Posts Tagged ‘clutter’

What's Wrong With Loving Your Stuff?

There's a saying in my family, “If one is good, 20 must be better” — and my mother lived according to that credo until her dying day. If she loved it, she bought a lot of it, bought a few more the next trip to the store, then picked up a couple extras just to be safe. While cleaning out, we found at least 100 purses in her closet (many of which hadn't seen the light of day since I was in high school.) She had clothing and shoes that she hadn't been able to wear in 50 years stashed away in her closet. I found paperwork in her filing system that went back to 1954. The craft room was filled with old half-finished projects dating back three decades (my favorite was a bicentennial needlepoint quilt that my mother started in 1976 and kept swearing she would complete “someday” — she might have pulled it out when I was about 12 and added a few stitches, but otherwise, that thing lived in a shopping bag all the way through my childhood until I went to college!) And my mother was never one to pass up a bargain at the supermarket — she could have single-handedly alleviated starvation in a medium-sized third-world country if she had donated her kitchen to the World Hunger Organization (as long as those children in Ethiopia didn't mind freezer burn, overdue expiration dates, and a lot of spam!)

You see, the problem is not just that my mother owned a lot of stuff, but that she owned so much of everything that a good bit of it went bad before she ever had a chance to use it. Three years ago, a neighbor gave my mother several lugs of figs from his tree. She canned them and stored them neatly away on a shelf in her pantry. Well I'm sorry, but a single 77-year-old woman living by herself is never going to be able to eat two dozen jars of figs in any reasonable amount of time — when we finally opened them, they had grown hair and turned moldy. My mother never really understood the concept of “expiration” — she truly thought things would last forever. She would find canned goods on sale at the store and load up, then be surprised to discover that they were no longer edible when she finally opened them 10 years later. We found cans going back to 1998, and ended up throwing out 99% of what was stored in the pantry, fridge, or freezer. In fact, a large part of what my mother had stashed away for use “someday” went in the garbage — dried up paints, melted candles, holiday decorations that had disintegrated in the heat of the attic, clothing that was munched by silverfish, and shoes that had become moldy with disuse. The irony is that my mother hated to waste anything, which is why she kept things forever, magically believing that they would be useful at some point down the road — but instead they just rotted away in storage, which then created more waste. A vicious cycle.

A Fine Line Between Collection And Pathology

So does this mean that my mother was a compulsive hoarder? I don't think so. My mother's biggest problem was “excessive acquisition” — she was a child of the Depression and had spent her formative years going without essential items like milk and shoes and soap powder. So somewhere in the back of her mind, she worried that there might come a day when she would again be without — and she stockpiled to protect herself from that possibility. My mother also derived a great deal of joy from finding a bargain — she figured out that spending less on each purchase meant she could shop more (“need” never really entered into the equation.) It made her incredibly happy to get a $160 brand-name purse for $2 at the thrift store (even when she already had 20 others in the closet at home) — or 3 dozen cans of corn for $1.50 at the “bent and dent” store (even if they were already out of date and would go bad within a month.) My mother's urge to accumulate was like a cancer, a form of self-destructive replication that eventually takes over its host.

But truly compulsive hoarding is a different matter altogether. It goes beyond simple acquisition and into the realm of dysfunction. Real hoarding impairs a person's mobility — these are the folks for whom every flat surface is covered with piles, and they can only get from room to room via a tiny little path carved through the middle. My mother (like 99% of the people I know) had a “junk room” filled with crap she never used, and her active living spaces were quite often messier than I would have liked (again, like 99% of the people I know) — but her home was functional. Pathological hoarding keeps people from being able to use living spaces for their intended purposes, it interferes with a person's daily activities. I've worked with A.D.D., C.D., O.C.D., and hoarding clients who couldn't cook because the stove was piled high with unopened mail, who couldn't shower because the bathtub was full of overflow from the closets, and who slept on the couch because they couldn't find their beds under all the stacks. This was not my mother! And hoarding can often become terminal, when the clutter causes fires or impedes rescue workers from administering aid in the case of an emergency. When paramedics came to take my mother to the hospital, they had no problem getting in or out of the house. I never worried for her safety in her own home — and even in all our cleaning out, we never found a corpse buried under any of the piles. Wink

While it might seem that my mother was resistant to discarding anything (especially if you ask my sister), that's not completely true. She refused to get rid of stuff that she loved or thought she might use (which was a lot more than she really needed) — but she didn't hoard used tin foil or pieces of string or old coffee grounds (she did understand the difference between “trash” and the “good stuff.”) The woman was entirely willing to toss a newspaper once she had finished reading it (but she had so many subscriptions that she was looking at a backlog of 20 year's worth of publications to read “someday.”) And even though it took a long time, once my mother decided that something served no purpose for her, she let it go — last summer, we donated about 10 contractor bags of fabric to the Gee's Bend quilting collective, and at least 20 boxes of books to the local library. In fact, every time I talked to my mother this past year, she was always bagging stuff up for donation or shredding old papers. But it had to be her idea — she would not be forced to clean out before her time (again, like 99% of the people I know!)

I know organizers who would have easily classified my mother as a “level 1 hoarder.” But that diagnosis could be applied to (you guessed it) 99% of the people I know! Seriously, where do you draw the line? I have plenty of friends with collecting fetishes — bibliomaniacs and keepers of the shot glasses and even one woman with a spectacularly expensive assortment of high-end snow globes. And I know plenty of successful people who don't have a horizontal surface that isn't covered with “stuff.” But if the person is functional (pays the bills on time, holds down a job, isn't spending beyond their means or stealing, maintains a basic level of cleanliness, doesn't let the clutter impede personal relationships, and isn't living in a hazardous environment) — then where's the harm? My mother had a rich and full life, was involved in her community and well-loved by friends, and the clutter never really got in the way of that. As my sisters and I said while cleaning out, “At least it made momma happy.” She enjoyed the stuff she used, and she enjoyed the POTENTIAL behind the stuff she never got around to using, and I guess that has to be good enough.

Clear Out The Clutter

Your filing system is a lot like your junk drawer. Every time you find something that you think might be useful, you stash it away. Some of those things come in handy later on — others just take up space. But every once in a while, you have to clear the decks and start fresh with your storage. Now, here's your chance!

Empty every folder out of your file drawer and start by asking yourself if that category is still meaningful and relevant to your life. Completed projects, old client files, and obsolete reference topics may be able to go away. You can then sort through each “keeper” folder and clean out unnecessary and outdated paperwork. Remember, only current and relevant documents should reside in your active files. If you don't use it all the time but might possibly need to refer to that information again in the future, place the item in your archive files. If not, and there is no legal reason for you to keep it, toss or shred.

A New Coat Of Paint

While you've got your file system emptied, take a minute to look at your supplies and see if they pass muster. Are your folders getting old and raggedy, coming apart at the seams and losing their grip on your hanging file rails? Why not replace them with new, clean files. Are your labels a mess? Too many cross-outs and write-overs make it hard to find the folder you need — so get some fresh labels and neatly type or print the correct title for each file. Are your filing cabinets dysfunctional, with dented and hard-to-open drawers? If you have to fight with your cabinet every time you need a document, it's time to consider a replacement.

Also examine your naming convention and make sure that your files are labeled in a way that makes sense. The goal is to start each file with the name of the larger category to which it belongs (ex: utilities), then add on the descriptor that lets you know exactly what paperwork that folder contains (ex: utilities — water or utilities — electric), moving from general to more specific. Color-coding your files and/or labels is another great way to distinguish categories of files from one another.

Put It All Back In Order

Finally, it's time to get each document back in its home. Once you have all of your file folders labeled and placed in the drawer, check around your home or office to see if there are any loose piles of paper sitting out — on a desk, shelf, countertop, or credenza (don't forget to look for homeless papers stuffed into drawers or boxes, as well!) Go through each stack and clear out any junk — papers that you thought might be useful, but now turn out the be outdated, obsolete, or no longer relevant to your interests.

Once you've trimmed the piles down to only what you know you want to keep (and will use in the future), file those papers one-by-one in your existing categories. Don't just ask yourself where it should go, but also where you would LOOK for it when you need that document down the road. And if you don't have an appropriate category (or subcategory) for that item, create a new file.

By the time you are done, every piece of paper should have a home and be easy to locate whenever you need it. If you missed spring this year, don't worry — you can clean up your paper management act any time you need to. Don't put it off until next spring!

A Faster Way To Get It All Done

Most people's days are so filled to overflowing with responsibilities, that there's is almost no way to get it all done in the hours available. Some things (like work and school and appointments) eat up big chunks of your day, and you have little control over when or how they happen. Others can be squeezed in whenever you've got a few free minutes here or there. The trick to successful time management is making effective and productive use of “micro-moments” — little chunks of time scattered throughout your day, in-between the other bigger commitments. Instead of watching TV, why not get something meaningful accomplished? Any time you can cross a to-do off your list during one of these normally “wasted” periods of time, you're one step ahead of the game.
  • wrap and mail a gift you've been meaning to send off
  • pay the bills that have been sitting on the counter waiting for your attention
  • clean out a cabinet or a drawer that's been driving you up the wall
  • repair a ripped hem
  • respond to a couple of emails or return a few phone calls
  • set out your clothes for the next day
  • make tomorrow's lunch today
  • sew a missing button
  • tackle a small home “fix-it” project (tighten a screw, hang a picture, etc.)
  • do the dishes and wipe down the counters
  • run the vacuum or sweep the floor
  • throw a load of laundry in the washer or dryer
  • put away a pile of clutter that's been staring you in the face for too long
  • clean out your purse, briefcase, or backpack
  • read that magazine article or book you haven't had time for
  • schedule an appointment you've been putting off
  • sort through your incoming mail, separating to-do's from trash
  • reorganize your CDs or DVDs in categorical / alphabetical order
  • gather up outdated magazines and newspapers to put in the recycling

See how easy that was? Wink

Examine Your Wardrobe

One source of the problem could be wardrobe clutter. If the clothes you love are hidden in a sea of outfits you never wear, it's going to slow you down in the morning — and having too many options makes it harder to decide what to wear. So the first step is to trim down to only those items you love, wear all the time, and really enjoy.

Start by pulling out everything that no longer fits and asking yourself when you plan to be that size again. You may feel tremendous pressure to be a stick insect,but those too-small clothes only make you feel bad about yourself. And I'm not talking about “someday” —  if you're going to keep something that doesn't fit, you need to have a reasonable goal set for yourself (wishful thinking only creates more clutter). If it isn't going to happen within the next couple of months, it might be time to let go of that size 6 clothing and accept yourself as a beautiful and confident size 10! Also imagine the day that you do shrink back down to the size you were in college — are those outfits still going to be in style, still going to be your style? Probably not.

Now take a look at what's left (accessories, shoes, hats, purses, and jewelry included). I'll bet that your closet still contains some outfits that simply never see the light of day. When it's time to answer the burning question of “what am I going to wear today?” you tend to pass these skirts and pants and blouses over again and again. Why? Well, there's obviously something about them that just doesn't click with you Maybe you hate the color of that lime green jacket, or that skirt is annoying because it always rides up when you sit down, or those shoes pinch after you've had them on for more than an hour, or that pleated pair of pants just makes you feel fat. That's fine — lose them. Life is too short to wear clothes you hate. Everything you own should be flattering, comfortable, and make you feel fabulous. If not, why keep it in your closet?

Finally, some items in your wardrobe are currently unwearable because they require “service.” You might have a pair of pants that needs hemmed or a blouse whose seam has come undone or a pair of shoes whose heels have come loose — set up a “repair/alteration” basket for these injured souls. If you have clothes that need to be professionally cleaned (especially those with stains that require special treatment — like that favorite suit that got a spill on it at a networking lunch, and you haven't been able to wear it since), set up a basket for “dry cleaning”. Then before the week is through, tote your baskets to ONE location that offers both services — get everything taken care of at the same time, and start off next week fresh with a closet full of functional clothes.

Discover Your Natural Beauty

It's easy in this country to become a slave to the cosmetics industry. Advertising tries its best to convince us that if we don't have a 16-step skincare routine, spend an hour a day creating the perfect hairstyle, and engage in a weekly full-body home spa treatment, we're unattractive and poorly groomed. Don't buy into the lie! If all you do in the morning is wash your face, put on some moisturizer, and brush your teeth, you will survive just fine — I promise!

Ladies, let's have a serious heart-to-heart talk here. When it comes to cosmetics, you have to pick your battles — you don't need to look like Tammy Faye every time you walk out of the house. For me, the only two real priorities are lipstick and mascara (my lashes are so blonde they practically disappear). I personally haven't owned blush or foundation or lip liner in years — and I somehow manage to make do with only one shade of  eyeshadow, one eyeliner pencil, and one tube of lipstick. My entire makeup and skincare collection will fit into a single toiletry bag, and I save time and money to boot. To me, that is simplicity.

The problem is that everyone is trying to achieve the current most popular style, but most of us just aren't built to look like Hollywood's hottest celebrities. I learned this lesson early on as a child in the 70's, when I found out that Farrah Faucett's blue eyeshadow and lip gloss and “wings” just didn't translate as well to my curly hair and freckled face (it was a devastating discovery, and it was then that I decided to go my own way in terms of fashion!) I know, I know — we always want what we don't have, and modern technology gives us the ability to change our looks on a whim. Folks with straight hair fry their locks with hot rollers and a curling iron, those with kinky hair use gels and blow dryers to flatten their waves, fair-skinned folks spray on fake tans while darker women use creams to lighten their skin — they say that beauty is 50% illusion, but the other 50%is an investment of time, effort, and money! Some people spend hundreds of hours (and thousands of dollars) attempting to look a way that God never intended. I guess, if that's how you want to use up your precious life energy, it's your choice — but I have better things to do with my day!

I'm one of those folks who can get ready, from jumping in the shower to walking out the door, in about 15 minutes. This wasn't always the case, but over the years, I've decided that I just don't want to waste half my day in the bathroom — I would rather be out there experiencing the world than constantly “preparing” for experiencing the world. The trick to a quick and easy morning routine is finding a style that flatters your natural features with as little effort as possible. It was a great day when I stopped fighting my hair and finallygot the right haircut — now, all I do is put in a little gel, comb itinto place, and let it dry (bye-bye hair dryer!) It also helps if you can stop jumping at every “fad” when it strikes. Just because everyone else is wearing pink lipstick this season, that doesn't mean it will suit you — find your own color palette and you will always be in style, you'll spend less money, and you'll have less clutter on your vanity. Sure it's fine to have a few funky items in your arsenal for playing dress-up — but if you'reputting together a “special occasion” look 7 days a week, you might beworking too hard!

Making Mornings Easier

Finally, take a look at your AM routine and see where you can plan in advance, so your morning isn't quite so hectic. For example, figuring out what you want to wear the next day and laying out your clothes the night before will help you get ready much faster (especially if you tend to hem and haw, taking forever to decide on an outfit.) Don't forget your shoes, purse, jewelry etc. — the accessories can take as much time as the clothes for some people! Then get all of your “take-with-you” paraphernalia together, including paperwork, car keys, briefcase, umbrella, etc. — whatever you need to take with you to work or school. And if you bring your lunch or a snack from home, pack it the night before, put it in the fridge, and leave yourself a sticky-note on the front door, so you don't forget it. Just the bit of time you invest in advance will help you experience less stress the next day.

Another important step folks forget is to review their calendar or planner the night before, so there are no nasty surprises the next day. I can't tell you how many times I either had an early appointment (usually with the dentist) that I forgot, or thought I had a crack-of-dawn meeting  (that I didn't) and bounded out of bed believing I was late (which will totally throw your day off) — until I learned to look at my damned calendar every night! You will sleep better and get up more refreshed in the morning if you go to bed knowing exactly what appointments and to-do's and projects you have ahead of you in the morning.

And if you're the sort of person who runs late because you try to do too much before you leave the house, set some boundaries. Maybe you don't NEED to check your email first thing in the morning — can it wait until you get home? It's not vital that your house be completely spic and span before you head out to work — I'm pretty sure those couple of breakfast dishes in the sink will be just fine, even if you don't wash them until this afternoon. If you want to get more done in the morning, set your alarm an hour earlier and be productive to your heart's content. But also set an alarm telling you when you need to stop and walk out the door — productive stops being efficient when it makes you late for work!

A Faster Way To Get Kids Organized

Contrary to popular belief children were not put on this planet to perpetuate chaos — hell-bent on undoing your housework and leaving piles of clutter trailing behind them. Kids actually thrive on order, but it's not something they can easily maintain until you teach them how — and children have short attention spans, so you can't expect a 6-year-old to stay focused as long as an adult might. You'll get a better response (and your children will experience a greater sense of achievement) if you ask your kids to complete just one small task at a time — something concrete and specific.  With the right action plan, there will be no misunderstanding about what you expect from your offspring, and your kids will soon be picking up after themselves without you even asking! Have your kids:

  • sit down with you to draw up a chore chart for the week
  • help prepare a week's worth of packed lunch “basics” (veggies, cookies, crackers, fruit, etc.)
  • collect up all their scattered pairs of shoes and coats to put away in their closets
  • go around the house, gathering their stray toys from each room into a basket
  • put away any games or toys as soon as play time is over
  • sort their dirty clothes into “whites,” “colors,” and “darks” on laundry day
  • put away their newly cleaned laundry
  • clean out all the broken crayons and used-up paint in their art supplies
  • go through their school supplies and clean out anything they no longer use in class
  • label each of their drawers with a picture of what's stored inside (shirts, pants, undies, socks, etc.)
  • sort their craft paraphernalia into separate tubs (for beads, glitter, markers, construction paper, etc.)
  • pull out any toys that are too childish for them to donate
  • try on last year's school clothes and get rid of what no longer fits
  • go through their art papers and pick only those favorites to hang or put in a scrapbook
  • go through their school papers and pick only those favorites to keep as memorabilia
  • choose their school outfits for the next week
  • gather up everything they need for school the next day and sit it by the front door
  • group their books together by author or type (coloring, picture, story, etc.)
  • put all their CDs, DVDs, and software discs back in the correct cases
  • sort their sports equipment into containers according to the game and label with pictures

See how easy that was? Wink