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.
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.