Archive for December, 2009

7. Emotional Challenges While Organizing

Monday, December 28th, 2009

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Previously, I gave an overview of the practice of simplifying. Simplifying is making life more simple by letting go of stuff that no longer serves you. In this post, I’ll discuss a common challenge you may encounter when simplifying, emotional responses to your possessions. I will also make recommendations about how to respond in a way that honors these emotions and still lets you make progress organizing.

Have you noticed that it’s easier to organize other peoples stuff than your own? Think about why this is. Other people’s stuff is just objects. Hence, when you work with other people’s stuff, you are completely objective. However, your own stuff is not just objects. Instead, it represents memories, failures, accomplishments, regrets, relationships, and even entire stages of life. We have emotional relationships with many of the objects we own, and so many emotional relationships of so many objects can become overwhelming, even paralyzing.

I have heard many, many examples, like these:

“Oh look, a love letter from my ex.”
“That statue given to me by a friend who died.”
“This is the project that got me my promotion.”
“This box of papers relates to a legal battle with my former business partner.”

Karen had saved all the paperwork related to a disagreement she had had with her boss at a previous job. In answering some questions I asked, and through her own introspection, she realized she was holding onto this paperwork because she was still harboring anger and resentment about the situation. When she became aware that this possession was bringing up unpleasant feelings in her and lessening her quality of life, it became easy for her to let it go.

Caroline had also saved paperwork from her previous job, even though most of it was irrelevant to her current position. As she described the paperwork and the experiences that correspond to it, a common theme emerged. At her previous job, she felt recognized and appreciated. Now, although she still does quality work, she doesn’t feel validated or appreciated by her current supervisor in the same way. She realized that she was holding onto this paperwork because the memory of that past recognition helped her to feel more confident and capable in her current job. With this realization, the criteria for deciding whether to keep something or let it go were changed. Instead of keeping everything, we kept only those things which most recognized her ability, including awards, honors, and letters of appreciation, and we put them in a folder labeled “Confidence Boosters”.

I could literally go on for hours with many different examples, but I think this is enough to illustrate that our possessions can bring up any kind of emotional response in us, including joy, sadness, confidence, grief, fear, anger, regret, pride, shame, and love. This is common and completely natural. I have seen many examples of tears and laughter during organizing.

Most people agree that if you lose someone you love, you will have to go through a grieving process. We recognize that the experience of this emotion, grieving, is actually a process that takes a certain amount of feeling and a certain amount of time. We recognize that if we don’t grieve and don’t complete the process, the grief will stay with us, you might say as unfinished business, until the process is eventually allowed to complete. Only after it’s completed will it be resolved.

I believe that all emotions are like this. I believe that emotions that are not acknowledged and felt will stay with us, part of our consciousness, until eventually allowed to complete.

So if you’re organizing and going through your stuff is bringing up emotions, you don’t want to ignore or suppress these emotions, because that can keep them stuck. On the other hand, you don’t want to get so wrapped up in feelings that you become overwhelmed and unable to make progress organizing. I created an approach which I believe is a good way to both honor the emotions and still reach your organizing goals. I summarize this approach with three words: breathe, acknowledge, and decide. Just remember B. A. D. Yeah, I know, that spells BAD. Perhaps it’s an unfortunate acronym. In any case, let’s take a closer look at each part.

1. Breathe. Take a deep breath. Any paramedic will tell you that when they encounter someone who’s in a panic state, the first thing they say is “take a deep breath.” Just taking a deep breath can significantly change someone’s emotional state. You may have a tendency, when you start to experience strong emotions, to constrict your breathing and tighten your muscles. Consciously taking a deep breath will help relax that tension, create more openness, bring you more into the present, and empower you to move ahead to part two, which is acknowledge.

2. Acknowledge. Acknowledge any feelings you experience. The easiest way to do this is just to say to yourself “I’m feeling angry right now,” or “I’m feeling sad right now.” You could say it internally or aloud. If you’re working with someone you feel comfortable with, you could choose to say it to that person as well.

I recommend using the phrase “I’m feeling angry right now” rather than the phrase “I am angry.” Do you see the difference? Saying “I am angry” tends to create an identification with the emotion, and makes it harder to separate between you and the anger. On the other hand, saying “I’m feeling angry right now” creates a separation between you, who are feeling the emotion, and the emotion itself. After all, you are not the anger; you are just experiencing anger in that particular moment in time.

Here’s an example of acknowledging emotions. I have a friend who taught his young son to say hello to any emotion he becomes aware of. Just to say hello to it. The boy will say “hello, fear” when he feels afraid. It’s very cute. Just being aware and recognizing an emotional response is often all that is necessary to put the feeling in perspective and allow you to move forward with part three, decide.

3. Decide. After you acknowledge the emotional impact the item is having on you, then make the decision about whether the item should stay or go using the full range of decision-making faculties at your disposal. We all have many faculties we can use in decision-making, including emotions, gut instinct, objectivity, reason, intellect, and collaboration. Collaboration is asking opinions of other people. Other faculties are your desire and determination to reach your organizing goals and an awareness of what is truly important in your life. We want to acknowledge the role that emotions can play in decision-making, but call on our other faculties as well. You may have heard the advice “feel the fear and do it anyway.” This phrase captures the idea, but I would state it more generally as “feel the emotions and do it anyway.” “Feel the emotions and then move ahead anyway with your decision of whether this possession should stay or go.”

Let’s look at a few examples of this. I know from my own personal experience that I feel fear and nervousness before every presentation I do. But of course, those feelings don’t stop me from doing the presentation. When I call on my other resources, like the preparation I’ve done, my knowledge of the subject, my experience, and my passion for the topic, my confidence and motivation becomes greater than my fear and this helps me to move ahead with the presentation.

As another example, I still feel some grief when I think of how my mother passed away at a fairly young age. After the death of any loved one, it’s important to allow time for the grieving process. But eventually, there comes a time when it’s important to get their affairs in order. I still feel a closeness with my family members when I remember how we were able to feel the grief and still make decisions about what to do with her possessions.

To review, breathe, acknowledge, and decide is my BAD approach to going through emotionally-charged possessions. In addition to that, I also have a bonus suggestion. Previously, I introduced the three S’s of organizing, which are Simplify, Sort, and Store. The bonus suggestion involves the second S, sort. My suggestion is to sort or categorize the item based on the emotion. For example, you might create containers labeled “good memories,” “makes me laugh,” “I’d rather forget,” or “pisses me off.” In this case, acknowledging the emotion is actually built into the sorting process.

After you sort stuff in these categories, it’s easy to look over these categories and get a sense of how much emotional energy you are devoting to a category. For example, you might say, “I didn’t realize I was keeping so much stuff that pisses me off. I’m not sure I want to keep such a huge box of stuff that makes me angry.”

Feelings are often evidence of healing. Making a decision about an object can actually be a way of helping to heal the emotional relationship it represents. It’s been my experience that organizing your possessions can facilitate the healing of whatever unresolved emotion the object brings up. For example, letting go of a card that makes you feel angry can help you resolve and heal your feelings about that past experience which is the ultimate source of that anger. Deciding to keep a photo of a deceased loved one can be a way of honoring that person’s memory and what they meant to you. Letting go of a gift from an ex can help create closure and let go of unresolved feelings about that past relationship. Letting go of and healing your relationship with past events will help you live more fully in the present.

That about wraps it up for this comprehensive discussion of how you can organize stuff that’s emotionally-charged. Looking ahead, my next post will be devoted to the phrase I hear a lot when working with people who are simplifying, “I might use it someday.” If you’ve ever used that phrase, I think you’ll get a lot out of it, so I hope you take a look at it. Until then, may your emotions be your friend and ally on the path to getting organized.

6. The Hidden Cost of Stuff

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009

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Typically, an important part of the organizing process is to let go of things that don’t serve and support what’s important in your life. This process I call simplifying, because reducing the amount of stuff makes organizing and everything else more simple.

Often, when people are deciding whether they should keep something or let it go, they only look at one side of the story. They only look at “what do I lose if I let this go?” They forget that there’s another side to this question, namely “what do I gain if I let this go?” “What am I losing by keeping it?”

Sometimes, there’s a belief about the object that could be expressed like this, “I already have the object, so it’s effectively free. I’ve already paid the money to buy it, or received it as a gift, so at this point it doesn’t cost anything to keep it. I have nothing to lose by keeping it, and everything to lose by letting it go.”

I’d like to point out that this belief doesn’t take into account everything from a big picture perspective. I’d like to point out that there is something that you lose when you keep an object. There is a cost associated with every object. There’s a cumulative cost to keeping lots of stuff, and a corresponding cost associated with each individual object.

Sometimes this cost is obvious. For example every item takes up space, and there’s a cost to the space that it takes up. If you’ve run out of space, you may need to buy or rent more space or a bigger place to make room to store it. It’s not uncommon for people to pay $200 a month or more for a storage unit.

If you’re moving from one location to another, the cost of every object becomes quite clear. There’s a significant cost in terms of time and energy and money that you will have to invest in packing up every object, transporting it to the new location, and unpacking it and arranging it on the other side.

Every item kept can make everything else harder to find. I’ve heard people say, “I have so many things that are unimportant it’s harder to get to the things that are important.” If you’re not organized, looking for items is like looking for a needle in a haystack, and the most important factor in how long this takes is the size of the haystack. Furthermore, if you lose track of bills in that haystack, there could be the additional cost of late fees, penalties, and possibly even a damaged credit score which could make it harder to buy a home or a car.

There can be an additional cost of buying things that you already own. Sometimes people forget they already own something, or they may remember that they own it, but realize it would be easier to buy a new one that to find or access the one they already have. In this case, they spend money that they wouldn’t have to, while at the same time bringing in even more stuff and compounding the problem by making other stuff harder to find and access. It can be a self-feeding cycle.

All the costs I’ve mentioned so far are obvious costs, however there are many other more subtle costs that while not requiring a physical outlay of cash still lessen the quality of life in some way or another. Thoreau said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” I would restate that as “The cost of anything if the amount of life you put into it.” With that in mind, let’s look at some additional costs, including emotional costs, social costs, and other quality-of-life costs.

How do you feel in the area where you spend most of your time? If you don’t feel supported by your environment, in other words, if you don’t feel pleasant, relaxed, even inspired in the places where you spend most of your time, then your stuff could be negatively impacting your quality of life. Some people don’t feel comfortable inviting guests into their home, so the stuff can have social costs as well.

In addition to the physical space occupied by an item, there’s also the emotional space the item takes up. I will have future podcasts dedicated specifically to stress and emotional complexity, so for now I’ll just say that people who have an overload of stuff tend to be more stressed and have less clarity.

Most things that you have need to be maintained in some way in order to maintain their condition and usability. Objects need to be cleaned and used at least occasionally or they tend to deteriorate over time. Pests like moths and mice are attracted to areas that are undisturbed for long periods. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across items that one time were very valuable, however after decades of no use, they deteriorated to a point where they couldn’t even be donated, and were fit only for landfill.

There can be an additional emotional cost in the self-criticism that can sometimes accompany a state of disorganization. It’s one thing to have an environment that doesn’t support you. It’s even more harmful to beat yourself up for it in a way that erodes your self-confidence and joy of life.

Finally, there is an opportunity cost associated with each of our possessions. The physical space, emotional space, and energy invested in that object could be invested in something else that is more important to you. One of my clients told me he wanted to take up woodworking, but he had no room to either do this activity or to store the necessary supplies.

Space is freedom. If a particular storage space is filled with an item, that amount of space is only used for one thing, to store that item. Of course, if that item supports something important in your life, then that’s an appropriate use of that space. Consider however that if that space is empty, the possibilities are endless. You have the freedom to use that space for anything that you could imagine or envision, or for something you haven’t even thought of yet. And the same way that space is freedom, also time is freedom. Having some free time in your schedule gives you the freedom to do anything, or nothing, with that time.

I spent this entire post looking at the cost of our objects, both obvious costs as well as costs that might not be so obvious. There is a cost associated with every object. This of course doesn’t mean that you should get rid of everything. We just want to ensure that the benefit you get from an object, in terms of what’s important in your life now, justifies the cost of keeping it.

In addition to looking at what you’re letting go of when you get rid of something, also make sure you look at what you’re letting go of by keeping it. You may be letting go of space, simplicity, uncluttered spaces, clarity, a better social life, new activities, or any of the other things I’ve discussed in this podcast. If what you’re letting go of by keeping an object is more important to you than the object itself, then it’s time to let it go.

In the next post, I’ll look at some challenges in simplifying, including one of my favorite topics, our emotional attachment to our possessions. Until then, may the benefit you get from each of your possessions justify the cost of keeping it.

5. The First ‘S’: Simplify

Friday, December 18th, 2009

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Previously, I introduced a simple and effective three-step approach to organizing which I call “The Three S’s of Organizing.” The three S’s are simplify, sort, and store. Let’s jump right in with the first S, simplify.

Thoreau said “Simplify, simplify, our life is frittered away by detail.” It’s been my experience that most people, not everyone but most people, have more possessions than they need to live a full and vibrant life. At least 90% have more possessions than they can get any benefit from, and even more than they believe are important. I’ve heard people say many times “I have so much stuff that’s unimportant I can’t get to the stuff that is important.”

Simplifying means eliminating anything that’s not serving you. It means asking yourself the question “should it stay or should it go?” Does it support what’s important in my life, or does it get in the way of what’s important in my life? I call it simplifying because eliminating unneeded items makes the organizing process, and life in general, more simple. It’s easier to access, organize, maintain, clean, keep track of, and use a smaller number of items than larger. It is possible to keep everything you have, and just arrange it so that you can find everything, however simplifying is often an important part of the organizing process.

I was deeply touched by a client named Vicky. When I asked her to look at what was really important in her life, it became really clear that she was passionate about being able to spend time and share activities with her family, which included two young children. It brought a tear to her eye when she described how the 90 boxes of stuff in the garage were interfering with that. The time she spent looking for things was taking away from the time she could spend with her kids. Also, even when she was enjoying herself with family, the image of the unpleasant situation in the garage and her unhappiness with it was always in the back of her mind. It was unfinished business that became a burden to her and interfered with her ability to enjoy herself. I was honored to support her in a tremendous amount of simplifying. Through this process, she felt lighter, more positive, and more empowered to act on her passions.

Simplifying can be easy and fun, especially if you’re in touch with your goals and what is truly important in your life. It can also be very satisfying to know that the items you are letting go of may be of tremendous benefit to someone else.

William Morris, a 19th-century textile designer and writer about interior design, recommended “Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” America’s most famous architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, said something similar. “Have nothing in your home that is not beautiful or functional.”

Those are some very broad, general guidelines. I’d like to offer some more specific suggestions to help you decide if something should stay or go. The following characteristics indicate that a possession may be ripe for simplifying:

• The object, as is, is unusable. It is broken or doesn’t work. Perhaps you have the idea that you might fix it someday. This is an example of what I call a project, something in which you must invest time, effort, money, or all of these before you can get any benefit from the possession. I’ll talk specifically about projects in a future podcast.
• It is not being used. Objects, like muscles, tend to atrophy from lack of use.
• It is out of date or obsolete. For example, old computer equipment may no longer be usable. Information about getting a real estate loan from 2006 will no longer be useful because that industry and the regulations governing it have changed so much in the past few years. It’s been my experience that having an out-of-date map can sometimes be worse than having no map at all. An out-of-date map can actually point you in the wrong direction, whereas if you didn’t have that map, you would be forced to get the information from a more current source, like asking for directions or using an online map program.
• It contains only information accessible via other sources. Print outs of websites are great examples of this. If you let go of the paper, you can still access the information. Furthermore, a paper printout is never updated and may get out of date, while the corresponding website is more likely to be updated and therefore have accurate information.
• It is redundant with other possessions. If you are disorganized, you may have had a situation where you bought something even though you already own one just like it. Either it was easier to buy a new one than to find the one you already have, or perhaps you forgot that you already own it. In any case, as you get organized it’s common to find redundant belongings, like 10 staplers, for example.
• It no longer matches your taste, your decor, or your lifestyle. For example, you may have a light fixture which doesn’t look good in your current residence. You may have rock climbing equipment but have no intention of ever going rock climbing again.
• It has relatively low value compared with everything else going on in your life, and all the other stuff that you have.

All the above are characteristics of the possession itself. But beyond that, you also want to look at your relationship with the possession or your opinion of it. Here are three good questions to ask:

• First, does it support what’s important in your life? For example, it might enable you to do activities that are important to you. It might empower you to reach goals that you want to reach. My first two podcasts address this question in detail.
• Second, does it “uplift” you? In other words, do you love it? Does it bring you joy? Does it make your heart sing? Does it make you feel good about yourself?
• Third, if this thing were gone from your life, what’s the worst thing that could happen as a result? This could range from “I would never miss it” to “I would deeply regret that it is gone.”

I will discuss simplifying more deeply in upcoming posts. I’ll look at gifts, projects, stuff you “might use someday,” our emotional relationship with our possessions, and “The Hidden Cost of Stuff,” coming up next.

4. The Three S’s of Organizing

Monday, December 14th, 2009

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Now it’s time to introduce an easy and effective three-step approach that will work with any organizing challenge. Remember that the goal of organizing is to arrange your possessions to support what’s important in your life now. You can actually harness the power of your possessions in order to live a better life. The organizing process must always be grounded based on your goals and what is truly important to you.

As a professional organizer, I don’t have an agenda about what stuff you should get rid of, or how the stuff you keep should be arranged. Instead, I’m really interested in helping you reach your goals. In general, it’s easy for an objective bystander to look and see whether the specific actions you are taking are getting you closer to reaching your goals. For example, if you want the surface of your desk to be clear and uncluttered, but have a habit of making piles of papers on your desk, then that habit is taking you further from your goal.

If you were in San Francisco, and you said you wanted to go to Los Angeles, which is south, but then you started driving north over the Golden Gate Bridge, I’d say you were going the wrong way. It’s not that there’s anything morally wrong with doing what you’re doing, and of course the Golden Gate Bridge is a beautiful site to see, it’s just taking you further from where you say you want to go.

The perspective I hope to bring to organizing can be summed up with one of my favorite quotes by Henry David Thoreau, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined.”

As a way of laying the foundation for the easy and effective three-step approach to organizing, I will now introduce three principles of organizing.

Principle number one: The smaller the quantity you are working with, the easier it is to organize. In other words, it is easier to organize a smaller amount of stuff. The fewer items you have, the easier it is to get organized.

Principle number two: Memory is Associative. The mind can keep track of fifteen categories much easier than it can keep track of five hundred eighty-seven individual objects. Furthermore, the mind remembers information through its relationships to other pieces of information. Your mind will keep track of your stuff through its relationships and connectedness to other stuff.

And finally, principle number three is what I call the frequency of use principle. For greatest efficiency, Items which are used most frequently should be most accessible.

Based on these principles, I have created an easy and effective three-step approach that works for any organizing challenge, whether it would be a garage, an office, a purse, or a car. I call it “The Three S’s of Organizing.” The Three S’s are Simplify, Sort, and Store.

The first S is simplify. Simplify means to make life simpler by eliminating anything that is not serving you, that is not supporting your vision of what’s important in your life now. Examples of simplifying would include getting rid of food which is beyond its expiration date or a user’s manual for a product that you no longer own.

The second S is sort. Sort means to create categories, and put like things together. For example, you might put all office supplies together and bicycling equipment together.

The third S is store. Store means to create a home for each category and then store that category in its home. The most important factor in creating the home is that you want the categories you use most often to be most accessible. For example, items that you use every day, like your keys, pens, and maybe a letter opener should be right at your fingertips, while things you don’t use very often, like old tax returns, can be stored out in the garage or in a storage unit. Beyond that, there are two other less important criteria to consider. You also want the size of the category to roughly match the size of the storage space. For example, you wouldn’t place large pillows in a small desk drawer. And finally, ideally the category would be positioned near where it will be used. For example, you might store the office supplies in the office and the bicycling equipment in the garage.

The first two S’s, Simplifying and sorting, are not necessarily done in that order. Either may be done first, or they may both be done together. Sometimes it’s easier to simplify first, so you don’t spend time sorting things that you’re not even going to keep. However, if you’re having difficulty simplifying, I recommend sorting first, because sorting will give you a better sense of what you have, and knowing what you have will make it easier to simplify. Also, the sorting will help you see when you have redundant possessions and therefore make it easier to simplify. For example, if you find that you have three copies of the same book, it may not be necessary to keep all of them.

I’ll be talking a lot more about each of these three steps in future posts, starting next time with “Simplify.” Until then, may you continue living a life of meaning and value.

3. The Seductiveness of Stuff

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

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I define organizing as arranging your possessions to support what’s important in your life. Once you have a clear vision of that, it’s time to arrange your belongings to support that vision. But when you start looking at individual objects, you face a danger which I call “the seductiveness of stuff.”

It’s easy to overcome this danger. I want to let you know about it so that you’re not surprised, and because awareness of it makes it easier to overcome.

At the start of an organizing session, I always sit down with my client somewhere away from the area to be organized. I look them in the eye and ask them the same questions I asked you in the last podcast.
• What things are important to you right now in your life?
• What would you like to accomplish?
• What makes you happy?
• What gives your life meaning?
At this point, the client is designing their life! They’re going through a creative process. If they could have their life any way they wanted, what would it be like? In this brainstorming and creative process, the client is in charge, they are evaluating alternatives, making decisions, and creating their life based on what is important to them.

What I have found, however, is that when we enter into the area to be organized in order to implement the plan, there is sometimes a subtle shift that takes place. The client looks around the room, sees all the stuff around them, and starts responding to whatever their eye happens to fall upon. They start responding to the stuff, instead of compelling the stuff to respond to them. The individual items begin to exert some influence, and sometimes the vision gets lost in that collection of objects, like not being able to see the forest for the trees. Instead of moving toward their vision of how it could be, they’re responding to what’s already there. It’s almost as if the stuff is in charge.

Of course it may happen that when you look through the stuff, you will be reminded of something that genuinely is important. In that case, it’s a simple matter to go back and add it to the list. What generally happens, however, is that the item, although an interesting detail, really isn’t important in terms of the big picture. It’s important to maintain the big picture perspective in the midst of all the details. If the details crowd out the big picture, it’s easy to lose direction.

Let’s look at an example. Sherry had a huge collection of cassette tapes. Before we started organizing, she made the following four statements:

1. First, the boxes of tapes took up a lot of space and she wanted that space to set up an easel to pursue a new hobby. She was very passionate about painting and having this extra space for her studio was her main reason for organizing.
2. Second, she had listened to all these tapes in the past and had no intention of ever listening to them again.
3. Third, at this point she didn’t even own a cassette player and wasn’t willing to buy one in order to be able to play them.
4. And therefore, fourth, she wanted to get rid of most of the cassette tapes and keep less than 10% of them.

But when we started to look through the boxes to choose that 10%, Sherry at first wanted to keep almost all of them. She would say, “Oh, I listened to this with my first boyfriend.” “This was interesting.” “And this is by my favorite author.” “Maybe I’ll listen to this again some day.”

Do you see what happened? Some aspect of each individual object appealed to her in such a way that it diverted her from the path she wanted to be on. These possessions somehow had her doing the exact opposite of what she had intended to do. You can call this influence whatever you want, but I call it “the seductiveness of stuff.” In any case, it was clear that if she continued in this way, she would not reach her goals.

I have found that we are more vulnerable to “the seductiveness of stuff” when we become predominately outward-focused. Let me explain. In the last podcast, you looked at what is important in your life. This is essentially an inward process. It helps to be introspective and reflect so these priorities come from the deepest part of yourself, from your heart. When you look at an object, the danger is that you put so much attention on the object itself that you lose touch with yourself in the process. This is what I call outward-focused. When you are outward-focused, you may make decisions based on what’s in front of you, even though those decisions are not congruent with who you are and what you want. If you forget what’s truly important to you, then everything looks important.

On the other hand, if you view the object from the perspective of who you are and what’s important to you, you are more likely to be able to succeed in reaching your objectives. This was the case with Sherry. With the techniques I describe in these podcasts, I was able to support her in making decisions that led to her reaching her goals.

Based on my nine years of experience as a professional organizer, I make the following three recommendations to help keep you from being seduced by your stuff:

• First, always remember your objectives when making decisions about your stuff. View your stuff from the perspective of who you are and what you want to achieve.
• Second, remember that there is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it. You have the power at every moment to assign value to an object and evaluate how it supports what’s important in your life.
• Third, keep with you, ideally in your pocket, the list of life priorities you created in the last podcast. If you start to become too outward-focused, take it out and look at it. It will remind you of your big picture objectives.

How can stuff be so seductive? I believe it’s not the stuff itself, but what the stuff represents, and I’ll discuss this more in the future. Until then, may you continue living a life of meaning and value.

2. The Heart of the Matter: An Exercise

Sunday, December 6th, 2009

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Previously, I defined organizing as “Arranging Your Possessions to Support What Is Important to You Now.” Therefore, your first step in organizing must be to be very clear about what is important to you now.

When people are on their death beds, they never say “I wish I’d spent more time at the office” or “I wish I had bought more electronic gadgets.” It just doesn’t happen.

Instead, people in the final moments of their lives tend to be very clear about what is really important. Studies and interviews indicate that people universally feel contented or regretful about two main areas of their lives. The first is their relationships with others. The second is the contributions they have made, the way they shared their own unique gifts, and, in so doing, made the world better place.

But please don’t wait until the end of your life to get in touch with what really matters. We don’t need a major life transition to do this. We can reach the same clarity through foresight and reflection as we can from hindsight. It’s never too early to consider what is truly important. Let’s start right now. I invite you to take a pen and paper and participate in this simple exercise that will help you consider what is truly important in your life.

You’re going to look at these four areas of your life: professional, social, health, and leisure. For each area, you’ll list two or three things that are important with respect to that part of life. Each item can be an activity, a goal, some way that you want to grow, a state you’d like to achieve, or anything else you deem important. You can do this exercise anywhere, although it helps to be somewhere away from your stuff, like an uncluttered room, a café, or out in nature.

Let’s start with the professional or work area of your life. Write down two or three things that are important to you with respect to your professional life. Is there anything you would like to do in order to advance your career? Would you like to be better at or change some aspect of your job? Are you satisfied financially? Have you made any plans for retirement?

As an example, the three things most important to me in my professional life are, first, to produce more podcasts and make them available via iTunes. Second, to update my website, and third, to continue increasing my knowledge and experience in the field of organizing.

When you’re finished with the professional area of your life write down two or three things important to you for each of the three other areas I mentioned. Continue with your social life, including family, community, and relationships. Are there any relatives you would like to be on better terms with? Would you like to be in a relationship or start a family?

Next, what is important to you with respect to your health? Exercise, eating well, perhaps?

And finally, it’s important for us all to have leisure time, vacations, hobbies, and downtime. Do you enjoy being out in nature? What causes do you feel passionate about? What activities revive you?

You may have thought of something that’s important to you in a different category. If so, feel free to write it down as well. The categories I suggested are arbitrary. I just chose them to represent a cross-section of different aspects of life.

It may provide even more clarity to ask yourself the following questions:
What makes me happy? What brings joy into my life?
Am I living a life true to myself? Am I following my heart?
What gives me purpose? What gives my life meaning? What makes me want to get up in the morning?
Am I being the person I want to be in the world?
Is my life focused on things that matter?

Now let’s come back to the list you made of things that are important to you. First, notice what physical objects you need to do each of them. For example, if one of your most important activities is bicycling, you would probably need a bike, a helmet, a tire pump maybe, and other biking equipment. If “socializing with friends and family” is on that list, you may not need any material possessions in order to enjoy that activity. Knowing what stuff is necessary to support what’s important in your life is often illuminating, and it’s also very beneficial to the process of organizing.

Now, since you can view all the items on the list with one glance, it’s easy to look at them all and make comparisons between them. Go over this list and pick out some items (about a third of them) that are more important than the others. Put a plus sign next to these items. If you’re having trouble deciding, go with your first impulse. You can always come back and alter your choices later. Now identify some items (again, about a third) that are less important and put a minus sign next to them.

Now perhaps you’re thinking that they’re all important. That’s true. Just the fact that an item is on this list at all means that it is important. But look at the relative importance of each item with respect to the others. If you only had time to do a few of these, which would they be? Which ones would you start with?

So you’ve split your list into three categories of items, some that are more important, some that are less important, and some that are in the middle. The skill that you have practiced in doing so, prioritizing, is an important skill not only in organizing, but in life in general. We live in an age where there is more information produced every day than anyone could process in an entire year. Many of us are asked to do fifty hours of work in a forty-hour work week. We often have opportunities to participate in more activities that we could ever actually do, and some of us have more stuff than we can get any benefit from. The ability to check in with myself at any moment and determine which of several possibilities is most important to me is an essential skill in living a life that matters.

Hold onto this list because I’ll be referring to it in the future. And this list is not set in stone. Feel free to modify it if you ever find that it no longer accurately reflects your priorities.

Now perhaps you’re thinking that I haven’t really talked about organizing yet. On the contrary. In my opinion, being clear about what’s important in your life really is the essence of organizing. How else can you arrange your possessions to empower yourself to have a better life? I wouldn’t want you to spend a minute of your time doing any task that doesn’t make your life better, that doesn’t take you closer to where you want to go, that doesn’t make you feel good about yourself. But don’t worry, we’ll get to organizing methodology soon enough.

But before we do, there’s one more thing you need to know about. I call it “The Seductiveness of Stuff,” and it’s the topic of my next post. Until then, may your life be focused on what is important.

1. Before you Organize

Tuesday, December 1st, 2009

Listen to this in Podcast format

I’m assuming you’ve come to this blog because you’d like to get more organized. Your organizing will flow more smoothly if you consider a few things before starting.

What are your reasons for wanting to get organized? Perhaps you have more stuff than you can manage and want to trim down. Perhaps you want to keep everything, but just want to arrange it so you can find things, so that you have more space, or so that your atmosphere looks nicer and feels more pleasant. Perhaps you want to feel more comfortable inviting guests into your home. Perhaps you’d like to be able to park your car in your garage.

Please consider these questions.

What are your individual reasons for wanting to be more organized?
What would you like to accomplish?
How will you know when you’re done? If you could create your environment to be any way you want, and you can, what would it look like?

Now that you’ve looked at your motivations, let’s examine more closely what it means to be organized. I define organizing as: Arranging Your Possessions to Support What Is Important to You Now.

Every part of this definition matters. Let’s take a look at it piece by piece.

I’ll be talking mostly about ARRANGING POSSESSIONS. Although I will discuss related topics, including time management, the focus of this podcast will be arranging physical possessions.

We want to arrange those possessions so that they SUPPORT YOU, as opposed to you supporting them. Have you ever felt like you’re putting a lot of time and energy into maintaining your possessions? Sometimes we end up becoming a slave to our belongings. Well, it’s possible to have your possessions support you and empower you to have a better life.

We want to focus our energy on supporting what is IMPORTANT. You can have color-coded file folders in your file drawers, or neatly labeled plastic boxes in your garage, but if the stuff in those containers is not important to you, you’re not necessarily organized. In my opinion, the main purpose of organizing is to allow you to access stuff that is important, to do activities that are important, and to reach goals are important. I wouldn’t want anyone to spend any of their time, energy, or money arranging stuff that’s not important.

We want to consider what is important to YOU, as opposed to what is important to your parents, your spouse, advertisers, society, or anyone else.

Finally, we want to consider what is important to you NOW, as opposed to what may have been important to you three decades ago, three years ago, even three months ago, or at some arbitrary point in the past.

Once again, Organizing is Arranging Your Possessions to Support What Is Important to You Now.

Since organizing is arranging your possessions to support what is important to you now, the first step must be to be very clear about what is important to you now, and that’s the topic of my next post. I’ll invite you to take pen and paper and complete an exercise designed to bring clarity about what in your life is most important. I think you’ll find it to be a very worthwhile exercise, so I hope you choose to do it. Until then, may you continue living a life of meaning and value.