there’s a suspicious stain on the seat. It gets 16 miles to the gallon and I’m still making payments. The glove compartment is so full of unpaid parking tickets that it won’t close.
Want me to swing by and pick you up?
Honestly, thinking about this “worst version” of a car makes me feel really smug about walking everywhere. I pulled that description from actual vehicles in which I have ridden. I could make this worst version slightly worse, although less realistic, by adding more broken windows or engine problems. At the point at which it is no longer operational, it stops being a “vehicle” and transitions to “junk.” Perhaps junk that is more valuable than other junk, like a broken and obsolete washing machine, but junk it still is.
This worst version method can be applied to other things.
Worst job: Underpaid, no benefits, unethical business practices, mean and domineering boss, unsafe working conditions, long commute, rude customers, no path to advancement, no social contribution
Worst relationship: Dishonest, dysfunctional; partner is contemptuous, hypercritical, and unpredictably disappears or cuts communication for no obvious reason. Can I say that if it’s violent then it isn’t a relationship, it’s a slow-motion crime?
Worst desk: Can’t work there, just looking at it stresses me out, covered with clutter, uncomfortable to sit there, poor lighting, not enough power outlets, other people dump their stuff on it
Worst shoes: Give me blisters, wearing them for more than an hour makes me walk with a limp, only match one outfit (or zero)
Worst lunch: Diet Coke and a bag of microwave popcorn
Worst cat: Actually an opossum
There are two benefits to using the worst version method. First, when things are bad, it can help to get at least a weak chuckle by imagining how they could be worse. Second, it can draw attention to ways we’ve been tolerating the intolerable. That perspective can be the jolt that we need to get moving, to take action and set limits.
Worst neighbor: Accidentally shot out our living room window, their dog got loose and attacked our dog
Worst landlord: Lived next door, had chronic domestic disputes
What do we do with this information? OKAY, TIME TO MOVE
Complaining is of very limited use. Its purpose should be to clarify our true desires. If not this, then what?
I had a silverware sorter in chrome. I thought it looked great. Then one day, one of the wires came loose and I managed to ram it under my fingernail. Bled everywhere. TIME TO GO! We shouldn’t be assaulted by our own stuff.
When we’re clear and certain about what we find unacceptable, we can rule it out. Nothing that makes us bleed, et cetera. It’s that response of OH HECK NO that abruptly puts a stop to ruts and habitual behavior that doesn’t serve us.
If not this, then what?
Ask that again and again.
If not this job, or one just like it, then what? How would we define a “good” boss or a “reasonable” commute?
If not this relationship, then what? Taking some time to be alone for a while, that might be good. What does “good communication” sound like? What does “functional” feel like?
If not this financial problem, then what? What will it take to reach a place of peace and clarity here?
If not this persistent physical annoyance, then what? What do we want for our bodies? Agility, symmetry, high energy, supple muscles, speed, power, strength, clear skin, a strong immune system? What specifically?
If not this room, then where? What would a dream office/bedroom/kitchen/living room look like? How would it feel to inhabit this space?
Most of all, what is the worst version of myself? When am I at my lowest? Selfish, inconsiderate, bored, envious, whiny, unproductive, not contributing or doing anything interesting, too much unstructured time, out of physical balance, no direction or purpose, making life difficult for other people, stuck and unhappy. What else?
Let’s not be our worst selves. Let’s not live the worst version of our lives, okay? If we’re ever going to make the world a better place, we’ll do it by always looking up to at least a slightly higher standard.
Downsizing is like dieting. You can only cut your calories so much, and you can only get rid of every single thing you own. It stops at zero, or close to it. The other thing that dieting and downsizing have in common is that they shouldn’t be done in perpetuity. The goal is a temporary, radical refocus. Transformation can happen quickly, or it can turn into a process that grinds on for years - or forever. I’m down with downsizing, in the sense that it can be revolutionary in its positive effects. I also say, “Down with downsizing!” We should be done with it. Once we make the decision to streamline our possessions, it’s best to do it quickly and get it over with.
Focus on what you want for your personal living space. Focus on the emotions and the experience of living in it, not on the stuff. One person will want a lively social space, and another will want a tranquil hideaway. One person will want a formal and elegant showpiece, while another will want a warm and kooky reflection of idiosyncrasy. It’s awfully hard to pull off all of these looks in one room.
What I want in my space is something comforting, welcoming, functional, and geared toward maximum mental bandwidth. This is easiest with bare surfaces and a comfy couch. We don’t need much in the way of decorations or knickknacks. There’s something about a dog chasing his tail and a parrot tossing things on the floor that does a pretty good job of conveying a relaxed atmosphere.
We live in a shoebox. Not a literal shoebox, of course! Many people, both men and women, have so many pairs of shoes that parts of their homes could fairly be described as a shoebox. What else is the purpose of such a space? In our culture, most people’s rooms are chock-full of stuff. Kitchen stuff! Garage stuff! Clothes stuff! Bulk stuff! Paper stuff! Stuff and stuff! This is the natural result of shopping and buying anything that seems like a good idea. Flip it around and start with the empty room. What do you intend to do in this room? How about this one? Add only the furniture and items that directly serve that purpose. Then stop. This is how two people and two messy pets can manage to live comfortably in a 612-square-foot studio apartment with a single closet.
In a very full, extremely maximalist, cluttered standard American home, assume that all of it is completely unnecessary. Set your heart on eliminating all of it. All of it. The pieces that really need to stay will argue for themselves. You could downsize to the point that you would be done, and with the right mindset, you could be done in a long weekend.
I’ve written before about how a friend of mine just took the few things he needed for his new apartment, and then advertised on Craigslist for people to come and carry away everything that was left over in his old place. He was done in half a day.
There’s actually a huge amount of stuff in my apartment. If I took a complete inventory, it would number in the thousands. Clothes and towels and tools and textbooks and kitchen gadgets and cleansers and clothespins and rubber bands and paper sacks and pens. If I took everything that belongs to the dog and the bird, it would fill the trunk of a car. What makes it work is that almost every object we own fits in a cabinet or a drawer. We don’t “stock up” on stuff anymore. Most people’s clutter and extra stuff consists of mountains of clothes, drifts of unnecessary paper, stockpiles of food, and stacks of entertainment media. Buy groceries for just a week at a time, go paperless, digitize everything, and keep just enough clothes for two or three weeks. Suddenly truckloads of stuff seem to vanish.
It’s literally truckloads, if you don’t already know this. When I used to do home visits, we’d get rid of six truckloads on the first day. It used to astonish me the way that this happened over and over again. Then I realized that that’s just how much extra stuff can fit in a typical suburban house. That’s how much can accumulate in roughly ten years, ten years when nobody is doing regular clutter purges or letting anything go.
Living with tons of extra, unnecessary stuff is like trying to participate in three conversations at once. It’s like watching a movie with the radio on in the background. It’s like eating two dinners in one sitting. You can, but why would you want to? Living in a space that’s always full, a space with no clear surfaces or free shelf space, is a constant energy drain. Every time you want to make toast or set down a shopping bag, there’s something in the way. It’s like driving around town with a Christmas tree in the back seat, limbs and needles poking into the front seat. You get used to it and forget that these objects are just temporary interlopers. They can go out as easily as they came in. They’re here to be used, used up, and passed on.
Embracing minimalism is a one-time decision. You just sit up, realize that life could be easier, and look around. Almost everything you see is sitting there, mutely declaring its irrelevance to the simple, straightforward life you wish you had. Why do I even HAVE this? You start to realize how nice it would be to have all the money you ever spent on stuff you wound up ignoring, not using it because you never even really wanted it. It’s just there.
If I had it all to do over again, I’d start with my plans for my money and my time. I’d spend more time talking to friends, reading, sleeping, doing yoga, trying new recipes, and maybe learning a new language or musical instrument. That’s time I’d reclaim from shopping or sorting and “organizing” my stuff. I’d spend less time crying about my bills and my finances, because the stuff I never bought would have given me a respectable buffer of cash. If I had it to do all over again, I would say, “Down with downsizing!” I’d never have needed to do it because I never would have had too much. All we ever really need is love and peace of mind, and those are two things we would never want to downsize.
Clothes piled on the bed, shoes kicked across the floor, already late for the event, and still you feel: I DON’T KNOW WHAT TO WEAR! Relatable? This is a very common issue. Uncertainty about what to wear on different occasions leads directly to accumulating more clothes, which only makes the situation more complicated next time. Let’s get into what we’re signaling with our wardrobes, and how we can feel more confident in our choices.
We’re most likely to get spun up about what to wear when we’re going to meet unfamiliar people, in an unfamiliar setting, and perhaps at an unfamiliar type of event. Why, though? If these are people we aren’t going to see often, a place we might never visit again, or a type of event we don’t usually attend, then why would it matter? We allow ourselves to fret about WHAT THEY’LL THINK (whoever ‘they’ are) because only after the event is over will we know how we fit in.
I once attended an evening wedding in New York. It had ice sculptures. I dressed up, making my best effort in a floral-print linen sundress with sandals. As soon as I walked in, I understood that I’d gotten it wrong, because the other women were in evening looks with satin dresses and heels. I had no idea what a blowout was, nor was I wearing makeup. What happened? I shared a table with my date and a nice couple who kept us laughing all night. The bride and groom are still my close friends, and we’ve been on vacation together a couple times. (In fact even my date has been out to visit, because we’re still in touch). As far as I know, I never saw any of the other guests again.
I walked away with a pretty clear image of how to dress for a formal evening occasion. I knew right away that I could have picked up an appropriate dress at Goodwill for $15, and nobody would have known. In fact, I can repeat a special-occasion outfit at multiple events, because my husband doesn’t care and nobody else will notice.
The longer we take to get ready, the less satisfied we are with our appearance. That’s what research says, anyway. It makes sense to me. It takes me about ten minutes to “get ready” and leave the house, half an hour if I’m doing the full Las-Vegas-nights routine. If someone doesn’t like how I look, then great! Someone that shallow and superficial will stay clear of me, leaving me free to have interesting conversations with people who have their priorities straight. People value my company for my sense of humor, storytelling, and ability to be a good listener. None of those qualities has anything to do with physical appearance. On the contrary. If I looked too polished, maybe nobody would believe I could be a good listener or a funny storyteller.
What are we signaling with our clothing choices?
Friendly / aloof?
Relaxed / fussy?
Competent / wacky?
Professional / casual?
Married / single?
Stressed / happy?
It seems like one of the strongest style statements that many people make with their casual wardrobe is what type of music they’re into. Rocker, country, punk, skater, raver, goth, and I’m sure many others I’m too tragically unhip to recognize. We know who we are when we put on casual clothes. We’re only wearing the stuff we trust to fit and be comfortable. We’re signaling a bit about ourselves, enough that someone who’s into the same style might approach us and strike up a conversation. That’s how I met a guy at the cafe who was willing to answer a few questions about jiu jitsu for me - his t-shirt advertised it. Maybe it doesn’t matter at all what you wear on casual days; I’ve seen people out in public wearing everything from pajamas to bikinis to, a couple times, nothing at all.
We feel more out of our depth when we’ve been invited to a wedding, party, or job interview, am I right?
This is what people do to make their clothing choices more difficult.
Keep everything, even when it doesn’t fit
Keep everything, even though it NEVER fit and the tags are still on it
Keep everything, no matter how old it is
Keep everything, even if it’s stained or full of holes and the unworn clothes aren’t
Keep everything, even if it’s scratchy or uncomfortable
Keep everything, even if it doesn’t go with a single other item and there’s no way to wear it
Keep shoes that cause blisters and actual bleeding
Buy things because of their price, not how they fit or how they look
Buy things out of obligation or guilt, not wanting to disappoint the sales clerk
Decide on garments individually, not on how they play into the wardrobe as a whole
Having hundreds of garments in every cut, style, color, and print, and several sizes, can only send inconsistent signals. Wearing clothes that don’t fit, or combining items that are too tight and too loose, doesn’t send a clear signal, except maybe [does not use a full-length mirror]. Limping from impractical shoes, tugging things into place over and over, makes people worry if you’re okay. Showing up late because of one too many head-to-toe outfit changes makes you look, at best, frazzled, and at worst, inconsiderate. All you really need is something clean and a warm smile.
My entire wardrobe fits into two suitcases. This is because I only feel like I need a few changes of clothes for each of my different roles. Casual summer, casual winter. Business casual summer, business casual winter. Workout summer, workout winter. Camping clothes. A few cocktail dresses. Boom, done. When I get tired of something or it gets worn out, I replace it with something else. I had to replace my entire wardrobe when I reached my goal weight, and since I’ve settled into one clothing size, I’ve been able to figure out how a capsule wardrobe works. Every single thing I own:
Works with at least three other items
Can be machine-washed and, mostly, machine-dried
This is why I’m confident when I walk out the door. I’ve made my choices in advance, and I’m wearing things I’ve worn many times. I also choose where I go or don’t go, and it’s very rare that I would feel obligated to go somewhere where I wasn’t sure how I fit in. Mostly, I feel confident enough in my social skills (now) that people are a lot more likely to remember what I said than how I looked.
I’m trying to send a few clear messages with my wardrobe
OMG A GUY JUST LEANED OVER AND TOLD ME: “YOU LOOK GREAT”
(I’m married, and not looking for male attention, but it was funny that it happened while I was writing about clothes and appearance).
I’m trying to send a few clear messages with my wardrobe, namely: Married, friendly, competent, smart, entrepreneurial. There are other signals I can’t do much about, such as: middle-aged, fit, Western, distractible, more eccentric than I wish I were. When I decide whether to buy new clothes, I can ask, Does this send the message I want to send?
I look like myself, just like you probably look like yourself. (Unless you’re trapped in a work uniform). Sooner or later, the people around us will figure out what we’re like. Core personality shines through eventually. We should focus more on what kind of friendship we can offer and what roles we’d like to play in life, and less on WHAT THEY’LL THINK about how we look.
‘Radioactive’ is definitely how I would describe my inbox some days. You know when you’re trying to get caught up, and every time you delete something, the window refreshes and three more messages come in behind it? It’s metastasizing! I set a date to fight my way back to Inbox Zero, and this image came to me. In the endless search for a form of novelty that will inspire me through another day of drudgery, I came up with a little game.
Look at the total number of messages in your inbox. Write it down.
Vow that you’ll cut that number in half over the next hour. What will that number be?
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half again.
In the next hour, you’ll cut it in half yet again.
(My husband points out that with a half-life, you never really get to zero, but let’s call it close enough).
Start with the easy stuff, just like you answer the easy questions first on a timed test. Gradually work your way through the middle, and save the complicated stuff for last. The easiest decisions get the least time, and the tougher stuff that needs your full concentration gets the most.
The logic behind this is that not all messages are equally salient, even though they look like they are. One of the worst features of email is that everything gets an identical line, no matter how long the message is, who it’s from, how important it is, how many attachments it has, or how long it’s been hanging around. It’s not obvious which messages are most deserving of our attention. The bulk junk buries the valuable stuff, just like junk paper mail can pile up and obscure our bills, checks, and gift cards.
The half-life method presumes that the more messages you have, the more likely the majority of them are relatively unimportant. If they really were both important and urgent, the senders would have found another way to track you down, either by phone, certified mail, or Men in Black knocking on your door.
Let me pause and say that it’s pretty common these days for people to have thousands of unopened emails. I’ve heard numbers above ten thousand from several people. Not only that, but those with the largest backlog tend to have extra accounts which are also filling up. It’s like maxing out a credit card and opening a new one.
Back in the Nineties, if you had more than a certain amount of email in your inbox, it would FILL UP. Anyone who sent you anything would get a message that it had bounced back. Two things fixed that problem: social media, and the advent of ludicrous amounts of free storage. You can have a gigabyte of mail now, no problem. That was technologically impossible twenty years ago.
Also back in the Nineties, if you got email at all, it was almost guaranteed to be from a personal friend. You looked forward to it. Maybe, every now and then, there might even be an attached digital photo, just for you.
Now, almost all mail is bulk junk. Every possible brand wants you to sign up at every possible transaction. They try to bribe you with a discount or a coupon. Then, each and every one of them sends you at least one message, each and every day.
The worst are the political lists that will send fundraising email as often as three to five times a day.
Everyone is battling for the top spot in your mental bandwidth, trying to flag down your attention, not realizing that they’re contributing to the problem. It’s like when one person stands up at the stadium and blocks the view of everyone in the back.
Here’s how to blast through the detritus:
If you can’t bring yourself to unsubscribe or delete thousands of messages, you can move them to a folder for “later.”
An overflowing inbox is solid proof that you’re receiving more than you can process.
I do my daily unsubscribe while paying attention to something else, generally an audio book or podcast. Along with that, I get several news roundups. I go through those by clicking the links and bookmarking the relevant articles, then deleting the email.
This is where the second round of processing starts. The easiest layer to eliminate is stuff that’s expired. In my inbox, that’s coupons from Lyft and a couple of restaurants, notifications of upcoming concerts, and invitations to other events that I won’t be attending. Next are things that are relevant and interesting, but don’t need a response. Usually we’re saving them because we need to record a piece of information.
See that it takes slightly longer to do this administrative stuff, but it often can be done while doing something entertaining in the background.
After this second layer, there will start to be messages that deserve a response. They can be complicated for several reasons. It can actually help to sort these by WHY they need more time and effort:
Often, with the difficult under-layer, it can help to switch channels. Just because a message came through email does not mean an email response is required. Much of the time, it can be easier to pick up the phone and have a discussion. What might have taken half an hour by email, resulting in half a dozen messages back and forth, could often be resolved with a three-minute phone call. Of course, many of us dread business calls even more than we dread email. The impending threat of a phone call, in this case, may be enough to motivate us to type out a reply. Anything to avoid voice contact, or, worse, a voicemail.
When I don’t know what to do or how to handle a question, like in a stuck plot point, I will write a list of what I don’t know. What piece of information would make this clear? It’s totally fair to reply to a confusing message with a question, or even a bullet-pointed list of questions.
It’s also legit to dash off a quick reply to someone, saying, “I miss you. Sorry I haven’t written back.” If you have a social email from someone you want to stay in better touch with, maybe write back in a format that you prefer. Text message? Chat? Meet in person? Remember that “the phone works both ways” and if this person has been content to wait weeks, months, or years without hearing from you, then maybe they haven’t been sobbing through a roll of paper towels awaiting your reply. Lower the emotional bar if that makes it easier.
The last-ditch method for dealing with an out-of-control inbox is to tell someone. Find a buddy. Agree that you and your accomplice will sit together and blast through your backlogs together. Maybe you can even switch seats and write some of each other’s replies, or help identify obsolete stuff.
There’s also always “email bankruptcy.” Just delete everything and email everyone you know, asking to re-send anything that was truly important. Many of us feel like we could never get away with that, but honestly, is it worse for your reputation than ignoring unopened messages entirely?
My rough bottom-of-the-barrel day started with sixteen messages. Using the half-life method, that would be eight in the first hour, four in the second hour, and two in the third. About eight minutes per message in the first round, fifteen minutes per message in the second round, and half an hour for the last two. Considering that these messages included forms, polls, spreadsheets, slide shows, meeting invites, and a list of phone calls, it worked out that this was a pretty solid estimate.
If only I hadn’t received eleven more messages during that time slot...
The reason there aren’t more chronic procrastinators is that we tend to fall into one of three categories when it comes to projects. Finishers, maintainers, and initiators, we tend to fit in one of these groups the majority of the time. The Finishing Game is aimed at initiators because we’re the fun ones.
Finishers like to get things done. They chase the feeling of accomplishment. Finishers will add an item to a to-do list just to feel the satisfaction of crossing it off, even if the item was extremely minor and inconsequential. Finishers also like to boss other people around, trying to get them to finish their projects, even if those projects are nowhere near the circle of influence of the finisher. A finisher may feel organized and in control - because that’s the central goal, after all - while never really moving forward in life or doing anything cool. Finish alphabetizing your socks, and then what?
Maintainers like to get through the day on autopilot. There’s a comfort in routine. I have a friend who has turned down opportunities for promotions at work (read: tens of thousands of dollars of extra income) because his current position allows him to listen to podcasts while he works. I have also had coworkers who would get marked down every year in their annual review because they had no goals for advancement. One wailed, “I don’t want a promotion! I just want to come in, work, and go home for the day.” It’s pretty common, and smart, for someone to realize that a promotion would result in a lifestyle downgrade. When you’re salaried, you usually don’t qualify for overtime. Is it worth giving up your weekends? That’s a question of overall life philosophy. A maintainer at home is likely to be more interested in the process of a hobby than in the finished product. Not so much “I want a knit cap” as “I love to knit.”
My own knitting languished at the same level for several years, until I forced myself to learn to understand knitting diagrams and teach myself at least one new stitch for every project. Suddenly I vaulted from basic k1 scarves to hats, socks, and pose-able toy animals.
Initiators like three things: planning projects, shopping for materials, and learning new things. As soon as we see a path to completion, we tend to lose interest. The vast scale of our daydreams quickly turns into the harsh realization that we’ll be working on this darn thing for months, maybe years! Actually finishing one of our grand creative edifices also eats into the time we’d set aside for our other 87 projects. Finishing all of them? ALL of them?? Why, that would take up years! Years I fully intend to spend dreaming up yet grander, wilder, fancier projects!
The truth is that we’re not obligated to finish past projects. We’re not obligated to finish every book we’ve started or purchased. We’re not obligated to pick out stitches for hours and re-do our work. We’re not obligated to finish projects, even when we’d earmarked them as gifts, especially when those gifts are ages past the occasion for which we’d planned them.
I bought materials for a dollhouse once. I relocated with those materials SIX TIMES before leaning on my husband to help me build it. The kids who were supposed to get it were near college-age at that point. It went to a child who had not even been born when I first saw the plans. (Fortunately, I never told the other kids, or their parents, that I was planning this awesome gift for them).
As dreamers, we’re most into the process of exploration. We’re planners and designers more than we are artisans or producers. The architect, not the carpenter; the engineer, not the mechanic. We’re never going to stop learning new skills, improving our abilities, refining our aesthetic. Because of this, guess what?
A lot of our earlier project “commitments” aren’t worth finishing.
Just because we once decided that something would be a good idea to make, does not mean that this is still true.
Just because we’ve put hours of work into something, does not mean that it would be worth finishing.
Just because an idea once popped into existence somewhere in the ether, does not mean it’s worth bringing it into physical form.
An example of this would be a wedding sampler I began for a dear old friend. I made a mistake on it and put it aside, planning to pick out those stitches on another day. Years later, it still hadn’t gotten done. But guess what? That marriage didn’t survive. When I was culling my old projects, I realized that that $1 piece of aida cloth had about 50 stitches on it, and the design was seriously dated. I threw it in the trash.
Yep. I really did. I threw an unfinished craft project IN THE GARBAGE.
It was biodegradable. It turns out we can do this. There are no project police. Nobody comes for you and hauls you to a dungeon if you quit working on something. You don’t even have to declare bankruptcy if you trash $5 worth of materials.
Culling old projects that have become irrelevant or have lost their luster is the only way to reclaim the energy to finish the good ones. Beyond this, it turns out that waking up to a clean slate with no unfinished projects unleashes an astonishing wave of creative energy and power. No guilt, no boredom, no nagging reminders, nothing. We don’t owe any of our free time to anyone. To ourselves we owe the ability to live in the present moment, without bits of our attention snagged on obsolete past choices.
At some point in the year 2000, I decided to use up all of my accumulated materials and try to finish my existing projects before starting anything new. I wasn’t perfect in implementing this, but I did stop buying attractive yarn or fabric or kits without a very specific project in mind. I went through my stockpile several times, giving away bags of stuff, throwing away bits and scraps, questioning whether I still wanted to make stuff that had appealed to me years earlier. I chose to finish many of the projects in my burgeoning work basket.
IT TOOK TEN YEARS.
Now I’m still crafty. I still have all the skills I ever had. If I wanted to make a pair of baby booties, I could do it this week. I just don’t have any yarn or knitting stuff in my home anymore, not so much as a pair of straights or a set of DPs. As a writer, I can go through my folder of notes and start on anything in there at any time, in the full knowledge that I already have too many ideas to complete in one lifetime. Inspiration is not obligation. This one lifetime is for me to live and enjoy, not to thrash myself because I am more likely to invent new ideas than to carve them into reality.
The Finishing Game works like this:
What will you do when you’ve finished everything? What will you do when you no longer have a towering pile of incompletion in your life? What I did was to run a marathon and learn enough of a foreign language to travel around, buying train tickets and getting directions. What would be more interesting, more challenging, and more fun than the never-ending to-do list?
Churning is a favorite activity of my people, the chronically disorganized and the compulsive accumulators. What it means is that someone is constantly sorting, handling, relocating, or “organizing” their possessions. Often this is done under the guise of downsizing, minimalism, or frugality. Churning might involve donating a lot of bags of stuff to the thrift store, and then going inside and buying more. It can look like someone is making serious efforts to streamline their home. What’s really going on is a cover story, a reason to spend even more time interacting with physical objects than usual.
The root of hoarding is the deep-seated belief that stuff is “worth something.” Some of it is there because there’s a story behind it; it represents a memory or a relationship. Some of it is there because the owner really likes it, likes to look at it or play with it. Some of it is there out of scarcity thinking, the belief that “I can’t afford” to wait and buy something later, that “they don’t make them like this anymore,” or fear of not having enough. Some of it is there because it represents the owner’s self-image, something flattering like ‘artist’ or ‘intellectual’ or ‘thrifty homemaker’ or ‘chef.’ Underneath all of this is a fundamental preference for interacting with inanimate objects rather than human beings.
Churning isn’t obvious or overt. Someone doesn’t tend to say, I’m going to spend the day touching and playing with my craft supplies or my clothes. We say it’s time to get organized, or we think we’re doing the “full KonMari.” In fact, my people tend to adore the KonMari method because it means more time folding tea towels or rolling socks, and that’s more time in Stuff Land. My stuff, my stuff, all my great stuff!
From the minimalist perspective, you only really need to Get Organized once, when you move in to a new place. Everything you own is there for an obvious reason, and it’s obvious where to put it. There’s plenty of room because when you don’t shop for recreation, you don’t need much. Kitchen utensils and dishes go in the kitchen. Towels go on the shelf, for those of us who don’t have a linen closet. Clothes go in the closet. After you’ve figured out how to align your furniture, well, you’re done.
Then you eventually move to a new place. It’s time to pack. You look around at your stuff, realize there are things you haven’t used since the last time you moved, and you get rid of some more. Maybe 10% per move? Then you pack everything up and move it into the new place. As you unpack, maybe a few things don’t fit, like a picture that doesn’t match the new color scheme or an appliance that won’t fit in a cabinet. You shrug and dedicate a few moving boxes to charity. Out it goes, and now you’re living in a new home with even less stuff than you had before. The less you own, the less time you spend interacting with your things.
What do you do instead of churning your stuff? Talk to your friends, spend time in nature, play with your pets or your friends’ pets, get to know your neighbors, go to community events, volunteer, take up new hobbies, work out, make art, get promoted at work, lie on your bed listening to music, or whatever you want to do.
As an example, the kitchen in my studio apartment is stupidly small. I have one square foot of counter space for cooking and only half the cabinet space I’ve ever had before. We don’t even have a cupboard for food; we keep flour and other pantry staples in the refrigerator. There’s one lonely can of soup in the half-cabinet above the microwave, where we keep our cooking oil and salt. I still have a set of baking pans from our newlywed house. They have to fit in the cabinet above the refrigerator, though! Neatly stacked up there are all the cake pans, muffin tins, loaf pans, sifter, and even the electric mixer. I used to always use that space for holiday stuff like my cake stand, gravy boat, and platters that only came out for Thanksgiving. In the past, I had to ask myself why I would keep anything that only gets used three or four days a year. Today, well, keeping anything like that isn’t even an option.
Churning tends to happen when there is more stuff than storage space. People are often churning their stuff to try to make room. Take the average bookcase. Who do you know who is an avid reader, who also regularly unloads books to have an empty shelf? Nobody? I do know readers who will take a carload to the used bookstore now and then, but it tends to bring their shelf capacity from, say, 150% to 100%. It’s only when they start getting double-parked (or should I say, double-BOOKED) on the shelves, or stacked up on the nightstand and the floor, that urgent action feels required.
Personally, I like to have a free shelf available for library books.
Here are some questions to ask if you realize you’ve been spending your one precious life churning your stuff over and over:
What does ‘done’ look like?
What do I want for this room, for this space?
When will this be done?
What do I spend more time doing, making crafts or shopping for craft supplies?
Do I have a free shelf?
Do I have a free workspace with at least one square foot available at all times?
Can I use all my counters, tabletops, and chairs?
What would I do with my time if I won the chance to live rent-free for life in a five-star hotel, never had to cook or clean again, but everything I brought had to fit in two suitcases?
I’m about to churn my stuff again. We’re heading into autumn, and I always go through every shelf and cabinet before the New Year. Our lease will also be up in a few months, and as usual, they’re going to try to raise our rent. A move is probably in our near-term future. I’d like to bring as few things with us as possible. As it turns out, we need and use very little. If we spend most of our time either working or being together with our pets, friends, and family, why would we think we need so much stuff? Let what we have serve us, rather than the reverse. Let it stand at the ready, with no demands on our free time to clean it, organize it, move it, or especially not churn it.
I used to live in Santa Rosa. Areas where I lived, worked, rode my bike, ate lunch, and visited friends burned flat last year, and the same region recently came under threat again. The photos and videos of devastation are heart-wrenching and chilling. Whenever something like this happens, there are two things we can do. We can try to help, and we can review our emergency preparedness. Every person who gets out quickly is one less person for emergency responders to rescue, and one more person who can volunteer. Channeling our feelings of helplessness and sorrow into a plan of action may never be truly necessary - but it might.
One way of doing this is to make our emotional decisions now, while everything is fine, so that if a crisis does happen, we’re not distracted into foolish or deadly attempts to save our stuff.
People, then animals, then things.
Not everyone made it out of the Sonoma County fire alive. That’s because the fires sprang up so quickly and spread so far and fast that not everyone could outrun them. If you’ve ever spoken with someone who fled a wildfire, there is no time. THERE IS NO TIME. There is no time to wander around flapping one’s hands and trying to load up a bunch of bags and boxes of memorabilia. Every single time there is a natural disaster or catastrophe of some kind, people panic and start trying to bring all their favorite stuff. Just assume that if you do this, a firefighter will die. Let it go.
Most of us are in a good enough headspace that we can accept that yes, we might lose our homes and appliances and all our worldly goods. Some of us have already lived through such an event. A trauma like that is often a moment of crux, when we realize that we really are lucky to be alive and that if our loved ones are okay, then we’re okay. We realize that stuff is just stuff, and that we’re fine without it. Others go through a trauma and “lose everything” (read: material goods) and become ultra-attached to their belongings from that point forward.
What does it mean to “lose everything”? This expression makes me think of Alzheimer’s disease. You lose your memories, you lose your ability to recognize even your closest friends and relatives, you lose all your skills. You lose your vocabulary and your ability to read. You lose your ability to care for yourself or be safely alone even for brief periods. You lose your ability to understand what’s going on, so that even a routine doctor visit becomes confusing and terrifying. This is my definition of “losing everything.” I think about it a lot because it runs in my family and I worry it will happen to me.
This is when I start thinking about photographs. When my Nana was in the advanced stages of Alzheimer’s, old photographs were one of the few things she still understood. Pictures can have meaning.
Not just photos, really, but other memorabilia, too. Anything that exists as only one copy, anything that is richly saturated with memory and legacy, anything that rightfully “belongs” to an entire family. These are items that can be preserved and stored in multiple copies in case anything happens.
Anything: anything at all. Fire, flood, mold, theft, termites, anything.
Not every photo is deeply meaningful. I tend to keep a dozen nearly identical versions of family photos, deleting only the ones in which someone’s eyes are closed. I must have thousands of family photos from the advent of the digital camera. No, I know I do! I have thousands per vacation or wedding! Many of these are landscape shots. Back in the days when we bought film by the roll, a dozen photos might cover a period of two or three years. Preserving photos takes some curation and editorial decisions, especially because we probably have more photographs than the rest of our possessions combined.
The best way to do this is to send digital copies of important family photos to every family member. Then it’s a simple matter of sending copies back if someone’s hard drive crashes or a hotel sprinkler goes off.
Older, print photos can be scanned too. My husband’s photo albums from the Seventies have started to deteriorate; the glue on the pages has become brittle and the photos have started to fall out. Others have stuck to the pages or to the glass of picture frames, causing them to tear if we try to remove them. In my organizing work I’ve seen entire bags of photographs pancaked and stuck together by moisture, moldy and ruined. Photographs do not last forever. The work of redundancy may do more to protect photos against ordinary entropy than against catastrophic loss.
Many people find that taking a picture of a sentimental item creates enough of a record to allow the original item to be released. Children’s artwork, trophies, worn-out concert t-shirts, lucky running shoes, old quilts or afghans, all of this stuff could potentially be digitized. The memory is preserved and the relic can be let go for recycling.
As an historian, the idea of families recording the artifacts of their daily lives is really interesting. I’d love to see decades’ worth of family albums recording the layout of furniture in each room, pictures of favorite family meals, pet beds, and all the other stuff that usually fades into the background. What I would not want to see would be family genealogies recording the deaths of people who ran back into a burning house in a foolhardy attempt to drag out a paper photo album.
Fall and winter are good times of year to sort and scan photos. At least in the Northern Hemisphere, the weather is cold and wet and the days are shorter. We can bundle up, drink cocoa, and look through old prints. As the various holidays come up, we can share albums with friends and family. We can do the emotional homework of detaching from material objects and making stronger connections to our beloved people and pets. Let us be grateful that we have these bright spots in our lives. Let us be grateful that we have the comfort and leisure to preserve our memories today.
There are some predictable moments in working with people who are chronically disorganized. They never believe me, even when I tell them in advance, and they’re quite sure it won’t happen to them, until it does.
What’s the deal with keeping stuff even when it’s gross? Even when it obviously hasn’t been used and isn’t necessary to begin with?
There are a lot of reasons behind this. One of these reasons is enough, but often several of them come into play.
Lack of situational awareness; clutter blindness. My people stop seeing their surroundings and genuinely don’t realize how it looks or smells anymore. It’s like they’re going through life with a blindfold on and just peeking through the gaps by their nose.
Disbelief in germ theory. Even when they’re clearly suffering with constant respiratory problems, lethargy, sleep problems, low immune system, or mysterious gastric symptoms, my people don’t make the connection with their personal environment. Of course the wet black mold can’t have anything to do with my breathing problems! Of course the scary fridge can’t have anything to do with my chronic stomach problems! Just because you walked in and had a ten-minute sneezing fit doesn’t mean the dust is affecting any of us who live here. What my people think is that their state of poor health keeps them from doing any housework, rather than the reverse, which is that their home is making them ill.
Grief. People who are grieving often stay stuck that way for years or decades on end. Anything in the home that was associated with the bereavement will stay that way. Gifts from the deceased, unsorted boxes from the home of the deceased, entire chronological layers from that time period, all will stay the way it was left in that bad year. Touching or moving any of it will set off a fresh wave of grief. Grief is usually what sets off hoarding.
Scarcity mindset. The desire to be constantly surrounded by as much stuff as possible, because it feels like this is all we’ll ever have. We can’t get rid of anything, even expired food we’ll never eat or expired cosmetics that would cause a skin infection, because it’s wasteful. Spending more than we can afford on more than we can use perpetuates that feeling of being broke and deprived.
Emotional attachment. The item represents a memory or a relationship. Getting rid of anything that represents a memory is like deleting the memory... isn’t it? Won’t I immediately forget everything associated with this if I ever let it go? This was a gift! Isn’t letting go of it exactly like permanently severing the relationship?
Anthropomorphism, or, believing deep down that inanimate objects have souls and emotions. Getting rid of something will hurt its feelings. What an unforgivable insult! Subconsciously, lonely people identify with their stuff as neglected and unwanted, therefore deserving of sympathy.
Simple greed and materialism. This is where what I call stuff-stroking originates. Pretty, pretty, shiny! Ooh, all my nice nice things. Many people have an easier time interacting with stuff than they do other human beings, and certainly many of us have an easier time interacting with animals.
Rebellion. Keeping all my stuff is a way of setting boundaries and demonstrating my autonomy. If you suggest that I get rid of something, and I do it, that’s like being your slave and making you the boss of my life. The only way I can prove I’m in charge of my life is by doing the opposite of what anyone asks me to do, even if it makes my life more difficult. Every hill is the hill I want to die on!
Indecision. The worst thing is that feeling of cutting off options. Deciding is like death. WHAT IF I need it later?? I’m so mentally overwhelmed right now, I need a break, and maybe we can make all these decisions later. Or never. Never would be good, too.
Not knowing what to do next. A clear-out is complicated and tends to have a lot of moving parts. Working alone is something I’ll never do. Once you go home, O Organizer, that’s it, this process is grinding to a halt.
Low physical energy. Getting rid of stuff means bending and twisting and lifting. It means looking around and finding things. It means rounding up bags and boxes. It means carrying heavy bags and boxes out to the car or the curb. It means unloading stuff at the donation center. I’m tired, I’m so tired. I can’t.
I’ve seen people keep a lot of gross and weird things. A couch so infested with fleas that nobody would sit on it. Rusted-out leaking cans of expired food. Soggy old phonebooks. It’s very mysterious. It feels like my people genuinely believe this stuff is more important than their own home life. That their weird old stuff is more deserving of space and resources than they are themselves. What I’d like to see is that all of us have enough space to live out our dreams, that we all have enough breathing room. I’d like us to care more about our friends and loved ones than about a bunch of objects.
There are three signs that tip me off, the notifications that the time for fall organizing has arrived. 1. The special aisle of back-to-school supplies; 2. That first breath of cool air showing that the summer heat has broken; 3. The knowledge that THE HOLIDAYS ARE COMING. Getting Organized in September is naturally the thing to do.
Back in the bad old days, everyone focused on spring cleaning because it was too disgusting not to. All winter, heating with coal would leave black dust on everything. You had to wash your actual walls. As soon as the outside temperature got warm enough, everyone would open all the windows, drag the furniture out, beat the rugs, wash the curtains, and wipe down every surface. Imagine everything you own being covered with a film of filth. Ugh. This is one of the many ways in which 21st century life is so much easier.
What most of us have to deal with are simply:
If you have kids (or pets), then there’s also the issue of
[If you don’t have kids, go ahead and skip the next three paragraphs].
If you do have children, back-to-school time is a good marker of a transition in age, size, and activities. Time to go over their clothes, school supplies, books, toys, and maybe even the decorations in their room.
It’s best to start by explaining the concept that things come and go. We use things for a while, and then we can give them away to make room for different things. Our old clothes don’t fit anymore, so we put them in a bag and take them away, and then smaller kids can have a chance to wear them. We don’t play with our baby toys anymore, and so we trade them for big kid toys. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any room! In my experience, children are expert at letting go of stuff they don’t need. Parents *actively train them* to hang on to stuff, to attach emotional significance to things they genuinely didn’t care about. Worse, parents inevitably refuse to let their children get rid of stuff they didn’t want, forcing them to feel guilty for wanting to discard things that were only ever important to the parents and other adults in their life.
It’s unfair to lecture and punish a child for “not cleaning your room” on the one hand, and then refuse to let the child have control over their own possessions and living space. If you want to force them to keep things and live in a guilt museum, then YOU clean their room.
For the rest of us, how much easier it must seem to only have to organize our own stuff! How much easier it is to organize when it’s just adults. How much easier when there are no children’s bedrooms, when nothing needs to be explained or taught to a young person.
What needs to get organized? What does Get Organized even mean, anyway?
This depends on the individual. Most people are disorganized in at least one area, even if they don’t think they are, because that’s the default state when we’re trying to avoid or ignore something important. Mail, finances, writing a will, going to the dentist, car maintenance, finding a new job, sleep schedule, cleaning out the fridge, fitness, electronics, sorting papers and setting up a filing system - any and all of these areas may be chronically disorganized for one person or another.
Getting Organized means having a strategy for your life and setting up your personal environment to support your plans. That’s all.
You’re spending your time doing what you need and want to do. You can get where you need to be a little early each time. You know where all your stuff is. Boom, done.
If you’re a castaway on a deserted island, you’re probably spending all your time looking for fresh water and food, avoiding sunburn, and signaling passing ships. You probably know where your pile of coconuts is. In a survival situation, surely you’re finally Organized at last?
If you’re a modern person living a comfortable life, you’re probably not organized, although there may be coconut products involved. Your car is probably full of clutter and wrappers, you probably have drifts of papers scattered around, your closet is ready to pop, and you probably have shopping bags sitting around with stuff that never got unloaded. It’s just a function of living with all the material objects that are produced in our cultural moment.
You can do the first half of Getting Organized with just a sheet of paper and a pencil. Maybe you can even do it during the process of drinking one beverage of your choice.
To-do lists are more or less useless when they are nothing more than an outlet for mood repair. Making the list is not the same as getting anything done. In fact it’s probably a better idea for most people to do a two-minute task first rather than writing a list. Having a block of time for Getting Things Done, even when those things are unspecified, is better because there’s always something to do. Every day, there are going to be chores of some kind, whether that’s taking out the trash, folding laundry, or handling mail. Doing a little every day means that eventually, you don’t even need a to-do list; you just know what to do, and you do it.
Getting Organized is exactly like Paying Off Debt or Losing Weight in that sense. These are time-limited, finite projects. Eventually they’re done, and you never have to do them again.
If you start at the beginning of September, and you work on one area at a time, a little each day, you can be done before the winter holidays begin. What does “done” mean to you? For me, it would mean being able to host a family meal for Thanksgiving and feeling proud of how pretty everything looks. It always means looking around on New Year’s Eve at a glittering home, and feeling like I have a fresh start on the morning of New Year’s Day. There are four months between now and the New Year, and that’s plenty of time for even the most neglected home to start feeling more like it serves and suits you.
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.