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25. Clutter in Relationships, Part 2

Friday, October 7th, 2011

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I received this email from a subscriber named Diana.

“What do you do if your spouse doesn’t support your attempts at organization? My spouse keeps everything! We’ve been married for almost 10 years and he still doesn’t like me to organize his areas of the house or his belongings. I find his clutter VERY frustrating, especially in our joint areas. Our bedroom closet is impossible to walk into. His desk (which is in our bedroom) has papers tucked everywhere, including around the monitor. When I clear the clutter from a surface, he puts something on it. The ironic part is that he criticizes when I clutter. My house is a work-in-progress, and his clutter is a discouragement to my own efforts. Do I just leave his mess? HELP!”

Thanks for your email, Diana, and for your permission to discuss it here. This is a great description that illustrates issues of clutter in relationships.

But, before we start, a disclaimer. People are complex, and relationships are complex, and it’s really hard to get a sense of either from a one paragraph email. And although I am a counselor and a graduate of the Interchange Counseling Institute, I am not a licensed therapist. I’ve never met or spoken to you or your husband, and some of what I’m going to say is not even responding directly to your email, but instead is based on my work on this topic with other couples. So, please do not make any major, life-changing decisions based on this post.

So first, let me make sure I understand your email. It sounds like the state of your shared environment is really not working for you. The closet and the desk are a source of frustration every time you see them, and you see them a lot since they are in your bedroom. It sounds like you also feel powerless to do something about it, since your husband doesn’t like you to organize his stuff. You not feeling supported in your efforts to get organized. Clearly, you and your husband are not on the same page. You are not working together but instead are each blaming and criticizing the other for what’s wrong. It sounds like this is been going on for a while and that it’s frustrating for both of you. It’s even devolved into something of a power struggle.

I suggest you try an altogether different approach. Just try it! What have you got to lose? If my suggestion doesn’t work, you can always go back to the way things are now.

Overall, Diana, the strategy that I’m going to recommend to you has three parts:
1. First, clearly understand your goals and motivations as well as those of your partner.
2. Second, brainstorm, with your partner, ways that you can both reach your goals.
3. Third, resolve antagonistic goals through either compromise or segregation.

I know it was just a brief email, and it was never meant to give a complete picture of everything that’s going on, but there are two very important things that are missing. There’s more information that we need to know how to move forward. First, beyond understanding what’s not working, we need a better sense of your vision for how you would like it to be and why. Second, we need to get a sense of your husband’s goals as well. What is his vision for how he would like it to be and why? I don’t know your husband’s name, so I’ll just call him Jim to make it easier to refer to him. Since you and Jim are sharing an environment, it’s not possible for either one of you to do this on your own. There has to be some kind of mutual agreement on how to move forward, on what you want the environment to be like. You must each know your partner’s goals as clearly as you know your own.

And since you are creating an environment with your partner, it’s really useful to explore your goals and to formulate a vision with your partner. And that’s what I invite you to do now. I will describe an exercise that you can do with your partner. This exercise will invite each of you into having a deeper understanding of your own goals as well as those of your partner.

This exercise is an example of a type of exercise called a repeated question. Repeated questions are really useful at facilitating deep exploration of a topic. To start out, choose one of you who will be asking the question, let’s call them person ‘A’, and the other who will be responding, and we’ll call the person who’s responding person ‘R’.

‘A’ will ask, “What do you want?” And ‘R’ will respond truthfully. Then ‘A’ will then ask, “And what will you get from that?” When ‘R’ responds, ‘A’ will ask again, “And what will you get from that?” After every response, person ‘A’ will ask again, “and what will you get from that?” Person ‘A’ will continue asking the same question after every response. ‘R’ will keep responding, striving to have a deeper response than the last time. ‘A’ will keep repeating the question, until ‘R’ feels that they have explored as deeply as they can and that there’s nothing more to say.

A few examples will make it more clear, so here are two examples of what this might look like.

Example #1:

‘A’ ‘R’
What do you want? I want there to be less clutter.
And what will you get from that? Then there will be clear surfaces.
And what will you get from that? Then I’ll feel more relaxed in my office.
And what will you get from that? Then I’ll be more productive.
And what will you get from that? I’ll get more stuff done in less time.
And what will you get from that? I’ll have more free time to do things I enjoy.
And what will you get from that? I’ll be able to spend more time with the kids.
And what will you get from that? I’ll feel like I’m a better father.

Example #2:

‘A’ ‘R’
What do you want? I‘d like to be able to walk into the closet.
And what will you get from that? I’ll be able to access my clothes.
And what will you get from that? I won’t have the infuriating annoyance I face every morning when I’m getting ready for work.
And what will you get from that? I’ll feel like a big weight has been lifted.
And what will you get from that? I’ll feel like I have a partner in creating a functional living space.
And what will you get from that? It’ll relieve a lot of resentment that I feel toward you.
And what will you get from that? I would feel closer to you.

A few more things to know: First, the person asking the questions, person ‘A’, will not say anything else. They will not evaluate the response or suggest answers. They will not give a disapproving grunt. They will just keep asking the questions and listening to the response. Person ‘A’, your goal is to listen and understand what your partner is saying, and the way you listen is important to the success of the exercise. You want to understand what your partner wants even if you don’t want that same thing yourself. For example, if ‘R’ says, “I want the desk to be covered with snow,” you don’t want to be thinking, “that would be too cold, and it might get your papers wet.” You won’t be saying anything other than asking the repeated question, but your attitude should be like “Oh, I didn’t know you wanted the desk covered with snow. That’s interesting.” And, as you ask “what will you get from that?” You’ll get to find out why they want the desk covered with snow. The point is to hear the response with curiosity instead of judgment.

And now to the person who is responding, person ’R’, you are giving your vision of what you want for your environment and how you would benefit from it. At this point, avoid saying what you want from your partner. For example, instead of saying “I want you to clean up your papers,” say instead, “I want the desk to be clear.” Just express your desires without saying specifically how they will be accomplished. That part comes later.

After you do it once, switch roles so that the person who was asking is now responding and vice versa, and do the exercise again in these different roles. Continue switching roles and repeating until each of you has done the exercise at least three or four times both as questioner and as responder. Continue as long as you’re still getting useful information.

This exercise is really great for three reasons. First, it can be quite revealing. If you are both open to digging deep and really exploring, you may find things out about yourself and about your partner that surprise you. Second, you’re learning not only about the surface goals, but the deeper motivations underneath them. For example, in the second example above, the first response given by ‘R’ was that they wanted to be able to walk into the closet, but what they really wanted is to feel closer to their partner. It’s useful to know the deeper goals, because it may help you to become aware of different ways of reaching those goals. For example, maybe there are better ways to feel closer to your partner then organizing the closet. Third, it can help us understand the type of experience we want to have. I believe that we don’t crave stuff. Instead, we crave an experience and we believe that having stuff will help us realize that experience.

For example, Michael keeps a lot of stuff, but he rarely uses much of it himself. But lots of his friends and relatives have learned that Michael has a lot of stuff and they often come to him asking to borrow something that he has. Michael gets a lot of pleasure in being able to offer his stuff other people, and so he gets to experience himself as being generous.

Jerry keeps stuff to use as resources. He wants to feel like he’s prepared for anything that might happen, and so he keeps stuff so that he can have the experience of feeling prepared.

So stuff is often not an end in itself but rather an attempt to have an experience. Similarly, getting organized is often not an end in itself but also an attempt to have an experience, and based on the experience you want to have you might go about getting organized in different ways.

For example, this month I’ve had two clients who wanted help organizing books on their bookshelves. One client, Cathy, is a university professor who uses the books as reference material. Access is really important, so we organized the books in alphabetical order by author. Another client, Abby, has a bookshelf full of books that are never used — they are purely decorative. So for Abby, we put the books on the shelves in a way that looks really nice. It looks nice to have books of all the same height on a given shelf, so the size of the book was the only factor we considered in determining where it should go. They were not sorted or categorized in any way based on their content.

On the surface, both Cathy and Abby have the goal to organize their books, but because they have different motivations for what they wanted from that organization, we go about organizing in a different way. Cathy will now get to have an experience of being efficient and resourceful, of having the information she needs when she needs it. Abby will now get to have an experience of enjoying an environment that is artistic and beautiful.

Especially when organizing with a partner, it’s really helpful to know the deeper goals and motivations because it opens up different possibilities of how you can work together to succeed in reaching the goals that both of you have. The exercise I’m giving you, when done with openness and positive intent, will help you have a deeper understanding of your own motivations as well as those of your partner. If nothing else, it’s still a good starting point for a conversation about how to create a situation that works for both of you.

I invite you to put me on pause and try this exercise with your partner now. [musical interlude]

After you each have a deep and clear understanding of your own goals and motivations, as well as those of your partner, then you can negotiate to see if there’s some way that you can both reach your goals. Can you find an arrangement that feels like a win to both of you? Often this can be achieved. There’s an organization called the Human Awareness Institute, or HAI for short, that offers workshops in intimacy, relationships, and communication. They do great work and I recommend them highly. They wrap up this idea in the following recommendation: “Ask for 100% of what you want, be willing to hear “no,” and then negotiate to find a win-win.

But there are occasionally times when two persons’ goals seem to be contradictory to each other. For example, Jack might say, “I want to have clean, open surfaces because I feel so much more relaxed in that environment.” And Jill might say, “I like to have all the surfaces completely covered, because that’s familiar to me, and I feel safe and comforted in that environment.” Of course one surface can’t be completely clear and completely covered at the same time. But even if the goals are contradictory, there are still ways to find a win-win, and those ways are compromise and segregation.

To compromise is to find a middle ground so that each person at least partially gets their needs met. For example, Jack and Jill might agree to have the surfaces 50% covered, so that hopefully it’s clear enough that it still feels relaxing to him, and covered enough that it still feels comforting to her. The other possibility, segregation, is to divide the environment into different areas and allow each to take ownership of a different space. For example, Jack and Jill may each claim a room of their own. In his room, he can have all surfaces as clear as he wants, and she can have all surfaces in her room as covered as she wants. Some people segregate by actually living in different houses. Segregation can be done on a room by room basis, but can also be done with smaller areas, like tables, closets, even drawers or shelves. When segregating, it often ideal to have some sort of physical boundary between the two areas, to keep one from overflowing into the other, and to visually separate between them.

To summarize, in this podcast we talked about having a deeper understanding of your own as well as your partners goals and motivations, because this will help you work together to find a solution that gives you both what you need. I gave you an exercise that I hope will help you do that. Remember that often our stuff, our habits, and the way we interact with each other is an attempt to have an experience, and ultimately the experience we all want to have is to feel loved and accepted. And finally, even when goals appear to be irreconcilable, we can still find a solution through compromise or segregation.

24. Clutter in Relationships, Part 1

Friday, August 12th, 2011

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I’m really happy to be making this post, because in it I’m combining my two greatest passions: (1) organizing and (2) intimacy and relationships.

Although the word relationship often refers to romantic relationships, I have found that the same concerns about clutter in relationships, can arise in any type of relationship. The relationship in question could be between spouses, between domestic partners, but it could also be between family members, or between housemates or even colleagues at work. It could be any time two or more people have a mutual interest in using a space or the stuff in that space. It could be any time one individual has a concern or interest in the well-being of another, like a daughter wanting to help her father get organized. Although I will use the terms family member, spouse, loved one, or partner, remember that the situations I describe can apply to any type of relationship, romantic or otherwise.

I was inspired to create this post by an email from a subscriber. In part two (coming soon), I will specifically address the email from this listener. But first, I want to give some important background by pointing out something I’ve noticed in the time I’ve worked as a professional organizer. I’ve noticed that sometimes a client will receive a suggestion from me more readily than they will receive the same suggestion from someone they are in relationship with.

I’ll illustrate this with an example. When Marcia said she was ambivalent about a red sweater, I suggested that she donate it, and she readily agreed. Later, her husband Jeremy said that he had been trying to get her to get rid of that sweater for years, but she had always refused. The same suggestion got different results when it came from different people. Why do you think this is?

One possibility is that after years of encouragement from Jeremy, she had reached the point where she was ready to let it go, and would have done so even if he had asked her. Although we can never know for sure, I highly doubt this is the case. Instead, I think there’s something else going on here. Underneath the question of whether the red sweater should stay or go is a whole host of relationship dynamics.

It could be that Marcia knows that Jeremy has an agenda to have her get rid of the red sweater, and so she resists in order to feel a sense of autonomy. It may be her way of feeling in control. If this is the case, then the harder Jeremy tries to get her to ditch it, the more she will resist him. Furthermore, if she ever does agree to donate the sweater, she will feel like she just gave in to him instead of making the decision for herself. She may be resentful. She may even resolve to never give in to Jeremy again, so future decisions may become power struggles.

I readily admit that the scenario I describe is completely made up. I don’t know, I can’t know, what’s going on in Marcia’s head. I’m describing this possibility because these are the sorts of things that affect decision-making. And I do know with certainty that often people can hear suggestions from me more readily than they can hear the same suggestions from a family member.

So why does this matter? It’s important because it can help you be more effective. There are reasons people respond the way they do, and if you understand these reasons, you can be more effective at organizing with them. I have found that there are certain characteristics and attitudes that I have that make me successful at helping people reach their organizing goals, but the point is not to promote myself. The point is to show you that, if you can adopt these attitudes, it will make you more successful as well.

Okay, so there are five reasons people respond differently to me than they respond to their loved ones. Two of these reasons have nothing to do with me, but rather are due to the role I play as a professional organizer, which is different than the role of a family member. Let’s look at these two first.

The first reason people respond differently to me when they do to their loved ones is that I am external to their usual situation. Just the fact that I am not part of their everyday lives helps them to be more objective with me. We have no history, and at the end of the organizing project, I’ll probably go away and I may never see them again. If I judge them — I won’t, but if I did — so what? They would just not invite me back. So there’s less risk with me. But if their spouse judges them, that’s a much bigger deal, because of the ongoing nature of their relationship. There may be a lot of emotional baggage from the past and there are also expectations for the future. This puts more pressure on the interaction and makes it more important that the situation be worked out in a way that is sustainable and equitable.

Sometimes couples get into a situation where the organizing project is all they talk about. The difference in their organizational styles becomes the most important thing in their relationship. Don’t let this happen! Remember that the clutter is just one aspect of your relationship. There are so many parts of your relationship that go beyond it. There are lots of reasons you were drawn to them in the first place. In order to help remember this, I invite you to share appreciations with each other. If you ever get to the point where you’re bogged down in disagreement or a power struggle, that’s the time for each of you to say three things that you appreciate about the other person. It may feel difficult at that moment, but if you try you will be able to do it, and it’ll help broaden your perspective beyond the narrow focus of the clutter challenge.

The second reason people respond differently to me when they respond to their loved ones is that I am an objective expert, with 11 years of experience working with hundreds of clients. They are paying me to overcome some hurdle they’ve had difficulty facing on their own. So they likely have more trust in me than they do their partner because of my experience and professionalism.

So people are generally open to my suggestions just because I’m a professional organizer and because they are hiring me to help them accomplish something. But beyond my professional role — and with this, we are really getting into the heart of the matter. Beyond my professional role, there are attitudes I hold, consciously and deliberately, that make it possible for others to receive my suggestions more objectively. These attitudes are the result of choice, and so they can be adopted by anybody, including those in relationship, including you. You are (most likely) not a professional organizer, so therefore you probably won’t be granted the credibility I am as a professional organizer, but you can adopt and cultivate these three attitudes like I do to help to have a more harmonious relationship with your family member around clutter. In fact, I consider these three attitudes to be the foundation of my effectiveness in working with people and clutter.

Attitude #1: I have no specific agenda. I have no agenda about what should stay or go, and I have no preconceived notion about how their stuff should be arranged. I’m not going to try to convince someone to let go of something they want to keep. I’m not going to insist that someone put all their books on the bookshelf. My only agenda is to help someone reach their goals, and this means that the first step is to have a very clear understanding of what those goals are. More on that in part 2.

Attitude #2, I am completely nonjudgmental and noncritical. It’s common that someone who is disorganized is already criticizing themselves, and they may be afraid that others will criticize them too. Consequently, they may be hesitant to show me their environment because they’re afraid I’ll judge them. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t have any judgment about how it is or how it got that way. When I look at a space, rather than being critical of it, I’m already thinking, “Where are we now, where do we want to go, and how can we get there?” “What categories of stuff are present, and what storage spaces are available?”

The difficulty in working with family members is that there’s a danger they might be more judgmental. “This is awful! How can you live like this? Why are you keeping all this junk?” Such comments are not only hurtful, but they’re actually counterproductive, because when people feel criticized and attacked, they become demotivated or even resistant.

I believe that humans have a tremendous capacity for change and growth and that that capacity is greatly diminished when they feel criticized. I believe that the best way to support someone changing is to accept them completely just the way they are. Although it sounds ironic, acceptance is what can most empower someone to change.

Attitude #3: I don’t make conclusions about someone because of their stuff. I know that because someone’s disorganized, it doesn’t make them a bad person. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid or lazy or incapable. They’re just disorganized, and they may be disorganized for a wide variety of reasons, and some of those reasons may be out of their control. I would never conclude that because someone has unpaid bills, for example, that they are undependable. There may be lots of stuff going on that I don’t know about. While organizing, I have encountered sex toys, illegal drugs, pictures of ex-boyfriends, tattered teddy bears, and lots of stuff that people felt self-conscious or shameful about, but I don’t care, to me it’s just stuff. I want to categorize it and label it like anything else.

Although I can understand why there are certain things that people don’t want to label. One of the benefits of labeling is that everyone knows what’s in the container without having to open it. But in certain cases, you may not want everyone to know what’s in the container. Imagine having a box labeled “stuff I don’t want the kids to know about.” It might work okay until they start to read, but at that point that label’s gonna be a bull’s-eye. You know that when they understand the label, it’ll be the first thing they go for.

So, to review, when I’m working with a client, I make sure to have no agenda of my own, but rather find out their goals and work towards them. I’m completely nonjudgmental, about their current state of organization, how they got that way, and what stuff they want to keep. Also, as part of being nonjudgmental, I don’t make assumptions about them based on their stuff I realize there may be other influences that I’m not aware of, and I always give them the benefit of the doubt.

If you can adopt and develop these attitudes, you will be more effective in working together with your loved one to de-clutter. However, and this is a great big, enormous however, it’s more complicated because you’re in relationship with this person. You either share space with them or you have a concern for their well-being. So the choices they make affect you in some way. So you do have your own goals, and your goals may be different from theirs. What to do then? Find out in “Clutter in Relationships, Part 2,” coming up soon.

23. Simplifying Paper

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

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Today we look at the topic of organizing paper. Paper is a really common source of clutter. The average disorganized person has 3000 documents at home. It can be even worse on the job. More than one quarter of all employees’ time is spent trying to find lost documents, and 15% of all paper handled in businesses is lost. This results in poor efficiency but can also have profound impacts on individuals’ lives. Lost documents can result in home foreclosures, higher credit card interest and fees, missed appointments, and lost opportunities.

I’ve had a dream to create a full-length motion picture about paper organization. Imagine this: the movie is called “The File Driver,” and it will star Arnold Schwarzenegger as a professional organizer who comes back from the future. He’s armed with hanging file folders, multi-colored tabs, a stapler, a recycle bin, and a P-Touch label maker. He has been sent back in time to help a man who is so disorganized that he has lost the phone number of a woman he met. Arnold’s job is to organize him and help him find the number so they can eventually get married and give birth to a child who plays an important role in future events. I can picture Arnold saying, “we’re out of hanging folders, but don’t worry: I’ll be back.”

Another great reason to organize paper: I’ve had many organizing sessions where my client and I found enough money, in cash and uncashed checks, to more than pay for my services.

Statistically speaking, 80% of paper that is filed is never accessed again. Some of that paper, like documents related to past years taxes, must be kept anyway even though it will (hopefully) never be accessed. Even when you take that into account, at least 50% of paper, and this is a very conservative estimate, would not need to have been kept in the first place. What typically happens is that someone will spend a lot of time going through paper and filing it. They will then store that paper, and then some number of years later, they will go through these files and get rid of most of it. This is a lot of time, space, and energy to invest in papers that give you no benefit, and if 50% of paper is in this category, collectively that amounts to a huge waste of time and energy.

Imagine the amount of time, space, and energy you would save if you let go of this paper in the first place. If you’re like me, you don’t get any pleasure from sorting and filing paper, so if you’re able to cut down the amount of paper you keep by half, this will give you a lot of time and energy to spend on activities that you are passionate about.

Regarding organizing paper, I have some good news and some bad news for you. First the bad news. Paper is the most time-consuming thing to organize. One box of paper can have more individual items than an entire garage, so if you need to go through all the paper on a page by page basis, it can be tremendously time-consuming.

The good news is that all of the techniques and strategies that I’ve discussed earlier apply to organizing paper just as they do to any other organizing challenge. In particular, the “Three S’s of Organizing,” apply to organizing paper as well. The “Three S’s of Organizing,” simplify, sort, and store, is a great methodology to use for organizing paper.

Now I have even more good news. The most common way to organize paper is by filing, and in filing, the second two S’s of the “Three S’s of Organizing,” sorting and storing, both happen at the same time. Instead of doing two steps, they both happen at once. It’s like you get a step for free!

Over the past 10 years, I’ve helped hundreds of clients get more organized, and paper is one of the most common challenges. I’ve had clients who started out with literally more than 200 boxes of paper, and together, over time, we were able to condense and organize this paper so that it became something that contributed to their lives instead of the enormous burden it was previously.

It’s been my experience that the most common cause of paper disorganization is simply keeping too much paper, so that important paper gets mixed up with the unimportant paper. Therefore, the remainder of this post will focus on minimizing paper. It will be in two sections. Section 1 is “How to Minimize.” It will include specific things you can do to have less paper in your life. Section 2 will be “What to Minimize.” It’s been my experience that if you’re unclear about what you need to keep, you’ll likely end up keeping too much, so in this section, we’ll look at specific types of documents, and how long they need to be retained. At the end of this article, you will know how to have less paper in your life, you will know what you need to keep and what you don’t, and you will be spending less time on paper and more time on the things you love.

Of course, each individual has different requirements for what paper they need to keep. Some professionals, like real estate agents for example, have legal requirements for how long they need to keep certain documents. If you have any doubt, contact an expert in your field. My intention is to inform you about factors to consider when simplifying paper, hopefully some that you previously hadn’t considered.

Section 1: How to Minimize Paper

Start by reducing the amount of paper that comes into your life through your mailbox. The less paper that arrives, the less paper you have to deal with. These days, it’s possible to receive a huge amount of paper without even leaving your house. Evaluate newspaper and magazine subscriptions to determine if the benefit you get from them justifies the amount of paper they contribute to your life. Do the same with catalogs. To reduce the amount of junk mail you receive, contact the Direct Marketing Association. The easiest way to do this is to go to their website www.DMAchoice.org. Here you can get information and take steps to reduce the amount of junk mail that shows up in your mailbox on an ongoing basis.

Another good way to reduce paper is to subscribe to electronic statements and electronic billing. Almost every organization that sends you a bill, can allow you to receive this bill by email instead of mailing paper statements. You can also pay these bills electronically, and this will have the additional benefit of saving you money on postage.

You can also simplify the amount of time you need to spend paying your bills. Many companies you need to pay regularly will allow you to change your billing date. Currently, almost all my bills are paid automatically, but before I set them up on auto pay, I had arranged for all my bills to be due at the same time, on the 5th of the month. This way, instead of paying bills every week, or several times a month, I paid all my bills, including electric, water, trash, rent, and credit cards all at the same time, once a month. I like to keep things simple, and this is a great way to do it, if you still pay your bills by hand. This is easier and less error-prone than having to keep track of bills that are due at different times of the month.

Technology can also be used to maintain your schedule, keep track of contacts, and remember things you need to do. You can use a computer or a smart phone to replace hundreds of pieces of paper and Post-it notes. Furthermore, if you synchronize your smart phone with your computer, then you always have a backup, and if you lose your smart phone, you still have all the data on your computer which can later be downloaded to a new phone. On the other hand, if you have a hand written address book, and you lose it, you may not have any way to replace that information.

There are also companies that provide services or software to allow you to scan in receipts, business cards, or other paper and then organize them electronically. You can find more information at www.shoeboxed.com or you can google a product called Neat Receipts.

Section 2: What Paper to Minimize

In this section, I will offer you principles you can use to be more clear about what paper you need to keep and what paper you don’t need to keep.

Remember that generally the value of the paper, the benefit that you get from it, is the information inscribed on that paper. In rare cases, like in the case of a birth certificate, there is reason to keep this specific piece of paper. But generally, there is no inherent value in the paper itself — it is the information on the paper that is valuable. So with paper, we are most often talking about information, and that makes it different than organizing objects like tire chains, tissues, or exercise equipment. If the information on that paper can be accessed in some other way, it’s not necessary to keep that paper.

For example, have you ever printed out a page on a website? This is a perfect example of paper that contains information that can be obtained elsewhere. You can just go back to that website. Furthermore, the printout never changes and can become outdated. So it’s possible that when you look at that printed copy in the future, the information there will be obsolete. On the other hand, the website itself is more likely to be updated, so going back to the original website will likely result in more accurate information.

I once had a client named Cynthia who was a real estate agent. In the 1970s, she took a course on property management, and still had the course binders, which took up a huge amount of space. I encouraged her to get rid of these binders. There’ve been huge amount of changes in the property management profession in the past 35 years. As a result, it’s likely that the information in these binders would be out of date and incorrect. As a licensed professional, if she were to use this information when representing a client, not only when she be doing a disservice to her client, but she could possibly even get sued as a result. My point is that it’s better to have no information at all then to have out of date information. Out of date information gives you a false sense of security. It makes you feel like you know something when, in reality, you don’t. If you have no information at all, then you would be forced to obtain up-to-date information at that time.

These days we have access to unprecedented amounts of information. With an Internet connection, you can most likely arrange to see copies of all your recent bank statements, read the latest book and movie reviews, see how your utility bills compare with last year, check out articles from your local newspaper, and get directions to the nearest pizza place. All this information can be accessed at the moment it’s needed rather than stockpiling documents that you might need someday. I have a friend who recycles all the user’s manuals to all the products she buys because she knows she can always access the user’s manual from the company’s website.

So now let’s be more specific. Let’s look at different types of papers and whether or not you need to keep them. Of course, I am not going to list all the possible different types of paper that exist. I’ll just pick out those types that often cause confusion.

Taxes. I am not an accountant or CPA, and I am not giving any advice or recommendations on how to do your taxes. I am just passing on information from the IRS about the statute of limitations for tax related documents. According to the IRS, the most you would need to keep tax returns and all supporting documentation is seven years. You may wish to keep the actual returns longer than that, but you can definitely let go of receipts and supporting documentation after that time.

Receipts. There are a number of factors to consider when deciding whether or not to keep receipts. First, are you self-employed? If you are, you will want to keep any tax related receipts for as long as you need to keep the supporting documentation for the tax year they are associated with. Second, do you own your home? If so, you need to keep receipts for any capital improvements for as long as you own your home. Third, is the item under warrantee? If so, you will definitely want to keep the receipt until the warranty expires. Finally, you may wish to keep receipts for big-ticket items like furniture, appliances, cars, and other major expenditures. This information may be useful if the item ever needs to be fixed, or if you decide to resell it.

Bank statements. The first thing to remember is that bank statements can generally be accessed online. If you are able to do this, then there’s no need to keep the paper. Furthermore, at the end of every year, you will receive a statement that tells you how much interest you earned on that account for that year. This is the only thing you need for tax purposes. Once you have this, you can let go of any bank statements you’ve collected over the year. Make sure any paper that contains account numbers or Social Security numbers are shredded to protect you from identity theft.

Credit Card Statements. Again, they can generally be accessed online. Furthermore, you may receive an end of year summary from your credit card company summarizing all your charges for the entire year. If this is the case, then you would be able to let go of any statements for the time period covered by that summary.

Utility bills. If you’re not self-employed, then there’s no reason to keep utility bills other than to verify that your payment has been received. When a new statement comes in, I generally let go of the bill for the previous month. That way, I only keep one month’s worth of utility bills at a time.

In summary, today we looked at why to minimize paper, how to minimize paper, and what paper to minimize. Hopefully now you’re clear about what paper should stay and what should go.

22. Clutter-Free Gifts

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

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Right now, we’re in the middle of the holiday gift giving season. Giving gifts can be a great way to express our love for each other, and I’m all for sharing and expressing love. But these days a lot of people have all the stuff they need. At family gatherings, I’ve seen huge piles of gifts, and I wonder how many of them are still in regular use at the end of one year.

I’ve always had a personal interest in this topic. I’m continually distressed by the rampant commercialism and materialism that I see at this time of year, and I avoid any kind of a retail establishment from November through the end of January.

When I was in high school, a friend got me a gift for my birthday that was just completely out of touch with who I am and what I like. I felt like anyone who knew me, even a little bit, they would know that this was not a good gift for me. When she gave it to me, she said “I didn’t know what to get you, so I just got you this.” I concluded that the only reason she got me this gift was that she felt obligated to because it was my birthday. After that, I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to give me a gift ever again, so all through college, I wouldn’t tell anyone when my birthday was. It was actually kind of neurotic. My friends would try to steal my wallet so they could look at my drivers license to find out my birthday. I said, “I don’t want people to feel obligated to get me a gift, and if someone wants to give me a gift, they shouldn’t need an excuse like my birthday to do it. Why don’t we share our gifts with each other all the time?” Fortunately, I’ve become more relaxed in my old age. My friend Gary from college was astonished to find that I put my birthday in my Facebook profile.

Did you know that one out of five people already say they plan to return gifts they will receive this holiday season. They know that even before they’ve received them. Furthermore, when holiday shoppers are surveyed, many of them say they’re shopping for themselves rather than buying gifts for others. In fact, a survey of women in the UK indicated that 50% of them spend more on themselves than for everyone else on their list combined.

Have you ever received a gift that you don’t like but you feel obligated to keep it, store it, and bring it out when the gift giver visits, just because it was a gift? I’ve talked about this more in podcasts “9. Simplifying Gifts,” and “6. The Hidden Cost of Stuff,” but I have seen in my experience that there are times when stuff given as gifts can actually become an imposition to the receiver.

I asked my dad what he wanted for Christmas, and he said “if I don’t have it, you can’t afford it!” And I’m sure he’s right. So what do you get for the person who has everything? My suggestion is to not get them stuff, and in this podcast I’ll suggest other gifts you can give to show your love to others without cluttering up their lives.

Clutter free gifts fall into three major categories: time, experiences, and services. I’ll also talk about another category of gifts that, while not exactly clutter-free, is clutter limited, because it creates temporary clutter only.

Let’s start with time. Our time is the most valuable asset we have. I believe the most valuable the gift we can give to someone, as well is a very powerful way to share our love, is to share our time. That could be as simple as spending time with someone, sharing in activity, taking them out to dinner, going on a hike, or calling them on the phone. Sometimes visiting a loved one for the holidays can be the most appreciated gift you could give them.

The second category for clutter free gifts is experiences. Many, many studies over the past decade have shown that experiences lead to a greater increase in happiness than the same amount of money spent on stuff. The same would apply to gifts. Experiences can be as simple as a gift certificate to a movie, to dinner out at a restaurant, or a massage. Last year my sister and I joined together and got our parents I gift certificate that could be used at any of hundreds of different bed and breakfasts throughout the country. My beloved and I took her nieces horse back riding. Near where we live, there’s a place called iFly, which is actually a vertical wind tunnel where people can experience the sensation of skydiving in a safe, controlled environment. I’ve always thought this would be a great gift for the adventurer on the list. This would be an experience someone couldn’t get from a video game.

Another type of experience is to support someone’s personal development by gifting them a class or workshop. A class in cooking, photography, painting, history, or how to use computer software would be greatly appreciated by someone who has an interest in these areas. A friend of mine was overjoyed to receive a gift certificate for dance classes as a gift. Experience such as this can contribute to someone’s lives in a powerful way for years to come. It reminds me of the old saying, “If you give someone a fish, they eat for a day. If you teach someone to fish, they eat for a lifetime.”

And finally another experience to give someone is the experience of what they mean to you. I found a perfect example on flylady.net. “Rather than giving grandma another embroidered throw or crafty sweatshirt all the grandkids got together and wrote her a letter of what she meant to us—and of funny and touching things we remember from growing up. There were seventeen letters total. We put them in a book and gave them to her after dinner. We read each letter out loud and all got to enjoy them.”

Another idea is to make a donation to a charity in that person’s name. I’m including this in the experience category, because they get the experience doing good in the world and helping those less fortunate. There are many, many different charities that support a huge number of great causes. A type of charitable giving that I’ve become interested in lately is micro-finance. Tiny loans, some as low as $100 can give people, mostly women, in Third World countries the ability to start a business, to become economically self-sufficient, to provide for their families, and even to provide work for others. A great place to get more information is www.microfinancegateway.org.

The third category for clutter free gifts is services. The gift of services can be very meaningful and appreciated, especially when the service is something the receiver is not able to do themselves. The gift can be any service that you’re capable of. I used to be a tour guide, and last year we offered my sister and brother-in-law a customized, private tour of San Francisco. I have also offered the gift of organizing services, but the gift could also be trimming a hedge, offering a night of babysitting to allow the parents to have a special night out, private instruction in how to use a computer, shoveling snow, etc. If you’re not able to provide the service yourself, you can also get a gift certificate so that the service can be provided by someone else.

There is another category of gifts that, while not exactly clutter-free, create only temporary clutter, because the gift is actually used up in the process of enjoying it. For example, every fall my parents make homemade apple butter and apple cider and give that as gifts. Other examples would include homemade cookies, chocolate, wine, fruit baskets, flowers, gourmet cheese, anything that will give the recipient pleasure but not result in a permanent contribution to their clutter, having to be cleaned, moved, or disposed of at a later time.

So there you have three categories of clutter free gifts, time, experiences, and services, and a category of temporary clutter gifts, which you might also call consumables. Until next time, may you have a happy, joyous, connected, and clutter-free holiday season.

Note: if you listen to the podcast version of this post, you will be treated to the original song “Too Much Stuff,” sung and composed by Donnalou Stevens.

21. A Sample Organizing Project (part 2)

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

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In the last post, we began a sample project of organizing a garage. We were not able to finish it all at one time, so today we come back to the project and complete it.

Let’s do a quick review of what happened in the last session. I divided the project into four stages: preparation, setup, implementation, and follow-through.

In the preparation stage, we made sure we were emotionally and mentally prepared for organizing by getting in touch with our goals. We considered both our goals for this specific project and for our life in general.

We also made sure we had any supplies we needed. In this example, I’m showing how an organizing project can be done with minimal investment and overhead. At this point, the only supplies you really need are empty cardboard boxes. Many people already have empty boxes (or other containers) in the garage. If this is the case, you can make use of these boxes as sorting containers. This helps the organizing process in two ways at the same time. First, it creates locations for categories of stuff, and second, it creates space by freeing up space consumed by the unused boxes. It’s a win-win.

In the setup stage, you set aside some time and minimized distractions so you could focus on the project. You then set up an infrastructure of boxes. Some of these boxes contained stuff that was destined to go away, so today, we will need to replace any infrastructure that went away after the last session. For example, after the last session you (hopefully) took the box or boxes labeled “Donate” to your favorite charity and dropped it off. So today, we will need to replace that box. Take a large cardboard box and label it “Donate.” Similarly, replace any of the other containers that went away at the end of the last session. This typically includes the containers for trash, recycling, and “Give Away.”

In the last session, you also had a box labeled “Go Elsewhere.” That same box can be used as part of your infrastructure again today. Another useful container that I forgot last time is to have a plastic bag to collect all the empty plastic bags that you encounter. These plastic bags can then be recycled at your local supermarket. And finally, the last part of reestablishing the infrastructure is to re-open any sorting containers that were not full at the end of the last session.

After the infrastructure is again complete, you are now ready to move on to the third stage: implementation. Implementation is where you follow the Three S’s of Organizing. As I’m sure you remember, the three S’s are Simplify, Sort, and Store. Simplifying is deciding whether you want something to stay or go. Sorting is choosing a category for it.

The last time, we were in the midst of sorting and simplifying and we were doing them both at the same time. So that’s where we will pick up today. Continue going through any unsorted stuff, item by item, separating it all into the categories you’ve created. If you encounter an item that belongs in a category you haven’t encountered before, create a new container with an appropriate label for that new category.

Make sure you don’t pick something up, look at it, and then put it down. If you do that you’ve invested time and energy in that item, yet you haven’t made any progress. For every item, put it with the category. If no category exists, create one.

Remember that, as you go through stuff, your goal is to get to the bottom. As an example, let’s look more closely at a specific part of the project. Suppose a cabinet in the garage has a drawer. Take a look at the contents of this drawer. If it’s already organized, put a label on it that says what’s in it. If it’s not, go through the drawer sorting all the stuff in it into categories. Don’t stop until the drawer is completely empty. After the drawer is empty, clean it, if necessary. Now find one or more categories of stuff that will fit and put these categories in the drawer. What you’ve done is replace unsorted stuff with categories of sorted stuff. Previously, this drawer was a conglomeration of a bunch of different miscellaneous items so that you really didn’t know what was in it. Now, it contains a few specific categories, and you know that anything in these categories is in that drawer. Make a label for the drawer. We can’t guarantee that this will be the permanent location for these categories, so use a temporary label. Post-it notes work great as temporary labels. Write the categories on a Post-it note and stick it on the front of the drawer.

By now, it’s likely that you’ve emptied drawers, shelves, cabinets, or other storage spaces that are present in the garage. Any time a space is emptied, it can then be used, in addition to the boxes, to hold categories.

After you’ve gone through all the stuff in the garage simplifying and sorting into categories, it’s then time to move on to the third S, storing. This is the process of deciding where in the garage each of the categories will live. It’s the process of matching categories of stuff with storage spaces.

If you’ll remember from “The Third S: Store,” you want to assign storage spaces based on three criteria. First, you want stuff you use most often to be most accessible. Second, you want the size of the category to roughly match the size of the storage space. And third, you want stuff to be located near where it will be used. This may seem like a lot to consider, but when you actually do it, you’ll find that it’s more straightforward than you might think.

Two of these factors, the first and the third, are concerned with usage and the other is concerned with size. Many garages are used predominantly for storage, and if this is the case, the factors related to usage are less important. It’s a different situation if the garage is used as a workshop or an art studio. For the sake of keeping things simple, I will assume that the garage in our example is used for storage only. In other words, stuff is stored in the garage but it is not actually used there. Therefore, the factors concerned with usage are less important and we will focus on matching the size of the category with the size of the storage space. In any case, the process we will follow will still work even when the other factors are considered as well.

Here’s a good way to go about deciding where to store your sorted categories. First, get pencil and paper and something that will allow you to move around the garage and write, like a clipboard. On the piece of paper, create two columns. At the top of the left column, write “Categories” as a heading. At the top of the right column, write “Storage Spaces” as a heading. In the left column, make a list of all of the categories you’ve created for all the stuff you’re going to keep. In the right column, make a list of all the places in the garage that are available to put things. This would include cabinets, shelves, drawers, closets, storage bins, and any other available spaces that could become a home for a category. Then, draw lines from each category to a storage place where it might be contained.

I guarantee you this will not be the final place each of these categories will be stored. This is because you can never know for sure just by looking how well a category will fit into a storage space. This is just a way to formulate a high-level strategy. That strategy can then be modified as necessary when you physically place the categories into the spaces and see how they fit.

Because you will be moving categories around, you’ll find it’s useful to containerize as much as possible. Using containers makes it easy to store and to move categories from one location to another. If you have all your batteries in a container, it’s much easier to move the container to a new location than it would be to move a whole bunch of loose batteries.

You’re now ready to physically put a category into a storage space and see how well it fits. If it fits well, then leave the category there and move onto the next category. Ideally, it won’t fit too tightly. It’s nice to have some extra space to be able to expand into. Plus, if a space is jammed tightly, it will be really difficult to access the contents.

If the category doesn’t fit well in the storage space, there are three different ways you might respond, by relocating the category, by changing the size of the storage space, or by changing the size of the category.

The first option is to remove the category from the space and find another location where it will fit better. Remember that if you are sufficiently containerized, it will be really easy to move things around and adjust any time you see a way that a storage location can be improved.

The second option is that it may be possible to adjust the size of the storage space. It may be possible to raise or lower shelves to better accommodate the size of the contents. It may be possible to use a drawer divider or other containers to split a large space into smaller ones.

The third option is that it may be possible to modify the size of the category. You can make a category smaller by simplifying, if you decide that there are some items that you really don’t need after all, so you are comfortable letting them go. You can also make a category smaller by subdividing. For example, if your “Art Supplies” category is too big, it may help to break it up into the smaller subcategories of “Scrap Booking Supplies” and “Painting Supplies.” You can make a category larger by combining it with another category. If you do this, containerize the two categories so they don’t get mixed up. Examples of containers that might be used to separate the categories include a drawer divider, Ziploc bags, plastic bins, or a container of some other kind. For example, boxes or plastic storage bins can be stacked inside a cabinet.

Continue storing by placing each category, one by one, into a proposed location and adjusting if necessary. Continue until you have either run out of categories or run out of space. If you run out of categories and have empty space left over, that’s great. It’s fine to leave empty space. This gives you spaciousness and room to expand into. If you don’t have enough space for all the categories, then you can either let go of some more stuff or find a way to create more space.

You can create more space by renting a storage unit, although I recommend against it. You can acquire additional cabinets or sheds if you have room, or you can install shelving units. Different types of hooks or racks can enable you to utilize unused areas, like wall or ceiling space. Boxes or plastic storage bins can be stacked to better utilize vertical space.

When you’ve found a home for all your categories, then you’ve completed the implementation stage and are now ready to move on to the final stage, follow through. The follow-through stage is similar to the way we wrapped up at the end of the last session. For anything that’s going to go away, including trash, recycling, and stuff to be given away, arrange to physically remove it from the premises as soon as possible. Distribute stuff to “Go Elsewhere” to the appropriate locations in the rest of the house.

And finally, step back and take a look at your clean, organized garage. Give yourself a reward for a job well done.

20. A Sample Organizing Project (part 1)

Friday, September 10th, 2010

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Today we put the theory into practice. We will go right to where the rubber meets the road. We will go through a sample organizing project from start to finish.

First, a few caveats. Every organizing project is unique, and every individual who is organizing is unique also. If I am working with an individual client, I can tailor my suggestion specifically to them. Obviously it’s not possible to do that here, so I will give an example of a typical project, but you will want to customize the example to make it work for you. Feel free to make any changes necessary to customize it for your goals, your stuff, your storage spaces, and the way you use or think about your possessions.

I will assume that you’ve already read my earlier posts which give more background, explanation, and insight into each of the steps that we will take.

This example will not require any purchases. In fact, it can be implemented with supplies that most people already have around the house. In this example I will illustrate how to organize so that you know what you have and where things are. I won’t even attempt to address aesthetics, like what colors are used or how the furniture is arranged. I’m sure you’ll understand why that is beyond the scope of this article.

Also, I’ve really been struggling with what kind of an example to use. On the one hand, I wanted to make the example general enough so that it would apply to many people. On the other hand, I wanted to make it specific enough that it is concrete and practical, so that it gives you tools you can use today. Balancing these two goals turned out to be far more difficult than I expected. I decided to make the example pretty specific. Our sample project today is to organize a garage, but the methodology I will illustrate can be applied to any organizing project, so the example will be beneficial to you even if you don’t even have a garage.

So let’s get started. I’m going to break our sample project into four parts: preparation, setup, implementation, and follow-through.

In the preparation stage, you will look at the big picture of your life. Forget the organizing project for a minute, and go somewhere other than the garage. Now, consider what is most important in your life. What do you most want to accomplish in the next year? What do you most enjoy doing? If you had a free weekend with nothing you had to do, how would you most want to spend that time? What you feel most passionate about? What makes you excited? These are the real reasons you want to get organized. Few people organize the sake of organizing. I think mostly we organize because being disorganized can prevent us from living life to the fullest, can interfere with doing all the things that we most want to do.

Now, let’s continue the preparation by taking a step into the garage. What are your goals with respect to this specific organizing project. And don’t just say “to get organized.” Be more specific. Why do you want to get organized? For example, Deborah wants to convert her garage into a playroom for the kids. Phil wants to be able to park his car in the garage so he doesn’t get as many traffic tickets. Dolores wants to be able to find things in the garage, rather than having it be a black hole that sucks stuff up and never lets it go. David needs to find his sleeping bag for an upcoming camping trip. There are hundreds of reasons to be more organized. What are yours? Be very clear about what you want to accomplish. What would you like the garage to look like when you’re finished?

It’s very important to be clear about your goals, both in organizing and in your life, in order to ensure that the actions you take lead toward those goals. I wouldn’t want you to spend a lot of time on an organizing project only to realize you haven’t accomplished what you most wanted to accomplish.

Next, make sure you have supplies. Now when I say supplies, I don’t mean organizing gadgets and customized containers. Most likely, you’re not ready for them yet, so please don’t go out and buy a bunch of organizing products. The post “Organizing Myths” explains why in more detail. All you need now are some cardboard boxes of different sizes to use as temporary sorting bins and to hold the stuff that’s gonna go away. Other supplies that might be useful are Ziploc bags, stick on labels, Post-it notes, twist ties and rubber bands. Most people already have these common everyday items in their home, but if not, please do not go out and buy them. You may not need them at all, and you may find them as you go through your stuff.

Now, let’s move on to the second stage, set up. Arrange to set aside a certain amount of time where you will be able to focus on the project. You may wish to minimize distractions. This may mean turning off the ringer on your cell phone or doing the project while the kids are at school.

Next, create an infrastructure that will support sorting and simplifying. Take a large, empty cardboard box (or any other container you have available) and label it “Donate.” Take another box and label it “Give Away.” This will be for stuff to go away it won’t be received by the charity where you take your donations. Examples might be office supplies that can go to your local school or other stuff to give away on FreeCycle or on craigslist. If you have big-ticket items that are valuable enough that it would be worthwhile to sell, you may have a “Sell” category as well. I like to use a plastic bag for trash and a paper bag for recyclables. Some municipalities mix all the recycling together, and some require that they be separated. Do whatever will help you unload them most efficiently.

Okay, so far you’ve made containers to hold stuff that’s going to go away. Continue setting up the infrastructure by making containers to hold categories of stuff you want to keep. Look around and see what type of stuff is there. For example, in a typical garage, you may find automotive supplies, sports equipment, and tools. If you use the garage for storage, you’ll also find stuff you don’t use very often, like holiday decorations or old tax returns.

Take a cardboard box and label it with each of the major categories you can see or that you expect to find in the garage. And don’t worry about being too precise about this — you can always change these later on.

As you create boxes to hold categories of stuff, make the categories very general. You don’t want to be micro sorting into 100 categories. See my post on Sorting for more information. Create broad, general categories. If necessary, it will be possible to subdivide these general categories into further refined subcategories as you go on. For example, instead of creating categories for tablets, tape, and Post-it notes, you might create a general category for all office supplies.

Also, take an empty box and label it “Go Elsewhere.” You’ll inevitably encounter stuff that doesn’t belong in the garage — that should go in the bathroom, kitchen, bedroom, or elsewhere in the house. You don’t want to be running back and forth with each individual item, so put anything that doesn’t belong in the garage in the “Go Elsewhere” box. At the end of the day, or when the box gets full, you can make one trip throughout the house and distribute all these items to the places where you want them to go.

Find a place to put the boxes you’ve labeled. If there is already room in the garage, either on the floor or on a surface, put the boxes there. You want to place the boxes so that you can see the labels and so that there’s still room to move. If there’s a car in the garage, remove the car to make room. If there’s no room in the garage, find a place close by to put the sorting boxes. Another option is to open the garage door and put the boxes outside on the driveway.

Some TV shows show people starting out by removing everything from the garage and putting it outside. I do not recommend this for two reasons. First, it’s usually not necessary. It may help to remove some items from the garage, but to remove everything is overkill. It’s usually possible, once you create some space, to do the project in place, and in the first step of organizing, we will look for ways to create space. Second, it means you’re either committed to complete the whole project at one time, or else you need to move a bunch of unsorted stuff back into the garage at the end of the day.

You’ve completed all the setup, so now choose an area to start. The goal in choosing a place to start is to find somewhere where you can get to a surface, either the floor, a shelf, a tabletop or some other surface. The goal is to get to the bottom of the stuff, to the surface, clean the surface if necessary, and then use the space you’ve created to put one or more of the sorting boxes.

Start in one area and for every item, ask yourself two simple questions. First, should this item stay or go? Posts #5 through 10 give more insight and specifics about how to answer that question. If it will go away, put it in the box for the destination where it will go.

If you want it to stay, in other words, if you want to keep it, in what category does it belong? If you already have a location for that category, put it there. If that category doesn’t exist yet, create it. Put a label on a box and this will now be the location for all items you encounter in that same category. You can use Ziploc bags for small categories.

Go through all the items, one by one, one after the other. Stay or go? What category? Stay or go? What category? Donate this. Give this away. This goes in tools. This goes with Halloween. This goes with books. Sewing stuff. Donate. Office supplies. Seasonal clothes. Recycle. Sewing stuff. Trash. Go elsewhere.

If one of the boxes gets full, take an empty box and label it with the same label as the box that’s full. Close the full box completely. If it is overflowing, remove items from the full box and place them in the empty box until you can close the full box. After the full box is closed, place the box that is almost empty on top of it. For example, if your office supply box gets full, close up the full box, label an empty box “Office Supplies,” and place the empty box on top of the closed full one. From now on, place any office supplies you encounter into the top box which has lots of room. It won’t matter that it’s now more difficult to get to the bottom box, because they’re both the same category.

If you encounter a box or some other container of stuff already in the garage, take a quick look at the contents. If it’s all one category, slap a label on it that says what’s in it. If it’s a mixture of miscellaneous items, go through the box and sort it into categories.

Continue going through stuff, box by box, item by item. As you get to a surface, clean it off and put your sorting containers there. Eventually, you will have all your sorting containers in the garage.

I’m going to assume you won’t be able to complete the entire project at one time. Start at least 20 minutes before the end of the time you have allotted to wrap things up for the day. Taking the following four steps will allow you to efficiently continue the project when you have more time available.

First, for the stuff you want to go away, arrange to physically remove it from the premises as soon as possible. Put the donate boxes in the car and take them to your favorite charity. Arrange for recycling, trash, and anything else to go away in whatever method is most expedient.

Second, make sure all your containers are closed and labeled. This will ensure that the categories you’ve already sorted will stay separate from the stuff you haven’t looked at yet.

Third, if there are any boxes outside the garage, bring them inside the garage for safekeeping until you can continue the project.

Fourth, for the box labeled “Go Elsewhere,” make a trip through the house and deposit each item in the appropriate location.

Next time, we’ll continue and complete the project. We’ll finish sorting and simplifying and move on to the Third ‘S’, Store. I’ll try to get it to you real soon. Until then, I wish you all the best for fulfillment in life and success in your organizing projects.

19. Stuff, Meaning, and Happiness

Friday, August 6th, 2010

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Why do you have stuff? What does stuff to do for you? It’s useful to have an understanding of how you benefit from stuff because this will help you make good decisions about what belongings to have in your life.

Today, I will identify a dozen ways that I believe capture all the different benefits we get from our belongings. There’s nothing special about these particular categories. You could always come up with different ones or ones that work better for you. And now, without further ado, here are 12 different ways we benefit from our possessions.

1. Survival. Some belongings provide sustenance, shelter or protection from the elements or anything that might harm us. Examples of this are food, a house or apartment, heaters, clothes, or umbrellas.
2. Utility. Some belongings make it easier, faster, or possible for us to do something. We have possessions that help us clean, travel, get information, open packages, write, cook, communicate, and accomplish many other activities. Examples include a computer, a car, tools, a stove, pens, scissors, or a cell phone.
3. Fun. Some belongings provide entertainment, recreation, or pleasure. They help you have fun and enjoy yourself. Examples include books, CDs, movies, television, games, sports equipment, or an iPod.
4. Self-care. Some belongings help you take care of yourself or improve yourself. Examples include exercise equipment, workout clothes, books, educational software, a computer, or vitamins.
5. Status. Some belongings give a certain impression to other people. This impression can be of power, wealth, or style, or it could also be an impression of rebelliousness or identification with a particular counterculture. A house, car, clothes, and jewelry, can all be instruments of status.
6. Supplement memory. Belongings are sometimes used to help remember past experiences or people. Examples include photos, keepsakes, letters and cards, and memorabilia.
7. Aesthetics. It can really improve quality of life to be surrounded by things that are pleasant to look at, that create an environment that is beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. Examples of this include wall hangings, paintings, curtains, jewelry, and decorations. I will give a personal example of this in my life. During the day, our bed has 14 pillows on top of it, even though we only use three of them while sleeping. Every night, we take 11 pillows off the bed, and every morning we put those 11 pillows back on the bed. Now if it were just me, I wouldn’t do this, but my sweetie really likes the way it looks. It’s important to her for the bed to have a certain aesthetic, and it’s important to me that she gets what she wants. I value her joyousness and radiance when things are the way she likes them.
8. Community. Some possessions help us to build closer ties with friends and family. Examples include gifts and anything used for entertaining. Also, some possessions allow us to fit in more comfortably with our community. For example, many communities have an understanding that people will wear clothes, so having clothes can help us meet those social expectations.
9. Preparedness. Stuff can help us be prepared for emergencies and other possibilities. This could include extra food, water, flashlights, radios, candles, and flares. This is also the “I might use it someday” category. When we get a new vacuum cleaner, we might keep the old vacuum cleaner to be prepared in case the new one breaks.
10. Comfort. Some belongings help us to be more comfortable, like shoes, a bed, carpet, and pillows.
11. Information. Some belongings contain information, like books, magazines, and newspapers, and other belongings allow us to obtain information, like a computer or a library card.
12. Identification. Sometimes we have stuff that we identify with, that helps define who we are, as part of the image we have of ourselves. You might say “I am a collector.” “I am a comic book aficionado.” But is that who you are?

I’d like to continue by asking you another personal question. Who are you? Seriously. Who are you really? When I ask someone that question, they usually reply by giving me their name. Is that who you are? I know people who have changed their name. Who are they then? Have they become a different person?

So who are you? Are you the person who lives at a specific address, in a particular town? So who would you be if you moved?

Are you your job? Are you a software engineer, nurse, janitor, teacher, massage therapist, administrator, manager, CEO? Is that who you are? Well, if you got fired or left your job, who would you be then?

Are you your belongings? If you let go of some of your stuff, would you feel like you’re letting go of a part of yourself? Does your stuff make you who you are? If your house caught fire and all your stuff got destroyed, who would you be then? Who are you when you’re on vacation? So who would you be without all your stuff?

I believe that, at the root of it all, it’s our goal to determine who we are, to develop a deep understanding of ourselves and our own unique gifts, passions, and eccentricities, and then possess stuff that reflects who we are. Sometimes, however, the opposite happens. Sometimes our possessions create a box that we end up fitting into. Sometimes our possessions limit our conception of ourselves and who we are.

Above, I listed ways our possessions serve us. I’d now like to point out a few things that possessions cannot provide for us.

1. Meaning. I agree with former president Jimmy Carter when he said, “Owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.” There are many different theories about what gives meaning to our lives, but none of them, at least as far as I know, are concerned with physical possessions. I think Tony Robbins sums it up best when he said, “It is… who we become, what we contribute… that gives meaning to our lives.”
2. Happiness. Tim Kasser, PhD, author of “The High Price of Materialism,” claims that people who are more materialistic are less happy and have less satisfying social interactions. His research suggests that true happiness comes from meaningful experiences, such as growing as a person and feeling connected to other people. Furthermore, Numerous studies over the past decade have found that people who invest in experiences, whether those experiences be travel, classes, a movie, or a dinner with friends, remain more happy and satisfied with that investment than those who invest in material objects. Nobel prize-winning philosopher Bertrand Russell goes even further. He says, “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.”

I invite you to take a minute and consider what brings meaning and happiness to your life. What makes your life worth living?

I also invite you to remember that your most valuable possessions, and the possessions that can never be taken from you, are internal. Your resourcefulness, your creativity, and your own unique way of looking at the world — these are your most valuable possessions, and the qualities that make you unique and magnificent in your own way.

I’d like to wrap up this post by acknowledging that this post and the last have been a bit “esoteric,” so now I’ll go the other direction and make the next post very practical. We’ll talk about how to put the theory into practice. We will go step-by-step through a sample organizing project from start to finish. Until then, may you be in touch with what brings meaning and happiness to your life.

18. The Best Way to Keep Perspective

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

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I define organizing as arranging your possessions to support what’s important in your life. But sometimes people have told me either that they don’t know what’s important in their life, or they forget what’s important in their life. Sometimes we get wrapped up in the busywork of day-to-day life, and before we realize it, we’ve spent a lot of time and energy on stuff that isn’t really important.

Today, I’d like to share what I have found is a great way to keep the perspective of what is truly important. In my opinion, this is the most important of all my posts, and probably the most important message I have to share.

In order to introduce it, I’ll need to share a personal experience as background. When my mom was diagnosed as being terminally ill, I moved back in to my parents’ house. One day during this time, I was out buying groceries, and in one of the aisles of the supermarket, I heard somebody say, “I just can’t find shoes to match this skirt.” I thought, “Some things are problems, and some things really aren’t problems.” Now I have nothing against those who are into fashion or who like to look good. My intention is not to criticize anyone who likes to have matching shoes — it’s not about that — but when confronted with the imminent death of a loved one, a lot of things didn’t seem to matter.

It occurred to me that many of the things that seem important in day-to-day life, that we invest so much time and energy in, really aren’t important compared with something as life-changing as the death of a loved one.

Many of the people who are important in my life now, including my beloved sweetie and life partner, are older than my mom was when she died. We never know for sure how long we have with people. I realize that anyone in my life, including me, could be gone at almost any time. It’s important to remember how precious life is and to not take things or people for granted.

According to legend, a certain Native American warrior would ride into battle shouting, “It is a good day to die.” Inspired by this, I ask myself, at least once a week, “Is today a good day to die?” Now this doesn’t mean I’m suicidal. For me, it’s another way of asking myself,

• Do the people in my life know how much I love them?
• Do I have unfinished business or unresolved issues with friends or family?
• If I were to die today, would I have any deep regrets?
• Am I doing what I really want to do with my life?

Some people may think it’s morbid to think about the possibility of their own death. I couldn’t disagree more strongly. In my opinion, considering our own mortality helps us become more clear about what’s important and therefore helps us live more fully! It’s not about how we die. It’s about how we live. When I say, “it is a good day to die,” it doesn’t mean that I’m preparing for death, or that I’ve given up on life. In fact, the opposite is true. It means that I’m so clear about who I am and what’s important to me that I would still do it even if I were to die in the process.

So, I invite you, if you’re willing, to consider the following. I invite you to imagine that you’ve just found out that you have three months to live.

How would your life change if you knew that?
What would you do with your remaining time?
Do you have unfinished business with anyone?
Do others know how much you love them?
Is there anything you wish you’d said that you haven’t?
Have you done with your life what you want to?

I am inviting you to consider these questions as a tool to get in touch with what’s truly important in your life. And who knows? You may still be around in three months, but you may not. In any case, the information you get from asking yourself these questions can be invaluable. If you did have only three months to live, maybe it would become clear that there is something you’d like to say, do, or accomplish before the end. Is there any change you would like to make? If so, why not do it now? What are you waiting for? And that’s not a rhetorical question. What are you waiting for?

Dr. John Izzo interviewed hundreds of people in the later stages of life to see what insights and wisdom they could offer, and what regrets they had. His findings are summarized in his book and DVD called “The Five Secrets You Must Discover Before You Die.” A common regret that people have could be summed up as, “I wish I had reflected more. I wish I had questioned myself more often about whether a task was genuinely important or just busywork.”

Another principle I got from this book is that people don’t regret when they failed. What people do regret is not taking chances at all. They regret the actions they didn’t do, and the risks they didn’t take. People regret playing it safe more than failing.

So I ask you now, “What risks do you have yet to take?” And, for the most part, I don’t mean physical risks, like skydiving or bungee jumping, although these might be important to some people. I’m thinking more of emotional risks: the risk to apologize to your son or daughter, the risk to be more vulnerable and share your innermost self more fully, the risk to follow your heart even if your actions may not be accepted by others, the risk to share your greatest gifts, the risk to donate the red turtleneck sweater that you know you’ll never wear again.

So, coming back to keeping the perspective in organizing, I recommend, as you are making decisions about what should stay and what should go, ask yourself, “If I knew I had one year to live, would I really want to keep this?” I know that one year is longer than the three months I talked about previously, but a time period of one year means you’ll live through all four seasons, so that needn’t be a factor in the decision. Ask yourself, “If I had a limited amount of time, how important is this thing, when compared with all the other stuff that I have and all the activities I could do with that time?”

Don’t pretend you will live forever, because those who do tend to not use their time very effectively. In reality, we all have limited time — we just don’t know how much we have. So what matters is that we live fully, that we live in the present, and that we always keep in touch with what is truly important in our lives.

In my opinion, the best way to do this is to imagine that you only have a short time to live. A short time to do all the activities, to read all the books, to listen to all the podcasts, to wear all the clothes, to paint all the paintings, to do all the projects, to make all the phone calls, to hike all the trails, to give all the gifts, to play with all the grandchildren, to feel all the feelings, to connect with people, to find meaning, and ultimately, to love. If you live every day, week, and month as if it may be your last, you will be really clear about what’s important, and when the end really does arrive, you will have no regrets. And I believe that the deepest, most profound level, that’s what we all want, to live a life without regrets, a life of meaning and value.

17. Resources for Sustainable Simplification

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

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It’s been my experience that a primary reason why many people are disorganized is because they have too much stuff. Of course, the phrase “too much” is subjective. When I say “too much stuff,” I mean one of two things. Either they have more stuff than they can fit comfortably in the available storage space. Or they have stuff that they get no benefit from and that doesn’t enrich their lives in any significant way.

For many people, simplifying, or getting rid of unneeded stuff, is an important part of the organizing process. But people generally don’t want to throw a lot of stuff in the garbage and have it end up in landfill. They would like the stuff to go to a good use and be reused in some way. And for good reason, because reuse benefits us all in the following seven ways:

1. The donor is able to get rid of unneeded stuff, thereby freeing up space, making life more simple, and helping the donor focus on what’s more important.
2. If the donor to a non-profit itemizes their taxes, they will be able to use the value of the donated items as a tax write off.
3. The recipient is able to attain products either at a great discount or for free. They are able to use already existing stuff rather than having to do without or having to buy new products.
4. The demand for new products is reduced and this reduces the consumption of raw materials needed to produce new products.
5. Reuse reduces the amount of stuff that goes into landfill. Landfills consume land resources and toxic substances leak out of landfill and contaminate our air and water. Refuse disposal can become quite costly for municipalities and they pass on these costs either in fees or taxes.
6. The income generated with donated products are sold at thrift shops can be used for beneficial functions like job training, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, hospice care, etc.
7. Reuse allows stuff to be better utilized over a longer period of time. Overall, it results in more efficient use of our natural resources.

Based on what I’ve seen after ten years as a professional organizer, I believe that there’s enough stuff in this country for everyone. It’s just a matter of getting it from people who aren’t getting any benefit from it to people who really could use it.

Some people say, “I want to get this stuff to someone who can use it, but I don’t know how.” Well, in this article, I will tell you about many fabulous resources that will empower you to offload unneeded possessions in a satisfying, environmentally-sound, and beneficial way. These resources are the result of ten years of a passionate desire to support the economy of reuse, to get unwanted stuff into the hands of those who can use it, and to optimize the value of our possessions.

In most cases, I will give nationwide resources, that can be used almost anywhere in the country. I will also give a few select resources that are not nationwide. I’ll do this to give you ideas of types of resources you can look for in your area. I will start with more general resources and move toward more specialized.

Resource number one for easily getting unwanted stuff to someone who really wants it is the FreeCycle Network. There are almost 5000 local FreeCycle groups with over 7 million members worldwide. After you join your local FreeCycle group at FreeCycle.org, you can offer anything by just sending an email. Anyone who is interested in that item will reply to that email. You can choose who you would like to give it to and arrange for them to stop by and pick it up. This means you can simplify your belongings without even having to leave your house.

Of course, you can also use FreeCycle to acquire stuff, but the focus of this article is on ways to unload. Personally, I have turned off the e-mails from the group so I don’t receive other people’s offers, and I use FreeCycle exclusively to give stuff away.

I am really enthusiastic about FreeCycle and I want to support it in any way I can, so I have a special offer for podcast listeners. For the first 25 people who email me their name and address, I will mail you a free FreeCycle bumper sticker. The bumper sticker says, “Got Clutter? Get FreeCycle.org”. See a picture here. If you’d like a bumper sticker, email your name and address to podcast (at) clutterfreeservices (dot) com, and I will mail you one. I guarantee that I will not sell your address and I will not add you to any mailing lists. I will use the information only to send you a bumper sticker and nothing else. As of July 2010, there are still bumper stickers available.

If you are in or near San Francisco, the Really Really Free Market meets the last Saturday of Every Month. Also, the second annual Really Really Free Market in Rockford, Illinois is coming up this Saturday, June 19th. For these markets, bring usable items, food, skills and talents to give for the sake of giving. There’s no money, no barter, and no trade. Everything is FREE! See reallyreallyfree.org for more information.

The Really Really Free Market and FreeCycle are used only for giving stuff away. Another resource, Craig’s List, can also be used to give stuff away, but you can use it to sell stuff as well. Go to craigslist.org and find the online community for your area. Whether you’re giving or selling, you can create free classified ads to reach other people who are interested in your stuff. Any post you make can be anonymous to protect your identity.

eBay is another site where you can sell unneeded items. Please be aware that it takes a fair amount of time and effort to sell items over the Internet. You’ll most likely need to take pictures, write a detailed description, post the ad, respond to questions, and either arrange to meet the prospective buyer or arrange to ship the item to them. Most people underestimate the amount of time and effort it takes to sell something on the Internet. As with other tasks, the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Suppose you want to give to a good cause. There are lots of resources for that, too.

In 2007, a survey conducted by the National School Supply and Equipment Association showed that 94% of teachers spend money from their own pockets to buy classroom materials for their students. The average amount was $395, but for first-year teachers it was $770. So, if you go to iloveschools.com and type in your zip code, you can find classrooms near you that have a need for many different types of stuff. These needs include office and art supplies, as you might expect, but it also includes a variety of other items including chairs, furniture, air conditioners, and many, many others. So you can unload unneeded stuff and support your local schools at the same time!

Similarly, Excessaccess.com and redo.org match donors with nonprofit organizations.

And of course, many charities run thrift shops. Everyone’s familiar with the two major charities that have a nationwide presence, Goodwill, and Salvation Army, but there are always smaller, locally-oriented charities in every community. These charities support a variety of causes, and you can certainly find one that is aligned with your values. Many of them will even pick up, depending on the quantity and type of your stuff.

The easiest place to find a charity-driven thrift store near you is at thethriftshopper.com. There, you can type in your zipcode and get a complete list of thrift stores in your area. Note that the first part of the list will be sponsored listings, those that have paid to be listed first. Some nearby thrift stores may not show up here. To see a complete list, you have to scroll down the page to the heading that says “All Listings.”

Creative Reuse Centers are places where you can donate a wide variety of items, possibly including art supplies, office supplies, sewing supplies, fabric, decorations, candles, buttons, and practically anything that could be used in an art project. Each center has different needs and different items they will accept, so it’s best to call or see their website for their policies. Generally their mission is to encourage reuse and to save stuff from landfill. Often, they will even offer classes in creative reuse and art. Here’s a list of creative reuse centers throughout the United States.

There are lots of places you can donate building materials, including plumbing supplies, electrical supplies, cabinets, wood, light fixtures, doors, tile and flagstone, hardware, fasteners, practically anything related to building or remodeling. Habitat for Humanity has retail outlets called “ReStores,” and you can find the location of the nearest one by going to habitat.org. There are also lots of others that are not associated with Habitat for Humanity. A quick web search should be able to find one near you.

All the resources so far have been general resources that work with a wide variety of different types of items. Now, let’s look at how to reuse or recycle the top ten specific items that people commonly ask about.

1. Electronics. For computers, cell phones, and other electronics, good nationwide resources are electronicsrecycling.org and mygreenelectronics.org. Closely related to electronics are batteries and ink cartridges.

The best way to find a place for household batteries is to go to Earth911.com and type in “batteries” and your zip code. For rechargeable batteries, contact the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation at call2recycle.org or by calling 1-800-8-BATTERY. Car batteries can be recycled at Kragen Auto Parts.

For ink cartridges, most Best Buy stores have a bin at their front entrance where you can deposit them for recycling. Staples, Office Max and Office Depot will give a $3 store credit on certain makes of ink cartridges if you join their rewards program.

2. Books. They can be taken to almost any used bookstore, or donated to almost any library.

3. Eyeglasses. Two organizations are happy to receive donations of eyeglasses that they pass on to those in need. They are the Lions in Sight Foundation and New Eyes for the Needy. New Eyes for the Needy will accept donations of hearing aids as well.

4. Hangers. Most dry cleaners are happy to receive any wire hangers in good condition for reuse.

5. Clothes. Clothes can, of course, be donated to most charities, but another idea would be to try a clothing swap. Either organize one yourself or attend one that’s already been arranged. You can find information about clothing swaps at any of the following websites: clothesswap.meetup.com, swaporamarama.org, or clothingswap.com.

6. CFL’s. Compact Fluorescent light bulbs contain a small amount of mercury and cannot be placed in the trash. IKEA, Home Depot, and many hardware stores will accept them for recycling.

7. Plastic Bags. Please minimize your plastic bag use by using reusable bags. If you do have plastic bags, take them back to the store and use them again. They’ll literally last for months! When they get holes or are no longer usable, they can be deposited in the plastic bag recycle bins at most supermarkets.

8. Packing Material. Styrofoam peanuts, bubble wrap, and other packing material can be donated to most packing and shipping stores, including the nationwide network of UPS stores. To find the closest one, call the Peanut Hotline at 1(800) 828-2214.

9. Soap and Shampoo, including anything you may have picked up at a hotel, can be donated to shelters or organizations that help homeless people prepare for job interviews, like Working Essentials in San Francisco. Clean the World and the Global Soap Project provide soap to countries like Haiti where preventable conditions are commonplace. The World Health Organization estimates that the lives of 2 million children could be saved by the simple act of washing hands with soap and water.

10. There are organizations where wigs and scarves can be donated. They are provided to people suffering from hair loss as a result of chemotherapy or other medical treatments. Contact your local chapter of the American Cancer Society at cancer.org for more information.

So how does this work in real life? My process for getting rid of stuff is to collect everything that can go to a charity, like housewares, clothes, and small appliances, and drop them off there. I take office supplies and art supplies either to a school or a creative reuse center. All building materials and tools go to the local building materials reuse place. Anything else is offered to my local FreeCycle network, and in the rare instance where no one in that community wants it, I then create a free classified ad on craigslist.org offering the item in the “free stuff” category. This process has never failed to find a suitable new home for the object, whatever it may be.

And finally, one more resource. For items that can’t be reused, Earth911.com is a great source of recycling information. Just type in an item and your zip code and it will list all the nearby places to recycle it.

On my resources page, you can also find lots of additional resources, including many that I’ve chosen not to mention in this article. These resources can be used to find good homes for an incredible variety of stuff. Not only will your load be lightened, but you’ll feel really good knowing that someone in need will benefit from it. With a little creativity and perseverance, practically anything can be put to good use.

16. Organizing and Stress

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

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There are many things in our lives that can create stress. As I am writing this, an oil spill in the golf Coast is spreading toward the shoreline, a volcano in Iceland is causing flights to be canceled, and there are millions of people who can’t find work.

Many stressors in our lives are simply out of our control, however, the most immediate and profound stressors can be found right in our immediate environment, and these are the stressors that we do have control over. I’ve heard people say “I feel stressed out just looking at this stuff.” So, today I will be talking about the deep and profound links between stress and your organizational state. I will also make simple recommendations that you can do immediately to minimize the triggers of stress in your environment. Let’s look at several stress causing situations and how they can be avoided through organizing.

Some sources of stress in an unorganized environment are obvious. It’s stressful to not be able to find things when you need them. If it’s April 13 and you are sorting through stacks of paper desperately trying to find documents related to your taxes, that’s stressful. That’s probably obvious to most people. I will therefore devote the rest of this post to addressing three sources of stress that are less obvious, and that you may not be aware of. These three sources of stress are visual reminders, homeless objects, and delayed decisions.

The first source of stress in an environment is the presence of visual reminders. If you intentionally leave stuff in plain sight in order to keep track of it or to remind you to do something, then you are using visual reminders. The problem is that you are not just getting these reminders when you’re able to act on them. Instead, you are getting these reminders ALL THE TIME. Even when you want to focus on a particular task or just relax, you are receiving a barrage of reminders about other stuff you have to do. Please do not underestimate the effects of these reminders. They can be a constant and profound source of stress.

Instead of using visual reminders to keep track of what you need to do, it’s much less stressful to use a reminder system that allows you to get the reminders only when you’re ready to act on them. There are many different reminder systems that make this possible, and a discussion of these would take me too far off today’s topic, so for now I’ll just say that the simplest of these is a “to do” list.

You can find a more in-depth discussion of the drawbacks of using visual reminders in “Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind.”

The second common source of stress is something I call “The Anxiety of not knowing.” To illustrate this, imagine you have guests coming over to your house in one hour. You’ve decided you would like to put stuff away and tidy up so that you feel more comfortable sharing your home with friends. As you’re doing this, you encounter two different types of items, those that already have homes and those that don’t. As an example, suppose you come across a tablet of Post-it notes. “Oh that’s easy. I know where this goes. Top left desk drawer with the office supplies.” Because the item has a place where it’s natural for you to put it, there’s no stress at all. You immediately know what to do with it, and you’re confident that when you need that item in the future you will know exactly where it is. There’s no stress.

On the other hand suppose you encounter an object that doesn’t have a home. I invite you to imagine or to remember how it feels when you’re in that situation. There’s a moment or several moments of “Oh Gee, what do I do with this? I don’t know where to put it, and if I just put it somewhere, I’m afraid I won’t remember where it is.” This situation is stressful. And being in this situation over and over again with many different items can become extremely stressful.

Also, if you pick something up consider it, and, not knowing what to do with it, you just put it back down again, you have invested time, energy, and attention in that object and yet you haven’t made any progress. I call this thrashing, and noticing that you are thrashing is stressful in itself. It’s stressful to realize you’re not making as much progress as you want to. It’s even more stressful if you start to criticize yourself or beat yourself up for doing this or even being in this situation in the first place.

The solution is, for every item that does not yet have a home, to find one or create one, and to do this as soon as possible. Either put it with an existing category that it fits with, create a new category for it and other objects like it, or create a home specifically for this item. You may feel like it’s harder to create a home for this item than to just put it down or to put it somewhere randomly. That’s true, but you will get the benefits of this effort every time you encounter that type of object in the future. The more you create or find homes for your objects, the less you will be affected by the anxiety of not knowing and, consequently, the less stressed you will be.

In my experience as a professional organizer, I have heard again and again that it’s stressful to not know. It’s stressful to not know where things are. It’s stressful to not know where to start. It’s stressful to not know what to do with something.

But notice that we use the word “know” in at least two different ways. Sometimes we use the word “know” to relate to knowledge. If I say “I know which country has the most people,” this means that there is factual information that I am aware of.

But we also use “know” to indicate choices. If I say, “I don’t know which book to read,” this is another way of saying that I haven’t chosen which book to read. If I say “I don’t know where to put my cell phone charger,” what I really mean is “I haven’t decided where to put my cell phone charger.” In this case, “knowing” means deciding, so saying “I don’t know where to put this,” is a way of delaying the decision.

It’s been said that “all piles are delayed decisions.” I don’t completely agree with that. Sometimes we develop piles because we are temporarily focused on something else that is more important. Nonetheless, I do believe that disorganized items are OFTEN a result of delayed decisions. In fact, a significant part of the stress in an unorganized environment is from delayed decisions.

When you delay a decision, you create two forms of stress. First, you have the stress of the results of that delayed decision. That might look like a pile of stuff, an item without a home, or just the prolonged uncertainty. But then you also have the stress of knowing that decision is still ahead of you, still yet to be made. When you delay a decision, it means that you will need to decide sometime in the future. You have just created a future responsibility for yourself. Do you think that decision will be easier to make when you get back to it? Maybe, but probably not.

So how can you avoid the stressful consequences of delaying decisions? The short answer is to stop delaying, but I’d like to offer some specific suggestions about how you might go about doing that.

First, start by cultivating awareness. Notice when you are avoiding or delaying a decision.

Second, Remember that delaying a decision causes additional stress and means that you’ll still need to face that decision in the future.

Third, imagine your ideal self. If you were already the person you’re striving to be, what would you do?

Forth, whenever you notice yourself tempted to delay a decision, ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I choose the wrong answer?” It’s natural to have a fear of choosing badly, but in some cases, the consequences of not choosing at all are worse than the consequences of any of the choices. Sometimes the anticipation of an event is worst than the event itself. Sometimes the fear of deciding is worse than actually making the decision.

Fifth, remember that no decision is perfect. There is some uncertainty in almost all decisions. And you might learn things in hindsight that would have changed your decision had you known about them earlier. This, however, is not a suitable reason to stall your decision making. When you do make decisions, you can never be guaranteed that you’ve made the right decision. The only way to know this is to make a decision and notice the results.

Sixth, after you make a decision then, over time, notice how well the results of that decision work for you. In the future, you can choose differently if necessary. Decision-making is a skill that, like any other skill, gets better with practice. The more you practice, the better you will get.

Decisions related to organizing are ideal to practice, and thereby improve, general decision-making ability. They are ideal because they are low stakes decisions. You are not going to die or lose your house if you don’t find the optimum place to put your cell phone charger. When you become more confident and decisive at these low stakes decisions, you will then be better positioned to tackle life’s more important decisions.

A quick review: some common sources of stress in an environment are visual reminders, homeless objects, and delayed decisions. To reduce the stress, find a way other than visual reminders to remember what you need to do, find a home for everything, and develop your decision-making skill through practice.